Drifting down the backwaters of Alleppey, on a charming, often luxurious, houseboat, remains the quintessential Kerala experience. But if you are looking for something more offbeat, more Indiana Jonesesque, then pack for the narrow lagoons of Munroe Island. A cluster of eight tiny islets interconnected by a web of narrow canals in the forested backwaters of Ashtamudi Lake, Munroe Island, to some extent, evokes scenes from the Sunderbans, as brought to life in the pages of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. There are of course no man-eating tigers here, only waterways flanked by coconut and pepper plantations, prawn farms, cheerfully painted homes, each with a little boat parked outside, and the few odd pan-beedi shops.
There are a few roads and bridges connecting some villages but most of Munroe is still navigable only by boat, creating an experience far more intimate as compared to the more touristy Alleppey with its wider canals and large, motorised boats. In Munroe, on the other hand, somewhere between gliding along channels shaded by thick mangroves and palms, barely wide enough for two barges to pass, tuning into the calls of the Malabar trogon, trying to spot water snakes stir beneath jalebi-like ripples, you get the feel of the famed Kerala backwaters—minus the commercialised chaos.
How to go:
Munroe is 79 km/ 2 hr drive, and a short boat ride from Thiruvananthapuram. Board at Perumon ferry point, about 12 km from Kollam, the nearest town.
Houseboat cruises along Kerala’s palm-frocked, mirror-like backwaters hold an iconic status among travellers. While the backwaters of Alleppey (Alappuzha) in South Kerala has been the much-loved poster boy, nobody likes a dreamy afternoon interrupted by honking boats. What the Valiyaparamba backwaters of Kasargod in North Kerala instead offers is unperturbed vistas and a traffic-free ride.
Hop aboard Bekal Ripples, the region’s premium houseboat, and snake through the sleepy backwaters past islands of coconut trees while gorging on delicious Moplah cuisine. The rich heritage of the Mappila Muslim community translates on plate as spice-rich dishes such as mand and alissa, and desserts like kalathappam and ada. An overnight cruise also presents the opportunity to be docked in the middle of the water, unlike in Alleppey where boats come closer to the shore. This part of Kerala is widely renowned for its mussels and oyster preparations, whose farming can be seen first-hand.
Beyond its meditative waters, immerse yourself in the unique culture of the Malabar region, none more alluring than a ritualistic Theyyam performance, a mélange of dance, music, and mime. In the vicinity lies the colossal Bekal Fort, whose unique location—towering over the Arabian Sea and surrounded by a spotless beach—makes for clutter-free photo ops.
How to go:
Kasargod is best accessed via Mangalore, connected by train and flight to major Indian cities. Cabs (52 km/1.5 hr) can be hired from both stops. Options of stay are in plenty, with Taj Bekal Resort Neeleshwar Hermitage offering unbridled luxury. Tyndis Heritage, a boutique travel operator, is among the many that can curate a trip of this character to this idyllic location.
When it comes to water-based adventure activities, Dandeli in the Western Ghats is like a mini-Goa, minus the din and the haggling. Flowing through Dandeli, the turbulent Kali river can be touted to have some of India’s best rapids for a hair-raising white-water rafting experience. Best done with a group, one can choose from between a 9 kilometres/4 hours run and a crisper 4 kilometres/2 hours jaunt, depending on time and fitness level.
Alternatively, give your muscles a serious workout by kayaking in the man-made Supa reservoir, set to background scores orchestrated by exotic birds. Another activity on offer is zorbing, where one rolls along the water surface locked inside a transparent plastic ball—not one for the claustrophobic. In the evenings, kick back at a jungle camp in the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, easily arranged through Jungle Lodges & Resorts. All water sports can be pre-booked on Dandeli.com. October to March is the best time to visit, thanks to breezy weather and teeming birdlife.
How to go:
Dandeli can be accessed from the gateway hubs of Goa and Hubli, both connected by train and flight to major Indian cities. Dandeli is 125 km/3 hr from Goa, and 73 km/2 hr from Hubli—cabs are available at both airports. www.junglelodges.com
White water thrills in India are synonymous with Rishikesh, the country’s unofficial rafting capital. A great alternative for rafters in search of offbeat stretches—and a good challenge—is Pancheshwar in eastern Uttarakhand.
Trips kick-start at the confluence of the mighty Kali river—named aptly after the fierce goddess—and the Saryu. Itineraries usually include a three-day run stopping overnight in the villages of Chuka and Parigaon, and ending at the city of Tanakpur, where the river is also known as Sharda. The 70-kilometre stretch opens up landscapes like in a film reel: pristine valleys that have rarely been explored, turbulent rapids, and vast, silent stretches of beaches where you can camp out, should an overnight breather under salt-and-star skies appeal. To top it all, rafters straddle the border between India and Nepal through the Kali’s length on this trip. Flanked by dense forests on either side, it has rapid grades progressing from two to three and four over the days. It tapers to smaller rapids again towards the end as the river widens. The sumptuous solitude, barring army personnel and the odd traveller, means that once you taste an expedition on the Kali, it is tough to go back to the rapids (and crowds) of Rishikesh.
