Stepping from the airport into the already dense morning heat of Cochin, the capital of Kerala, my better half, Tony, and I were greeted by Jithin, our smiley representative from the Kerala Travel Centre. He grabbed our bags and ushered us through the throngs to our awaiting car. After loading our bags into the boot, he presented us with two exquisite-smelling jasmine leis. Popping the cool blossoms around our necks, we entered the air-conditioning of our white Renault, complete with immaculate white cotton seat covers and bottles of chilled drinking water at the ready. Our driver greeted us with a broad grin and the customary head wiggle. His name was Joy – and what a joy he was. He told us he was to be our driver for the next eight days as we toured the sites and delights of Kerala, known as ‘God’s own country’.
We were welcomed at our first hotel, the colonial-style Old Lighthouse Hotel, Bristow, with a complimentary Ayurvedic foot massage, which melted away all the stress and chaos of the 20 hours we had just spent in transit following a busy Christmas in Australia with my family. We slept the day away, heavy with jet lag.
Our first activity in Cochin was a private sunset boat cruise. We marveled at colourful fishing boats loaded with bronzed bustling fisherman, who all waved and smiled at us. The sky was filled with cormerants, egrets and eagles, skimming the waters, hunting for their catch. But the most impressive sight was that of a huge gold sovereign of a Sun hovering behind the cavernous swathes of silhouetted Chinese fishing nets.
The following morning we greeted our local guide Salwin for a tour of Cochin’s old town. We took in the fresh fish markets lining the port at Fort Kochi, the catholic St Francis Church – the oldest church built by Europeans in India, The 17th century Dutch Palace and the 15th century Jewish Synagogue, which is still in use today by Cochin’s tiny Jewish population of just nine people. Salwin pointed out tamarind and mango trees and the Banyan tree, which he said is often used for meditating under as it has a powerful and positive energy field.
After our tour, we ambled through ‘Jew Town’, poking our heads into its antique and spice shops, before we spotted the sari shop. I came away with a bright fuchsia sari, and I couldn’t wait to wrap myself up in it for New Year’s Eve.
That evening we attended a traditional Kathakali Dance Show. Largely based on facial expressions and hand gestures, the make-up was the most exciting part.
Time for tea
On day three, we embarked on the four-hour drive past sparkling waterfalls into the undulating tea hills of Munnar. We booked into our cottage at the Ambady Estate, 1600 meters above sea level and set amidst its very own cardamom plantation. As we began to unpack, a heavy rain set in, so we settled into our deck chairs on the verandah to take in the sweeping vistas. That evening, after a delicious room service of homemade local curries, we fell asleep to the sound of the rain.
The following day, we visited the Tata tea museum, where we were treated to a demonstration of the entire tea-making process. The Tata tea plantation is home to a thriving community of workers and their families. All their accommodation, education and medical facilities are provided for and the company has an ecological ethos, whereby most of the byproducts from the tea-making process are put into making other handy goods, such as paper products, packaging, fabrics and clothing.
Helping the wider community is part of the local ethos. One of the most inspiring places we visited within the grounds was Aranya, a vocational centre for handicapped youths. The ‘differently abled’ youngsters at Aranya learn to use leaves, roots, barks, seeds, sawdust and tea waste to dye yarns and fabrics and we bought some of their beautiful handmade silk scarves as gifts for our friends in the UK.
We headed back to Ambady Estate for a sundown hike through the Lord of the Rings-esque cardamom plantation. But the magic was soon shattered when Tony discovered he had a leech.
That evening was New Year’s Eve and, despite the fact that our evening meal was held in a small shack on top of a hill, I resolved to don my sari, bangles and bindi to celebrate the start of 2012 in style. It soon became abundantly clear that I was more than a little overdressed when the handful of other tourists staying at the estate, all paused mid-mouthful to stare as I entered the small dining room. I took it in my stride and Tony and I were soon tucking into a delicious buffet of traditional Keralan delicacies and a bottle of red wine. Full and sleepy, we strolled back to our cottage and accidentally fell fast asleep long before midnight.
