Once a hub for spice traders hailing from Europe, Asia and the Arabian peninsula, Kerala now lures travelers from across the globe with its hill stations peppered with tea and spice plantations, palm-fringed backwaters, and cosmopolitan history of colonial trade preserved in the old city of Fort Cochin.
In English, Kerala translates to "land of coconuts," and indeed this breezy tropical plant coats the region's interior giving this part of India its distinctly "green" landscape. Beautifully serene settings coupled with a culture as vibrant and warm as the very sun that shines on Kerala's verdant land make a trip here unforgettable.
On the northern shore of Fort Cochin, a stroll to the Chinese fishing nets reveals a way of life that has survived for centuries. Operated by a team of up to six fishermen, the massive contrivances comprise a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea, and large stones strung from ropes (used as counterweights) at the other end. Watching fisherman hoist the magnificent nets from the water is as mesmerizing as being among a perfectly coordinated ballet.
Just a few minutes walk from the Chinese fishing nets rests the Old Harbour Hotel. Once a Portuguese hospice, this luxurious 300-year-old property is home to 1788, (arguably) the best restaurant in Fort Cochin. The airy indoor-outdoor setup is a lovely space to take in the nightly live performances by tabla players while dining on inventive Indian cuisine. The seafood platter -- grilled portions of lobster, squid, cuttlefish, prawns, crab and the fresh catch of the day -- Cochin shrimp curry and pumpkin olan, a typical Kerala dish made with semi-ripe pumpkin and lentils, are just a few of the incredible dining options at this top heritage hotel.
East of Fort Cochin, in Jew Town, lies the Paradesi Synagogue, a historic Judaic monument dating back to 1568. Situated behind the Mattancherry Palace temple, the building can be easily identified by its 18th-century clock tower and white exterior. Cameras are not permitted inside, and you may find yourself wishing they were once you take notice of the elegant hand-painted blue-and-white Chinese porcelain tiles (no two are alike), which coat the floor of the synagogue. Beautiful Belgian glass chandeliers, in a variety of shapes and sizes, adorn the ceiling, and several gold crowns and Scrolls of the Law are kept in sacred areas of the synagogue. Only a very small community of Jews (approximately 10) remains in Cochin, but this historic site brings people from all corners of the globe to admire its antiquities and rich history.
On the windy way up to the mountainous landscapes of Cardamom Hills, a stopover at Serenity at Kanam Estate is a must. Part of the boutique collection of Malabar Escapes properties, this glorious redesigned 1920s bungalow is nestled deep in a belt of rubber plantations and fragrant spice gardens. Each of the six eclectically designed rooms is fixed with period furniture, Indian artwork and spacious verandahs. Admire the lush sea of cocoa and rubber trees that envelop the property while lazing by the pool, or request a personal tour of the expansive spice gardens and rubber plantation. The innovative Indian cuisine here is healthful and overwhelmingly delicious. Most dishes are prepared with coconut milk, local spices and fresh fruits and vegetables. Try the prawn curry -- it will have you wishing you could take the chef back home.
If you can stomach the ascending three-hour drive from Kanam through a swirl of roads that twist and turn around stunning green-capped hills, you'll arrive in the enchanting hill station of Vagamon. Situated approximately 4,000 feet above sea level, this tiny plantation township is brimming with tea gardens, small waterfalls, flower-coated meadows and towering pine trees. Here, you can take a tour though one of the many tea factories, or kick off your shoes and enjoy a picnic lunch among a majestic arboreal landscape in the Pine Tree Forest. The cooler, crisp air creates the perfect conditions for hiking along Vagamon's spectacular chain of three hills --Thangal, Murugan and Kurismala, an ethereal experience in its own right.
Enveloped by a network of lush waterways, Kumarakom provides the quintessential backwater experience. Located six miles west of the bustling town of Kottayam, the peninsula is spread over a cluster of islands on the great Lake Vembanad making it home to dozens of traditional houseboats. It's easy to spend days cruising along palm-fringed canals absorbing the peaceful ebb and flow of life on the ledges as locals tend to quotidian tasks, washing clothes, bathing and spending time with family and friends. If you can't afford the houseboat experience, opt for a canoe cruise. It's an inexpensive and authentic way to explore all the lake has to offer without the rumble of an intrusive motor.
For a more local experience in Kumarakom, stay at Purity, a beautifully redesigned villa boasting four deluxe rooms and two suites. Another member of the Malabar Escapes collection of boutique hotels, Purity has all the ambience and typical charm that owner, Hanna Drechsel, incorporates into each of the Malabar properties. There are plenty of opportunities to soak in the local culture during you stay here starting with the exquisite art collection by Abdul Kalam, a photographer turned artist who is known for reaching the core of Kerala's composite culture.
A leisurely bike ride around Muhamma, the village that surrounds Purity, reveals the rituals of daily life in this area of Kerala. If you take the time to say "hello" along the way, locals will willingly invite you into their homes for a meal, or ask you to join a family celebration. If biking is not your thing, request a sunset cruise along Lake Vembanad, with Sabu, a local fisherman who will escort you around in his personal canoe. Ask him what it's like to operate a Chinese fishing net, and he'll gladly take you to the one he owns and provide a demonstration of how to operate the massive contrivance.
A trip to Kerala would not be complete without indulging in an Ayurveda treatment at Kumarakom Lake Resort. Everything about this property -- from the luxurious houseboat and villa accommodations to the resplendent lakeside infinity pool -- is serene and sumptuous. The perfect way to unwind after many days of traveling, the Ayurvedic treatments here bring a sense of renewal in a most peaceful setting. Upon entering the 200-year-old spa heritage retreat, you can immediately sense the powerful history that lies in the walls of this ancient building. Once the home of the Chathamangalathu Mana, a family of renowned Ayurvedic practitioners, the entire four-sided mansion was transported from its original location to Kumarakom Lake Resort. A multitude of treatments are offered here, but for a more specialized experience, opt for the Ayurveda package which includes complimentary yoga sessions and a thorough consultation upon arrival.
Follow Maria Russo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MariaCultureist