I can't recall a holiday that has surprised me quite as much as this one. I have been to the subcontinent many times but Kerala delivers a softer and slower India and much that the adventurous traveller hankers after. If it's a romantic getaway, a photo safari or hiking trails through the spice plantations then this is for you. Of course there are also beautiful beaches as well but we found ourselves drawn mainly to the interior.
For most travellers the adventure begins in Kochi, the Keralan capital and a town that has a complex past. A former Portuguese colony this sleepy port wears the evidence of its history proudly in its architecture, weathered churches and iconic Chinese cantilevered fishing nets. We spent a couple of nights here which was perfect. There are plenty of places to stay and eat but don't get too carried away with cost, save a treat for end of the trip when you return.
There are plenty of small travel agents in the town centre who will offer you reasonable packages to tour the Keralan sites. Most come with a car and driver and you would be well advised to go down this route. Bus travel will take too long and waste precious holiday time and as for driving yourself - don't even consider it!
And so we found ourselves driven in the luxury of a traditional Ambassador taxi sliding around on the plush leather bench seat as we wound our way into the mountains. Our destination was the idyllic Windermere Resort, a traditional tea and spice plantation. I was unprepared for the quality of the views. These might be rolling hills and not high mountains but the tranquility and lushness are breathtaking. The neatly cropped tea bushes from a distance appear like a moss carpet. You want nothing more than to reach out and touch the landscape.
When we were offered a spice trail hike we leapt at the chance to explore. We wandered blissfully though the cardamon plantations and tasted and smelt our way along the trail under the guidance of our ranger. Supper that night was vegetarian and delicious but be warned; alcohol is not freely available in Kerala and although I'm embarrassed to admit it a bottle of wine would have made dinner perfect. I'd strongly advise throwing something into your bag from duty free if you're a creature of habit like me!
We moved on via a visit to a tea factory (deliciously spiced with cardamon!) en route to the wildlife park of Periyar. Here we spent a couple of nights in a comfortable hotel close to the park gate. Our day of exploration meant an armed guard and some rather unstable long boats to negotiate the miles of reservoir and wilderness. The park is famous for its tigers and of course, despite finding some prints, we never saw the elusive creatures. It was really special though seeing wild elephants, even if they were some distance away.
Something that is synonymous with Kerala are the miles of coastal backwaters and the ubiquitous houseboats. You depart from Kottayam and we were thrilled to find ourselves the only passengers. The crew of three left us alone for much of the two day journey, only interrupting us to bring a succession of snacks, tea and fresh pineapple. We spent most of the time reading as the palm trees on the banks slid peacefully by. This is the landscape vividly describe by Arundhati Roy in her Booker prize winner the God of Small things and packing a copy is a good idea.
We moved onto a couple of days beach time at Kovalam. The resort reminded me of Goa but still had the backpacker feel and was a chilled place to relax even if we were both hit with a twenty four hour bug. Back in Kochi we said farewell to our loyal driver and checked into the Taj Malabar hotel for some luxury. You can get some good deals here and the infinity pool and food were outstanding. This last picture sums up what I loved most about Kerala. This is a real working India - where else can you be driving along and see an elephant doing a day's work on a building site as if it's all perfectly normal. A couple of weeks is all you need. You simply must go!