As you leave Mangalore for Kanyakumari you will realise that the popularity of Goa’s beaches has helped preserve this area. Pristine beaches beckon, a range of water sports that can set the adrenaline coursing through your body are on offer and the seafood is divine. For history and culture buffs, this drive offers myriad temples and churches along the way, especially the temples of Kanyakumari. What’s more, you can explore the enchanting backwaters of Kerala on traditional houseboats or kettuvalloms in Bekal and Alappuzha.

Day 1

Route: Mangalore-Bekal
Distance: 65 km
Time: 1.5 hours

Keeping Mangalore’s erratic traffic in mind, leave early after breakfast along the NH17. This coastal road will take you via Manjeshwar and Kasaragod  to Bekal.

Kerala Tourism
View of the sea from Bekal Fort
View of the sea from Bekal Fort

Bekal is a lovely realm of seaside forts, palm groves, beaches, red earth and paddy fields. Bekal Fort was built by local Nayak kings in the mid-17th century. Tipu Sultan made it a base but eventually lost it to the British. This huge circular fort, battered by foaming sea waves, is made of laterite stone and is the best preserved of the area’s forts. It houses the Magazine, an Observation Tower and peepholes. There is also an ancient Anjaneya Temple, a mosque, a sea bastion and several underground passages. A 10-min drive away, Kappil Beach offers seclusion and casuarinas. Explore the beautiful Valiyaparamba Backwaters nearby through the Bekal Resorts Development Corporation (Tel: 0467-2236580) which offers kettuvallam or houseboat cruises on the Tejaswini river.

Day 2

Route: Bekal-Kannur
Distance: 80 km
Time: 2 hours

Spend a night in Bekal, and after breakfast the next morning, follow the NH17 for almost 50 km to Cheruthazham. From here take the Pilathara-Pappinesseri Road towards Kannur, and rejoin the NH17 on the outskirts of the city to enter it.

Kannur’s multi-layered history is reflected in the area’s Colonial buildings, churches, mosques and lovely temples dotting rice fields and coconut groves. The Portuguese-built Fort St Angelo is silhouetted against the sea. From the walls, there are views of the sea and Moplah Bay, and the colourful boats moored there. Theyyam, North Malabar’s ancient folk art, is a dramatic blend of performance and worship. Theyyam season is December-May (contact the District Tourism Promotion Council, Kannur, Tel: 04972706336). Shri Muthappan Temple (18 km) is dedicated to the toddy-loving deity Muthappan, and lies on the banks of the Valapattanam river. The morning performances here are lovely. The Valapattanam river, among the lengthiest in Malabar, meets the Arabian Sea near Valapattanam, a timber-trading boat-making centre. Private operators offer motorboat cruises, as do some resorts. Payyambalam Beach is the biggest in Kannur and attracts crowds. Baby Beach is smaller and quieter.

Day 3

Route: Kannur-Kozhikode
Distance: 90 km 2 hours
Time: 20 mins

After a night in Kannur, head out on the NH17 via Thalassery to Kozhikode.

Kozhikode (once called Calicut) is still the most important city in northern Malabar, but it doesn’t have the energy that brought adventurers like Ibn Batuta and Vasco da Gama here. Ibn Batuta visited Kozhikode at least six times between 1342 and 1347. Calicut was then at the peak of its fame as a mighty seaport. Arabs and Chinese met here, exchanging spices, coir and timber. In 1498, Vasco da Gama landed here at Kappad Beach, heralding the advent of Portuguese colonisation in India. Today, Kozhikode sends a lot of workers to the Middle East, retains its share of seaside and backwaters beauty and offers a few glimpses of its historical importance, albeit juxtaposed against the urbanisation of the present.

Things to See & Do

Mananchira Square, the former courtyard of the Zamorin and currently the heart of the city, has the Town Hall and the Public Library.

