There are a few images that have attained such ubiquity in our lives that they have become almost banal. The grandeur of a Himalayan sunrise, the scale of the Grand Canyon, even the gentle beauty of an Alpine meadow. Luckily, as with most clichés, these images are rescued by being authentically moving when they are actually experienced. And that moment, when the grain of truth at the heart of a cliché is revealed, is heartening.

The backwaters of Kerala’s Alappuzha District are the USP of India jewel – Kerala – and the kettuvallom perhaps the most famous of Kerala’s icons. These are comfortable, ambling vessels, which even have air-conditioning these days. You get a crew of a cook and a bearer, along with the driver. From a single bedroom to four- and even five-bedroom behemoths with living rooms and en suite bathrooms, the choice is manifold.

The Backwaters

In the morning at around 7.30am, the backwaters come alive with sweet ululations, with ‘street’ vendors calling out to sell their wares.

In Kerala’s tiny coastal villages, strung together by the intricate network of canals and lagoons, the day begins and ends on water. There’s always a little boat moored in front of the houses, creating a picturesque effect. The canals are indented at regular intervals by these tiny household jetties, which also serve as the family’s chief water source. As you row past, you can find them washing clothes, vessels, fish, rice and so on.

Quotidian life continues pretty much at the same placid pace as it must have eons ago. Men and women dive under for mussels, baskets tied around the waist with not a snorkel in sight. They catch shellfish with a long hoe-like stick with net attached; or a raft made of banana tree trunks criss-crossed together. Although today, the houses have satellite TV and fridges.

Along the narrower, remoter canals of the backwaters, people can just row to work, worship or school. There’s quite a hierarchy of boats, ranging from the one-seater family kocchuvalloms to the 10-seater churlamvalloms, with their curlicue bows, that can be hired as taxis for family occasions, to the grand chundanvalloms or snake boats used in the famous races. The large public transport barges between villages charge 10–15 while local ferrymen, will row you to the opposite shore for 5.

Set bang in the middle of Kerala’s famous Kuttanad rice bowl, when the harvest season in Alleppey arrives, the green paddy fields seem to stretch endlessly, beyond the canal banks, lower than sea level and protected by bunds everywhere. One can witness a boat floating by with a dismantled thresher aboard. A villager will hail the boat, the machine on it hereafter assembled, the paddy threshed; then boat, thresher and all will set sail forth for the next stop. It is possible to moor and step into Ayyappa’s for lunch, to feast on athali of boiled rice with thoran, aviyal, sambhar, pullicherry, prawn curry, fried karimeen and pappadam with banana halwa as dessert.

The famous Alleppey-Kollam houseboat ride is eight idyllic hours of luxury, drinking in some of the best views in Kerala. At Kollam, one can head down winding narrow channels through which only a small boat can navigate, under over hanging trees that form a dark green tunnel. Every now and then one can moor the boat and hop out to watch a boat being built, coir ropes woven, or coconut oil extracted. The whole thing is like visiting a live anthropological museum.

The narrow canals ultimately link up with the Kallada river and then empty into Ashtamudi Lake. Rowing out of the narrow warrens on to the vast stretch of the open river is dazzling; sunlight on gleaming water; cormorants standing sentinel and views that look too ridiculously perfect to be real. And sometimes, when you’re out on the water, it could rain. If anything, the driving rain is even more exhilarating, just sheets of water as far as the eye can see. The dominant colour here is green. The islands are green, an entire palette of green, from the deep green of the coconut fronds that fringe the islands to the lighter green of the rice shoots themselves. Even the water of the backwaters, reflecting all that colour, turns emerald. In the narrower canals, the trees meet overhead, so that even at noon, a cool shade pervades the scene.

Saibal Das
Nehru Trophy Boat Race, Alappuzha
Nehru Trophy Boat Race, Alappuzha

And that paced road rage is a distant memory when life moves at 20km an hour, water flows gently, unendingly for miles around, and traffic has to slow down because armies of ducks have paddled into view.

Backwaters

Most houseboat trips or backwater cruises take you on a standard route. If you want to venture deeper into the narrower canals and remoter villages, you will have to request the boatmen and customise your trip. Private boat hire charges are more or less the same (Motorboat 600 per hour for 5 pax; Rs. 1000 per hour for a full 10-seater boat; Speedboat 3,000 per hour (3-4 pax); Overnight house boat stay for a couple Non-AC 6,500, AC 7,500. Day cruise for a couple 6,500, inclusive of meals).

