India's southern tip: It's a different country altogether

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Room Keys: Kerala Hotels

The Taj Malabar

Location: Willingdon Island, Cochin

Phone: (011) 91-484 266-6811

Reservations: (800) UTELL

E-mail:[email protected]

Rooms: 97, many with water views; two deluxe suites; seven executive suites in the Tower Wing

Rates: $215 to $425



Hotel Bolgatty Palace

Location: Bolgatty Island, Cochin, in Ernakulam harbor

Phone: (011) 91-484 275-0003

Fax: (011) 91-484 275-0456

E-mail:[email protected]

Rates (through Feb. 2006): $80.25 for lakefront cottage, $168 for palace suite.

India is many separate countries. When Americans take their first trip there, they almost invariably want to see the Taj Mahal, the palaces of Rajasthan and the great spiritual center of Varanasi.

But the far south of India, shared by the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, is another land entirely, popular as a destination among Europeans but almost unknown to Americans.

Tamil Nadu is still recovering from last Decembers tsunami, but Kerala was untouched. The land rises from coconut palm-fringed beaches along the Malabar Coast on the Arabian Sea to the heights of lush tea and spice plantations. The climate is warm and pleasant from December through February but extremely hot the rest of the year.

Kerala is probably the most accommodating place in all of India for Western tourists, who never fail to be amazed at the preponderance of English signage.

Many Keralans understand English very well, but they themselves may be difficult to understand. The local language is Malayalam, which sounded to me as though its all one word. The written language also appears to be all one word and looks something like an explosion in a noodle shop.  

Kerala has the distinction of having one of the worlds highest literacy rates and one of the worlds first democratically elected communist governments. Red hammer and sickle flags flutter everywhere, but not to worry. The ambience is blatantly capitalist.

Gigantic billboards promote what are apparently the citizens three greatest desires: gold, diamonds and financial planning. This is the most prosperous state in India, and while there certainly is poverty, it is not of the nature seen in Delhi or Calcutta. Every other little open-fronted shop seems to have an Internet sign, enabling you to spend an hour on a computer for less than one U.S. dollar. 

You can fly nonstop from Delhi or Mumbai (Bombay) to Kochi (Cochin). (The new names are correct, but in India youll see them used interchangeably.) The airport is about 12 miles from Ernakulam, the busy commercial part of Kochi on the mainland. Almost all the historical sites are in Fort Cochin (still called Cochin) and Mattancherry on the southern peninsula, a more tranquil area than Ernakulam.

Two luxury hotels on islands in Ernakulams harbor are the Taj Malabar on Willingdon Island and the Bolgatty Palace on Bolgatty Island. With one of the worlds best natural harbors, Ernakulam is slated to become a major port for the shipment of oil.

Fort Cochin

St. Francis Church, built by Portuguese Franciscan friars in 1503, holds explorer Vasco da Gamas tomb, although da Gamas body was removed and brought to Portugal 14 years later. Its now an Anglican church, with services in English at 8 a.m. Also, Santa Cruz Basilica and the Indo-Portuguese Museum preserve the heritage of one of Indias earliest Catholic communities.

Kathakali, a classical dance drama of Kerala, is performed by artists in elaborate makeup and costume. Kathakali dancing, which has nothing to do with Catholicism or Christianity, is performed in community centers, theaters and sometimes at hotels. The dance, set to thundering music, is about ancient legends and pagan gods and goddesses.

In Fort Cochin, you can watch a traditional Kathakali dance-drama performed by elaborately made up and costumed artists. Get to a performance an hour before it starts to watch the actors put on their spectacular makeup on stage. 

Mattancherry

The 16th-century Jewish quarter in Mattancherry, with its synagogue built in 1568, is famous for its blue-and-white Chinese tile floor and a ceiling bedecked with chandeliers donated from all over the world. The area around it is the center of the Kochi spice trade.

The Mattancherry Palace (also known as the Dutch Palace), built in 1555 by the Portuguese, is adorned with spectacular murals depicting scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabhrata.   

From Kochi, a tour should include Munnar, a hill station amid a seemingly endless expanse of tea plantations. It was the favorite summer resort of European settlers for centuries. Three rivers meet in the heart of the town, and nearby is the highest mountain peak in south India.

The next destination should be Threkkady, one of Indias major wildlife areas, to see the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, home to tigers, leopards, elephants and 323 species of birds. The animals can be viewed from boats on the man-made lake, which the wildlife areas encircle. Get there early in the morning if you want to see the animals. 

Near the small town of Kumarakam, clients board a private houseboat for a serene journey into the scenic backwaters of Kerala, a network of rivers and canals flowing to the Arabian Sea. 

The houseboats, vaguely Indonesian in style, are constructed of wood and reeds on the pattern of old rice barges, but they all have private bedrooms, bathrooms, outdoor dining and lounging areas, plus their own captains and cooks.

Passengers can get off the boat whenever there is something interesting to see on shore.

Backwater trips are a high point of any visit to Kerala and should not be missed. The boat trip ends at Alappuzha, which is usually referred to as Aleppy.

After that, its time for any of the beautiful beaches along the coast of the Arabian Sea. Kovalam is an especially appealing one, with miles of silvery sand bordered by coconut palms.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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