On New Year’s Day morning, I opened my eyes to find that a huge butterfly was flittering vibrantly about the high-domed ceiling above our bed. I wondered silently if this a sign of good things to come this year…[callout title=The health benefits of Indian spices] Allspice – A fragrant, spicy, and warming herb that smells of cloves and contains antiseptic and anaesthetic properties as well as encouraging digestion and stimulating the nervous system. Allspice comes from a tree and the leaves, berries and oil can all be used in cooking and medicines.
Bay Leaf – This spicy and bitter herb improves digestion and can be used as
a local antiseptic, as well as adding flavour to various curries and stews.
Cardamom – The cardamom plant looks like a low-lying palm tree and the actual cardamom pods sprout from the base in clusters on thick pointed stems. Cardamom is used internally for indigestion, nausea, vomiting and phlegm. It can be used with a laxative to prevent stomach pain and flatulence. The seeds are also chewed to sweeten the breath and taken to detoxify caffeine in people who drink large amounts of coffee.
Chilli – Packed with vitamins A, B and C, when eaten, this fiery little fruit makes the brain release endorphins, a natural painkiller present in the body. The endorphin can lower blood pressure and help to fight cancer. Chilli is also a powerful antibacterial, which can help fight sore throats, laryngitis, colds and flu. It can also help treat insomnia, arthritis and control blood pressure.
Cinnamon – This fragrant, sweet and deeply coloured spice comes from the bark of a tree and can be bought from the shops as sticks or powder. Cinnamon stimulates the circulation, relieves spasms, and helps to control high blood pressure, bleeding and indigestion. Cinnamon can also be used to treat colds and flu, digestive problems, arthritis and is a common ingredient in organic toothpastes.
Cloves – These small dried flower buds are a spicy, warming herb that relieve pain, control nausea and vomiting, improve digestion, protect against internal parasites, cause uterine contractions and are strongly antiseptic. They can also be chewed to soothe toothache.
Coconut – Green or tender coconut is great for digestion and treating dehydration as it contains 95% water and lauric acid, a type of fat found in human breast milk, which is easily absorbed by the human body and used instantly as energy. Coconut oil is antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial.
Coffee – Stimulating and refreshing, the caffeine in this potent little berry not only stimulates the central nervous system, helping to improve brain function and increase strength and stamina, but it’s also a disinfectant.
Ginger – Ginger helps to increase perspiration, improve digestion and liver function, control nausea, vomiting and coughing. It stimulates circulation, relaxes spasms and relieves pain.
Lemongrass – This zesty grass can treat problems with the digestive system and is also useful for relieving muscle spasms.
It has a positive effect on nervous conditions and gives you a gentle boost when you’re feeling rundown.
Nutmeg – A little-known fact about this round aromatic tree-growing fruit is that – although medicinal in small doses and great for treating insomnia, digestive disorders, toothache and eczema – it is also used to make mace and if you eat four whole nutmegs, you can die of poisoning.
Pepper – It has tremendous anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties. Pepper improves digestion, kills worms, and is used to treat coughs, colds, sinusitis, heart problems, colic, diabetes, anaemia, and piles.[/callout]
On the spice trail
Another four-hour drive took us to Periyar and we were delighted to find we’d been upgraded to the honeymoon cottage, complete with rainforest shower, at Shalimar Spice Garden. We checked in and spent a gentle few hours swinging in a hammock. That afternoon we enjoyed a private tour of the nearby spice plantation, where we learnt all about how the local spices are grown and their various health properties.
We awoke at 6am the following morning to prepare for a three-hour jungle trek. There were six of us in our group and we were told to wear long trousers and proper shoes with our socks pulled over the tops of our trousers – this was to protect us from the leeches. Our guide Benny then coated our shoes in a sort of powdered leech repellent – we thought this must be overkill until we reached the jungle floor and realised that it is alive with the little black bloodsuckers. We each decided carry a stick to knock off any of the pesky critters that attempted to hitch a ride.
