It’s breakfast time on the widest arc of sandy beach in Kannur, in the north of Kerala, which has been my home for the past few days. We’ve just bought our food from one of the handsome, blue-painted fishing boats lined up on the sand — a kilo of silvery mackerel, straight from the hands of the man who caught them. Kannur is the final stop on our two-week trip in the southern Indian state, which began in Kochi, before we go north to Jaipur for work.
There are few foreign tourists here now, if any, but that’s all about to change, because last Monday India dropped its list of “at risk” countries and effectively reopened to the world. And a boom in tourism will be welcomed with open arms in the beautiful places we have visited so far. “We weren’t even planning to open this season,” the owner of Chera Rocks resort in Kannur tells me. “But we managed to scrape through with a few guests. This is the best possible news.”
Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica in Fort Kochi
Experience has taught us that a few days spent acclimatising and gently shedding the jet lag are restorative, so we spent our first three nights at the Old Harbour Hotel in the town of Fort Kochi. It’s in a thoughtfully restored 200-year-old building that, like much of old Kochi, is in the Dutch style with touches of Portuguese influence. It’s surrounded by a canopy of rain trees whose far-reaching branches stretch towards each other like sea-fan coral, creating the most extraordinary patterns. We chose a garden room with tall doors opening onto a view of giant banana leaves and bougainvillea. From our balcony we could see over the garden wall to the bustle of the fish market and the giant fishing nets craned up on bamboo frames. It’s the ideal place to read or doze on the bed within the soft yellow lime-washed walls.
We began on a food high in the hotel’s restaurant, where the menu is fresh and delicious. After trying the masala fried squid, my partner, Yaniv, wangled an invitation to the kitchen, where the kind chef demonstrated the process so we can attempt to recreate it at home.
Kizhunna Beach, Kerala
On our third morning we took an early meander through the spice markets, stopping to watch as carts loaded with ginger, garlic and pepper from the hills were unloaded. At the synagogue in Jew Town services now rarely run, because they require a minimum attendance of 11, which used to be achievable with willing tourists, but since the pandemic hit has no longer been possible. It’s a charming building, and for antique lovers there are neighbouring shops and warehouses piled high with everything from 1930s Bakelite telephones and dolly switches to carved teak beds and giant doors.
From Kochi we travelled an hour south to Kizhunna explore the long sandy stretch of Marari and the backwaters close by in Alleppey, staying at one of A Beach Symphony’s four villas, hidden behind the sand. Each has been artfully decorated with antique Keralan furniture by the founders — a Belgian couple who have since moved on, but whose legacy remains in the delightful staff and ethos of this guesthouse. Meals were served on our large verandah — lots of grilled fish and curries with rice and wonderful local parathas, soft flatbreads that unravel in layers, to mop up the sauce. It didn’t take me long to cast aside the knife and fork in favour of fingers, which do a far superior job.
Something to note about Kerala is that if staying in the smaller guesthouses you need to take your own spirits, if you want them; mixers are readily available, and beer can be bought from the local government-authorised off-licences. The state is on the west coast, so at 6pm each evening we had an appointment with the beach. I’ve always found sunsets a bit overrated, so the highlight for me was watching the dozens of crabs emerging out of their sandy hideaways, tentative eyes first, before scuttling down to the water’s edge.
Tea plantations in Kerala
From Alleppey, the very developed main departure point, we took a brief boat trip on blissfully deserted waterways. I can recommend Kumarakom, a village on the eastern edge of Vembanad Lake, as a quieter spot from which to explore more peaceful waters — I don’t know how much I would have enjoyed it had there been many other tourist boats, although the scenes of village life were enchanting.
After a week we went north with a driver to the hill station of Wayanad. As we climbed the slopes, known as the Western Ghats, we began to notice modest tea-growing mounds in small plots beside the road. After an hour or so these gave way to slope after slope of bright-green-tipped plants uniformly arranged across the undulating land. It was astonishing. Palm trees fringed every tea plantation, small terracotta roofs peeped through the shade of giant leaves, signs warned of “wild elephants crossing”, and women carrying sacks of tea leaves gathered at the edges of the ever-bending, ever-ascending roadside that led us up through the rainforest to Tranquil Resort, where we stayed in a treehouse.