Kerala Tourism
Mananchira Square, Kozhikode
Mananchira Square, Kozhikode

The presence of temples, mosques and churches here reflect the cultural plurality of the region. The 15th-century Kuttichara Mosque, or Mishkal Masjid, was partially burnt down by the Portuguese in 1510, but is still architecturally striking. You will also find one of Calicut’s oldest buildings, the Commonwealth Trust Office, here.  The Pazhassirajah Museum on East Hill displays ancient mural paintings, antique bronzes, old coins, models of temples, megalithic monuments like dolmonoid cysts and umbrella stones, among the earliest found in Kerala. Next door is the VK Krishna Menon Art Gallery that showcases paintings by Raja Ravi Varma. The tree-lined beach at Kozhikode is very popular with the locals. At one end, 2-km away from two 100-year-old piers, is Dolphin Point where, in the early hours, you may get to spot dolphins cavorting.

Day 4-5

Route: KozhiKode-Kochi
Distance: 181 Km
Time: 4.5 hours

The next morning continue down the NH17 to Kochi. You can make a detour along the way to Thrissur. Kerala’s culture capital, Thrissur, full of academies of literature and arts, is a town content with its past. King Rama Varma of Kochi, called Shakthan Thampuran (1751-1805), played a major role in making Thrissur a cultural treasure trove. Over centuries, it saw the rule of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Today, it is a place where elephants are worshipped, a Lourdes Cathedral looms over the town, and ghee dosas are plentiful, as are antique murals and wood carvings. To access the town, turn onto the SH75 at Vadanapally (about 107 km from Kozhikode). Once you’ve had your fill of the town retrace your route to the NH17 at Vadanapally and follow it to Kochi. Remember the traffic in Kochi is usually terrible because of the metro construction in the city.

Once a small fishing hamlet, Kochi was transformed into a natural harbour by a flood in 1341 CE. Drawn by the rich aroma of spices and sandalwood, the first Colonial merchants arrived here around the 16th century CE and wrestled the profitable spice trade away from the Arab merchants. Mercantile interests propelled political ambition, and soon the appointment of the thampuran (or raja) of Cochin came to be controlled by Portugese and, later, Dutch rulers.  It was eventually the British East India Company that effected supreme control through colonisation. Kochi welcomed, endured and survived all traders and rulers who were lured by its undoubtedly bewitching shores.

Today, Kochi is the commercial and political hub of Kerala, where sea trade and modern commerce coexists with a thriving tourist economy. It is a multicultural hotspot where people of many different ethnicities, religions and nationalities live together in a synergetic environment.

Things to See & Do

The city of Kochi is Kerala’s most-visited destination, with many diverse experiences to offer, ranging from Ernakulam’s busy streets to Fort Kochi’s calm.

Kerala Tourism
Fisherman with his canoe, Vembanad Lake
Fisherman with his canoe, Vembanad Lake

A great experience here is to take a two hour cruise along the Vembanad Lake. The lake, also known as kayal (backwaters), is home to thousands of fisherfolk. They can be seen gliding along in their graceful canoes, wide nets trailing, with sky-line of the Fort Kochi receding in the background.

The Heritage Quarter of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry offers the most sights for tourists, while Ernakulam’s shops and cafés are excellent to unwind in during the evenings. The ferry rides to the islands across the kayals offer a peaceful experience, full of breathtaking views.

Day 6-7

Route: Kochi-Alappuzha
Distance: 58 Km
Time: 1 hour 20 mins

From Kochi take the NH47 to Alappuzha. Alternatively, you could take the coastal SH66 for a more picturesque ride.

The Kuttanad region covers the Vembanad Lake and large parts of Alappuzha and Kottayam districts on its banks. One of the lowest lying areas in India, it is called the rice bowl of Kerala; paddy is grown on water-filled fields reclaimed from the sea. For the tourist, Alappuzha’s, or Alleppey’s, main allure is the backwaters. There are at least six navigable canals in the town. In the east, they open to the Punnamada kayal, connecting the city to the mesh of backwater trails, which are abuzz with reinvented kettuvalloms (houseboats). In this fresh- and salt-water ecosystem, visitors come to rediscover life lived at a deliciously slow pace. On the canals, boatmen row past with grace even as traffic hurtles above their heads on modern bridges.

