Some of my earliest memories of family vacations from Trivandrum (officially Thiruvananthapuram) involve Kovalam. I fondly remember the short yet seemingly never-ending drive zigzagging along twisty roads, the gradual descent between palm groves, the salty tang in the air, and the sudden expanse of beach, with the sea stretching off into the yonder.
At the time, Kovalam was little more than a fishing village, with few visitors and fewer buildings on its three main beaches—the Ashok or Grove beach, Hawah or Eve’s beach, and the southernmost Lighthouse beach. Today, it’s a small town, the beaches lined by rows of shops, restaurants, and hotels. Kovalam’s beaches and its warm, shallow waters ideal for swimming are its biggest draw, which is why it can get pretty crowded with visitors on weekends and holidays. But there are also other ways to explore this laid-back town.
To get a fix on Kovalam’s topography, visit the observation deck of the candy-striped lighthouse at the southern end of Lighthouse beach. It’s an approximately 157-step barefoot climb (footwear is not allowed), including a final stretch up an almost vertical metal ladder, to the deck. You’ll probably arrive breathless but the view is worth the effort. And if you go up as soon as the lighthouse opens for the day, there’s a good chance you’ll have the deck to yourself for a few minutes (daily 10 a.m.-12.30 p.m. and 2-5 p.m.; tickets ₹3 to ₹25; camera passes ₹20 and ₹25).
Kovalam has a small, but growing surfing scene thanks to the Kovalam Surf Club, which opened in 2005. The club offers surfing lessons to people with varying levels of expertise. The only requirement is that learners have some basic swimming skills, says Mani Sreekumar, the club’s director. Classes run through the year, except during the monsoon months (June to August). The club also has a shop that sells and rents out surfing gear. And the club’s profits go to Sebastian Indian Social Projects, a non-profit that supports women’s empowerment and education programmes for school dropouts in the area (kovalamsurfclub.com; classes ₹1,000 for 1.5 hours).
For the mildly adventurous, there are snorkelling expeditions that go out on a catamaran, and speedboat rides (from ₹3,000 for 2.5 hours and ₹300/person respectively). The speedboats usually head a few kilometres out to sea and zip along the coast, providing a view of Kovalam and its adjoining beaches. Kovalam’s best snorkelling spots are off the rocky headlands that separate its main beaches, but the sea can get rough in the monsoon. Go snorkelling from December to March. The region’s marine life includes parrot fish, angel fish, groupers, and moray eels. It’s best to organise this through your hotel or at the beach. In May 2015, the Kerala Adventure Tourism Promotion Society launched scuba diving in Kovalam (₹3,000/person for 30 minutes and ₹1,500/person for 15 minutes; 471-2320777/ 94460 74020). Sessions include 30 minutes of familiarisation in a pool.
End the day the Kovalam way, with a sundowner (now mostly non-alcoholic due to Kerala’s new liquor laws) and a meal at one of the restaurants on Hawah and Lighthouse beaches. Traditional food is almost always tempered to suit foreign palates. For the real deal, have a meal at the multicuisine Hotel Sea Face. The beef fry and meen pollichathu (fish roasted in banana leaf) are both very good. Lighthouse beach has many options, ranging from Lonely Planet, which has a vegetarian menu, to Beatles and Malabar Café. My favourite is German Bakery, which has an eclectic menu and a terrace with a view. Dinner at hotels like Vivanta by Taj-Green Cove or The Leela Kovalam comes with distinctive views of Thiruvananthapuram’s coastline and fishing vessels twinkling like a thousand fireflies on the sea.
Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “Kovalam’s Small Joys”. This story has been updated in November 2017.
Kovalam is 16 km/35 minutes south of Trivandrum, which is also where the closest airport and major railway station are located. It is 212 km/5.5 hours south of Kochi, via Trivandrum.