TIP When to go From August to May is the best time, weather wise. While deals during the monsoons are attractive, and it is the best time for Ayurvedic treatments, there is no way to guarantee availability and safety of boat travel during the rains Contact District Tourism Promotion Council, Near KSRTC Bus Stand, Boat Jetty Road, Alleppey. Tel: 0477-2253308, 2251796. W dtpcalappuzha.com Getting There Kochi’s Nedumbassery Airport (100km/2hrs), is closest to Alleppey. Non-AC taxi costs 1,800. There are direct trains to Alleppey Station from Ernakulam (71km/1.5hrs) and Thiruvananthapuram (147km/4hrs) stations. Alleppey is on NH47, which also connects major Kerala cities such as Ernakulam and Thiruvanathapuram.

How to do the Backwaters

You can start your backwaters tour from a number of places, including Ernakulam, Kumarakom, Kottayam and Kollam. The stretch from Kayamkulam Lake to Kochi via Alappuzha is much preffered. Alappuzha retains some of the charm its history of trade with the world has bequeathed it. However, its everlasting attraction is its location, for Alappuzha, which occupies a pretty thin strip of land between the backwaters and the sea, is the capital of backwater country. Many of the famous houseboats are based there.

Prashant Panjiar
A beautiful view of Alleppey’s backwaters, as seen from a cruise boat
A beautiful view of Alleppey’s backwaters, as seen from a cruise boat

The boat jetty at Alappuzha is crawling with operators vying for your attention. Ask them for a houseboat and make it your mobile home for as long as you like. Or book yourself into one of the resorts that follow, and get yourself a speedboat or motorboat to get you around.

What follow are several stops along the backwaters – resorts, temples, museums and villages where snakeboats are made. Fixed itinerary tours typically take in a few of the sights that follow. But you can design your own itinerary with most operators. Just factor in the time it takes from point to point depending on how you’re travelling – by road, speedboat, motorboat or houseboat, in decreasing order of speed.

Trikkunapuzha

The association of Alleppey’s houseboat owners runs the Coir Village Lake Resort (Tel: 0479-2482210; Tariff: 2,400–4,300) on Trikkunapuzha Island, just south of the lock that separates the freshwater of the Alappuzha backwaters from the saltwater of the Kayamkulam region. It is on the main Inland Waterway that connects Kollam to Kochi and can be the base for your exploring the inland portion of South Alappuzha and North Kollam districts.

Kanjipadam

The Green Palace Health Resort (Cell: 09446917533, 08289933715; Tariff: 3,500–5,000) is a family home that has been refurbished to become a hotel. The setting is gorgeous. The house is on an island that stands at an intersection of water channels, and it is quiet and peaceful, with its own rice paddies at the rear. The new cottages on the riverfront are very comfy indeed, and of course, the resort offers Ayurveda. The small lawn in front, with resident geese, is a tranquil place to watch the setting sun light up the kayals.

Champakulam

Kuttanadu River Resort (Tel: 0477-2736248; Tariff: 900–4,500), down the canal from St Mary’s, is a new place with cottages in a courtyard. The cottages are clean, functional and air conditioned, though a tad expensive. The non-AC rooms in the house are better value. The service is friendly and they also have a comprehensive kitchen.

Prashant Panjiar
A houseboat cutting through the water
A houseboat cutting through the water

Triveny River Palace (Tel: 2737114; Tariff: 4,500–7,500) by the Pampa river has a swimming pool, spa as well as Wi-Fi.

Akkarakalam Memoirs (Cell: 094463 66066; Tariff: 5,500) is a beautiful property set in a 150-year-old home in Ponga village, with seven rooms in two cottages. One of these is set in what used to be the ‘thengappura’, or coconut storage room. You can fish, take canoe and motorboat rides, observe toddy tapping and go on village walks and farm visits.

Manimalathara

Emerald Isle Heritage Villa (Tel: 0477-2703899, Cell: 09447077555, 094957 77888; Tariff: 4,300–7,300) is a little jewel of a homestay. It has seven rooms, but the house that they are in, the space they inhabit and the grace and hospitality of the host family will transport you to a different world. The house, a 150-year-old tharavad, is an authentic piece of architectural history, with polished wooden beams and sides and gleaming red-oxide floors. It fronts a quiet canal, and the property itself is a maze of little fishing ponds where they catch karimeen for their own table, and banana and coconut trees. They also have their own Ayurvedic set-up.

