Tucked away in the southwest corner of India, Kerala is a narrow strip of land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghat mountains. The name means 'land of coconuts', and palms still shade almost the entire state from the blazing sun. The tropical landscape is criss-crossed by dozens of rivers and countless waterways, and visitors can spend idle days riding small ferries through the backwater lagoons, observing village life close-up in this, India's most populous state. When the rest of India gets too hot to handle, Kerala is often soothing and rejuvenating. Whether visitors stick to the lowlands or head for the hills, they will pass through scenery dotted with churches and temples; spice, tea, coffee and rubber plantations; and natural forests with wildlife reserves filled with elephants.
Kerala has some of India's best coastal resorts: among the finest is the much-photographed Kovalam, which many argue has the best beach in the country. Here visitors can take in Kerala's rich cultural and artistic life, and enjoy arguably the best vegetarian cuisine on the planet.
Compared to the rest of India, Kerala is short on monumental sights; the state's real draw card is its natural beauty. The countryside undulates westward from the mountains, offering vistas of rich green valleys. Rivers glide across the plains towards the sea, creating attractions like the Athirampally Falls, before ending in a linked chain of lagoons where the silence of the still waters is broken only by boats and canoes, seagulls and cranes.
Situated on a hilltop at the southern end of India is Kerala's capital, Thiruvananthapuram (still commonly known as Trivandrum). For most visitors the capital is simply a transit-point on their way to Kovalam, the popular beach resort a few miles to the south. However, it is worth lingering for a day or so in this easy-going city to explore the narrow backstreets, old gabled houses and expansive parks.
The most fascinating part of Trivandrum is the Fort area, around the Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple (closed to non-Hindus); and Puttan Malika Palace, seat of the Travancore Rajas. Some of the palace has been turned into a museum, and displays a collection of heirlooms and artefacts. However, the highlight is the building's typically understated, elegant Keralan architecture. Beneath sloping red-tiled roofs, hundreds of wooden pillars carved into the forms of horses prop up the eaves, with airy verandas projecting onto the surrounding lawns.
When it gets too hot at sea level, Ponmudi makes a welcome excursion. This enchanting hill station, tucked away in the Western Ghats 40 miles (64km) to the north of the capital, offers a lot to travellers with a passion for trekking, and just as much to those who'd prefer a gentle wander along narrow, winding pathways, through cool, wooded environs thick with mountain flowers and butterflies. The hill resort is surrounded by tea-estates and mist-covered valleys, and peppered with little stone cottages painted violet, pink and white.
Situated in the Cardamom Hills region of the Western Ghats, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the most popular wildlife reserves in India. It is home to a great variety of game, including elephant, sambar, wild pig, mongoose, the Malabar flying squirrel and almost 300 species of bird. Leopards and dwindling numbers of tigers are also here, but are, unfortunately, rarely glimpsed by visitors.
The park lies 75 miles southeast of Cochin at cool altitudes, between about 3,000 and 6,000 feet (900 and 1800 metres). Ironically, the park was created by the royal family of Travancor to preserve their favourite hunting grounds from the encroachment of tea plantations, and is centred around a vast artificial lake that was created by the British in 1895 to supply water to the drier parts of the state.
Most people view Periyar from a boat on the lake; however, many visitors prefer to explore the area on foot. Local guides take small groups on treks of various lengths. Exploring on foot should be avoided in the weeks immediately following monsoon season, when leeches make hiking virtually unbearable. The best time to visit is from December to April, when the dry weather draws animals from the forest to drink at the lakeside. Periyar is also a good base for day trips to visit the local tea and spice plantations, and to explore the waterfalls and appreciate the fine views of the Cardamom Hills.