Tranquil is a colonial-style homestay set within a coffee plantation, and guests are free to explore the many walking tracks around the property, equipped with a map and bird-spotting guide — we spied a flying lizard and giant Malabar squirrel. Sleeping in a treehouse still had all the associated excitement of childhood, and even more so when we woke to a family of monkeys staring through the windows.
We could have stayed longer in the hills, but had been tipped off about the beaches of Kannur by the writer and designer Amber Grey Knowles, who runs the clothing shop Tuk-Tuk Anouk. On a sweep of golden sand, Chera Rocks is the ideal beach house. It’s small, simple and with the most delicious food; we have eaten grilled prawns, biryanis and fish in a rich tomato and onion sauce, cooked and served in a banana leaf. Yaniv found himself back in the kitchen for a lesson in various fish marinades.
A treehouse at Tranquil Resort in Wayanad
And we’ve had the beach to ourselves, except on Sunday, when boys play football between bamboo goalposts. In the mornings the water is flat and shallow for quite a distance, and a swim out to the rocks proved the ideal start to the day.
We have yet to explore the toddy shop, which a fellow guest describes as being the closest thing to a village pub. It serves great spicy food, as well as the mildly alcoholic drink made with palm sap.
When the news came through about the Covid restrictions being lifted, the manager here had 75 inquiries in a day, so we’re feeling very lucky as we take in the view of the beach for the last time — deserted except for the fisherman and a few sandy-coloured dogs sleeping off the night before.
Gabby Deeming travelled independently. A ten-night trip to Kerala with full-board stays at Chera Rocks and Tranquil Resort costs from £1,950pp, including flights, a day on a houseboat and a private driver (greavesindia.co.uk)
What you need to know
Fully vaccinated travellers from the UK no longer need to take a predeparture test or quarantine on arrival. All visitors must submit an online declaration giving details of vaccinations, health and recent travel before departing for India (newdelhiairport.in). You must also upload evidence of double-vaccination for Covid-19 or the results of a negative PCR test (mohfw.gov.in); children under five are exempt from testing.
Passengers are thermally screened before they board their flight to India, and there is also randomised health screening on arrival in the country. You may also be required by your airline or border officials to download the Indian government’s Aarogya Setu test-and-trace app.
Face coverings are mandatory in all indoor public places in India, with some states fining those who don’t observe the rules.
For more details see gov.uk.
Yaks roam a plain in Ladakh
Ten more Indian adventures
This trip to the mountainous north of India is tailored to the post-pandemic demand for peace and quiet, skipping the cities and immersing you in the stunning scenery and rural ways of Ladakh — sunrise prayers with the Buddhist monks of Thiksey monastery, a homestay in a traditional Ladakhi village and a trek into the silent, snow-topped Karakoram and Kunlun mountain ranges.
Details Eleven nights’ B&B from £5,650pp, including flights, transfers and some extra meals (originaltravel.co.uk)
Bengal’s big cats
The Indian tiger trail is well trodden, with most travellers adding a day or two in Ranthambore National Park to a tour of Rajasthan. This responsible wildlife tour is an epic by comparison, taking you in pursuit of red pandas at the pretty Singalila National Park in West Bengal, snow leopards in the Himalayas and Bengal tigers at Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. After a day’s stalking settle down in a luxury forest lodge to the spine-tingling call of the chital deer, signalling that a tiger is near by.
Details Eighteen nights’ B&B from £4,995pp, including flights, transfers, guiding and most extra meals (wildlifeworldwide.com)
The Hawa Mahal, Jaipur
There’s a reason that the Golden Triangle tour of northern India is favoured by first-time travellers to the subcontinent. This august itinerary has it all — the photogenic luminosity of the Taj Mahal in Agra, the hubble-bubble (as Delhiites put it) of the capital and the princely palaces (and five-star pleasures) of Jaipur. This good-value itinerary tacks on another crowd-pleasing leg — a trip by narrow-gauge railway to the Raj-era hill station at Shimla. The small-group tour also features palace-grade digs and a guide.
Details Eleven nights’ B&B from £1,995pp, including flights, transfers and some extra meals (coxandkings.co.uk)
City and sands
The commercial bustle of Mumbai and the palm-fringed beaches of Goa make for a fine pairing, giving travellers big-city energy and a break that really makes you feel as though you’ve had one. On the Mumbai leg you’ll take a dawn tour as the city of slums and film stars awakes, before returning to the five-star Trident Nariman Point. At the rice-paddy-fringed Alila Diwa boutique resort in Goa you’ll have five days to enjoy the golden sands and coconut-liquor cocktails.
