Last week, we brought to you tips and tricks for the first half of a South India tour, centred on Kerala and ending at Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. We started at Cochin and took a picturesque drive to tranquil Munnar, with its brilliantly green tea gardens and mountains shrouded in mist. From there, we went to the vast wildlife reserves of Thekkady in search of wild elephants and tigers, before moving on to the traditional houseboats floating on the backwaters of Alleppey.
This week, we pick up where we left off, and continue to travel down the south-east coast of India until we reach the very tip of the subcontinent, where the three oceans meet.
Sandy beaches of Kovalam
Kovalam is probably the most touristy of all the locations mentioned, a popular beach town right next to the Arabian Sea. Famous for its crescent shaped beaches separated by rocky outcroppings, it is the perfect mix of sunshine, sea and sand. You can lounge on the beach and sip a drink while watching the fishing boats ride the waves on the horizon, you can walk on the sandy shores, dipping your feet in the surprisingly clear and cold waters or you can dive into the heart of the waves for a refreshing swim. However, the waves can get quite rough during certain parts of the day, so please do listen to the lifeguard’s warnings and don’t go beyond the areas that are marked unsafe.
The three most famous beaches of Kovalam are Lighthouse Beach, named after the red and white Vizhinjam Lighthouse built on the Kurumkal hillock; Hawa Beach and Samudra Beach. While all of these beaches are great places for relaxing, the only downside is they can get extremely crowded, and you are constantly being harassed by hawkers trying to sell you overpriced junk. If you would prefer a quieter spot, this writer recommends opting to stay at one of the more secluded resorts. We stayed at the Abad Harmonia, a really comfortable resort with a more secluded beach within walking distance. On the downside, it also meant we missed out on the Kovalam nightlife, so choose wisely!
Pop over to Poovar
Poovar is also a popular tourist spot, a small village almost at the southern tip of Trivandrum and at the edge of the Kerala state. Poovar is known to be an ancient trading centre because of its natural harbour, once specialising in timber, sandalwood, ivory and spices and reputed to have had the honour of hosting King Solomon, as well as Marco Polo at a much later date. However, at the moment Poovar is characterised mainly by its tourism facilities, and has a huge number of resorts, including ones with special ‘floating houses’. If you’re a bit strapped for cash, we’d recommend avoiding staying at Poovar and simply going there for a day trip to feast your eyes on its beautiful beaches.
What makes Poovar truly unique is its location in the diverse geography of Kerala - a stretch of beautiful beach where backwaters meet the sea. You can literally stand in a spot and look out at waves regally crashing onto golden sand while seabirds circle above the foam searching for prey, and then look back to see coconut and mangrove trees bending over tranquil, blue waters while small boats meander through its intricate sea lanes. While there isn’t really much to do at Poovar except admire the sea, backwaters and beach, the boat ride from Kovalam to Poovar is a treat in itself. While the backwaters exploration of Kerala on a houseboat is mostly marketed to visitors, I personally preferred the narrower and swampier water lanes via jungle routes on the way to Poovar – a network of lagoons, lakes, canals and estuaries, interspersing 44 rivers that join the Arabian Sea – a journey that will thrill any adventurer.
Cool down at Kanyakumari
While most of this travel diary focused on wandering around the state of Kerala, it would be a huge shame to go right to the edge of the state and not cross over to Tamil Nadu. Kanyakumari is situated right at the southern tip of India, and is one of the rare places on earth where two seas and an ocean meet – the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and our very own Bay of Bengal. One of the first things that one is recommended to do in Kanyakumari is watch the sunrise and sunset – if you can't be asked to do both, then do try and get up for the sunrise – there are relatively less people and you might just get a clearer view.
Kanyakumari is also famous for the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, which was built in 1970 in honour of Swami Vivekananda, who is said to have sat on that piece of rock around 500 metres east off the mainland and meditated until he reached enlightenment. Right next to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial is the gargantuan Thiruvalluvar Statue – a 133 feet tall stone sculpture of the Tamil poet and philosopher of the same name, famous for writing the Thirukkural, a gem of classic Tamil literature of 1330 couplets on ethics and morality, penned sometime between the third and first centuries BCE. There are ferries available to go out to these rocks, but Thiruvalluvar Statue is only accessible at certain times of the day, so make sure you check the timings before you visit.
Also make the effort to go right to the top of the statue, you won't regret the climb once you see the amazing view – endless seas in the distant, with the wonderfully colourful coastal town of Kanyakumari in the background, and a faint line of mountains beyond if it isn't cloudy. Personally, this writer feels this to be the best way to end a perfect trip – with a heavy dose of sun, sea, mountains, history and architecture – only a few of the wonderful things that South India has to offer.
Things to do in Kerala
Spice it up
Kerala is known as the 'Garden of Spices', and has been a major spice exporter since 3000 BCE, attracting Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians to its coasts. Make sure you don't leave without finding out why, and taking a tour through a spice garden if possible.
You may be skeptical of all that is said of Ayurveda in the south, but in a world where everything is manufactured, processed and filled to the brim with chemicals, it won't hurt to test out this ancient tradition of herbal remedies. Kerala ayurvedic massages are also famous, and a welcome treat for the weary traveller.
Roll your eyes like a pro
One of the most famous forms of South Indian classical dance is the Kadhakali, a genre that focuses on the most intricate facial and bodily gestures, coupled with elaborately colourful costumes and make-up, to tell stories through dance. A cultural experience you really shouldn't miss.
Give Rajnikanth a run for his money
What a lot of people don't know is that South India also has its own form of martial arts, such as the Kalaripayattu – an ancient style of fighting with swords, shields, spears and even fire!
Delve into the dosa
We all know about dosa, but there is a whole world of South Indian food to try out in Kerala, including many different kinds of freshwater and sea fish – a prospect that will delight any khaati Bengali who visits the South, although very few of us will believe they can cook it quite as well as we do.