Kerala Tourism
Houseboat on Alappuzha's backwaters
Houseboat on Alappuzha's backwaters

Things to See & Do

Alappuzha was once the busiest coast south of Mumbai, and its canals and backwaters helped in the passage of cargo to the sea. The lighthouse and the pier helped the boats ferry across, facilitating trade in their own way. Today, the 1,000-ft-long pier, built in 1862 by Captain Hugh Crawford, is a mere skeleton of its past, but it still exudes an unmistakable Colonial air. There are several entertainment facilities on this beach (Vijaya Beach), including a children’s park run by the District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC), which is nice enough if you discount the garishly painted swings.

Alappuzha is known for its backwaters. You can go on a backwater cruise on the Punnamada kayal, which will take you past scenic islands such as R Block and QST Block, while also offering views of coconut palms and paddy fields. Boats can be hired from the Tourist Boat Jetty near the bus stand. The Kerala State Water Transport Department (Alappuzha Boat Jetty Counter Tel:  0477-2252510; 10.00 am-5.00 pm) offers tourist boat cruises.  You can also ask DTPC (Tel: 0477-2253308, 2251796) for a private cruise (₹500 per hour; 6.00 am-6.00 pm) at the jetty behind the DTPC office. The Punnamada kayal here is the starting point of several boat races, including the famous Nehru Boat Race.

Prashant Panjiar
Vivekananda Rock Memorial
Vivekananda Rock Memorial

Day 8

Route: Alappuzha-Kollam
Distance: 86 km
Time: 2 hours

Spend two days in Alappuzha before taking the NH47 to Kollam.

The town’s name is a derivative of kolam, the Sanskrit word for pepper. The square clocktower, which you can see from the Chinnakada Market, is the best place to start touring Kollam. The tower was built in 1944. The Roman Catholic Velankanni Church is also located here. Amidst the newer and crumbling old gravestones of the English Church and Cemetery, you will find intact 19th-century tombstones of the British. The Adventure Park at Ashramam, run by the District Tourism Promotion Council, is unfortunately a bit of a let-down. The view of Ashtamudi Lake, which the park offers, is its only saving grace.

Day 9-10

Route: Kollam-Thiruvananthapuram
Distance: 64 km
Time: 1 hour 15 mins

From Kollam take the NH47 to the city of Thiruvananthapuram.

Thiruvananthapuram or Trivandrum is a capital that is content donning a small-town cloak, with no skyscrapers, fast cars, or nightclubs; just lovely  tree-lined avenues and crimson sunsets. It is known for its Padmanabhaswamy Temple as well as museum and palaces.

Day 11-12

Route: Thiruvananthapuram-Kanyakumari
Distance: 90 km
Time: 2 hour 15 mins

After spending a couple of nights in Thiruvananthapuram, head out on the NH47 to Kanyakumari.

Kanyakumari is the southernmost tip of mainland India and is the meeting point of the three seas surrounding the country: the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Though the idea of Kanyakumari is big, the town itself is tiny – everything is within a radius of 5 km. But this space is packed with hotels, tawdry restaurants and souvenir shops, making for a town less attractive than the site deserved.

For most tourists who travel to Kanyakumari, it is a place of worship. They come in droves to genuflect before Kanyakumari (literally, the Maiden Goddess), and the gigantic statues of Swami Vivekananda who meditated here, and Thiruvalluvar, the pithy Tamil poet – all of them on the seafront.

Kanyakumari also offers spectacular sunrises and sunsets. It’s not everywhere that you can watch the sun rise from the sea in the morning and, later in the evening, plunge back into it. Take off to Suchindram, a charming temple.  Or pack a picnic and head for the Dutch fort at Vattakottai, with its natural beach. There are a couple of other beaches too and though they have little infrastructure, the drive down is likely to be enjoyable.

Day 13-14

Route: KanyaKumari-Kochi-Thalassery
Distance: 295 Km, 257 Km
Time: 6 hours, 6 hours

After two glorious days in Kanyakumari, retrace your route to Kochi on NH47. Spend a night in the city and then head back to Thalassery the next day.

