Drifting in Kerala: A boat trip reveals the backwaters of the lovely south India state

March 4, 2012 12:00 am
  • A houseboat drifts along a canal in Kerala.
    A houseboat drifts along a canal in Kerala.
  • Fishing for a meal in Alappuzha, India.
    Fishing for a meal in Alappuzha, India.
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ALAPPUZHA, India -- Moments after stepping off the bus in this southern coastal town, I was submerged in a wave of touts.

"Look here, look here!" they demanded, flashing torn postcards of boats floating down canals soaked in sunset. They've correctly guessed that I've come to see Kerala's famed backwaters, a spaghetti of waterways stretching across the south Indian state.

A popular way to explore these backwaters is a night on a houseboat modeled after a traditional rice barge, or kettuvallum in Malayalam. Traditionally, the boats transported rice and spices from the Kuttanadu region of Kerala to Fort Cochin. From there, the goods boarded ships bound for every corner of the world. But India's sprawling train network slowly transformed shipping, and many of the kettuvallums, which means "to tie" and "boat" in Malayalam, were abandoned. In recent decades a surge of tourism to Kerala has given the rice barges new purpose.

If you go

While it's tempting to book ahead of time, it's best to see the actual boat before putting down any money.

Arrive in Alappuzha in the morning if you want to book for the next day -- boats typically return between 9 and 11 a.m. for cleaning and restocking, and this is a good time to take a peek.

Most houseboats cost 5,000 rupees (about $100) and up for two people during high season (November to February). During the shoulder seasons (October and March) boats can be a little less, and there are bigger discounts during the low season (April to September).

Be clear about what's in the price: your stay, the crew, lunch, dinner, breakfast and a couple of bottles of water are usually included. Air conditioning, soft drinks, alcohol and tips are extra.

If you're unable to commit to overnight on a boat, afternoon trips on small canoes are possible in backwater towns throughout Kerala.

Alappuzha is the most popular spot to launch backwater cruises, but boats can also be found in large numbers at Kollam and Kochi.

This rise in visitors isn't accidental: The state aggressively campaigns its charms to travelers. In Delhi colorful posters that call Kerala "God's own country" greet you at the airport. In Maharashtra and Goa, brochures for Kerala blanket most hotels and tour offices.

First Published 2012-03-03 23:19:57

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