My private houseboat
A cruise through the serene backwaters of Kerala
Aboard a houseboat at twilight we are floating on otherwise empty waters. The last of a rose-pink sunset turns the vista sepia, the colour of old photographs. It’s spinechillingly beautiful.
I’m a passenger on the newly built Honey Dew, traversing the serene Valiyaparamba backwaters that thread through Kasaragod, the northernmost region of the southwest Indian state of Kerala.
Backwater cruises on houseboats, or kettuvallam, are very popular in coastal Kerala. Alleppey, its touristthronged port, sees more than 1000 vessels depart daily in season to explore a series of canals, rivers and lagoons. But here, along the 30km Valiyaparamba network, only about a dozen houseboats sail. It’s one of those pinchyourself destinations, undisturbed by mass tourism.
On the first morning of our two-day tour, my friend John and I gaze at the serpentine ribbon of olive-green water. Fishermen pass by in hand-paddled canoes and a chorus of insects strikes up amid the verdant coconut groves on the riverbanks. Brahminy kites glide overhead.
With captain Janardhanan in command, we are passing Valiyaparamba Island, the largest of seven isles studded along these backwaters. A little girl plays on a swing attached under a palm; she waves to us enthusiastically. A fisherman wearing a knee-length brown mundi, the sarong worn by local men, casts a line.
Hundreds of mussel farms poke out of the water, arranged in neat rows. This backwater industry employs 6000 farmers and is one of the area’s main economies; the mussels are cultivated on coir ropes attached to bamboo frames.
Honey Dew is described as “luxury” and it is certainly comfortable, but service is where it excels. The food and drinks never seem to stop, from fresh mint juice on arrival to a gargantuan breakfast. An array of fish and seafood is served on small plates for lunch and dinner; the portions and choices are at times overwhelming.
“Everything you’re eating is locally sourced,” says chef Pavithran, who presides over the kitchen at the stern.
We dine at a wicker table on the open-sided deck, which is kitted out with what we regard as non-essentials such as a television set and sound system. There are benches, too, catering to local tourists who use the boat for day trips. The pretty, woven roof is not just for decoration; it helps keep the interior cool and shaded.
Janardhanan steers us northwards to the mouth of the Arabian Sea, source of the backwaters, joined by a confluence of four rivers. Where the waterway widens, sandbars have formed and men are digging, taking buckets of sand back to land to construct houses.
We dock at Monkey Island, where tribes of macaques reside in the interior. On the shoreline, we meet a group of mussel farmers bringing in a catch. They don’t speak English, but the women demonstrate how they pull the bivalves off coir ropes. The shells glisten like jewels. Live mussels are placed in sacks, which the women carry away on their heads.
Next morning the light is soft and even more mesmerising than at dusk. We watch two fishermen stopping nearby to cast their nets for an abundance of river fish.
We end our cruise by meandering to the waterway’s southerly tip. It is prettier and more pristine, unveiling uninhabited islets and lush groves of mangroves. The sense of peace is shattered momentarily by Indian pop music booming out from a passing houseboat. Six young men are around a table eating, talking and laughing.
We disembark at the mainland port, where we’re driven to Oyster Opera on Thekkekadu Island. Mohammed Gul owns this rustic backwater resort and also manages Honey Dew, alongside local businessman Kader Porot, who built this kettuvallam outside his home, in the traditional method using timber and coir. “Houseboat tourism is still new here,” Gul says. “But people keep asking for the boats, so more and more will arrive.”
Our final afternoon in Kerala could have been spent reclining in a hammock, but we opt to explore Valiyaparamba Island by kayak and bike with adventure operator Muddy Boots. Kayaking is strenuous work but we man- age 10km downstream and come to dock at the shore, where the air is filled with butterflies. “There are more than 400 species here,” explains Syed Mehaboob, who leads our excursion.
By bike, we speed along rocky pathways the shade of saffron, built from rich earth. We pass wooden-shuttered shops selling basic supplies and houses with gated gardens. Other than a couple of simple homestays, there is no tourism here.
We stop to talk to some coconut pickers and listen to the gentle thud of the fruit hitting the ground as they hack away with cleavers at the trees.
They split one open and I quench my thirst with the cool water, which trickles down my chin. The coconut husk is an important material for the islanders. Aside from food, it is turned into coir in a local factory and becomes everything from rope to matting.
We end our visit at Sandwich Beach, which stretches down the side of the island.
“This is the only place in Kerala where you can experience the sea and backwaters so close together,” Mehaboob suggests. The bay is a hub for villagers; families and groups of teenagers paddle in the shallows and sit talking on the sand, alongside scuttling hermit crabs.
Kasaragod district is geographically isolated compared to other part of Kerala. The nearest entry point by air is 70km away at Mangalore but an international airport is due to open in nearby Kannur in 2016, so development is looming. Let’s hope it doesn’t arrive too quickly.
Along the serene Valiyaparamba, top, and the newly launched Honey Dew, above