Kalaripayattu Central

At first glance, Thalassery seems a poor relation of its richer neighbours, Kannur and Kozhikode. But tread a little further and you will find many a remarkable facet to this town by the sea.

Constructed in the 17th century, its massive ramparts overlooking the sea, Tellicherry Fort was built by the British. Situated on a headland guarding the port, it provides panoramic views, picturesquely endorsing its invulner- ability over the ages. From the ramparts of the fort, one can see the ruins of the Holy Rosary Church. On the left is a ruin, the old Anglican Church. Overbury’s Folly, a circular Colonial bungalow overlooking the sea, is now a restaurant.

Kerala Tourism
Gundert statue at Gundert Park, Kochi
Gundert statue at Gundert Park, Kochi

On one side of the stadium is Gundert Park, with a statue of Hermann Gundert, who compiled the first MalayalamEnglish dictionary. In a stretch of coastline garlanded with lovely beaches, Muzhappilangad Beach is among the longest in Kerala and the only drive-in beach in the state: you can take your car all the way up to Kannur on the tightly packed sand. From the beach, Dharmadam Island across the Anjarakandy river is clearly visible, and it is possible to wade to the island at low tide.

Day 15

Route: Thalassery-Mangalore
Distance: 164 Km
Time: 4 hours

After a night in Thalassery, and an early breakfast, retrace the route to Mangalore. You can stop for lunch at one of the eateries at Bekal.

The Route

The drive mainly goes along two highways. Pick up NH17 at Mangalore and follow it all the way down to Ernakulam. The NH17 merges with the NH47 in Kochi and can be followed all the way to Kanyakumari. On the way back retrace your route on the same highways.

This drive takes you along some busy stretches of road. Shops and restaurants are never difficult to locate, although it makes sense to carry basic provisions and water in the car, in case of emergencies. Tea stalls dot the route with reassuring regularity and many stock bottled water, cold drinks and packaged wafers and biscuits.

The small towns and villages on the way have puncture repair shops, and mechanics and garages can be found in most towns.

Many of the petrol stations have restrooms but their standards of cleanliness vary massively. Facilities for women could and should be better. 

Be ready to halt and ask for directions as road signs are conspicuous by their absence. Many of the signs that exist are in Malayalam and often not translated.

Driving at night on this route should be completely avoided. Start early to avoid heavy traffic, especially around any of the cities.

Stopovers

Bekal

Where to Stay & Eat

The Lalit Resort and Spa in Bekal
The Lalit Resort and Spa in Bekal

The Lalit Resort & Spa (Tel: 04672237777; Tariff: 16,000-1,00,000) combines the sea and backwaters, excellent facilities as well as top-notch service. Nirvana@Bekal (Tel: 2272007/ 900; Tariff: ₹3,837-4,677) is close to the fort. By the Nileswaram river sits Nalanda Resorts (Tel: 2282662/ 925; Tariff:  ₹2,250-3,500). Bekal Boat Stay (Cell: 09447469747) offers good cruise packages, but check well in advance as it was not operational at the time of writing this book. 

Kannur

Where to Stay & Eat

Costa Malabari (Cell: 09447775691; Tariff: ₹2,750-3,500) has great rooms near the beach. Mascot Beach Resort (Tel: 0497-2708445; Tariff: ₹2,000-6,000) has a nice location overlooking the sea. In the budget range, Cliff Exotel International (Tel: 2712197, Tariff: ₹1,500-2,500) is at Payyambalam.

All these hotels have good restaurants but do try the Malabar biryani at the Mascot Beach Resort.

Kozhikode

Where to Stay & Eat

Ayurvedic facilities at Taj Gateway Hotel, Kozhikode
Ayurvedic facilities at Taj Gateway Hotel, Kozhikode

The Taj Gateway Hotel (Tel: 04956613000; Tariff: ₹7,500-12,500), close to the city centre and a short walk from the beach, has Ayurvedic facilities and a swimming pool. Hotel Maharani (Tel: 2723101-08; Tariff: ₹1,000-4,200) and Hyson Heritage (Tel: 2766423/ 726; Tariff: ₹3,000-6,000) are good mid-range options.

