Kerala: Kayaking, Culture and Cuisine
Second year running! National Geographic Traveler selected Kerala: Kayaking, Culture and Cuisine as one of its 50 Tours of a Lifetime which “go beyond destination to add meaning and context; they open the mind to new possibilities, new connections, new ways of thinking.”
Our Kayaking in India trip received the National Geographic Award 50 Tours of a Lifetime for an experience that goes “beyond destination to add meaning and context; they open the mind to new possibilities, new connections, new ways of thinking.”
Imagine: it’s winter at home, and you are paddling on a tropical afternoon along serene, palm fringed-channels, past verdant paddy fields and ancient temples, as iridescent kingfishers flash by and water buffalo wallow in the shallows. This is Kerala, a small and abundantly beautiful state at the tip of India with huge achievements: a high literacy rate, long life expectancy, religious tolerance, good health care and education, and a fabulous cuisine. It’s a place of superlatives, not least for the paddling, which is an enchanting journey into its fascinating, rich and diverse culture.
India’s Kerala is an embarrassment of beauty. (When you’re swimming in a slow moving river, warm as tea, as wreaths of mist rise from the surface, you’ll agree.) Between the Arabian Sea and the mountainous Western Ghats lie pristine white sand beaches, lush greenery, and a huge labyrinth of interconnected channels, lagoons and lakes – the Kerala Backwaters. In this verdant paradise, known by locals as “God’s Own Country”, India finally slows down. The climate is idyllic, and the cuisine – a fusion of the many cultures that have been welcomed here for centuries past – is mouthwatering. We first discovered Kerala in 2008 and fell in love immediately – we can’t wait to show you everything we’ve discovered there.
Our kayak tour begins in Fort Cochin. This ancient settlement was first visited by Phoenician traders over 2000 years ago, and by the 14th century it was a key stop on the spice trade route for Dutch, Portuguese, British and Chinese seafarers. Starting from our boutique hotel in a flawlessly restored colonial building, we explore this fascinating settlement, checking out spice warehouses, the church where Vasco de Gama was buried, and the unique Chinese fishing nets (reputedly brought here from the court of Kublai Khan, and still in use). We also attend a stunning performance of Kathakali, the oldest dance form in India, which combines drama, music, spirituality and elaborate costumes to move you deeply.
The most spectacular kayaking in India is in the Kerala Backwaters, named ‘Venice of the East’ because of the numerous channels meandering through it. Here we meet our kayaks and for the next four days and a half days we paddle deep into this waterland, where life goes on as it has done for centuries past. We watch young men climb coconut palms to collect the sap for ‘toddy’, kayak alongside fishmongers selling their catch from skinny canoes, and wave at children running along the waterside paths on their way to school We may have to stop for a flock of ducks being ferried across the channel by a farmer, or pull up in our kayaks at a cafe to enjoy a long-steeped cup of chai! This is also a birder’s delight, as we catch a glimpse of egrets, herons, cormorants, terns and our favourite, the kingfisher, with its iridescent blue wings.
On this adventure tour in India, our luggage is transported seamlessly ahead of us while we paddle “inn to inn”, arriving in the afternoons at our accommodations in cozy heritage villas. Here we relish the famed Kuttanadan cuisine, unique to the backwaters, and go deep into the rich cultural heritage of Kerala, as we watch private traditional music and dance performances.
For another perspective on the Kerala Backwaters, we board a kettuvolam – a beautifully crafted bamboo and reed boat originally built to transport rice, now converted into our luxury mothership. We cruise past jewel-green paddy fields and groves of mangoes, bananas and jackfruit, noshing on fabulous delicacies and wandering local villages.
Our final destination is Munnar, in Kerala’s Western Ghats. We settle into a plantation estate home, now a boutique resort, with old world charm and stunning views of the mountains and the surrounding tea, coffee and cardamom plantations. It’s a perfect place to simply chill out (and the temperatures up here are cooler than the plains!) but we have lots of activities. These include visiting local villages and farms, birding and forest walks, wandering through the market in Munnar town;, touring a tea plantation, getting some cookery tips from our chef and driving up to look out points for 360° breathtaking vistas. A wonderful end to an unforgettable journey.
If you’ve never been to India, Kerala is the place to start – as well as being verdant and peaceful, it has an almost 100% literacy rate, great healthcare, religious tolerance and a rural prosperity that’s reflected in the smiles of its hospitable people. (And if you’re an experienced India hand, but haven’t explored the south, join us for an intimate journey into “God’s Own Country”.)
Day 1 – Fort Cochin
Settle into our hotel, an exquisitely restored 300 year old heritage building. Wander a short distance to the beach to see the famous Chinese nets being worked as they have for centuries. Meet your travel companions and enjoy a welcome dinner and your first tastes of Kerala’s world-renowned cuisine.