How to go:
From Delhi, take a train to Kathgodam and then hire a taxi to Pancheshwar; you can split the 12-hr journey with an overnight stop near Kathgodam. Being a river on the border, rafting on the Kali requires special permits that should be pre-arranged by your agent.
Want to cash in on aquamarine waters without coughing up the big bucks for, let’s say, the Andamans? Pamban is your place. Located in the ecologically rich Gulf of Mannar, it’s lush with coconut tree-lined beaches and crystal-clear waters. On Pamban’s menu are kitesurfing, snorkelling, diving, kayaking and windsurfing. Gorge on fresh seafood, and explore all that abounds its surface and the (marine) life below… pearl oyster, sea horse, barracuda.
Take a day to explore the bustling, 17th-century Rameswaram Temple. Said to have the longest corridors in the world, it flaunts a thousand ornate pillars; a rewarding visit even for the non-religious. The temple town itself teems with crumbling old wooden homes rich in character, and stellar vegetarian thalis. Don’t leave without a darshan of Dhanushkodi. Perched on Pamban’s tip, only a strait away from Sri Lanka, it’s a ghost village (the settlement was wiped out overnight by a cyclone in 1964). Today, other than a few forlorn structures and cerulean waters, what Dhanushkodi offers is a satisfying sense of seclusion.
How to go:
From Chennai trains ply to Pamban via the century-old rail bridge, the longest sea bridge until Mumbai’s Bandra Worli Sea Link came up. You can also fly to Madurai from where Pamban is 170 km/3 hr drive away.
Diglipur in northern Andaman is blissfully underexposed—so far. Plans for an airport are underway. So go before the world does, and if you do, expect top-notch natural wonders. The twin islands of Ross and Smith, separated by a svelte sandbar, are Diglipur’s biggest draw. Cover the sandbar on foot, pausing for a swim or some sea-watching. Plan your hours well, authorities only permit three.
A hike inside the Saddle Peak National Park takes you to the highest point in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at 2,400 feet. Kalpong, Andaman’s only river, flows through this forest. On the park’s foothill, Lamiya Bay Beach is perfect for idling. The nearby Kalipur Beach is a turtle nesting ground, claimed by hundreds of olive ridley, leatherback and hawksbill through December to January. The Alfred Caves echo with fruit-eating bats and inside the jungles of Shyam Nagar thrive mud volcanoes. Craegy Island, a short swim from Kalipur, is superb for snorkelling… schools of parrot fish, stingray, angel fish and moray inject the blue waters with colours you’d find in a bag of confetti.
How to go:
Port Blair, a ship or a short flight from Chennai, is the closest hub. The 298 km/12 hr ride from Port Blair to Diglipur winds through the disputed Andaman Trunk Road, where buses ply, albeit under security. A more responsible option, is to take a boat. The Aerial Bay Jetty near Diglipur connects to Port Blair by sea thrice a week. Some islands need permits, so do check in advance.
At first glance, Mahé appears to be nothing but a busy stretch of highway lined with cheap bars—its status as part of the liberal Union Territory of Puducherry is what sets this 3×3 square kilometre town apart from the surrounding liquor-prohibitive Kerala. Here, one can find a less touristy version of Pondy: vintage bungalows, check; some famous church, check; spooky old graveyard, it’s right there.
Mahé just opened its first heritage hotel, Villa De 1945 (villade1945.com) which brims with teakwood and Belgian glass windows, but unlike hotels elsewhere rates start at Rs3,000 and one can spend leisurely evenings sipping tea on a huge balcony.
Mahé’s small bars are of tremendous value: drinks are mostly sold at MRP while grub includes fresh seafood and Malabar-spiced non-veg for an average Rs150 per plate. Bar-hopping favourites include Cee Cee’s in an oldish bungalow and the Foreign Liquor Palace—right by the Mahé Bridge, the latter offers views all the way to the Arabian Sea. Tax-free liquor shopping is another pastime—go browsing at Maveli Wines on Railway Station Road where a bottle of tequila is Rs1,090, Jim Beam Rs1,250.
How to go:
Mahé lies on National Highway 66 between Kerala’s Kozhikode and Kannur districts. The closest airport is in Kannur, 35 km/1.5 hr away.
Leave the Frenchified flavours of Puducherry behind, and move further south to Tranquebar, on a quiet corner of the Cauvery delta coast. The patois on the lanes of this seaside town is rustic Tamil, but with scattered remnants of a Danish rule that came sandwiched between the Tamil Chola–Pandiya kingdoms and the British.