Details Eight nights’ B&B from £2,540pp, including flights, transfers and some extra meals (audleytravel.com)
Rail has long been the most elegant way to travel in India. This epic is the ultimate Indian trip, on board the Palace on Wheels, the most celebrated of India’s luxury trains. Renovated for a 2022 relaunch, its plush carriages feature Rajasthani textiles, picture-glass windows and two gourmet restaurants. After embarking at Delhi you’ll chug to princely Rajasthan (for the lake city of Udaipur and pink rooftops of Jaipur), then on to Agra for the Taj Mahal and Chittorgarh for tiger-spotting.
Details Eight nights’ B&B (full board on the train) from £4,150pp, including flights and transfers (transindus.co.uk)
Fishing nets in Cochin
Kerala Coastal cycling
This active group tour, concluding with a leisurely houseboat cruise on the Keralan backwaters, is a great option for outdoorsy types. You’ll pick up your wheels in the old spice port of Cochin for a moderate-going eight-day ride to the relaxed beach town of Varkala, via characterful fishing villages and Portuguese-era villas. You’ll also spend a night in a charming family homestay, before soothing weary limbs on the backwater cruise in a traditional kettuvallam wooden houseboat, followed by a final day at a laid-back Varkala beach resort.
Details Seven nights’ B&B from £2,199pp, including flights, transfers, bike hire and some extra meals (exodus.co.uk)
A Keralan fish curry
When it comes to globe-conquering cuisines, India has it all — from the rich, meat-based tandoors of the Mughal emperors to the fragrant pure veg dishes of the south. This 15-day immersive small-group food tour focuses on home-style Indian cooking, rather than rich restaurant grub, and transports you by road, rail and air from the aromatic bazaars of Delhi to the beaches of Mumbai (for that city’s famed butter-rich bhelpuri) and on to Goa, where you’ll potter around a spice farm and enjoy the state’s spicy, Portuguese-inflected seafood.
Details Fourteen nights’ B&B from £1,720pp, including transfers and most extra meals (responsibletravel.com). Fly to Delhi and back from Goa
Himalayan health boost
Loved by celebs including Oprah Winfrey, Ananda is an east-meets-west health resort in a 19th-century palace in the sal-forest-scented Himalayan foothills. With views over the Ganges River valley and the spiritual town of Rishikesh, it offers 80 western and Ayurvedic spa treatments, plus bird-spotting, nature walks, traditional dance performances, spiritual singalongs and gourmet food (it’s calibrated to your dosha, or Ayurvedic body type, but is at the sumptuous end of spa fare). Baithaks, the Hindu version of a full body squat, are optional.
Details Seven nights’ full board from £3,225pp, including flights, transfer and wellness programme (healthandfitnesstravel.com)
Tea-picking in Assam
Voluntourism in Assam
Assam tea is the foundation of English breakfast blends, though climate change and intensive farming methods are threatening this evergreen shrub. On this foodie voluntourism trip, with simple homestay accommodation, you will help an Assamese tea estate to implement sustainable, chemical-free permaculture practices, pick tea, chat with the locals and enjoy the hospitality of the Jalinga tea estate — its brilliant-green sloping terraces, in the heart of the lush Eastern Ghats, produce carbon-neutral tea.
Details Six nights’ full board from £587pp, including transfers (responsibletravel.com). Fly to Guwahati via Delhi
Terracotta temples at Kalna
Cruise to Varanasi
The Ganges is India’s mother river, the giver of life and the waters into which — in Hindu funeral tradition — all life returns. This river cruise embarks at Calcutta and continues about 400 miles to Varanasi, via remote riverside villages, the battlefields of Plassey (where Clive of India brutally defeated the Nawab of Bengal in 1757) and the highly ornamented terracotta temples at Kalna. You will travel in an air-conditioned cruiser, with five-star hotels at each end of the journey.
Details Fourteen nights’ full board from £4,420pp, including sightseeing (pettitts.co.uk). Fly to Calcutta and back from Varanasi via Delhi or Mumbai