I've lived in Kochi for just under three years, but my home is on Mulavukad (Bolgatty) Island, closer to Ernakulam (Kochi's commercial centre) than the pretty tourist-beloved Fort Cochin. So when friends said they would be coming for Christmas and asked me to find them a homestay, I booked my partner and myself into Harry's place too. We wouldn't have to worry about getting the last ferry home or trying to find a rickshaw on new year's eve. It would be a holiday in our “home” town.
Sithara is not the prettiest, nor the best appointed homestay. It is set behind high walls and a metal gate, down an alley off the parade ground. There is no swimming pool. There are no smiling white-shirted waiters catering to your every whim, no lounging areas or bar. But Sithara has Harry and Mercy. And Harry and his lovely wife are what makes it such a special place. For Sithara is a REAL homestay, not a heritage home or bijou boutique hotel masquerading as a homestay. Sithara is where Harry and Mercy live.
The welcome is enthusiastic and real. Harry and Mercy want you to enjoy your stay and will do everything to make your trip a success. Harry knows everyone and can arrange anything you like. Booking Sithara by email was easy, Harry's answers were prompt and helpful.
There are four rooms: one downstairs, right next to where Harry and Mercy sleep, “specifically for western girls, singly or in pairs” so that they know Harry is right next door in case of an emergency (he told me this prior to the Delhi rape case); two double a/c rooms upstairs; and a non a/c (but the fans are enormous and all you need) double family room with two inter-connecting bedrooms, a balcony and a separate entrance. The immaculate garden (of which Harry is rightly proud) houses a bird cage containing some amiable, if loud, parakeets, mango trees, banana trees and plenty of exotic flowers. Food is extra, but Harry will cook whatever you like for breakfast and find you drinks and snacks throughout the day (I gorged myself on unsweetened fresh pineapple juice).
Don't use this lovely little place as just somewhere to sleep, sit under the shade of the balcony with Harry and get to know him and Mercy a bit before heading out to see the sights. If you are lucky, Mercy's sister "Baby" might join you too.
Just off Lilley Road in central Fort Cochin, the location is second to none.
If you want to share the home of a knowledgeable, upbeat and charming Keralan family, stay at Sithara.
Kerala is renowned for its food, and Fort Cochin is home to some smart and some simple places for its famous fish curry and other local specialities. Looking like the worst kind of tourist trap, the Hotel Cochin Fort (“Hotel” in this context meaning “restaurant”, as so often is the case in India) stands on a corner opposite posh Brunton Boatyard hotel. We had dropped in a few times for cups of tea and cold beers in the past and were always given fast and helpful service, so we took a chance and booked a table outside for new year's eve. We didn't expect much, just somewhere to stay up late with a few drinks and a place where our friends visiting us from the UK would be able to smoke. But it was so much better than that. The restaurant had quite a few foreign tourists, and I was interested to see some domestic tourists and even some Keralan families there too. Although Cochin Fort offers Italian and continental dishes, we played it safe with the local cuisine. Tiger prawns, seerfish (local name for Spanish Mackerel or Kingfish), chicken and vegetable dishes filled the table and were light, fresh and spicy. My Chemmeen Mango Curry (made with green mangoes) was scrumptious. The wine wasn't bad (Banyan Tree), the beer was cold and the seven of us chatted to the watchful waiters as the clock ticked towards 2013.
Then it all went a bit bonkers: one of the waiters had brought some tunes which he added to an mp3 player belonging to one of the guests and an instant party was born. The doors were barred and we had a lock-in until 2.30am. An impromptu Gangnam Style dancefest to a sound system was so distorted we each danced in the rain to our own rhythm (oh yes, it rained like the monsoon and we all thanked our own gods for bringing some sorely needed water to Kerala). The chef danced on the tables, the waiters and owner's family danced in the rain, my friends danced in the fountain and I danced with a chair on my head.
The next day we passed the guys and had a big hug. It seems that after seven years of being open they had never had a party before this new year's eve. Good times, and hopefully the first of many more.
Bellar Road, Fort Kochi, Cochin 682 001
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
If you are looking for a smooth, polished performance, don't go to the Cultural Centre. But if you want a fascinating evening watching the dancers put on their make up, don fantastical costumes and perform scenes from the Ramayana, then the Cochin Cultural Centre is the place to be. It takes over an hour for the principal dancers to apply their makeup and change into the costumes. It is also excellent for people-watching the groups of European tourists in the audience who have their own cultural norms and practices!
Opposite the RDO office, near Fort Kochi Police Station, K.B.Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, 682 001, Kerala, India
+91 484 2216911
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.