There are several eateries all over Kozhikode that serve delectable local cuisine. Try the fare at Komal Bakery on Kallai Road. Beef lovers should try the biryani at Hotel Rahmath on KP Kesava Menon Road. Roof Garden Restaurant near the station does a fantastic ghee roast dosa and parotta. The Taj Gateway has a multicuisine restaurant. Hotel Maharani offers varied cuisine. Hyson Heritage has a decent coffee shop. Alkapuri Guest House has a restaurant that offers both South and North Indian food.

Alappuzha

Where to Stay

The huge Lake Palace Resort (Tel:  0477-2239701-04; Tariff: ₹13,000-25,000), at Chungam in Alleppey’s Thirumala Ward, has obviously been made at enormous expense and is perfect for groups. It has water-villas on its own private lake.

Punnmada Backwater Resort, Alappuzha
Punnmada Backwater Resort, Alappuzha

Punnamada Backwater Resort (Tel: 2233691-93; Tariff: ₹12,000-30,000) has good-value rooms. A famous land- mark, Keraleeyam Heritage Home and Ayurvedic Resort (Tel: 2231468, 2236950; Tariff: ₹2,343-3,476) is a 70-year-old home that fronts the backwaters, and belongs to a family that runs its own Ayurvedic brand.

Raheem Residency (Tel: 2230767; Tariff: ₹8,000-12,000) is a heritage home on the beach. The rooms here are furnished with tradit ional items and there is also a two-bed room independ ent unit in a separate courtyard.

Palmgrove Lake Resort (Tel: 2235004, 2243474, Cell: 09446430434; Tariff: ₹2,500-3,500) is a basic place with bamboo cottages that offer a serene location right on the water.

Where to Eat

Alappuzha’s proximity to the sea, and the many canals that crisscross it, ensure that the area is famous for seafood delicacies. For the true local experience, taste kappa (tapioca) and karimeen pollichathu (pearlspot fish baked over coals and covered in banana leaves) or karimeen curry. Konchu pollichathu (brackish water prawns) are delicious. Options on the beach include the Indian Coffee House, with delicious mutton omelette and Bombay toast. The Harbour Restaurant, also on the beach, serves Keralite, Chinese and North Indian cuisine. Must-trys include their appams and stew, and prawn chowmein. Sealap Shimmers has Jain food; try their samosas and pav bhaji. Gujarathi Street near the beach has good hotels specialising in North Indian food. Try appams and the stew at Hotel Green Corner in Pazhayangadi. Hotel Aaryas near the medical college, serves excellent vegetarian food. The Mullackal area has good Udupi vegetarian fare.

Kollam

Where to Stay & Eat

Stay at The Quilon Beach Hotel & Convention Centre (Tel: 0474-2769999; Tariff: ₹7,700-25,000), a hotel featuring state-of-the-art business facilities as well as swimming pools, a spa and wellness centre, restaurant and bar. 

KTDC’s Tamarind Easy Hotel (Tel: 2745538, 2762568; Tariff: ₹1,114) in the Ashramom area has a restaurant and arranges boating excursions. Hotel Sudarsan (Tel: 2744322; Tariff: ₹900-2,250) offers a restaurant and bar.

The Shantigiri Ayurveda Centre (Tel: 2763104; Tariff: ₹400-1,400) is a great option for those not wanting to pay fancy rates for Ayurvedic treatment.

Many hotels and restaurants serve regional fare, from the usual vegetarian meals to delectable seafood. At Hotel Sudarsan, you will get chemmeen (prawns) and erachi (beef) ulathiyathu. Try the fish biryani at Chillies. The Indian Coffee House (Tel: 3247250) serves good appams and egg curry. Jaladarshini Lake Resort near Thevally Bridge serves a good crab curry. Order well in advance. Hotel Prashanti has both vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian restaurants.