The biggest attraction at Tranquebar is Dansborg Fort, a 17th-century Danish fortress, which is recently renovated and has a museum with an interesting collection of old maps and artefcats on the top floor. Walk around the city to explore the 18th-century, Indo-European Protestant Zion Church and New Jerusalem Church, the small Maritime Museum, and the Ziegenbalg Museum Complex on Admiral Street where you’ll find possibly India’s first printing press. Stroll down the narrow Goldsmith Street to find a row of traditional Tamil homes renovated by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Come evening, join the locals at the beach for hot fried molagai bajji (green chilli fritters), or watch the sunset near the brightly repainted 14th-century Tamil Masilamani Nathar Temple, dedicated to Shiva.
How to go:
While Puducherry is the nearest airport (120 km/3 hr), a more scenic drive is from Chennai along the East Coast Road (270 km/6 hr).
Visakhapatnam offers a good dose of Vitamin beach. Continue southward along the same stretch that hugs
the Bay of Bengal and you’ll see another vibrant beach, which, although popular, is still not where tourists land up in droves. In ambiance, Suryalanka Beach is an in-between, neither forlorn nor too frenetic. Located in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, only a six-hour drive from Hyderabad, it is mostly frequented by locals who live close to Bapatla town.
The Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation has built 12 cottages along the periphery of the beach to offer a beach resort experience, one which, at Rs2,500 a night, is pleasantly affordable. Blue waters, latte-brown sand, a clean shoreline… Suryalanka is indeed an ideal weekend getaway, perfect to swim, sunbathe and, most of all, slow down. Should you get tired of doing nothing though, there’s something you can do: binge on barbequed palm shoots and toasted peanuts, which vendors on the beach never seem to run out of. And those are just munchies. For the main course, the resort’s in-house restaurant serves some mean fish fry and prawn curry.
How to go:
From Hyderabad, take an overnight train to Bapatla. At the railway station, either take a shared autorickshaw, or hire an independent one to take you directly to the APTDC resort, bang on Suryalanka Beach (9 km/15 min drive; tourism.ap.gov.in).
An hour’s drive south of Gokarna lies a small port town situated on the Karnataka coast. Honnavar is the name of this settlement cradled between the sea and the hills. A perfect getaway for those who want to dip their feet in the surf after a morning hike, it is also a less hipster alternative to Gokarna.
The township of Honnavar is a lovely mix of modern-day amenities with old-world village charm. Forests skirt the town area and it is home to many tribes who still retain their traditional way of life. Moreover the Sharavati river flows through it and makes for a spectacular fall into the Arabian sea.
Other than walks on the beach, visitors with green thumbs might want to spend time at the BuDa Folklore NGO, which works with the area’s river and forest tribes. The NGO welcomes volunteers to participate in activities like paddy planting or kokum fruit harvesting. Guests can also learn traditional crafts like weaving baskets, cook traditional food over firewood, and work side by side with the tribes. Free from the trappings of noisy, pollution-laced city life, Honnavar is a refreshing change.
How to go:
Honnavar is a 460 km/9 hr drive from Bengaluru. The closest airport in Dabolim, Goa, is a 178 km/4 hr drive away.
Skip touristy Kanyakumari, and give Manapad, a quiescent coastal village in India’s far south, a try. The clear blue seas, naturally formed dunes, shallow lagoons, fishing boats docked in the tiny islets of the sea, beautiful churches steeped in history and the gregarious people of the fishing village make a visit to this hamlet a surreal experience. Manapad has a unique coastline which has been formed by several layers of lava accumulated over centuries and presents beautiful wave formations, making it a great spot for surfers and kite boarders.
Manapad is where St. Francis Xavier arrived in 1542 to begin his missionary service. The Holy Cross Church, built close to the sea atop a sand hill in 1581, has a relic fragment believed to be from Jerusalem and the cross is publicly displayed for thousands who attend the Exaltation of the Holy Cross festival, held between September 1-14 every year. If you visit during Dussehra, make a detour to the Kulasekarapatinam village nearby, to witness the fascinating celebration of Goddess Kali’s victory over evil at the Mutharamman Temple.
History buffs, stroll across the coast exploring the rich heritage of the place, walking to the Old Saint Francis cavern, Holy Cross Shrine, and St. James Church. And for sunrises and sunsets rivalling those in Kanyakumari, head to the Holy Cross Church. The mesmerising view from here stretches across the blue lagoon and sea.
How to go:
From Chennai, take a train to Tiruchendur. Then hire a taxi to Manapad, which is 17 km/30 min away. Alternatively, you could fly to Tutucorin and hire a taxi or a bus to Manapad (50 km/1.5 hr).