During autumn, the weather in Delhi is perfect: the monsoon rains have passed and the temperature is in the high 20s. There are some lively festivals at this time of year, including Navaratri (October 16th-23rd), during which there are ten days of street festivals, dancing, Ramlila plays and finally the burning of giant effergies of the God Ravana. The largest celebration during autumn is Diwali (November 3rd this year.) To celebrate the Hindu New Year and the triumph of good over evil, the city is filled with glittering lights - tiny clay lamps flicker from every window - and fireworks fill the skies. Delicious sweets such as the milky burfi are sold on every street corner and the roads are strewn with marigold and rose petals or colourful Rangoli patterns made from coloured sand or chalk. It's a good time to visit as hotels offer deep discounts on rooms and shops have sale bonanzas of up to 40%. I would recommend the recently built Radisson Blu hotel in Paschim Vihar, where there is a tourist concierge who will arrange independent travel by car to all the local sights as well as the Golden Triangle. We were there last Diwali as practically the only guests -Indian families prefer to stay with relatives during this special period, so we were thoroughly spoiled with cakes, fruit and sweets and the undivided attention of dozens of hotel staff.
It's a nice temple. Here you will find nice work on the wall of temple that will recall the art of Indian History. There are museums you will love to see.
My girlfriend and I have both travelled a lot in Asia, but had always talked about visiting India one day in a bit more style. A few years ago a friend of ours got back from a luxury yoga retreat in Goa and loved it. She recommended the travel company she booked with (KOKOindia) because they arrange lots of different kinds of holidays. And so for the first time, we decided to approach a travel consultancy - and didn’t regret it for a moment.
Joanna (the owner) helped us put together a perfect trip in Rajasthan that suited our budget really well i.e. a good mix of friendly, royal style homestays along with some pretty swanky hotels, which was exactly what we wanted. A couple of our favourites were Samode Palace and Alsisar Haveli in Jaipur. She also gave us a lot of cool tips about places to check out when we were there. (She knows some great restaurants!)
The main thing for us with a limited holiday time of two weeks was that we wanted everything to run as smoothly as possible and India can definitely be a bit unpredictable at times. We felt incredibly looked after and the holiday was one we will never forget. We have been looking into a return trip later this year, this time for a Goa break, and saw the mention of KOKOindia. We will be booking through them again and cant recommend them highly enough. Apart from anything, KOKOindia know some seriously romantic places ;-)
The quality of service in this breezy rooftop restaurant is second to none. While every other householder in the village has slung up a bamboo roof on top of their building and declared themselves a restaurateur, the Franco-Indian couple who own "Le Yogi" really know their business: the waiter takes your order quickly, and with no fuss; he brings your (cold) drink immediately; finally, he places in front of you the exact dishes you asked for, at the same time as those of your partner. The food is fresh and the atmosphere is laid back and informal. The decor, although similar to the de rigeur paper-lantern school of interiors beloved by exotic backpacker destinations, is just that little bit more chic and tasteful. With shelves full of books and games, you could easily spend all day here.
The only thing that lets it down is the rather basic squat lavatory with no flush system except a dripping tap.
They also run "La Pizzeria de Mama", on the opposite corner. But you can have your pizza delivered to "Le Yogi" if you can't be arsed to move away from this friendly, chilled place.
19, Othavadai St, Fishermen Colony, Mamallapuram - 603104, Tamil Nadu
Google map: bit.ly/KCqfXG
The laid back backpacker's surfer paradise of Mamallapuram is also home to some startling Unesco-listed 7th-8th century rock carvings. When you consider they have been ravaged by the feisty Bay of Bengal for nearly one and a half thousand years (how many tsunamis have washed over the shore temples?) they are in pretty good nick. Scattered on the beach, through the town and on the hill, the carved boulders dominate the small fishing village. Most are free to visit, but the Archaeological Survey of India demands its pound of flesh from foreign tourists in the form of 250 rupees for the main attractions of the Shore Temples and five Rathas (it's a measly 10 rupees for Indian nationals). Don't be mean, though, it's worth every paisa.
Off season at this family run homestay is 300 INR a night. For around £3.50 you get an immaculate double room (the sheets smelt of soap powder), clean and spacious bathroom, and a shared balcony (including hammocks, low chairs and coffee tables). It's less than a minute to the clifftop and beach. Fantastic.
Near Middle Cliff, Varkala, Kerala
Prices vary throughout the year from 300INR (Low season) to 1000INR (at Christmas and New Year). Most of the time they don't go above 600INR.
Walking along the sand under the high red cliffs, as the rollers came in and groups of Brahminy kites circle above, affords a spectacular view of this chilled beach resort. Kerala's jungle tries to climb right onto the beach, with grass and undergrowth extending down the cliff face. The sea can be rough and there's quite an undertow, but undeterred by red flag warnings—and a lifefguard furiously blowing his whistle—there were a few non-Indians body boarding in the surf when I was there.
Walking along the precipitous cliff park gives you a birds eye view of the sea below, but beware the many international bars (including the inevitable Cafe Del Mar) in the main area; they become more Indian-influenced in their cuisine further away from the main drag.
