India: if you've never been, go to Kerala it will break you in gently!
This is my fourth visit to India and I still haven't ventured out of the South! From Goa to Mysore in the 80s, from Mumbai to Munnar last year, this part of India, and in particular Kerala, has enchanted me so much that I still haven't explored the North. Take a quick look at my three week escape to Kerala & Pondicherry. It might encourage you to come visit a less "in your face" part of this amazing country!
This is where my best mate from Australia, Jude, and I stayed for two weeks. Majo House Boutique Hotel is owned by a friend of ours from England & is so popular you'd be hard pressed to get in! From the breakfast delivered to your room every morning, to sunsets you can see from your bed, Cherrai Beach has the friendliest locals, the cheapest restaurants, the warmest water, and the emptiest beach I have come across in a long while. It really was the most relaxing holiday I have ever had: sleep, read, eat, relax.....sleep, read, eat, relax.....that's all we did, apart from a bit of yoga, swimming & walking by the Arabian Sea.
Kerala is green and lush and famous for its beautiful backwaters which are just a hop and a skip away from most of the beaches. Just ambling along the little country lanes is a joy, there are colourful distractions around every corner and the backwaters are never far away. A night or two spent on a houseboat floating around is a must if you want to experience the whole Kerala vibe. I can't recommend it enough for seeing local colour.
Cochin, or Kochi as it's now known, is one of the most famous cities in Kerala and is certainly worth a visit for the day or even a couple of days in one of the many lovely boutique hotels there. There is a lot to see and a lot to buy! Every visit to this bustling little port starts with the local fishermen and their special Chinese fishing nets that you can only see in this area, before fighting your way through the traffic to do a spot of shopping in Jew Town.
This is the place to find the gorgeous Hindu Nandis: hand carved wooden bullock's heads that you'll see on the walls of designer hotels all over Kerala. That went straight in my basket! Jew Town also boasts one of the oldest synagogues in India and the main street is full of jewellery shops, spice shops, art galleries & antique shops. I spent a few happy days in Kochi a couple of years ago, there's loads to see and do,, but you can accomplish a lot in a day too - especially shopping!
So that's a little taster of beautiful Kerala, called 'God's Own Country' by the locals, with very good reason in my humble opinion! If you go nowhere else in India, try this little corner of this vast continent first. And if you do travel round the North, this is a great place to end your trip to unwind and have a bit of a chill.
Our next stop was Pondicherry right on the other side of India, on the Bay of Bengal. It has always fascinated both of us because it was a French Colonial City, and we thought it would be a nice contrast to the peace & quiet of Kerala. (I have wanted to go there ever since watching Life of Pi)
And it didn't disappoint. Our hotel (see below), Le Chateau, is in a perfect location, very reasonable, has lovely rooms and is on a gorgeous street full of French colonial buildings, chic little boutiques & great restaurants. This is the area to stay in if you go to Pondi.
And after two weeks of eating delicious Southern Indian Food, it was a joy to have a change & get to eat croissants and French food. Oh, and to drink wine again! I forgot to tell you that Kerala is now a dry state. You can drink in your own home but not at restaurants, making it a really good place for a post-Xmas detox!
Pondicherry is a great town to eat, drink and shop in, but there are other things to do. We took a boat trip out to Paradise Beach just to see what it was like. The ferry trip itself was fascinating as we were completely mobbed by the locals who all wanted a photo taken with us! (see at the bottom of the blog) The beach itself was a bit of a let down and hardly paradise-like. And there were far too many stray dogs, as there are in Pondicherry, for our liking. But the boat trip's fun and worth doing.
The temples and markets of Pondicherry are also well worth doing. We found a delightful Tuk Tuk driver, through the hotel, who could speak English, guide us through the markets, wait for us outside the temples and get us safely home weaving in and out of all the traffic.
As well as weaving in and around all the sacred cows! I just love this sight in India. The cows and bulls look so well cared for and healthy compared to so many of the other animals.
It's a wonderful colourful country that really is an assault on all your senses. Anywhere you are in India, you can relax with an Ayurvedic treatment (Kerala is the centre for this ancient practice) or do some yoga at sunrise or sunset. Everyone you pass in the street has a friendly smile for you and a little nod of the head. But it's also a country of huge contrasts.
It can be noisy, dirty and extremely hot. There are way too many homeless and impoverished people (and dogs) everywhere you look but, somehow, however rotten their lives Indian people remain spiritual, friendly, proud and kind. We could learn a lot from these smiling, lovely people who have so little compared to us. Maybe that's why, once you've visited, you keep going back for more! Next time, I'm heading North.