Our country is blessed with unique craftsmanship of the great creator. Be it the mighty Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau(Ladakh), Sunderbans, Thar Desert or the Backwaters of the Malabar coast, these gifts of nature could very easily fall in a 'Bucket List' for worldwide travellers.
Kerala and the backwaters had been high on our list of dream destinations. We had heard innumerable descriptions of its natural grandeur, as the Venice of the East, the land of Gods, a place that is abundant in cultural heritage with characteristic lifestyle, fairs and festivals, rejuvenating massages and sumptuous feasts, all so aptly adding to its'irresistible allure'.
We once again embarked on a road journey from Kabini (Nilgiri Biosphere, Karnataka) to Kerala, planning to enter from Wayanad to reach Cochin for life on the water fronts, Alleppey to cruise its famous backwaters, Munnar for its picturesque hills and the Rajamalai sanctuary to spot the imperilled Nilgiri Tahr.
We started at around 10 am, from Kabini and hit the NH 212 via Kalpetta, detoured a bit to enjoy the enchanting Pookote Lake, and were soon bypassing Calicut. Our navigator was Mr Shareef, our cabbie who got us to sample local cuisine at all the right places enroute. This time it was a typical 'Highway on my Plate' type-dhaba, called Hotel Royal Food, New Bypass junction, Ramanattukara, serving excellent fish fry with coconut flavoured curries and rice.
The biosphere is vast and dense, and driving through it is chimerical. There were occasional sightings of the elephants, gaurs and wild boars.The moment we saw the board 'Welcome to Kerala' the benign beauty greeted us with coffee and cocoa plantations, plantain and spice farming, coconut groves, colourful houses, and lush greenery. Around sunset we reached Fort Cochin, a drive of about 345 kms from Kabini.
Fort Cochin is like mini Goa, with beaches,churches, sea side life, fresh catch, food and beer shacks, boat rides and heritage hotels. It has nostalgia of the Dutch past, remnants of old Chinese fishing (nets), lifestyle of small Anglo Indian congregations and fragments of old Jewish settlers. But today, bulk population is that of Malayalis with a liberal sprinkling of Kashmiris.
Churches vie for attention with quaint markets
The solemnity of St. Francis Church, the first European church in India (Vasco de Gama is set to be buried here, before his body was taken to Portugal), Santa Cruz Basilica, Dutch Palace and Cemetery and the historical synagogue jostle for attention with the quaint Matencherry spice and curios market. Local joints like Rehamatullahs serve lip smacking biryanis, Malabar fish curry, rice appam and mutton stew. For those who want a luxurious meal, there is the upmarket Rice Boat restaurant at the Taj Malabar serving some authentic recipes.
Cochin is laidback tourism at its best with its mix of European ascendancy, cosmopolitan temperament and rustic feel. While here, you can splurge on fresh coconut water and Karimeen fish and in the lazy in-between hours indulge yourself in a variety of Ayurvedic massages. Our last day in Cochin saw us partake in festive celebration at our cousin Alla's place where her husband Edgar and his sisters Vallerie and Edna played the perfect hosts.
Alleppey made famous with its canoe tourism
After spending two nights in Cochin, we moved to our next destination - Alleppey, which was 75 kms by road. This was a 'no rush' drive,stopping as we did for "refills" of coconut water, banana chips and bracing sea breeze. Soon we found ourselves in the middle of fields and waterways, where we were received by a motorboat and transported to a resort. Our choice of Lake Haven Island Resort, turned out to be a bit drab, though the location was picturesque, being bang on the national waterway. It could have been run more efficiently. However, we found a way to overcome our disappointment - we decided to be outdoors for the better part of the day!
Alleppey is the backwaters hub of Kerala, rich in village life, fishing and duck farming, vast expanses of paddy fields, house boats, canoes, motorboats and toddy shops. Little wonder, it's called 'Venice of the East', where a boat or a canoe is its lifeline, ferrying as it does, the young and old, to schools, work places, paddy fields, post offices, general merchants, and hundreds of resortsthat dot this natural splendour. Age no bar, no license required, we were not too surprised to see a frail 80-year old woman, paddling a canoe and heading towards the fields, smiling all the way. In the evening, just to sample local fare, we took a canoe and visited a 'toddy'shop (local bar) selling palm wine, fresh from the sap and found the experience quite heady.
Next on our list were the famous house boats also called kettuvallams, which is a traditional boat made of wooden planks, bamboo,coir, palm leaves and oil - crafted to suit ethnic tastes with some luxuries thrown in. From the starting point, the boat cruised through the heart of Alleppey, entering the panaromic Vembanad Lake, reminding us of the 'Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner'. We docked somewhere in the middle of this aqua world, specked with house boats, cormorants, rowing boatsand a never-ending view of blue water, swaying coconut trees, distant churches and temples. This is our leisure time to sleep, drink, eat and shoot pictures. The place has an almost hypnotic charm and one has to force oneself to snap out of the picture perfect reverie.
Tip: Once the boat returns and docks for the night alight and take a walk into the villages to get a peek into the life of the locals, find a toddy shop and have a drink. Stay on the house boat, as opposed to a resort. It is value for money at Rs4500 a night for two with non-veg meals and air conditioned bedrooms with attached toilets. However, beware of boatmen luring you to waterside prawn and fish shops which are a rip off. Also note that preferential treatment could be meted out to foreigners as opposed to desis.
Munnar tempts with its unspoilt virginal beauty
Munnar, the tea capital of the state is also one of the popular hill stations of South India. We started early from Allepey, since we had to cover 260 km via Thekkady - a beautiful drive across extensions of backwaters and paddy fields before the road took a climb through forests. About120 km from Allepey is Peermede, a plantation town and an important excursion destination situated at an altitude of 915 -1100 metres above sea level, it is an ideal tourist retreat in the Western Ghats.After a hearty lunch at Cardamom County at Periyar, a Muthoot Group resort, we hit the road again, to cover the 106 kms that would take us to Munnar.
We had booked our stay at the High Range Club a colonial legacy of Munnar still being run by the Planters Association to keep it exclusive in the honour of the tea planters. It's one of the best places to stay if one is looking for some British royalty, an offbeat location and the melodious whistle of the Malabar Whistling Thrush. The area around is a birder's paradise with a rivulet flowing along the stretch of the golf course. Luxuries include tea/coffee sessions in the garden, basking in the sun overlooking a vast golf course, cricket nets, squash, pool table and buffet meals.
Life in Munnar, revolves around tea plantations and tourism. It has surprisingly huge lakes and dams and famous sanctuaries. Visits to the famous Matupetty Dam, hill tops like Echo Point, where one steps over a fence to enter Tamil Naduand drives along endless stretches of tea gardens. Large water bodies (rivulets, waterfalls), dams, mountains and peaks form the boundaries of this hill station perched at a height of 1600 m above sea level (5250 ft) and provide the perfect backdrop to