Alappuzha

The huge Lake Palace Resort (Tel: 0477-2239701-04; Tariff: 8,000–20,000), at Chungam in Alleppey’s Thirumala Ward, has obviously been made at enormous expense and is perfect for large groups. It has opulent water-villas on its own private lake. If you’re looking for a luxurious break, this will do.

With only 12 rooms, Kayaloram Heritage Lake Resort (Tel: 2232040; Tariff: 8,500–10,500) is an intimate getaway on Punnamada Lake. It has all the fixings, including open-to-thesky loos. It is expensive, though, and seems to be aimed at western tourists.

Prashant Panjiar
Scenic backwater boat ride
Scenic backwater boat ride

Punnamada Backwater Resort (Tel: 2233690, Cell: 09446433692; Tariff: 12,000–20,000, houseboats Rs. 24,000–30,000), next door to Kayaloram, has larger rooms, of better value. The villas with a view are quite something. Both hotels have their own spas.

Slightly further down the canal, away from the lake and towards Alappuzha, is a famous landmark, Keraleeyam Heritage Home and Ayurvedic Resort (Tel: 2231468, Cell: 09847050711; Tariff: 2,343–3,476). Though it is pretty basic compared to its neighbours, it is distinguished by being a home, over 70 years old that fronts the backwaters, and its claim to being a part of an actual Ayurvedic dynasty. It is still run by a family that runs its own Ayurvedic brand. One would imagine the treatments here would be the last word in authentic. They have charming cottages.

Palmgrove Lake Resort (Tel: 2235004, 2243474; Tariff: 2,300–3,500), next to Keraleeyam, is a basic place with bamboo cottages that are bang on the water. Though, not with the same amenities of the others, it is a cheaper and quite charming alternative.

TIP All these resorts are within 20 mins of the Alappuzha Boat Jetty

Muhamma

Kovilakam Lakeside Villa (Tel: 0478-2861275-76, Cell: 09447151644; Tariff: 3,500–4,000) is a small place with a few rooms and it has a very nice setting, right on the quiet lakeside. It isn’t cheap, but nothing here really is. And the prices are actually quite competitive for what you get. There is a nice-looking restaurant and the rooms are clean. All the rooms at the Lemon Tree Vembanad Lake Resort (Tel: 2861970; Tariff: On request) face the Vembanad Lake. There is a swimming pool, an Ayurveda spa and a gym. Besides the spacious rooms, they also offer a fully air-conditioned Floating Villa with two bedrooms, a sitting room and a Jacuzzi.

Purity at Lake Vembanad (Kochi Tel: 0484-2216666; Tariff: 6,500–19,900) is a beautiful hotel from the Malabar House group with an amazing art collection. All rooms have terraces and verandahs overlooking the pristine Vembanad Lake. There is a swimming pool, yoga and a spa here.

Varanam

Vembanad Backwater Resort (Tel: 0478-2582235; Tariff: 2,000–2,500), in Varanam, faces the backwaters. You can go cycling, go on village tours, watch cultural shows, get a massage or take a house-, speed-, motor- or country boat to explore the sights such as Pathiramanal Island.

Saibal Das
Ducks in the courtyard, Olavipe
Ducks in the courtyard, Olavipe

Shanthitheeram Heritage Lakeside Resort (Tel: 2582955, 2583379; Tariff: 2,400–2,600) is also right on the lake. It has Kerala-style cottages with AC and non/ AC rooms. There is a swimming pool and Ayurveda.

Thaneermukkom

Near the Thaneermukkom Bund, you’ll find the beautiful Privacy at Sanctuary Bay (Tel: 0478-2582794), run by Kochi’s elegant Malabar House hotel. This secluded two-bedroom house, whose verandah opens out to a stunning view of Vembanad Lake, is rented out to only one client at a time. The resort was being renovated at the time of going to print.

KTDC’s Suvasam Lake Resort (Tel: 2584218; Tariff: 1,500–2,000) has well equipped rooms as well as a multicuisine restaurant.

Olavipe

Thekkanat Parayil (Tel: 0478-2522255, Cell: 08589069115, 08589079115; Tariff: On request) is a gorgeous homestay. The home itself is over hundred years old, built in a mélange of styles, from the Colonial to authentic Syrian Christian. The tranquil setting, in its own working farm, the grace and hospitality of the owners and the charm of living as people have for generations is enchanting. Every corner of the house has a story to tell, as old houses do, and its position as the repository of a family’s memories is well served by the efforts the owners have made to share those memories with their guests. The food is delicious as well. The house, while strictly not a waterside property, is a short walk away from its own private jetty on the Kaithappuzha backwater. Give it a shot, it is beautiful.