Thiruvananthapuram

Where to Stay

Among the high end hotels, try Vivanta by Taj (Tel: 0471-6612345; Tariff:  ₹8,000-22,000), the best here; Fourtune Hotel’s The South Park (Tel: 2333333; Tariff: ₹5,500-9,500) or Saj Lucia (Tel: 2463443; Tariff: ₹3,000-5,000). 

The two KTDC properties are also good choices: Chaithram (Tel: 2330977; Tariff: ₹1,600-4,000) and Mascot Hotel (Tel: 2318990, 2316905; Tariff: ₹5,000-20,000).

Or try the homestays: Graceful Homestay (Tel: 2444429, Cell: 098472 49556; Tariff: ₹1,650-2,750), Nandanam Homestay (Cell: 09072289393; Tariff: ₹800-1,500) or Varikatt Heritage (Tel: 2336057; Tariff: ₹4,000-5,000).

Where to Eat

Two simple but clean eateries near the temple are Sree Padmanabha Hotel and Bhadra Hotel. Diagonally across from the Pazhavangadi Ganapathy Temple are a few good eateries, the best of which is Annapoorna. Arya Nivaas, on Manorama Road, serves a tasty Keralite thali. On MG Road, Swagath Veg Restaurant has tasty thalis. For good Chinese food, go to Dragon Court in Jas Hotel, Thycaud or the Oasis’ Roof Garden Restaurant. The Regency in South Park serves Keralite specialities. Saj Lucia has a restaurant called Zodiac that serves a good Keralite breakfast.

Kanyakumari

Where to Stay & Eat

Sparsa Resorts (Tel: 04652-247041-42; Tariff: ₹5,400-7,200) is a luxurious accommodation option. Their restaurant serves fresh seafood and they also have a bar, among other facilities.

Hotel Sea View (Tel: 247841; Tariff: ₹2,950-5,600) is the biggest hotel – spacious rooms, good views and a luxurious ambience. They have a multi-cusine restaurant and a bar as well. Hotel Tamil Nadu (Tel: 246257; Tariff: ₹750-3,000) is well located by the shore, on Beach Road. Hotel Tri Sea (Tel: 246586; Tariff: ₹750-3,000) on Kovalam Road is a short walk from the seashore.

In the middle of all the noise is Hotel Maadhini (Tel: 246787, 246887, 246757; Tariff: ₹1,000-2,000) on East Car Street.

The pool at Hotel Singaar International
The pool at Hotel Singaar International

Hotel Singaar International (Tel: 247992; Tariff: ₹3,000-6,000) is on the Main Road. They have a restaurant, bar, pool and a children’s park.

Hotel Annapoorna on Sannathi Street, near the beach, offers a range of South Indian vegetarian food. Saravana Restaurant, on the same street, also serves similar fare. Srikrishna Restaurant, also on Sannathi Street, is immensely popular. Archana is Hotel Maadhini’s garden restaurant. They also have an AC restaurant by the same name. There’s no proper seafood at Kanyakumari and the closest you get to it is fish fry.

Thalassery

Where to Stay & Eat

Right in the heart of town on Logan’s Road, Paris Presidency (Tel: 04902342666-68; Tariff: ₹800-1,600) offers a travel desk and a restaurant.

Clean and well appointed, the Pearl View Regency (Tel: 2326702-04; Tariff: ₹1,450-2,500) boasts a multicuisine restaurant and a bar.

Saravanapriya Guest House (Tel: 0497-2827333; Tariff: ₹350-800) near Muzhappilangad Beach has rooms, a dining hall and offers room service.

Try kallumakaya (mussels) – a famous delicacy sold fried, curried and stuffed in carts all over Thalassery.

THE DRIVE

Route: Mangalore-Bekal (65 km)-Kannur (80 km)-Kozhikode (90 km)-Kochi (181 km)Alappuzha (58 km)-Kollam (86 km)-Thiruvananthapuram (64 km)-Kanyakumari (90 km)Kochi (295 km)-Thalassery (257 km)-Mangalore (164 km)
Distance: 1,430 km
Time: 11 days
States: Karnataka, Kerala & Tamil Nadu; the route also passes through Mahe, which is in the Union Territory of Puducherry but falls on the Kerala Coast.