Munroe Island, in the Ashtamudi Lake, is Kerala at its bucolic best. Only about two hours from Trivandrum, the island affords calm of the highest quality. Boat rides along its criss-crossing canals give visitors glimpses of locals weaving coir and tapping toddy. The octopus-shaped water body (Ashta-mudi means eight-armed in Malayalam) has several mangrove species (two are endangered), and supports 57 species of migratory and resident birds such as cormorants, terns, herons, and plovers—enough to keep birdwatchers engrossed.
Getting There Munroe Island is near Kollam city, and is accessible by road. It is an 80 km/2.15-hr drive from Trivandrum International Airport and Thiruvananthapuram Central railway station.
Cochin (Kochi) has tremendous history as a trading port, evidence of which is strewn across the city: St. Francis Church (the first European church in India), Portuguese houses, and the iconic Chinese nets by the beach at Fort Kochi. Tuck into delicious sandwiches and omelettes with mugs of iced coffee at hangouts like the eclectic Kashi Art Café, which tends to draw a creative crowd. In the Fort Kochi area, bliss out at hotels like the upscale and stylish Malabar House, where rooms have four-poster beds and Tanjore paintings; or historical Walton’s Homestay, where travellers snooze in planter’s chairs. For a much more affordable but comfortable option, try the Maritime Hostel.
Getting There Kochi has its own airport and two major railway stations: Ernakulam Town and Ernakulam Junction.
Kerala’s northernmost district, Kasargod is home to pristine beaches, temples and forts. The town of Kasargod is an ideal base from which to explore the area. Don’t miss the huge Bekal Fort, which takes a couple of hours to walk across. It has a water tank, tunnels, an observatory, and well manicured lawns. Cool off from your saunter around the fort with a swim in the ocean at the beach next door and don’t leave without paying your respects to the 9th-century Ananthapura Lake Temple. For hiking suggestions, and more forts and beaches to explore, use our guide to Kasargod.
Getting There Kasargod is approx. 59km/1.5hr from Mangaluru International Airport, the closest airport; it has its own railway station.
The city of Calicut (Kozhikode) is a haven for foodies. Whether it’s beef fry, Malabari biryani, or platefuls of steaming appams and stew, Calicut’s eateries provide all the sustenance you need. Most of them have a no-frills approach, but that’s only because the food is the star. Calicut was once a thriving trading post for spices, but today it is just as much a pit stop for travellers heading on to Wayanad. Between meals, people-watch on walks around the city, or take a long stroll on the beach. To read more about the city’s food, see our guide.
Getting There Calicut has its own airport and railway station.
For a beach break, head to sandy Kovalam. The town was once little more than a fishing village, but today, its waterfront is lined with rows of shops, restaurants, and hotels. For panoramic ocean views, climb the 157-odd steps to the observation deck of the candy-striped lighthouse at the southern end of Lighthouse Beach. Those looking for more of an adrenaline rush, book a surfing lesson at the Kovalam Surf Club or go scuba diving. Geek alert: the first headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) are at Thumba, a 40-min drive away (read more here). Time your visit right, and you could view the launch of a sounding rocket, which takes place on the third Wednesday of every month. For where to eat while you’re in Kovalam, go here.
Getting There Kovalam is approx. 14km/30min from Trivandrum International Airport, the closest airport, and approx. 13km/30min from Thiruvananthapuram Central railway station.
There are many reasons to visit Kannur—it’s a gateway to Portuguese forts, ancient temples and the biryani and bakeries of Thalaserry—but the most compelling reason is to catch a theyyam performance. The ritual theatre-dance originated in the region, and continues to awe audiences. It’s quite an experience to witness it first-hand. As this traveller writes, performers often “go into trances and transform themselves into forest and ancestor spirits, mythical heroes and flamboyant toddy-consuming gods who leap through fire, roll on burning coal, and accept blood sacrifices of live chickens.” Read her entire story here.
Getting There Kannur is approx. 115km/3hr20min from Calicut International Airport, the closest airport; it has its own railway station.
Varkala beckons with sandy shores, surf lessons, and bright blue waters. While most of the locals live around the city centre, it’s the town’s North and South Cliffs that are more traveller-friendly. Cafes and stalls selling leather goods, silver jewellery, and colourful clothes, line the North Cliff. Watch the sunset from up here, as you cool off with a glass of cold coffee. To put your toes in the sand, make your way down the cliff to Papanasam Beach. Walking across the beach is the quickest way to get to the relatively quieter South Cliff, home to surf school and yoga retreat Soul and Surf. There are numerous accommodation options; a good budget one is the Vedanta Wake Up! hostel.
Getting There Varkala is approx. 48km/1hr20min from Trivandrum International Airport; it has its own railway station.
To see how your everyday cup of tea is made, visit Munnar. The tea plantations, set up by the British in the 1800s, cover the hillsides across the town. Get a quick introduction to the tea-making process at a tea factory. Better yet, pluck your own leaves straight from the tree. Properties like the Talayar Valley Bungalow, located 20km/40min away from the town, offer such experiences. Others, like Kaivalyam Retreat, have rooms that look out onto spice plantations. If you’re lucky, you might see the rare Nilgiri tahr on a visit to the Eravikulam National Park. For extra bragging rights, visit Kolukkumalai, the highest tea plantation in the world, around 38km out of town; it’s more easily accessible from Kerala although it lies across the border in Tamil Nadu.
