Destination of the week: Kerala, India
Off the radar for many travelers, this southern city is a perfect fit for nature lovers and locavores.
Mon, Feb 21 2011 at 8:39 AM
FLOAT ALONG: Houseboats can be hired for a days-long cruise around the lake and canals of Kerala. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
The Indian state of Kerala occupies only a thin strip of land on the subcontinent's southwestern coast. In many ways, this place stands out from its Indian peers. It is arguably more progressive, with different religions and ethnicities living together without the tensions that are often present in other parts of the country. The food scene is diverse and there are plenty of tourist attractions both rural and urban.
Kerala even has a progressive attitude when it comes to eco-tourism and the environment. This attention to the green details makes Kerala the best destination in India for eco-tourists. The state's lush greenery and crisscrossing waterways constitute only a small example of India's many landscapes, but eco-tourism opportunities are everywhere and Kerala seems to be focused on keeping the spotlight on green travel rather than mainstream tourism.
Southern India is off the tourist radar for many travelers from the West. Most people want to get their introduction to the world's second most populous country in its northern regions (Mumbai and Delhi and their environs). This is where the India of the Taj Mahal, Bollywood and “Slumdog Millionaire” is found. But the Keralan city of Kochi (also known by its colonial name, Cochin) is a pleasant city that eclipses India's headline cities when it comes to user-friendliness. It certainly offers easier access to natural attractions both inside and outside the city limits.
Here's why many people consider Kerala India's top green destination.
There are more than a dozen worthwhile eco-tourism hotspots in Kerala. Many of these places offer easy access to nature and feature a fledgling eco-tourism industry that gives access to authentic, non-touristy experiences. Periyar Tiger Reserve is home to its namesake felines and also other rare animal and plant life. Guided hikes — some easy, some strenuous — inevitably lead past wildlife and through forests and grasslands. Rafting excursions and camping opportunities are also available inside Periyar.
The Parambikulam Nature Preserve sits in the valleys between the modest peaks of the Western Ghats. Rare animals like the white deer, cobras and Bengal tigers inhabit the park's landscapes. Like other preserves in Kerala, there are trails of varying levels of difficulty and tented camps where visitors can spend the night.
These lush interior highlands are an eco-tourism favorite, but Kerala's waterways are of equal interest. It is possible to get lost (in the positive sense) in the waterways around Kochi. Every guesthouse and tourist agency in the city can arrange a trip around these wet highways by boat. There are even eco-friendly houseboats (with low emission engines) that can be hired for a days-long cruise around the lake and canals of Kerala.
But you don't even have to leave the city. A mangrove forest, called Mangalavanam, covers 80 acres in the middle of the city. It is considered a major bird sanctuary and its urban greenery is widely considered to keep the air reasonably clean in Kochi. There are also “eco-tourism” villages within 10 miles of downtown Kochi. The Kumbalangi Tourist Village is located on an island outside of Kochi. Residents work in the tourism trade, although they still engage in traditional lifestyles. Paddy tours, canoeing through mangroves and hiking are on the menu at Kulbalangi. This might seem touristy compared to the preserves in the highlands, but it is definitely a natural landscape and a prime example of Kerala's locally focused, eco-tourism agenda.
Kerala's sleeping scene ranges from luxury eco-resorts to basic forest cottages and environmentally friendly, small inns and bed and breakfasts.
Small scale sleeping is possible in rustic settings at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which has cottages, a lodge and camping spots run by local communities inside the preserve. These are not high capacity hotels, but spartan cottages and bungalows with only a few units at each site. One site, the Bamboo Grove, features treetop huts, camping spaces and cottages made from bamboo and other locally sourced, sustainable materials. This approach to accommodation is also found at the other nature preserves mentioned above.
For something less rustic but still unique, give Kochi's Fort INN Homestay a try. This renovated 18050s Dutch colonial style structure now serves as a small inn. There are only four rooms, but plenty of antique furnishings and an ideal location in the heart of Kochi, Kerala's economic and cultural heart, make this a good choice. The Hiliya Resort farm-stay is a similar small-scale venue, with very different surroundings. It is an organic spice and fruit farm in the hilly forests outside of Kochi. These are two examples of the many guesthouses and small inns in the region.
Upscale resorts like the luxurious Vythiri Nature and Spa Resort, a spot popular with nature-loving honeymooners, and cultural resorts like the Pamba Heritage Villa are additional options. Places like these offer easy access to nature and eco-tourism opportunities, so they are ideal bases for an upscale nature-themed vacation.
Like elsewhere in India, there is an extensive train network in Kerala. Trains cover a lot of the country, even stopping in small towns and places that eco-tourists might disembark at on their way to nature preserves or eco-resorts in the state. There is also service between the main cities in Kerala (Kochi, Trivandrum and Kannur, among others). “Express trains” stop only at major stations, while “passenger trains” make more frequent stops. Unfortunately, those visiting the hub city of Kochi will find no train service except commuter service to the suburbs. Taxis and auto rickshaws are used within the city. Ferries ply the waterways in and around Kochi and offer an alternative for commuting and for sightseeing. With a bit of planning, it is possible to get between most major towns relying mainly on ferries.
Buses are popular amongst local travelers, though only private buses have air conditioning. Bicycles and motorbikes can be rented, but traffic can be intense, so these are only for cold-blooded travelers who are familiar with India's traffic rules.
India is considered by many to be the most user-friendly country in the world for vegetarians. Kerala fits this stereotype, although it has more meat lovers than elsewhere in India.
A surprising number of retail outlets and restaurants in Kerala bill themselves as organic. Lumiere is an organic restaurant with locations in both Kochi and Bangalore. The meals are made from organic products and the menu includes explanations about the company's environmental practices. Lumiere also offers visits to the farm where the restaurant's food is grown.
The state government's Department of Agriculture is becoming more involved in organic farming (there are 300 organic farming collection points around the state). Organic spices, teas and fruits are easy to come by. Also, seafood is a staple in Kerala, with almost all of it locally caught off the coast or in the streams and lakes throughout the state.
Kerala might not be the classic Indian travel destination, but it is one of the most accessible places in India, especially for eco-tourists hoping to experience unique natural landscapes and rare animals while supporting a locally focused tourism industry.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
MNN homepage photo: Lonely Planet Images
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