Kerala, South India

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Bargains in paradise

Tell your friends you're going to Kerala and they ask, "Where is it?" Mention Kerala is in India and they gasp, "It's dangerous there." But India's worrisome problems are for the most part in the north (in Kashmir), and Kerala is well over a thousand miles away. The lush, lovely, and incredibly cheap Indian state of Kerala, on the subcontinent's southwestern tip, is one of the most peaceful places on the planet.

First-time tourists to India typically seek out the Taj Mahal in Agra, the bustling, chaotic cities of Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay), and awe-inspiring temples in Madurai and Varanasi. But from the high mountains of the Western Ghats to the lush coastal plain, Kerala is as beautiful, dramatic, and exotic as anyplace on earth. Here is a destination that usually lives up to its nickname, "God's own country." Perhaps Kerala's greatest attraction is its people, from children who race along the backwater cruises calling out to tourists, to helpful strangers who make sure you get the right bus even if they miss their own.

City streets in Kerala are a hodgepodge of auto-rickshaws, bikes, taxis, wildly painted lorries, and an occasional elephant. Its peaceful hills boast of wildlife, tea, and spice estates. Kerala has attracted travelers since biblical times, but was discovered by hippies in the Sixties and Seventies as a peaceful haven, and these days it draws a fair number of Aussies, Europeans, and Americans-in-the-know. Visitors come to loll under the palms beside golden beaches or cruise its labyrinth of backwaters. You can also get a sense of the ancient East with an Ayurvedic massage or a yoga session (both of which are thought to have originated in Kerala more than 5,000 years ago). The famous Kathakali dance drama is still performed here, as it was more than 1,000 years ago.

And talk about cheap! Thanks to the favorable exchange rate (almost 48 rupees to the dollar), hotels that go for $5 to $15 a night are as plentiful as the coconuts on the trees. Backpackers love the $1 beach huts and $2 lodges (lodging prices listed below are the total for two persons traveling together, so singles can expect to pay even less). A typical veg thali (a sampling of vegetable dishes served on a platter) costs $1 or less in a small cafe, and an all-you-can-eat buffet at a glamorous hotel runs $7. In most of Kerala, it is easy to get by on about $20 a day. Be warned, though -- prices on just about everything go up in peak season (December and January in particular).

Transportation within India is proportionately just as inexpensive. Buses are crowded, noisy, and cheap, but score a window seat and you might get a free show -- perhaps an elephant or two sharing the highway. Metered auto-rickshaws charge 8¢ minimum per kilometer (though meters are rarely used). Bargaining gets you a fair fare -- a good rule is to cut any offer in half to start the haggling, and be patient. For big spenders, a car and driver around town costs $20 a day. Bargaining when you shop (except at fixed-price emporiums) gets you beautiful buys in Kerala's rosewood and brass crafts.

How we'll be dealing with Kerala

The sights and rewarding locations in Kerala are countless, but to keep this article to manageable length, we've reduced them to five: the beach resorts of Kovalam and Varkala, the two major cities of Thiruvananthapuram (better known as Trivandrum) and Kochi (Cochin), and last but not least, the popular backwater cruise through a labyrinth of canals, lagoons, and villages. Visitors with extra time will want to spend a day or two at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Set aside at least two weeks for an exploration of Kerala, including four or five days at the beach and a few days in Kochi. (Thiruvananthapuram is a commercial city where you won't want to stay over, though it's worth a day trip.)

Getting around in Kerala (or throughout India, for that matter) is not as easy as in Europe or North America, but the average visitor finds things without much of a problem. English is widely spoken, and most signs are in English and the local language Malayalam. Few streets have names, so addresses for hotels and restaurants are rare (when available, we list addresses and phone numbers). For general information about Kerala, including hotels, tour operators, and cultural customs and tidbits you should be aware of (there are many, including dressing conservatively and never using your left hand in social interactions), visit keralatourism.org. Another good tourist source is the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, or KTDC (011-91/471-2318976, ktdc.com), which arranges lodging, tours, and packages. To call the Indian numbers listed in this article from the United States, first dial 011-91.

Getting there from here

From Mumbai, you have a choice of carriers flying into the state of Kerala. Jet Airways (866/835-9538, jetairways.com) operates three flights daily to Kochi for $302 round trip and one to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) for $387 round trip.

Beginning at the beach: Kovalam

A selection of inexpensive hotels are found in the little lanes off Lighthouse Beach. Sumangali Tourist Home and Achuta Lodge (471/2481021), steps off Lighthouse Beach, has pin-neat rooms with baths for $3 to $15; the higher-priced ones have sea-facing sit-outs (balconies). Tiny, tidy Seaside Cottages (471/2481937), located right on the beach, has simple rooms with baths for $4. Sitting high on a rocky outcrop, Hotel Rockholm (Lighthouse Rd., 471/2480306, fax 471/2480607, rockholm.com) has tasteful rooms with balconies and marvelous views priced at $27 to $30. The Rockholm also has an excellent restaurant with most items going for $1 to $5.

Most restaurants in Kovalam tend to offer the same Western and Indian classics, with satisfying three-course meals running as little as $1. Service can move at a glacial pace because small kitchens are not equipped to handle a lot of orders. Away from the beach, overlooking paddies, Lonely Planet restaurant offers outstanding vegetarian food, and $2 to $3 goes a long way.

