By: Anu Anand, Journalist
Kerala is one of India’s most unique and picturesque experiences, packed with beaches, dazzling history as a major port on ancient sea routes, lazy backwaters and spice plantations where you’ll discover cashews, turmeric and cardamom, amongst other exotic things!
One of the nicest ways to experience Kerala’s ‘backwaters’ – the long chain of lagoons and inland lakes parallel to the Arabian Sea – is to take a journey on a traditional Keralan houseboat.
They’re made by local carpenters using wood and coir ropes and are about 70 feet long, with thatched roofs over wooden hulls – quite a sight! Today, there are apparently some 900 boats plying the backwaters. They range from basic one-bedroom boats to bigger ones with upper decks, bars and LCD TVs!
We were definitely not interested in the more modern conveniences, so opted for a mid-range boat – two bedrooms with air conditioning (Kerala is toasty even in December) – for our party of four adults and two toddlers.
After a short ride in a lovely little dinghy with a charming cabin, we arrived at our boat. On board, we were met by a cook, captain and a waiter/guide. They even brought aboard a cradle for our one year old, though sadly, I knew she’d jump out of it the first chance she got. Still, it was a measure of their hospitality to have thought of it.
On our journey, we saw lots of water birds and small birds of prey. At one point, we were overtaken by a farmer and his floating herd of ducks! We stopped for a walk along a lovely path along the water, where we passed local families and their neat little painted houses… some of the children swam in the water… others ran alongside us for a moment or two, with big, warm, irresistible smiles and eyes full of shy curiosity.
We also stopped at a rustic little ‘shop’ – a fisherman’s hut really – where we bought the most gigantic prawns (or maybe crawfish?)
It was a little tricky at first being on a houseboat with a very unsteady one year old who’s delighted to be walking, only because the two alighting points on either side of the deck had no gates. But a couple of chairs blocking her way solved that problem rather easily. If you’re worried about that aspect, it’s probably a good idea to ask in advance as I did see other boats with latched gates.
The best part
The kids loved being on the boat. My son rode up near the boatman and got to ‘drive’ by turning the wheel. The views are stunning… endless lazy rivers, little settlements. The food on the boat was superb – delicious, fresh and plentiful. Aside from our masala grilled prawns, we were served yummy cabbage cooked with coconut, fat Keralan rice and other simple, mouth-watering dishes, perfect for adults and children. You can buy a box of beer and take it on board with you to enjoy with dinner… something I’d definitely recommend, as it perfectly complements sitting on deck watching the world go by!
Three things you should definitely do
1. Stay for two nights if you can, one only whets your appetite.
2. Stop off and buy some giant prawns and get the staff to cook them—yum!
3. Ask if you can sleep on deck, rather than in the bedrooms, which may have sealed windows. Most houseboats seem to have fitted mosquito nets to close in the front part of the boat so you should be able to sleep al fresco! I wish we’d asked!
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