Vypeen Island is a long thin piece of land caught between the Arabian Sea and Kerala's inland waterways. Following the coast from Kochi northwards, it is laced with canals and lakes, groves of palm trees and colourful houses. The scenic bus ride to Cherai beach would be an engaging way of seeing a little further beyond Kochi if the drivers didn't feel it their duty to get you there faster than the speed of sound. Go there during the week when it is less likely to be rammed with tourists, or take an auto-rickshaw for the day and slowly make your way to much less crowded Kuzhippily beach.
Vypeen Island, Kochi, Kerala
Google map: bit.ly/LczYCh
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
Google map: bit.ly/LaGN4w
Alcohol is state controlled in Kerala and bars are kept strictly behind blacked out windows, or in international hotels. If you fancy a beer with the locals you'll have to head to one of the bars dotted around the city. Look for the big black and white diamond sign outside. The best of these is the Bar Oberoi on MG Road. It's not as dark and desperate as most of them, and is kept pretty clean (at least the rats and cockroaches are not visible). You'll be the only non-Indian in there, and if you're a woman you'll definitely be the only one. Between 5pm and 6pm most days the proprietor lights a series of incense sticks, each more smoky than the last, finishing with full-on frankincense that makes your eyes water, but smells nice. The food is average, freshly cooked, and has never made me ill.
MG Road, Ernakulam, 682035, Kerala
Google map: bit.ly/MAryGV
There are plenty of tourist restaurants in the chi-chi streets of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, some listed in the guide books, all expensive (by Kochi standards) and most serving up pretty good food. It's fun to pick a fish from the Chinese nets and to have it cooked in front of you. But for a flavour of authentic local food, at a local price, go to the commercial district of Ernakulam. The Hotel Saravana Bhavan serves the best vegetable thali in the whole of Kochi. (Like many restaurants in India it is called a 'hotel' when all it does is serve food, which can be a bit misleading as the hotels are usually called hotels too.) The non A/C section is always packed with local workers. For less than £1 they'll serve your meal on an ela (Malayalam for banana leaf) and keep re-filling it until you burst. There's an A/C section for posh people who like a bit of space, and cutlery.
As with all restaurants in India, get there early so you can pick up the food while it's still fresh and before the best dishes run out.
Banerji Road, Ernakulam, Kerala, India
+91 484 237 0153
Google map: bit.ly/LuzwlQ
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.
Google map: bit.ly/JiMWQ8
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
Although India is justifiably famous for its tea, Karnataka and Kerala are also renowned worldwide for the distinctive spicy coffee produced in the Western Ghats. Indians prefer to export this treasure to the world's enthusiasts, rather than drinking it themselves. But if you are prepared to hunt for the perfect present to take home, you'll find the beans in the commercial district of Ernakulam in Kochi. An unremarkable single-story building on Chittoor Road is home to Leela Coffee, where the thick chocolaty scent of roasted beans will draw you to the shop long before you see it. A counter stretches the width of the interior, and behind it looms an enormous grinder. They sell the beans by the kilo, or you can choose a vacuum-packed bag of ground deliciousness for 240 INR. However many bags you buy, you'll wish you bought more when you arrive home.
Leela coffee, Chittoor road, Valanjambalam +91(0)484 2375706
If you want a break from the relentless manicured (for India) tourism of Fort Cochin, hop on a ferry across the estuary. Ernakalum District, of which Fort Cochin is only one small part, is Kerala's commercial hub. To get an idea of ordinary life for your average Kochiite put on your walking boots and refuse every offer from rickshaw drivers (not that you'll get hassled here, they are not so used to tourists).
Walk the length of Market Street, from Hospital Street to Banerji Road, and explore the lanes that run off this busy market area. There are no touts, and you won't be hassled to buy a carpet or 'antique'. The fella coming up and asking your name simply wants to welcome you to Kerala and talk to a foreigner, especially an English speaker. You'll find Jew Street, Muslim Street and Convent Road within a prayer of each other, illustrating the easy religious integration which characterises this enlightened state.
Turn right at the end of Market Street on to Banerji Road and pop into the Hotel Saravana Bhavan for the best vegetable thali in Kochi. (Like many restaurants in India it is called a 'hotel' when all it does is serve food, which can be a bit misleading as the hotels are usually called hotels too.) The non A/C section is packed with local workers every day. For less than a £1 they'll keep filling your plate or 'ela' (Malayalam for banana leaf) until you burst. There's an A/C section for posh people.
After lunch head a little further up Banerji Road and turn onto MG Road. Seemati has a fantastic textile section full of silks, satins and cottons for a tenth of the price you would pay in the UK. Chennai silks is great for sarees, salwaars and mens' clothes, they even have on-site tailors.
