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Kerala Backwaters

24th Sep 2009 7:00 am

The road from Coimbatore to Kochi is simply fabulous

The road from Coimbatore to Kochi is simply fabulous. Leafy avenues, wide roads and sparse traffic make this drive a breeze.
The roads are also pretty good and since there aren’t many villages on the way, pedestrians are not much of a bother.

From Kochi, however, you’ll definitely get ensnared in traffic and even though you don’t go off NH47, the city’s traffic invariably spills over onto the highway. So be prepared to do automotive battle. Otherwise, leave very early from Kochi or drive on a Sunday. The traffic eases as you put distance between yourself and Kochi. NH47 is wide, smooth and double-laned, but do watch out for the inevitable rogue driver barreling along with his lights on and in the wrong direction. The road turns narrow once you turn off NH47 at Shertallai — buses by the dozen ply this road so watch out for them, especially around blind corners. After Taneermukkam, it is a beautiful drive along the backwaters and you’ll see signs advertising various hotels.

From Kumarakom to Kottayam, the road has plenty of sharp rises with huge blind spots that can hide an oncoming bus. Don’t try to overtake over these rises. Remember in Kerala, bus drivers know only one kind of driving and that is flat-out! Also the buses have huge frontal overhangs which occupy almost the entire width of the road; so when a bus negotiates a corner, it pays to give it a wide berth.

The drive from Kottayam to Thekkady is fantastic and from Mundakayam onwards the road snakes into the Western Ghats.

Kumily, the gateway to Thekkady and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, is on the border with Tamil Nadu. Our return journey was through that state. The roads are ribbon-like but the towns you have to drive through are a mess, especially Palani and Udumpettai. Be warned that after Kerala's cooling backwaters and forests, Tamil Nadu's plains are searing hot.

Ducks are aplenty in villages around the backwaters.

Kumarakom
The backwaters burst into sight heralding that from here on it will be all about peaceful days and languid moments. We parked our car and the courteous South Indian gentleman escorted to ‘KQ Raghukunchanarathnamana’ — the extravagant wood-panelled, diesel-engined boat that would transport us across the waterways to the reception of the Coconut Lagoon. KQ, we found out incidentally, means ‘Kerala Queen’.

It’s a lovely journey from the car park to the reception. Houseboats line the sides, children playfully wave out and birds are constant company. As soon as we arrived and our toothy 'admiral' tooted the boat’s musical horn, the magnificently moustachioed Malayali man at the guardhouse lifted the gate and threw out an articulate salute. At the reception, pretty girls with garlands gave us a warm welcome and handed us coconuts with the sweetest water you've ever drunk. We had arrived at Coconut Lagoon.

The very eco-friendly property is all lawns, canals and bridges and the cottages and bungalows are built in authentic Kerala style. With a fabulous forefront that looks out at Vembanad Lake and hammocks to laze in and stare out into the backwaters, this is a birdwatcher’s dream come alive. Cormorants, eagles, lapwings, herons and kingfishers are all at home here.

The next morn we took the mandatory backwater cruise in a motorised canoe. However, if you seek an experience that drips with authenticity, opt for a ride in a canoe which the oarsman rows with only a long pole. But the motorised canoe was close enough. The backwaters support an entire life system and the way life goes on centered on them reminded us a lot of the hidden parts of Srinagar's Dal Lake.

Ducks waddled along, bobbing up and down in the wake of the boat. Often we’d come across a houseboat anchored in the middle of a canal or small hand-made wooden dug-outs transporting people from one river bank to another. Since it was just after the monsoons, the water level was high and the banks lush. Tall coconut trees lazily made up the skyline. Back from the cruise, it was time for another Keralite luxury, the Ayurvedic massage which leaves one feeling fresh and rejuvenated. As we’ve mentioned earlier, Kumarakom is a place of indulgence and relaxation and the time you spend here will be accentuated with views of splendid sunsets and the calls of thousands of birds.

Thekkady
Compared to Kumarakom, Thekkady is more activity-oriented. Most tourists return disappointed after a boat ride complaining that they didn’t sight any wildlife. But the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary doesn’t reveal her charms to the blitzkrieg visitor. You have to spend time here to experience this amazing wetland created thanks to the artificial lake. The mandatory boat ride can be had from the boat jetty in the park. There is an entrance charge of Rs 50 for a car and Rs 25 per person. The boat ride tickets vary with the type of boat. You can also hire a boat, albeit at a higher price. Remember to avoid weekends and public holidays. We were there at Onam and the crowds on the boat jetty rivalled the spectator volume of an India-Pakistan match at Eden Gardens. The other activities that you can partake of require you to spend at least five days to a week at Thekkady.

The simplest is the Jungle Walk (three hours and Rs 100 per person) that has a trained forest official taking a maximum of five tourists for a walk through the jungle over various routes. The Jungle Patrol experience lets the tourist be a part of the regular patrol that guards the fringe areas of the forest. This interesting experience is also called night trekking and there are three-hour time slots between 7pm to 4am. The charge is Rs 500 per person. Border Hiking is a full-day trek from 8am to 5pm. You need to be reasonably fit for this, but this is by far the best way to take in the fabulous ecology and vistas of the Periyar National Park.

Night camping in the jungle is another exciting but expensive activity. You can also check out different experiences like bamboo rafting, tribal tours or a bullock cart tour. Periyar though needs you to allot ample time on your visit. If you go there hoping to spend two hours on the river and come back laden with memories of elephants and tigers, you will most certainly return disappointed. Go at leisure and you’ll return contented.

KUMARAKOM
Kumarakom’s backwaters are all scattered with luxury resorts on the waterfront. Most of these aren’t accessible by road and you have to get there by boat. But they all have guarded parking areas, so your car will be quite safe.

Coconut Lagoon Run by CGH Earth Group, the same people who run the very interesting Brunton Boatyard Hotel in Fort Cochin, Coconut Lagoon (pictured here) is a haven of eco-tourism. The comfortable rooms are delightfully scented by orient aromas and the bathrooms are interestingly open air, but well secluded.
Hammocks line the waterfront for just lazing around. If you’re the kind who wants to walk and explore, then the property itself is large and interesting to amble around.
For reservations, call the central reservation office. Ph: 0484301171

www.cghearth.com for more information.

The Kumarakom Lake Resort
Ph: 0481 2524900, 2524501
KTDC Backwater Resort,
Kumarakom
Ph: 0481-2525864
E-mail: watersca@sancharnet.in, kumarako@md3.vsnl.net.in
www.ktdc.com/WaterScapes.htm

THEKKADY

Spice Village
Also a CGH Earth property, the village is scattered over a large area and the ideal base for a few days in the cool clime of Periyar. They have special rates for longer stays. Do meet Girish, the naturalist, and ask him to show you the slide show about Periyar. For reservations, call the central reservation office.
Ph: 0484301171
www.cghearth.com for more information.

Taj Garden Retreat
Thekkady, Kerala
Ph: 04869- 222401 to 222406 / 222273
Email : retreat.thekkady@tajhotels.com
www.tajhotels.com

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