Kerala (Part 1) – South to Alleppey

I recently returned to India for the first time since 1989 and though this was very much a ‘flying visit’, I was keen to see a different part of this great country and how things have changed there since my previous trip.

We flew ‘en famille’ (plus the Princess’ charming new boyfriend, Rob) to Kochi, arguably the pre-eminent city in the southwestern state of Kerala and formerly one of the hubs of the global trade in spices.  Emirates might have unfortunate taste in the football teams they sponsor, but they are sure as hell one impressive airline.  They got us there, via Dubai, with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of service.

Kochi’s airport is a good way out of the city and as we were travelling directly on to Alleppey by train, we got a cab to nearby Aluva Station.  This was a 20 minute journey and in that short time, it was obvious that Kerala was – at first sight – a good deal more prosperous than the northern states we had visited 20-odd years ago.  For all the auto-rickshaws and vintage ‘Ambassador’ saloons on the road, there were also substantial numbers of 4-wheel drive monsters and modern scooters.  In addition, the roads were flanked by lots of impressive new buildings, as well as massive billboards advertising all manner of consumer goods – in particular, mobile phones, cars and widescreen televisions. 

Whether or not people can afford these shiny toys is, of course, another matter altogether….there again, it’s arguable that everyone in the supposedly affluent West is living beyond their means….all the papers in Kerala were full of the ‘Eurozone Crisis’ on the financial pages and the dismal performances of the Indian cricket team in the Sports sections.

Alleppey (or Alappuzha)  is about 50 miles south of Kochi and lies on a narrow isthmus between the coast and the extensive ‘backwaters’ that form an unbroken network of lakes and canals stretching for over 500 miles through central Kerala.  As Indian towns go, it’s fairly unremarkable and its main focus for tourism actually takes people away from (rather than to) the town, courtesy of the hundreds of motorised ‘houseboats’ that use Alleppey as the starting point for leisurely cruises through the adjacent lakes and canals. 

Alleppey Beach, by contrast,  is a sizeable but grubby and largely neglected area of golden sand fronting the Indian Ocean and slightly away from the main part of town.  In Europe, it would have been cleaned up and used as a magnet to draw hotelliers and sun-worshippers to Alleppey, but the beach culture of Goa doesn’t seem to have made it this far south.  The beach is what the locals refer to as a ‘town beach’;  used principally by fishermen during the day,  sizeable numbers of locals – largely male – gather there in the evenings to socialise and there is a lot of malarkey, litter and noise.  Any western women unwise enough to go swimming in the (frankly) murky waters allegedly have to contend with both a strong undertow and packs of voyeurs.  Behind the beach, the prosaically-named Beach Road runs for some distance parallel to the ocean and is a curious mish-mash of derelict lots enlivened by the occasional tourist cafe or hotel.

Along Beach Road in Alleppey – a derelict ice-cream stand

In the midst of this rather frowzy ocean-front, the Raheem Residency is an  incongruous bastion of elegant calm.  It’s a so-called ’boutique’ hotel with a mere 8 rooms, a rooftop restaurant, a pool and an in-house  Ayurvedic Spa.  The Residency was built about 150 years ago by an Englishman and was subsequently occupied for many years by the influential Raheem family, who -at different times – entertained both Gandhi and Nehru there.  Bought up by an enterprising Irishwoman and her Indian partner, it’s now been converted in a way that accentuates the ‘Raj’ overtones of its architecture and internal decor.  24-hour security keeps the locals at bay and its courtyard-type construction and imposing perimeter walls make it a small oasis to which guests can retreat when they want to avoid the heat or the hassle of the town.  We absolutely loved the place from the moment we got there and the Partner and the Princess were soon up to their chakras in aromatic mud,  Ayurvedic gunk and ‘essential’ oils.  To my way of thinking, the only essential oils are the stuff that lubricates machinery and olive oil for cooking.  They, however, would emerge from each of these pummellings with a slightly sanctimonious air, as though having their internal organs forcibly relocated and  being scoured with the herbal equivalent of Agent Orange had somehow elevated their consciousness to new levels of  spiritual insight which we mere mortals could never attain.  As for me, I swam in the pool, read a book about Arthur Ransome and put the iPod on Shuffle.

Inside the Raheem Residency…..all is stillness and elegance

We spent 4 nights at the Raheem and I have to say that it was the perfect place to acclimatise to Kerala’s steamy heat.  In virtually every respect it was the ideal hotel; the staff were friendly and helpful, the ambience was tranquil and relaxing, the rooms were (perhaps) a little, shall we say, crepuscular, but very well-appointed with a period feel and lighting that made reading a bit of a challenge but did wonders for the atmosphere of the place.  My only slight grouse about the hotel was that whilst the breakfast and lunch menus in the rooftop restaurant were just fine, the evening menu was short, unremarkable and – by Indian standards – overpriced.

However, the main problem with the Raheem (and, consequently, with Alleppey) was that the slightly humdrum nature of the town made it all too easy for us to retreat to the sybaritic splendours of the hotel.  In a pretty short space of time, we became institutionalised and , when all is said and done, whilst having a good hotel is important, you really need to be out doing stuff and seeing things in the ‘real’ India.  After 4 nights, it was time to move on, so we headed for the Backwaters….

Coming up in Part 2:  Crows, kingfishers and the Water Hyacinth dilemma.  Curry for breakfast and prawns the size of Yorkshire Terriers.  Playing Gin Rummy through nocturnal insect kamikaze attacks.

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