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Charting the Backwaters

India's Laid-Back South
  • Vaamika Island

    Vaamika Island

  • Vaamika Island

    Vaamika Island

  • The Oberoi, Mumbai

    The Oberoi, Mumbai

  • The Oberoi, Mumbai

    The Oberoi, Mumbai

  • Purity at Lake Vembanad

    Purity at Lake Vembanad

  • Purity at Lake Vembanad

    Purity at Lake Vembanad

  • Vrinda

    Vrinda

CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

Jutting out from the bottom of the Asian continent, India occupies some 1.3m square miles from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south.

WHY GO

Home to an incredible diversity of cultures, a continent’s worth of spectacular landscapes and an incredibly rich history and mythology, India is one of the world’s great, classic travel destinations — and one that you can go back to again and again without even scratching the surface.

HOW

The international airports in Mumbai and Delhi are among the largest Asian hubs, well serviced with flights from practically everywhere within range of a jet.

TABLET TIP

India’s most visited spots — the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Delhi, Mumbai — are well worth seeing, but India is also a country that rewards getting off the beaten track. Consider heading south to the backwaters of Kerala or north to the Himalayan foothills.

Kerala, March, 2013

India needs no introduction. Its cities seething with humanity, its spinning pinwheels of color, its mélange of cultures and flavors, its sheer vastness and most of all its mind-bending contrasts are all by now the stuff of travel-writing clichés. But Kerala, even in a country as vast and diverse as India, is something else entirely: a relatively off-the-radar sliver in the south where life unwinds at an easy, tropical pace. Kerala’s tourism board bills it as “God’s own country,” and there’s something to that, a certain Edenic quality about the place — and that’s saying something in a nation with as many pilgrimage-worthy sites as India.

Kerala is a backwater in the old, literal sense — or perhaps it’s more precise to say that its storied backwaters, a vast network of finger-bone rivers and lazy lagoons, are the main reason for visiting. But before you make your way to this water wonderland along the Arabian Sea, it’s worth stopping in Mumbai to fully appreciate the truth of the whole “land of contrasts” thing. Mingle with royalty and Bollywood stars at the Oberoi, Mumbai, a contemporary-classic landmark with rooms overlooking the Indian Ocean. Its light-flooded atrium, clad in white marble, is the stuff of opulent, palatial fantasy, and one of its three restaurants, Ziya, has a two-Michelin-starred chef, Vineet Bhatia, at the helm. Mumbai makes a worthy, convenient stopover on the way to Kerala, but as you’ll soon discover, it’s a whole other India from what awaits down south.

Before you even touch down, you’ll notice Kerala’s striking topography, the green hills of the Western Ghats on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. To lose yourself among its coconut groves and rice paddy fields, book a stay at the seven-room Vaamika Island, deep in the maze of Kerala’s backwaters. The restored two-hundred-year-old Brahmin home is built in the region’s signature architectural style, with sloping tiled roofs, ornate wooden pillars and decorated gables. A healing Ayuverdic treatment is perfect for easing into the spirit of things, especially since Kerala is the birthplace of this holistic branch of traditional Indian medicine.

There’s another form of healing to avail yourself of: sitting waterside and doing nothing. And the six-room Purity at Lake Vembanad, perched shoreside on its namesake lake, is just the place. From your beach chair at Purity, you can watch as the boats glide by: a slow-moving kettuvalam (traditional teakwood houseboat), perhaps a ferry packed with children on their way to school, a small fishing boat whose crew is catching karimeen fish with hand-thrown nets. Meanwhile, on the banks, “toddy tappers” offer a more pulse-quickening spectacle as they scale coconut palms to collect sap, which they’ll ferment into a potent brew and sell at waterside shacks.

Eventually, you’ll want to get on the water yourself. The Oberoi Motor Vessel Vrinda does three- and two-night sailings through the fabled waterways, weaving in and out of the narrow canals. The trips include daily excursions on a rice boat, with visits to temples, sacred serpent shrines and a Kathakali performance with masked dancers enacting ancient Hindu epics. It’s a long way indeed from the star-studded bars of Mumbai or the endless office parks of Gurgaon — and proof that the more you explore it, the bigger India gets.

Anja Mutic is online at Ever the Nomad.

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CHEAT SHEET
WHERE

Jutting out from the bottom of the Asian continent, India occupies some 1.3m square miles from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south.

WHY GO

Home to an incredible diversity of cultures, a continent’s worth of spectacular landscapes and an incredibly rich history and mythology, India is one of the world’s great, classic travel destinations — and one that you can go back to again and again without even scratching the surface.

HOW

The international airports in Mumbai and Delhi are among the largest Asian hubs, well serviced with flights from practically everywhere within range of a jet.

TABLET TIP

India’s most visited spots — the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Delhi, Mumbai — are well worth seeing, but India is also a country that rewards getting off the beaten track. Consider heading south to the backwaters of Kerala or north to the Himalayan foothills.

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