Day 2 – Fort Cochin
On a morning walking tour with a history guide, explore the old town, follow your nose to the fragrant spice warehouses, check out the architecture left by Portuguese, Dutch and British traders of old, and visit the church where Vasco de Gama was buried. After a free afternoon, marvel at the skills of heavily bejeweled and painted Kathakali dancers as they re–enact Hindu epics.
Day 3 – Kerala Backwaters
Head to the serenity of the backwaters – 900 km of waterways winding through swathes of paddy fields, orchards and palm plantations, which are ‘roads’ for villagers who farm and fish here. Go local as you begin your kayaking journey along tiny channels and past peaceful villages, arriving at our small family run resort.
Day 4 and 5 – Kerala Backwaters
Paddle past duck farms (and stop for duck crossings!) and watch the traditional toddy tappers at work in the coconut palms. Our destination, and home for the next two nights, is a waterfront heritage house, set in 9 acres of lush paddy fields. From here we go deep into a maze of tiny channels, meeting ladies doing their washing on the ghats and children running along paths on their way to school. To stretch our legs, we walk to a local village to watch the sunset over the paddy fields, and enjoy a touching cultural event.
Day 6 – Backwaters
Today we paddle across Vermbanad Lake, arriving at a village for a special lunch with a local family. Our final destination is a Tharavadu (ancestral home) built according to ancient rules and rites, converted into a lovely boutique hotel. As night falls, we are treated to an incredible musical performance from world-renown local musicians.
Day 7 – Rice boat mothership
After a final early morning paddle, we have a leisurely breakfast then board our “kettuvolams” with en suite bedrooms and a gourmet chef. We cruise through some of the bigger channels and across lakes, stopping at villages to stroll through the lush countryside.
Day 8, 9 and 10 – Munnar and the Western Ghats
Something completely different: after farewells to our mothership crew and the backwaters, transfer to the cooler climes of the Western Ghats, and the tea growing area of Munnar. Settle into a boutique resort with old world charm and get ready for three days of activities. Wander through the local market in Munnar town, learn all there is to know about tea on a plantation, visit a village and a farm, go walking and bird watching in hills, get some tips on Keralan cuisine during a cooking class…..and/or relax on the estate, enjoy traditional afternoon tea, and soak in the vistas of Kerala’s high country!
Day 11 – Depart
Say farewell to your newfound friends and transfer to the airport for homeward or onward journeys.
Please note: this itinerary serves as an example of trip highlights and is subject to change.
We think of our itineraries as melodies: they have a beginning and an end, a certain arc, dramatic highlights and a few surprises. We like to improvise, to adapt to the mood of our guests or to circumstances that arise — an invitation to a traditional wedding, say, or a local ethnic festival…
Crafting beautiful, harmonious trips with delightful twists is our trade mark and passion.
What's special about Kerala?
Its physical beauty is outstanding: the beaches, the mountains, the unique system of natural channels and lakes that make up the backwaters. Its history is fascinating, stretching back 2000 years, with many cultural influences from around the world evident in its architecture and world-renowned cuisine. Infused throughout all of this a strong tradition of dance and music. It’s also a very easy and comfortable place to travel – see below for more details. All in all, a simply delightful place!
This is my first trip to India, and it sounds daunting. Should I be worried?
Kerala is truly ‘India Lite’. The pace of life is slow and laid back, there is good health care, excellent education with an almost 100% literacy rate, and virtually no corruption. It is the perfect start to your explorations of India, gently easing you into the culture.
What is the food like?
Delicious and unique. The cuisine reflects the diverse history and culture of Kerala, with its many influences from all over the world. There is a huge array of textures, flavor and colors in the food, and if spiciness isn’t your preference you don’t have to worry, as many dishes are very mild. We’ll have an in–depth look at the cuisine, with cooking lessons in two of the places we stay, and the chance to see first hand where some of essential ingredients come from – and also to help gather them! And, of course, we will be enjoying great food every day.
Where does the trip start and end?
It starts in Fort Cochin, in Central Kerala, and ends in the Spice Belt. We provide airport transfers from our last accommodation to Cochin Airport – the driving time is approximately the same as from Fort Cochin (approximately one and a half hours).
How do I get to Fort Cochin?
Cochin International Airport has regular flight connections to the main hubs of the Middle East – particularly Doha – and South East Asia. There are also regular domestic flights from Mumbai. Coming from the East coast of North America, you can fly with Eithad or Emirates Airlines, transiting in Doha. From the West coast of North America, you can fly with Qatar, transiting through Montreal, New York or Frankfurt, and Doha. Please contact your travel agent for other options, as there are many!
What are the physical activities on the trip and what level of fitness do I need?
On our kayaking days, we paddle for two to four hours at a gentle pace. The beauty of paddling here is that it gives us an intimate view of daily life, so we won’t be hurrying! And we have a support boat close by, in case you need to take a break. The walks on the trip are very gentle. The bicycle ride is about 2 hours, on mostly quiet rural roads.
