The backwaters of Kerala are what have given it the sobriquet "God's Own Country". As you meander through these on a houseboat you drift into a timeless land replete with picture-postcard towns and ancient trading posts. The huge coconut trees provide an apt backdrop and perhaps you can even eavesdrop on the strains of an oarsman's song.
A network of lakes, rivers and canals fringe the coast of Kerala . These backwaters, while a great inland thoroughfare on water, offer an alternative lifestyle. The criss-crossed, palm-fringed lakes traversed with Chinese fishing nets are very popular cruises, especially between Kollam and Allappuzha. The backwaters have become important attractions though they are threatened by population growth and industrial development. Of the 29 major lakes on the backwaters, seven drain into the sea. Stretched over a total expanse of 1500 kms, the backwaters have a network of 44 rivers, lagoons and lakes from north to south.
A great way to explore the hinterland is to go through the villages. A guide takes a group of people through the villages on an open boat or covered kettuvellum. The tour lasts from two to six hours. It's a fascinating experience to wander from village to village, learn how the village economy runs, and watch coir making, boat building, toddy tapping and fish farming. Some of the best village tours operate out of Kochi , Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. On the backwaters you have the major towns Allapuzha and Varkala and Quilon.
Quilon is nestled among cashew plantations and red-roofed wooden house set among winding streets. It has Portuguese and Dutch and English influences. The boat cruise here consists of passing through the cashew processing factories. There are lots of birds to watch out for - Brahminy kites, egrets, kingfishers, and bee-eaters. You can tickle your taste buds with some sumptuous seafood. Prawn farming, fish catching, copra drying and matchstick making are the main occupations here. After the cruise you can get off at the Government Guest house at Ashtamudi center by the water's edge. There are large Chinese pickle jars, old lithographs of British times, old willow pattern plates that give you feel of its past. Matha Restaurant near the jetty is really cheap and serves up spiced chicken to the local laborers. Jala Subhiksha is Kollam's floating restaurant. The KTDC Yatri Niwas is a great riverside hotel with a pleasant water front lawn. Palm Lagoon is an idyllic resort offering cottages on the shores of Ashtamudi Lake . There are more backwater tours and ayurvedic massages.
Kollam is well serviced by road and rail. Seats in express buses must be reserved in advance, otherwise seats are a problem. Super express Services take11/2 hours to Thiruvanathapuram and a littl e longer to Allapuzha. The Trivandrum Mail from Chennai goes through Kollam as does the Mumbai to Kanyakumari Express and the Mangalore to Thiruvannathapuram coastal service. For a wonderfully relaxing trip across the Western Ghats , take the Quilon Express.
The Allapuzha area is a place that coaxes you to let your hair down. The canals here form a web that serves the coir industry. There is nothing much here by way of sightseeing, but if you plan your trip around the second Saturday of August each year, you'll be in time for the Nehru Cup snakeboat race, an adrenaline-pumping local event. Low slung chundan vellams or snake boats are decorated and it is rowed by up to 100 people. Allapuzha is known for its lazy cruises where you can float looking at the palm trees reflected in the green cool waters.
The other major place here that you must visit is Kottayam, focus for the Syrian Christians of India, and also the heart of rubber production. Kottayam's backwater cruise is shorter than Allapuzha's. There are elegant Syrian Christian churches that date back to antiquity - some are more than 500 years old. The Kumarakom bird sanctuary on Vembanad Lake is 16km west of Kottayam in a rubber plantation of yore. Waterfowl and other species can be spotted as they flutter about here. Several luxury resorts have opened here. The Coconut Lagoon resort is really beautiful and scenic. The 50-cottage Kumarakom Lake Resort, exquisitely landscaped with 20-foot wide lotus filled canals, has recently been classified under the Heritage category. The luxury Taj resort and the Kumarakom Tourist Village are extremely popular with the western jet set including Hollywood actors. Buses run regularly from Kottayam to Kumarakom.
As you take a cruise do make it a point to go to Changanacherry and from there to Aranmula near Kottayam. You can enroll at the art village, Vijnana kala Vedi center, to learn woodcarving, dance, martial arts like Kalaraipayattu, and traditional medicine. You can fashion your own course though one month's training is preferred. You can take in an authentic all-night Kathakali performance at Thiruvalla. There are daily cruises from the Alleppey Tourist Development Corporation on alternate days. Many hotels in Komala Road Allapuzha book these. Cruises some of them by private operators start at 10.30 a.m. and reach by 6.30 p.m. The two stops are a midday lunch stop and a brief tea stop at Ayirmthengu or the coir village a mandatory stop.
Boats also drop you off at the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission at Amrithapuri, the headquarters of Amritanandamayi Ma, the female mystic. Some opt to stay here. The Kumarakody temple is also en route as is the Karumadi Kuttan Buddha image on the bank of the canal.
The cruise between Alappuzha and Kottayam is short at 41/2 hours. You can step off to sample some toddy, potter among the snake boats and visit an old church in Pulicunnu. Raiban Shopping Complex at the Boat Jetty Road.
The locals prefer to use public ferries that are cheap and crowded. The trip to Kottayam crosses Vembanad Lake and a green canal. Changanassery is on the road -rail line and Changannassery is on the road. The DTPC also runs a popular four-hour cruise, which departs from Allapuzha at 10 am and returns at 2 pm. Many people prefer this shorter trip to a full day on a boat. It also navigates some of the narrower waterways.
For the best experience there is no option but to try out the more expensive option--- hiring a kettuvellam or traditional rice barge. There are houseboats if you've booked a group tour. Houseboats cater to couples as well with double bedrooms. Overnight stays allow you to make the Kollam-Alappuzha in two days. It moors in the backwaters overnight. Optionally, Malayali food can be cooked for you at a small extra cost.
The DTPC also hires out four-seat speedboats and slower six seaters. This allows you to plan your own itenary, stopping wherever you want. Penguin Tourist Boat Service on Boat Road Jetty has a long list of suggested backwater trips from Alappuzha.