Getting There Munnar is approx. 107km/3hr from Cochin International Airport, and approx. 108km/3hr10min from Aluva railway station.
Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary is open year-round, and only an hour’s drive away from Trivandrum. It’s home to the rare Nilgiri tahr (there are only around 2,000 left in the wild) and is one of Kerala’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries. The sanctuary is part of the 3,500-sqkm Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apart from the tahr, visitors may also spot bonnet macaques, Nilgiri langurs, endangered lion-tailed macaques, gaur, elephants, tigers, and the occasional leopard. November to March is the most pleasant time to visit. For a more detailed guide, go here.
Getting There Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary is about 30km/1hr from Trivandrum International Airport, and about 20km/1hr from Neyyittinkara railway station.
Go on walking trails in the footsteps of the majestic tiger when you visit Periyar Tiger Reserve. The town of Thekkady is the gateway to the reserve, and is heavy with the smell of cardamom, thanks to the spice plantations all around. Periyar offers a more immersive experience than other sanctuaries—visitors can also raft and even camp in the forest. Tiger sightings are relatively rare, but it’s thrilling enough to just accompany the forest guards on their night patrol. Also spot tiny tiger butterflies or captivating lion-tailed macaques on guided walks in the forest. For a more detailed guide, go here.
Getting There Periyar Tiger Reserve is approx. 158km/4hr15min from Cochin International Airport, and 102km/3hr from Kottayam railway station.
To luxuriate in a houseboat on Kerala’s famous backwaters, visit Alleppey (Alappuzha). Located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake, Kerala’s largest, Alleppey has numerous private operators who offer serene rides. For those who don’t want to live on a boat, there are shorter, four-hour-long rides in boats that gently glide along the water. Silhouetted by arched coconut trees, the silence is only broken by bird calls and the slap of the oar against the water. Halt at lakeside stalls for delicious fish fry and prawn curries—generally made from the freshest catch. The sleepy town gets festive when it’s boat-racing season; check to see if there are any scheduled for when you’re visiting.
Getting There Alleppey is approx. 83km/2hr10min from Cochin International Airport; it has its own railway station.
Wayanad, a district in northern Kerala, is made up of mountains of the Western Ghats and contains the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary, which also spills over into Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is important elephant territory. For an active break, hike up Chembra, one of the highest peaks in the district; it’s a trek that’s kid-friendly too. The entire region is lush with rows and rows of tea and coffee plantations, tall bamboo trees, rice paddy fields, and skinny betel nut trees. The eco-friendly Banasura Hill Resort serves as a great base from which to take in the area.
Getting There Wayanad is approx. 98km/2hr50min from Calicut International Airport, and approx. 88km/2hr50min from Kozhikode Railway Station.
Kerala’s capital city Trivandrum (officially Thiruvananthapuram) has all the state’s charms—food, temples, kathakali performances—with the added benefit of urban comforts. Get your fill of appams and mutton stew at local eateries, before you venture on to explore the city’s heritage. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple—possibly the world’s wealthiest religious institution—beckons travellers with its majestic expanse. The temple’s vaults are said to hold antiques, gems, and gold worth $20 billion. For more riches, visit museums like Napier Museum, which holds archaeological artefacts; the Sree Chitra Art Gallery for paintings by Raja Ravi Varma and Nicholas and Svetoslav Roerich; or catch a kathakali performance at Margi, a cultural organisation that promotes Kerala’s classical performing art forms. For a more detailed guide, go here.
Getting There Trivandrum has its own airport and railway station.
Check into Soma Kerala Palace for a quiet, luxurious break. Sprawled across a tiny island off the coast of Chempu village, about 40 km away from Kochi, the property comprises traditional cottages that represent different schools of Kerala architecture. Turn the focus inwards with soothing Ayurvedic treatments at their spa. At meal time, head to the restaurant for the local food. Don’t miss the karimeen preparation: roasted pearl spot that’s wrapped in banana leaves. More here.
Getting There Soma Kerala Palace is approx. 48km/1hr30min from Cochin International Airport, and 26km/1hr from Ernakulam Junction (South) railway station.
The seaside village of Mararikulam, about an hour’s drive south of Kochi, is home to a secluded beach, and properties like Marari Villas. Marari has two inland villas, which are perfect for couples and only a few minutes’ walk from the beach. But there are larger ones as well, smack on the beach. Spend your days taking dips in the ocean, snacking on plates of fried prawns, and sipping tall glasses of chilled coconut water. The property can also help plan excursions to villages in the area, boat rides along the backwaters, and even day trips to Kochi. More here.
Getting There Mararikulam is approx.72km/2hr from Cochin International Airport and 48km/1hr10min from Ernakulam Junction (South) railway station.
If you can’t make up your mind about one destination to visit, consider a road trip to see them all. Over two weeks, get your fill of the Syrian Christian, Muslim Mappila, and Hindu cuisines in Calicut, take a cooking class in Thalassery, visit the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve that borders Tamil Nadu, and cool off by the ocean in Varkala. For a day-by-day itinerary, and more details, go here.
This story has been updated in November 2017.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.