Last year we shunned the Christmas turkey and made our way to the backwaters of Kerala, where we spent an unusually sunny festive holiday puttering about on a little boat between shockingly white sandbanks and hard-to-reach villages. Christmas morning was amazing: I spent it doling out jelly beans, the only present that I had brought for myself from the UK, into the sticky hands of screaming, smiling young children who lined the river banks. They waved madly as we glided past. It was a humbling experience knowing that a handful of easy-to-buy jelly beans could make these kids so ecstatic!
After we had navigated away from the network of shady-green villages, we found ourselves as far removed from a traditional Christmas Day as we had thought possible. We could smell the tangy scent of the salty sea, feel the heavy humidity seeping through our bodies, and the best Christmas present of all, could feel the Indian Ocean lapping small waves against our tiny white-washed wooden boat.
Google map: bit.ly/V6CCuw
Easily accessible by ferry from the High Court jetty at the bottom of Banerji Road in Ernakulam (the tiny boat runs every half hour) this pretty island is often overlooked by visitors, but is worth seeking out. Turn left off the ferry for a short walk to the Bolgatty Palace Hotel, which has a nine hole golf course, a garden full of specimen trees, the oldest Dutch Palace in India, and the only marina in the country. If the restaurant has put on a buffet (most days) the typically spicy Keralan food is well worth trying (don't miss the spectacular fish curry), although don't expect razor-sharp service.
If you turn right off the ferry follow the chessboard of tiny roads through the village. Catch the flash of a kingfisher, butterflies the size of your hand and egrets daintily perching on buffalo under the shady tropical trees. You may feel like you are walking through people's gardens, but no-one will mind and they'll probably invite you in for a tea if you stop and chat. Under the bridge on the eastern shore of the island lives an extended family of Harijans (Untouchables) from Mysore. They make their meagre living by fishing from saucer-shaped woven coracles.
Beloved by all photographers, Kerala's elephant temple festivals are world renowned. Thrissur has the granddaddy of them all in April/May, when the festival of Pooram is celebrated. Not a time to visit for the faint-hearted—you will need stamina and sunblock, and feel comfortable in loud sweaty crowds of excitable worshippers.
But Thrissur is an interesting day trip for anyone staying in Kochi at any time of the year. It's a pleasant introduction to Keralan town life: not too busy, dusty or crowded, and small enough to walk round in a day. The two hundred-year-old Shakthan Thampuran Palace is now an elegant archaeological museum set on a hill among painstakingly landscaped gardens. The building was closed for refurbishment at the time of my visit, scheduled to re-open 1st April 2012 (but don't hold your breath). Thrissur is also famous for its magnificent churches, their colourful stucco façades peeking over the town's roads in every direction.
Don't be afraid to join the workers for some roadside food. But watch the amount of sugar they add to the delicious fruit cocktails, Keralans have a sweet tooth.
Get there by train from Ernakulam Junction (any visit to India is not complete without a train journey) which lasts around one and half hours, and costs a mere 28 INR for a one-way ticket.
Shakthan Thampuran Palace, Stadium Road, Thrissur
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Packed with colonial buildings and pickled charm, Fort Cochin is a gentle way of easing yourself into the sometimes Medieval comforts of India. Strolling through the flower-bordered lanes and weatherboard houses, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Sussex. Vasco da Gama first arrived on India's Malabar coast in 1498, returning for the third time in 1524 to die on Christmas Eve. He was buried in St Francis Church. This refreshingly unfussy building—the first European church to be built in India—still stands amid the banyan trees and cricket fields (unlike Vasco da Gama whose remains were removed to Portugal). Rubbed to a smooth polish by centuries of fervent worship, the wide flagstone floor is cool under bare feet. A high timber-beamed ceiling and rope operated punkahs (fans) bring some welcome relief from the relentless tropical heat of steamy Kerala.
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When those ancient traders sailed from the Arabian Sea into the hectic spice port of Fort Cochin, they were greeted by rows of shore-based Chinese fishing nets. Crowding along the estuary, these primitive machines—like gigantic alien sentries from a Ridley Scott sci-fi film—have been in use for hundreds of years, and are found throughout Kerala's famous backwaters. Legend has it they came from the court of Kublai Khan, but the precise date is not known. Still in use today, the cantilevered contraptions stand around ten meters high, and about twenty meters wide. The nets dip in and out of the water all day, staying down for only five minutes before being levered back up. Fort Cochin is the best place to see them up close. Choose a fish straight from the net then watch it being grilled in front of you for a tasty supper.
River Road, Nr Vypeen ferry terminal, Fort Cochin
Google map: bit.ly/Ldl7Hy
The port of Cochin in Kerala is home to one of India's largest communities of Christians. Untroubled by Akbar the Great and his descendents, southern India took its influences from China, Africa and Europe. Vasco da Gama first arrived in Fort Cochin in 1498 and in 1524 returned to die on Christmas Eve. He was buried in the church of St Francis. This refreshingly unfussy building – the first European church to be built in India – still stands amid the banyan trees and cricket greens of Fort Cochin (unlike Vasco da Gama whose remains were removed to Portugal).
Like any UK high street, outlets selling tasteless decorations mushroom all over the city from the end of November. In the Yuletide run-up Cochin buzzes with pre-Christmas shopping euphoria. Several times I have been pushed out of the way by sharp-elbowed nuns searching for the perfect Christmas tree bauble along Broadway in Ernakalum's market area. Unlike the UK it's always a festival atmosphere and it is not uncommon to be offered a high-spirited Keralan welcome and cup of tea in the middle of the scrum.
From the 24th December Fort Cochin ratchets up the party with a seven day carnival. Expect fireworks every night (and sometimes in the day), elephants, dancing, games, food, general revelry and more fireworks!
NOTE: I've been based here for 18 months and have only ever heard it referred to as Cochin by the locals. Nobody uses Kochi except in correspondence.
Fort Cochin (also Fort Kochi) and Ernakalum, Kerala, India
Google map: bit.ly/rYaskG
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