7 essential experiences everyone should have in Kerala, India

Sprawled along India's southwest coastline, Kerala is one of the more relaxed states in India. A stark contrast to the hot, dry deserts of popular Rajasthan and the chaotic cities of Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata, it's a luscious green region with forested mountains - the Western Ghats - and sticky coastal plains that tumble down into sandy beaches lapped by the warm Arabian Sea.

Essential experiences everyone should have in Kerala
Essential experiences everyone should have in Kerala © Gary Taylor - Alamy Stock Photo

Kerala is the place to visit to enjoy a slower pace of Indian life, and learn about some of the country's colonial history. It's also increasingly easy to get to Kerala, owing to great value deals from the likes of TUI*, which whisks adventurous holidaymakers to India direct from the UK. If you're planning a trip to Kerala, here are a few essential experiences to try on your trip.

1. Flop on the beach in Kovalam

With 550 km of coastline, there are plenty of spots to enjoy a beach break in Kerala. Kovalam* is one of our favourites, sitting at the southern end of the state with four gorgeous beaches to choose from and plenty of excellent resorts.

Fishermen landing their catch on Kovalam beach, Kerala
Fishermen landing their catch on Kovalam beach, Kerala © Rudi Ernst - Fotolia.com

Lighthouse Beach is the most spectacular of the area's sands, with the picture-perfect, red-and-white, 30-metre-high lighthouse proudly sitting at its southern end. Further north in Kovalam, you'll find Samudra Beach, a far quieter stretch perfect for a peaceful break away from the busy resorts. Here, you'll see the local fishermen haul their catch ashore daily to auction off to the highest bidder.

2. Take a serene backwaters cruise in Kuttanad

One of Kerala's main draws is its verdant network of waterways that criss-cross one another between the coast and the hills in an area called Kuttanad. Here, on a day-trip or overnight cruise from either Kollam or Kochi, you can really slow down and adjust to the local pace of life.

Backwaters cruise in Kuttanad, Kerala, India
Backwaters cruise in Kuttanad, Kerala, India © Alexandra Lande - Fotolia.com

Jump on a traditional thatched rice barge (kettuvallam) to explore the rivers, canals, and lakes, where you'll get a glimpse into the fascinating bucolic way of life here. You'll pass rice paddies and banana plantations, and perhaps even meet the locals who regularly maintain the waterways. Watch out for gorgeous blue and orange kingfishers flitting about, occasionally diving for fish, and if you're lucky you might just spot an otter.

3. Learn to cook South Indian style

South Indian food is distinctly different to the rest of the country's cuisine, with lots of fresh fish and seafood, vegetables, and sweeter flavours coming from coconuts and plantain.

There's no better introduction to Keralan cuisine than a cooking class, and The Pimenta, located in the foothills a couple hours east of Kochi, is the perfect retreat. Whether you're a seasoned cook or a beginner, stay for a couple days and owner Jacob Mathew will take you to the local markets to buy supplies and spices before teaching you how to cook delicious Keralan dishes in his kitchen.

A tour of the gardens will introduce you to many of the homegrown spices and medicinal herbs the family have been cultivating for years, and local excursions will give you a taste of everyday life in one of Kerala's smaller towns.

4. Haul the Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi

One of the most famous sights, and most photographed, in Kerala is the Chinese fishing nets of Fort Kochi. These enormous cantilevered contraptions that line the shore overlooking the entrance to Vembanad Lake are no longer used for fishing - their catch is minimal - but they are still manually operated by a handful of men as a tourist attraction.

Chinese nets at sunset, Kerala
Chinese nets at sunset, Kerala © Magnifier - Fotolia.com

Head there just before sunset to see them in operation while the men chant a traditional fishermen's song - you could even offer to help out by taking one of the ropes that pull them up out of the water - and enjoy their impressive silhouette against the orange Keralan sunset. An Instagram-worthy experience, if nothing else.

5. Eat seafood fresh off the boat

While Fort Kochi's fishing nets bring little in the way of food, the boats that return from a day's fishing on the Indian Ocean have a lot to offer. These small vessels land just east of the Chinese nets and auction their catch straight off the back of the boat.

Arrive at the right time (it varies, so ask a local) and you'll find a huddle of hushed men crowded around the day's haul - which often includes cuttlefish, crabs and red snapper - listening keenly to the auctioneer. Find a local willing to barter on your behalf and you could get away with a catch of your own, which many of the local restaurants will gladly cook up into a delicious Keralan curry for your dinner.

6. Take tea right from the fields

A good cup of tea is often hard to come by on holiday, but not in Kerala. Here, tea plantations blanket the hills and mountains of the Western Ghats, and many are open to visitors for day trips and overnight stays.

Typical scenery in the Tea Country of eastern Kerala
Typical scenery in the Tea Country of eastern Kerala © Rudi Ernst - Fotolia.com

The Windermere Estate, near Munnar, is one such plantation where you can learn about the history of tea in India, the making process and, of course, taste the freshest cuppa you'll ever have. Visit the luxurious old tea planter's villa that overlooks the undulous hills beyond, and explore the plantations to see women in colourful saris picking the leaves for processing. Even if you don't like tea, it's a fascinating experience in a stunning location.

7. Treat yourself with Ayurveda

Ayurveda is said to be the oldest healthcare system in the world, and some will travel from far and wide to Kerala for the experience. Based around two main elements - detoxification and restoration - the practice is widespread here, and there are hundreds of retreats and spas across the state that offer Ayurvedic treatments.

Ayurvedic foot massage in Kerala
Ayurvedic foot massage in Kerala © Nina Hilitukha - Fotolia.com

Whether you're looking for a relaxing one-hour massage or a full-blown cleansing session, you'll find it in Kerala. Standards of hygiene and quality vary hugely though, so check the Kerala Tourism's list of approved health centres before you book.

If those seven reasons don't have you packing your bags to Kerala immediately, nothing will! Except, perhaps, our eighth reason, which is the latest collection of online holiday deals from TUI. TUI has a number of resorts in Kerala, which can be reached direct from London Heathrow or London Gatwick. You can also find out more about the weather in Kerala, and see when we think is the best time to go to try these exciting activities for yourself.

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Lottie Gross

Lottie Gross

Article updated on Wednesday 15th November 2017 in: Adventure Asia Culture Excursions TUI

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