Travel: Cooking up a storm in Kerala’s backwaters

Laura Harding finds a world far removed from the chaos of Slumdog Millionaire in the peaceful backwaters of Kerala.

Sunday, 21st April 2013, 7:00 am

Sprawled out on cushions on the bow of a houseboat, drifting along a river in glorious sunshine, I am a world away from the India I imagined.

The scenery is lush and green, palm trees line the banks and brightly coloured laundry flickers on washing lines. Children clamber up to the highest branches and jump into the water while fishermen sit in peaceful vigil.

I’ve travelled to India before, I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, this is not what I was expecting.

But I’m in Kerala, one of the smallest states, and dubbed God’s own country by proud locals.

It’s not hard to see why. Any of the chaos, noise, poverty and pollution you might expect from a visit to India don’t seem to exist here.

Some people say they are intimidated by the prospect of a trip to South Asia’s biggest country, they are worried they won’t be able to handle the smells, the begging children, even the spicy food. But Kerala could not be less intimidating - from the warm and welcoming smiles of the locals to the stunning landscapes, blissful beaches and coconut-infused food.

I’ve spent three lovely days on the MV Apsara, cruising around the famous backwaters, breaking briefly from sunbathing, sightseeing and supping on watermelon juice for an invigorating ayurvedic massage.

But it is on this houseboat, much smaller than the boat where I have been sleeping, that really convinces me of Kerala’s charms, and that’s even before the captain lets me grab hold of the wheel.

The real world feels a million miles away, it’s almost impossible to remember the noise of a city. The only sound I can hear are children splashing in the water or a fisherman casting his net.

When I return to the mainland, I take a stroll through Puthanangadi, the village where the floating boutique hotel is moored.

There’s a festival going on and the children are lighting candles in front of the temple but they come running over when they see strange faces.

The little ones hardly speak any English but can’t wait to have their pictures taken or show off some basic yoga poses.

It’s hard to leave such a tranquil place but fresh from my watery adventures, I head east to the spice plantations of Thekkady.

Arriving at the beautiful Spice Village, set amid eight acres of forest, the first thing I want to do is sniff everything.

I am presented with beautifully aromatic mint tea as soon as I arrive and from then on all I do is soak up spicy smells.

Every seemingly normal tree is actually harbouring wonderfully aromatic spices and the place is an eco heaven.

Much of the resort is self-sufficient and the whole place aims to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. As well as the simple but spacious huts where guests sleep, the resort houses a huge vegetable garden, a place where they make their own paper, and an ever-growing expanse of solar panels.

My favourite feature is the open-air 50 Mile restaurant, where none of the produce has travelled more than that distance, meaning it’s all fresh and locally sourced.

After feasting on basil quail kebabs and a huge selection of vegetarian curries, all washed down with Indian wine, I am ready to pledge never to eat food that has travelled in a plane ever again.

All this wonderful food makes me eager to join one of the Spice Village’s cookery demonstrations.

One of the lovely chefs has abandoned his dinner preparations to teach a group of us how to whip up a cinnamon masala curry.

The sight of the mirror set up above his head so we can see into the pans is completely mesmerising, as are the delicious smells quickly heading my way.

This is made even better when we get to eat the curry. The lovely staff hand over a beautiful box of spices as a leaving gift, so I have no excuse not to put my new culinary tips to good use now.

Exhausted from the strain of drinking cocktails, sniffing spices and watching somebody else cook for me, I zig-zag back across the country, making the five-hour journey to the Marari Beach Resort on the tropical Malabar coast.

It’s hard to sum up how blissful it is here but the luxury and thoughtfulness is probably best summarised by the set-up on the beach.

Huge comfy hammocks swing from palm trees and off to the side of each one is a big red flag. Need a snack? A drink? A fresh towel? Just hoist the flag. It’s easy to see why Paul McCartney chose this place for his honeymoon with Heather Mills.

I’m spoilt for life and that’s before I’ve even set foot in the ayurvedic centre.

Ayurvedic massage uses plant-based treatments to maintain the health of mind and spirit and the treatment I have involves two women constantly pouring warm oil over me while massaging me from head to toe.

Before I slide off the table and into oblivion they put me in the shower and exfoliate my skin so well it’s soft and glowing for ages afterwards.

When I finally wander back to my huge beach hut, complete with outdoor bathroom, I am in such a daze I need to take a few minutes to compose myself.

An early morning yoga session brings me back down to earth. Eating so well for so long has not made me more flexible but my teacher, Gopal, is so warm and encouraging, I am offering sun salutations in no time.

Gopal has been doing yoga for 50 years but it’s hard to imagine he’s a day older than that. When he shows off his most impressive poses at the end of the class, it doesn’t seem impossible to believe he’s been working on them since birth.

Sprawled out on the floor watching him, I can see how 50 years spent in Kerala could do wonders for your mind, body and soul.

Travel facts

Laura Harding was a guest of Saga Holidays, which offers 12-night Soul of Kerala packages in October 2013 from £2,299.

Package includes excursions, a Saga tour manager and return flights on Emirates from Gatwick, Manchester or Birmingham airport to Cochin, via Dubai. Business class upgrades available for a supplement.

Door-to-door VIP travel is included from anywhere in the UK plus travel insurance, tourist visa and additional cancellation cover, all breakfasts, three lunches and all dinners.

For reservations visit www.saga.co.uk/india or call 0800 414 383.