The alternate beach: Varkala

When it comes to lodging, how about a little splurge? At the elegant Taj Garden Retreat (Janardhanapuram, 470/2603000, fax 470/2602296, tajhotels.com), rates change with the seasons but generally start at $70 and include abundant breakfast and dinner buffets. Too expensive? Come just for the buffet dinner (phone to reserve) for $8, when classical dancers perform in the terraced garden. For more affordable options, the Nikhil Beach Resort (Beach Rd., 470/2605191, nikhil-resort.com) features an Internet cafe, and tidy rooms for $10 to $20. The only hotel on the beach, Marine Palace (Papanasam Beach, 470/2603204), has cheap rooms ($4 to $15), but the only running water is cold and its yard is occasionally filled with junk. Their tandoori restaurant overlooks the sea. Molto bene is the best description of the Italian-run Mamma Chompos (Beach Rd., 470/2603995), which has pleasant, modern, clean rooms for $5 to $7, plus a pizzeria.

Atop the cliffs, the quiet, homey Thiruvambadi Beach Resort (Thiruvambadi Beach Rd., 470/2601028, thiruvambadihotels.com) has attractive rooms with baths for $15. Most rooms have balconies, some have beautifully carved headboards and doors, plus there is a pleasant rooftop restaurant. Just off a littered walkway, Jicky's (above Oottupura Restaurant, near the helipad; 470/2606994) has clean and cheap rooms ($3 to $5) with baths. Yoga classes are offered here. Many families also rent rooms in their homes starting at $2. Duck their scouts at the train and bus stations, and instead find your own room by asking around at the cafes and checking signs posted outside private homes.

For food, Oottupura, where locals talk religion with you, is my top choice for a variety of cheap dishes under $1. Delectables include a superior masala dosa (a stuffed rice-and-lentil-flour crepe) and crispy cheese pakoras (fritters). Try them with a sweet and salty fresh lime and soda.

A day trip to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum)

Another must-see is the vast Padmananabhapuram Palace (40 miles from the capital, 30 miles from Kovalam, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu), the ancient capital of the maharajahs of Travancore, in its meticulously maintained teak and granite splendor. Features include fabulous murals, floral rosewood carvings, and an amazing mirror-like floor. Tour is 10¢; take the crowded Kanniyakumari bus from Thiruvananthapuram or Kovalam to Thuckalai, then rickshaw or walk for a mile. Or join the 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. KTDC tour (471/2318976) for $4; includes lunch.

Kaleidoscopic Kochi

For an intimate view beyond the main city, take KTDC's "Village Backwaters Tour" in a pole-driven canoe to glimpse village life (three hours, $7, includes transfers; ticket information at the KTDC Tourist Reception Center, near Taj Residency Hotel, 484/2353234).

Kathakali is renowned in Kochi, and the See India Foundation (Kalathiparambil Rd., near Ernakulam Junction train station, 484/2369471) gives a two-hour show that will enlighten you about Indian history, Hinduism, and the intricacies of this dance drama ($2). Wrap it up here by seeing kalaripayattu, Kerala's ancient martial art, at the ENS Kalari Centre (484/2700810), located eight miles west of Kochi at Nettoor.

As for lodging, the most interesting choices are found in Fort Kochi, the older section on the city's southern peninsula, where the architecture is influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. The Fort House (2/6A Calvathy Rd., 484/2217066, fax 484/2216886) offers a few spotless, simply furnished rooms for $20, including breakfast. In a quiet part of town, the Kapithan Inn (near Santa Cruz Cathedral; 484/2216560, kapithaninn.com) is a tidy, family-run guesthouse with tasteful rooms for $12 to $15. Very atmospheric, the Old Courtyard (1/371 Princess St., 484/2216302, oldcourtyard.com) has rooms with canopied beds and high-beamed ceilings for $20 to $50. The neighboring town of Ernakulam (located across the bay on the mainland) is renowned for its budget rooms. Biju's Tourist Home (corner of Canon Shed and Market Rds., 484/2381881) is somewhat seedy but popular and friendly; rooms cost $5 to $13, with baths. Hakoba (Shanmugham Rd., 484/2353933) has $4 to $8 rooms-some with smashing sea views and a restaurant. Sleek and modern, the Grand (M.G. Rd., 484/2382061, grandhotelkerala.com) charges $30.

For food in Fort Kochi, the stylish Kashi Art Cafe, (Burgher St.), housed in a restored Dutch heritage house, has wheat-bread sandwiches, cakes, and pies, and real coffee (rare in tea-drinking Kerala, where coffee is grown!). Breakfast and lunch specials run $1 to $1.10. In Ernakulam, the glass-enclosed Bubble Cafe, (Taj Residency Hotel, Marine Dr.) offers bountiful East-West buffets; $5 breakfast, $8 lunch. For people-watching, grab a window seat at spiffy Bimbi's (Shanmugham Rd.), where superb dosas, amazing ice cream, and a range of Indian dishes run 25¢ to 50¢. Southern Star (above Bimbi's) features Indian and Chinese specialties, enormous portions; entrees under $2.

Backwater bargain cruise

Finally, here is the reason many tourists seek out Kerala. Exceedingly popular and an incredible buy is an eight-hour backwater cruise between Kollam (Quilon) and Alappuzha (Alleppey) aboard a double-decker ferry through canals, lagoons, and villages. Including lunch and afternoon tea, it costs just $4. Several operations offer nearly identical cruises. One example is the District Tourist Promotion Council in Kollam (DTPC; 477/2253308, dtpc-quilontourism.com). Tickets are available at various hotels and tourist offices in both Kollam and Alappuzha.

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