Do I have to be an experienced kayaker?
No. The backwaters are protected and flat calm, and the kayaking is suitable for beginners.
I’m a vegetarian, is that a problem?
This is not a problem on any of our trips; you just need to let us know in advance what you can and can’t eat. In Kerala there is a strong tradition of vegetarian cuisine, and it is famous for its sadhya, a vegetarian banquet.
What will the weather be like?
The daytime temperatures will be up to 28–30 degrees, and by night they drop to between 20–25 degrees, with fairly high humidity. There may be occasional showers, but these will be short.
Do I need a visa?
You will require a visa, and it’s advisable to apply for it well before trip begins. You can apply directly through an Indian embassy, or use a visa agency.
Do I need insurance?
Medical insurance, including emergency evacuation, is mandatory on all our trips. We also strongly advise you to purchase trip cancellation insurance which should be done within a few days of making your booking.
Do I need vaccinations?
Your routine vaccinations (tetanus/diphtheria, polio, etc.) must be up to date. Another general precaution for travelers anywhere in the world is a hepatitis A and possibly a typhoid vaccination. If you are travelling to India from a country where yellow fever is present, you must have a valid yellow fever vaccination certificate. Please consult with your physician or local travel health clinic.
What about malaria?
The parts of Kerala where we will be travelling are considered very low risk for malaria, but it is present in other parts of India. It is always best to consult your local travel clinic and follow their advice.
What does the trip price cover?
Airport transfers on the first and last days of the trip, all cultural tour guiding and entrance fees, all accommodation, all meals from dinner on Day 1 until to breakfast on Day 12, kayak and bike guiding and equipment.
What does the trip price not cover?
International flights, airport transfers not on the first or last days of the trip, drinks, personal insurance, gratuities and visa fees.
How can I access cash when I'm on the trip?
ATMs are available in Fort Cochin, on our way to the backwaters and to the Spice Belt.
What clothes and equipment will I need?
When you sign up for the trip, we will provide you with a comprehensive clothes and equipment list.
I’m travelling alone, is that a problem?
Absolutely not. We have many guests who travel with us on their own. They appreciate the camaraderie of our Hidden Places groups, and usually go home with new-found friends.
Can I talk to someone who has previously travelled with you?
Of course. Just ask and we will be happy to put you in touch with one of our Hidden Places guests.
From: US $ 4650 per person
Single Supplement: US $ 1500
Scheduled: Nov 05 – 15, 2023
Scheduled: Feb 07 – 17, 2024
Private: Nov through Mar
9 nights heritage hotels and villas
1 night luxury rice boat
Begins in Fort Cochin, ends in Munnar (transfers to Cochin airport provided)
A beautiful trip, and a wonderful introduction to India.
Thanks for a wonderful trip! The locations were unique, accommodations superb and the food was over the top. My every need and want was attended to – I felt like a queen!
The trip far exceeded my expectations!
What a wonderful introduction to India, to kayaking, to homestays, and to pleasant companions, all lead by gracious, skillful hosts.
Kerala and its people are a delight. Our different forms of transport on the trip gave us a unique look into life here. The music and drumming were wonderful.
What an amazing trip. I can’t believe the variety experiences you put together and how well they complement each other. Thank you for a wonderful experience in India!
As always it was great fun. Thank you for your handling of the logistics and keeping it all so interesting. Lots of local touches and great local entertainment.
You have done it again! A wonderful, fun-filled, awe-inspiring view of an India that few people get to experience.
I wish I could start all over again!
An amazing adventure, showing us the many faces of Kerala. Each day brought so many new exciting and memorable experiences. We came with very high expectations and all of them were exceeded. Our first, but definitely not our last Hidden Places trip.
Kerala has been a joy! From gliding through its hidden lagoons and secluded canals of the backwaters, to immersing myself in the incredible cuisine– I have never enjoyed food so much!
Every day was full of delightful surprises and every detail appreciated, from your accommodation choices to the food to the excursions. Since we have returned, many people have asked me what our tour company was and if I would recommend it for this and other trips; my answer is a resounding yes. Thank you.
We can't think of a better way to immerse yourself into this rich and vibrant country than traveling with Hidden Places. Maria and Dag have the adventure travel thing nailed down perfectly. We can't wait for our next adventure with them.
We can't think of a better way to immerse yourself into this rich and vibrant country than with a trip with Hidden Places. Maria and Dag have the adventure travel thing nailed down perfectly. We can't wait for our next adventure with them.
If you want a travel experience where the owners have walked (or kayaked) the same paths before you, where the guides you meet know them personally, and the places you go are like none other, then choose Hidden Places. Hidden Places put me in a kayak in Croatia, in Kerala in south India, and amongst the seals, penguins and whales in Antarctica. Where to next?
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