Our first sighting on entering the jungle was a pile of black bear poo, which made us all a little nervous, until Benny assured us that the animal would be long gone by now. As we headed further in, it was Tony who made the first sighting: “Elephants!” he nudged me excitedly, and our guide hushed us all as we watched a mother elephant and her calf pass above us on the hill to our right and disappear into the trees beyond. It was the most incredible sight to see such majestic animals in their wild habitat less than 10 minutes into our trek.
Over the next few hours, it was as though the jungle had come alive just for us – we spied Langur monkeys and we almost came face to face with a whole herd of wild deer, who seemed even more inquisitive of us as we were of them! We also spotted wild giant squirrels, smaller grey squirrels, hornbill birds, serpent eagles and huge beehives in the trees. And we were followed by the sound of the woodpeckers at every turn. We sheltered in the gentle gnarled laps of Banyan trees, marvelled at the height of the mighty red cotton tree, let Mimosa plants curl at the touch our fingertips and drank in the aroma of wild lemon.
Giddy with the fresh air and wild delights of the forest, we ended the day with an elephant ride through the spice plantation. It made me sad to think that just a few kilometres away, wild elephants were roaming free, but when I saw the love and respect the people had for their working elephants, I was somewhat comforted. Afterwards, I treated our elephant to a fruit feast to say thanks.
We headed back to Shalimar Spice Garden, where I had a relaxing Ayurvedic Ksheera Dhaara treatment. During this treatment, which is similar to the well-known Shirodara oil therapy, cool medicated milk is poured in a rhythmic continuous flow over the patient’s third eye to help ease stress and anxiety. Afterwards, I floated back to my room.
Backwaters and beach-side bliss
The second-last day of our tour was spent aboard a beautiful converted rice barge, or houseboat, called a Kettuvallom. Decked out in colonial-style furniture, such as chaise longues, and boasting an otherwordly charm, these barges are the perfect way to cruise the picturesque backwaters of Kerala in style. We spent a lazy afternoon aboard the boat, taking in life along the riverbanks as the locals tended to their bathing and laundry, giving us a hearty wave and a smile as we passed by. After a brief expedition in a canoe to visit some of the smaller waterways, that night we moored up on the banks and sipped wine as we watched the Sun set and the stars ignite above us.
Our final day and night was dedicated to totally unwinding at the Marari Beach Resort. A CGH Earth resort, your entire experience here is dedicated to respect for nature – from the indoor / outdoor bathrooms and the organic restaurants sustained by the resort’s very own vegetable garden to the Ayurveda wellness centre and butterfly sanctuary. A typical day starts with yoga or meditation, followed by a visit to the butterfly sanctuary, a wander around the local village to buy handmade crafts, and then a relaxing Ayurvedic treatment before a dinner of fresh local seafood. We chose to spend the majority of our time swinging between the palm trees in a hammock and strolling on the pristine white sand beach. We were in heaven.
Despite the diversity of religions and cultures prevalent in Kerala, the overall focus on the importance of looking after the environment is astounding. We saw billboards along the roadside, saying: ‘Global warming: trees are the answer’, and at Marari Beach resort, there was a big sign that read: ‘The nature of our future depends on the future of our nature.’ Those of us in the West could certainly learn a thing or two from this kind of Eastern philosophy. One thing’s for sure, from tea to treatments, spices to scenery, Kerala has it all. Any wonder they call it ‘God’s own country’.
Kerala Fact Box:
About the Kerala Travel Centre
Kerala Travel Centre is the UK’s leading specialist tour operator to Kerala and offers a large selection of tailor-made tours to the region. Besides being headquartered in the UK, the company has offices in Kerala thus being able to provide clients with holiday security, in-depth regional expertise and excellent customer service. Kerala Travel Centre’s 200 page dedicated Kerala brochure offers extensive information about the region, a large selection of tours in different categories and more than 80 hotels.
Hotels and Prices
Kerala Travel Centre offers a large selection of hotels in different categories ranging from comfortable home stays, boutique hotels and exotic, eco friendly resorts. Average prices start from £60.00 per night.
Flight prices range between £450.00 to £550.00 per person for flights from the UK
For more information: www.keralatravelcentre.co.uk
by Prediction Magazine Editor Alexandra Wenman