With more laid back bars (and less in-your-face vendors) than Goa, it's a friendly place to relax after some heavy trekking or sight-seeing.
Just north of Trivandrum, Kerala
Google map: bit.ly/Nr7C5w
The stairs and walls are grubby, there are paint drip marks on the floor and it has probably seen better days, but this small art gallery is worth the 10INR entrance just for the works of Raja Ravi Varma. He fused stories from the Mahabharata with European methods and styles of painting. The gallery's in the Botanical Gardens, next to the zoo, so it would be churlish to miss it.
Set within the state capital's lush Botanical gardens, the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo is an example of a zoo trying to do the right thing. According to its pamphlet, many of the animals were kept in small, dingy cages as recently as 1996, and were simply there as exhibits. But an effort to change the zoo (it declares itself to be the oldest in India) from being a place of "unlimited animals and limited facilities" to "limited animals and adequate facilities" is working. A zoo animal hospital has been built and the stated objective is to conserve species endemic to the local area, from the coast to the Western Ghats.
There are still some anomalies: I'm not sure how often you see zebras, hippos and ostriches in the wilds of India. And I can't understand the reason for holding twelve kites (including the regal Brahminy kite) in one smallish cage; these birds can be seen on any day in (practically) any part of Kerala. I saw a rather forlorn "Jungle cat" (a bit bigger than your average-sized moggie) in a small cave-like den, with no trees or foliage.
On the other hand, the big cats (tigers, leopard and asiatic lions) had large, landscaped enclosures as well as smaller feeding cages: I watched one leopard gently headbutt its mate (mother? sibling?) before falling over and purring, just like any Jellicle cat at home; a lioness lay on her front licking her paw and passing it over her face, with eyes closed, while next to her another female stretched out and yawned; two young tigers prowled in their feeding areas, and as the keeper walked round the back of the cage, they play-stalked him. To my untrained eye these animals looked pretty content.
The zoo is full of mature trees and is well shaded. The landscaping and planting is fantastic.
Set over a gentle hill in the middle of the city, Kerala's lush jungle is tamed and topioaried in these gorgeous Botanical gardens. Specimen trees, all clearly labelled, litter the area (have you ever seen a canonball tree?) and elaborate tropical flowers burst through the green backdrop in electrifying shades of coral, red and pink. The park is home to plenty of wildlife, including birds, butterflies and bats. Shady spots on the grass, or on benches lining the walkways, provide comfortable places to rest and watch. Locals have been picnicking, canoodling and dozing among the undergrowth since the gardens were opened, back in 1859.
Botanical Gardens, Thiruvananthapuram 695033, Kerala
Google map: bit.ly/LKWmk8
This place is comfortable, and a bargain. Room 101 had a lofty, timber ceiling and double doors onto a terrace. The room was enormous and contained a wardrobe; a vanity area; a luggage holder big enough for all your bags; two lounge chairs, with a coffee table between them; a desk and chair; a hard, but comfortable, double bed (which was actually two singles pushed together); plenty of power points, and all kinds of lighting options. A high speed fan blew like the monsoon south westerlies coming in from the Arabian Sea outside, and negated the need for a/c (although the YMCA does offer an a/c option). The big bathroom was spotless, with large sink/shelf area, walk-in shower with hot water (from a geyser), western loo and brisk shower hose. The TV had plenty of English channels, including news and excellent films. All of this, in the centre of town, for 734INR (around £8.50) a night.
I have to say our whole trip to Kerala was out of this world! We booked our trip from scratch through KOKOindia.com and found they had excellent taste and the experience to match our own personal requirements. The trip was exactly what we wanted/ NEEDED, nothing was too much trouble, the attention to detail was there all the way through, along with a genuine friendliness and a level of care that gave us total peace of mind.
Malabar House is a gem of a place in the heart of Fort Cochin. How we enjoyed the sitar in the evening by candlelight with one of the finest meals ever eaten in India. I literally asked the staff if I could buy a piece of the furnishing from the room - it was exquisite as was the rest of the room. A safe haven and then some.
As soon as we arrived at the backwaters we decided to extend our stay - you know how it goes: once you are there you just don't want to leave. Kokoindia rearranged all our days and nights and cars and flights so we could, well, just be spoiled for a little bit longer. Priceless.
We'll go back one day.
A 325-year-old heritage property, which is used as a hotel located in Ajmer. The walls of the fort rise up from the centre of the village and its ramparts offer a bird's eye view of the village.
Prior to the hotel opening in 2009, there was no real reason to visit this destination and so it has remained unspoilt by tourism, and therefore now provides an example of an 'off the beaten track, rural destination' at its best. It is a wonderful village to explore with traditional 300 year-old village houses, a local temple, school, potters, shoe makers and farmers. The hotel can arrange bullock cart rides to visit the sites, often accompanied by smiling children running alongside.
Village Barli, District Ajmer, Rajasthan, INDIA
+91 141 220 0770
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
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