A holiday in a houseboat is one of the best ways to enjoy life on the slow lane. They offer an opportunity to enjoy the changing and unfamiliar surroundings from the comforts you expect in a land-based hotel or resort. Moreover, travelling in a houseboat through India’s lakes and backwaters across diverse geographical zones can be a unique experience.
The first Indian destination for a houseboat experience that comes to the mind is Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. Dal Lake, in the heart of the city, is one of the top draws and hence a large number of houseboats can be seen moored here. Those who want to stay in slightly less crowded surroundings opt for the houseboats on the Nigeen Lake. The houseboats offer a range of amenities depending on its category, from budget to luxury. Most houseboats come with a ‘dunga’ in tow. The houseboats for guests offer accommodation, dining hall, etc. But cooking and other guest-related serviced are undertaken in the more functional dunga. The ‘shikara’ boats are the lifeline of this water-world. They not only ferry local passengers but also serve as water taxis for those living in the houseboats. You may also hire one of the luxury shikaras for a round of the lake. Many houseboats have their own shikaras.
Dal Lake is a world unto itself. The long boulevard is lined with shops and hotels. There are floating islands and gardens inside the lake where flowers and vegetables are cultivated. You can take a shikara ride to see some of the sights such as the Char Chinar isle, the island-based Nehru Park and the famous floating market. Shikara-borne vendors may also approach the houseboats with their loads of flowers and souvenirs. At the relatively quieter Nigeen Lake, overlooked by the Hari Parbat (a hillock) you are more likely to enjoy the natural splendour.
Kerala too offers a fantastic houseboat experience. Balancing between the sea and the backwaters, the region depended on traditional boats for everything, from local transport to carry cargoes to going to war. During the old days, rice and other produce would be transported in barges called kettuvallom. With modernisation, kettuvalloms began to lose their utility. But soon it was discovered that these boats, which were strong enough to last several generations, could be re-purposed into houseboats for travellers to cruise down the backwaters.
As the boat cruises through the channels, the coconut tree-lined banks appear like one long tapestry, reflecting the lifestyle of the people who live in this region. With nearly every household owning a boat for quick transport, you can expect to see them a lot, especially near the small towns and villages. Since the boats float silently over the water, they also offer a good opportunity for bird watching. The in-house kitchen meanwhile will keep plying you with sumptuous meals and snacks from the vast range of Kerala cuisine. Kerala’s District Tourism Promotion Councils (DTPCs) operate houseboats in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kottayam, Allappuzha, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Kasaragod. There are also government accredited private house operators.
If you are done with Goa’s beaches and seek a change of scenery, go on a houseboat cruise through Goa’s lesser known backwaters. Operated by private companies, the houseboats look almost similar to that of Kerala and are well appointed. Cruises in the backwaters of Chapora are most popular. If you are lucky you may spot dolphins apart from a variety of birds. Meals usually consist of local Goan cuisine.
Although Maharashtra is yet to explore its potential as a houseboat tourism destination, the state tourism operates a houseboat at Tarkarli, in the backwaters of the Malvan region, from time to time. Odisha is also contemplating introducing houseboat tourism in select areas, according to recent media reports. To start with, private operators are being roped in to ply houseboats in Chilika, Bhitarkanika and Hirakud.
However, while houseboat tourism can be a great experience, one has to be careful of not harming the ecological balance. While visitors must be careful not to throw garbage into the lakes and rivers, the houseboat operators must adopt measures to prevent polluting the water through garbage and sewage disposal.
A word of caution. Check out the reviews of houseboats on popular sites before booking because not all houseboats offer facilities and services matching their promise or price. Also, check if the operators have government approval and all the necessary permits for running the houseboat.