If you fancy a beer the best local bar is the Bar Oberoi on MG Road. It's not as dark and desperate as most of the diamond-signed bars all over town, and cleaner than most. You'll be the only non-Indian in there, and if you're a woman you'll definitely be the only one. Between 5 and 6 most days the proprietor lights a series of incense sticks, each more smoky than the last, finishing with full-on frankincense bowls.
Hotel Saravana Bhavan
Banerji Road, Ernakulam Bazar, Near Sritha Theatre, Kochi, Kerala 682031, India
+91 484 237 0153
I cannot praise the place enough. I came here for my birthday treat and it turned out to be an excellent choice.
The food was quite simply the best we've had in Kerala, and that includes posh hotels like the Taj, smart places in Cochin and down and gutsy quick eateries in Ernakalum (we've been here for 18 months, so I feel I can write with some authority).
The room was prettily and simply decorated in white and terracotta. There were fresh flowers on the dressing table and a pristine bathroom. We fell asleep to the sound of the waves breaking on the beach right opposite us.
If you want to get away from it all, in a quiet area with no hotels around, stay here. Eat the best food in Kerala, go for walks on the beach, chat to the locals, visit the fish market and pick out your local catch for dinner, play games on the extensive roof terrace while being served endless fresh cold drinks and tea.
It's an excellent place for tired, burnt out workers looking for tranquility in genuine Keralan surroundings.
My one quibble is that because this is not a family home - the family lives elsewhere - it is not a true homestay. But what's in a label?
Kuzhupilly Beach Road, Ayampilly PO, Ayampilly PO, Kochi (Cochin) 682501, India
+91 484 2531456
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
If you would like a wonderful experience in learning to cook traditional Keralan style food, I recommend that you contact Nimmy Paul. I heard about her via various web searches for cookery classes before I travelled to Kochi and I saw lots of people were already praising her 'at home' cooking experiences as Nimmy has been a professional cookery teacher for over 20 years. We went as a group of three friends to Nimmy's house and she took us slowly through four different dishes, which was then followed by a wonderful meal. Nimmy and her husband welcome you into their home and could not have been more helpful. We were all given a small recipe book to take away and since coming home I've attempted about four different dishes - all wonderful!
Variamparambil, Chakalakal Road, Cochin, 682 015, Kerala, India
+91 484 2314293
Stay at the Old Harbour Hotel or the Malabar House (both are upscale and charming). Sip wine (or a beer) and nosh on small plates at Malabar House's Divine wine bar. Check out Jew Town, taking socks for the synagogue tour, watch the Chinese fishing nets at sunset, and indulge in a Kalari massage at Malabar House. And don't miss the chocolate cake at Kashi Art Cafe on Burgher Street
I reached Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre (Kalady, Kochi, Kerala) in a sad state. After working on one of my books and writing several articles for a well known journal, I was physically exhausted and mentally stressed. I had heard and read of the excellent Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre and placed myself in their hands.
I was not disappointed. The ambience and the atmosphere were superb. The centre is situated in a beautiful environment at a river bank and very close to nature. The weather was also magnificent.
The ayurvedic team, led by Dr. K. Krishnan Namboodiri, were professionals to the core, warm and caring. They immediately diagnosed my condition and prescribed suitable treatment for my battered body and tired mind. I had several enjoyable sessions and every part of my body received expert attention –my head, legs, shoulders, tummy, etc were oiled and massaged among other things - I felt totally rejuvenated.
I left as a new man – physically and mentally. I resolved to return a year later for more of the same. In comparison to some over-priced Ayurvedic places, the Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre in Kalady is eminently affordable. The food is good, hygiene is of very high standard, services very friendly and as for the Ayurvedic treatment, it is in a class of its own. I unhesitatingly recommend Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre.
Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre LTD.
Okkal Post, Kalady, Kerala, India 683550
Forget fashionable yoga retreats, the Surya Thejus Advaitha Yoga Centre is both affordable and authentic, with not a chakra-aligning celebrity in sight.
Tucked away in a serene green corner of Kerala, with forests and the peaceful river Poorna to inspire your inner guru, the centre is in Kalady, a shrine to Adi Sankara, one of India’s foremost philosophers.
The secluded setting feels refreshingly ‘real’ rather than a boutique bolt-hole, with only 3 rooms, each clean and comfortable, and Yoga classes taught by expert teachers.
It was a great place to de-stress and unwind - the teachers were kind and helpful to wobbly beginners, and even my skeptical partner was chanting by the end.
We left feeling several stone lighter, thanks to healthy (but delicious) food served up in the Kerala Vegetarian Canteen, and at around £24 a night, you don’t pay through the teeth for Zen-like calm.
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