One of the most memorable experiences for many travellers in Kerala is a boat journey on the state's famous backwaters. The best-known of these areas is Kuttanad, situated between the hills in the west and the Arabian Sea, and stretching for 50 miles south of Kochi (formerly Cochin). This extraordinary maze of rivers, lakes, canals and estuaries is lined with dense tropical greenery and reveals a Keralan lifestyle that is totally hidden from the road. Boats are the only way to explore this area, billed as Kaleidoscope Kerala, where views change around every bend: narrow tree-covered canals open onto dazzling vistas of paddy fields, and through the trees can be glimpsed churches, mosques, temples, and small farms and villages which remain relatively untouched by the modern world. Buffaloes are used for ploughing the fields and women bathe and wash their clothes in the rivers. Roads do cross this area, but are almost entirely linked by manually-operated ferries rather than bridges. Kingfishers, cormorants and fish eagles compete with fisherman in rowing boats for the dwindling fish population. Providing visitors with the chance to just sit back and allow life to unfold around them at its own, slow pace, a trip on the Keralan backwaters is the ideal tonic for travel fatigue - especially if the experience of cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata has tourists feeling a bit strung out.
Located on Kerala's southwestern coast, just 32 miles (50km) from the state capital of Trivandrum, Varkala is one of those tourist destinations that gets more and more popular each year, as word of its stunning coastline and lively atmosphere gets out. Varkala is considered a less-crowded, less-commercial alternative to the beautiful Goa; although Varkala's main beach (Papanasam Beach) cannot boast the white sand and towering palm trees of some of its Goan counterparts, it is flanked by a steep and staggeringly beautiful cliff-face. As all the tourist accommodation, restaurants and shops are located on top of this cliff, overlooking the water, it is almost a daily ritual in Varkala for life to come to a stand-still at about sunset, and for everyone just to watch the sun sink into the Arabian Sea. The beaches are less crowded than in Goa and there are still many gems to be discovered in the area. In between relaxing on the beach and shopping at the markets in town, tourists can also take an enjoyable walk to the nearby Janardanaswamy Temple, a 2,000-year-old structure. Varkala is also a great centre for Ayurvedic medicine, and there are numerous treatment and massage centres in the vicinity.
Kerala features a wet maritime climate and experiences heavy rains during the summer monsoon season (June to August), while in the east a drier tropical climate prevails. The average daytime temperature in Kerala ranges from 82°F to 90°F (28°C to 32°C) on the plains, but drops to about 68°F (20°C) in the highlands. During the summer months Kerala experiences gale force winds, storm surges, and cyclone-related torrential downpours; while the winter months are much cooler and calmer. The best time to visit Kerala is between November and March, when the weather is pleasantly warm, the rains have passed, and wildlife viewing is at its best. However, Kerala does tend to be less swelteringly hot than most other parts of India, even in summer, so it is one of the best summer destinations in the country; just go expecting rain and stormy weather. Generally, anytime from November to May is suitable for travel to Kerala, but the monsoon season is best avoided. Having said that, travel during the wet monsoon months is becoming increasingly popular for the adventurous, and the Indian government is actively promoting monsoon tourism in Kerala.
Although most commonly associated with sedate boat trips through beautiful, labyrinthine waterways, Kerala does have a variety of tourist attractions. It is true that things to see and do in Kerala tend to revolve around the lush landscapes and natural assets of the region, but as India's most populous state Kerala is also an ideal destination for those seeking insight into local customs and lifestyles.
Kerala is endowed with more than its fair share of nature's bounty, with stunning rivers, lagoons and backwaters, numerous wildlife sanctuaries and reserves, and sublime beaches. In fact, one of the most famous attractions in Kerala is the coastal resort area of Kovalam, which some insist has the best beach in India. Other much-loved beaches include Varkala Beach and Papanasam Beach on the southwestern coast. For those interested in the local wildlife, there are five national parks and thirteen wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala, making it an amazing destination for animal lovers. The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary are both favourites. And, of course, a trip to Kerala would be woefully incomplete without meandering through the backwaters in a boat.
As you explore the beautiful landscapes of Kerala you will also witness the day-to-day activities of locals and for many the region's laid-back, rural lifestyle is fascinating. Although not celebrated for its cities, Kerala does boast some decent urban sightseeing as well. The capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram (still commonly known as Trivandrum), has some cultural attractions to explore, including the Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the Puttan Malika Palace, and the Padmanabhapuram Palace.
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