Houseboat in Kerala's backwaters

Relaxing houseboat cruise on the backwaters of Kerala in India

November 26, 2014

Kerala is the most popular tourist destination in south India. Thanks to its beautiful beaches and lush greenery, Kerala attracts millions of tourists annually. What is particularly unique to Kerala is an experience you cannot find anywhere else in India — backwaters and houseboats. Kerala's backwaters, and the houseboats that journey across them, are a major tourist attraction and a 'must do' for tourists visiting Kerala.

The backwaters consist of canals, lagoons, and lakes all interconnected over a 900 kms stretch spanning the entire state. The backwaters are used to ferry people around and to carry small cargo. Needless to say, the backwaters became popular as a tourist attraction. Cruising the backwaters give tourists an unique perspective into the way of life in Kerala’s villages.

To take visitors around, barge boats were modified and converted into what are now popularity called 'houseboats'. Most houseboats still retain a traditional look, largely made using wood and the roofs made using dry coconut leaves. Houseboats come in many sizes. Smaller ones accommodate a couple or two, where as the bigger ones can accommodate an entire family or a group of 10 people or more. Many houseboats come equipped with comfortable beds, air conditioning, toilets, kitchen, and staff that usually consists of a cook and a boat driver, who also doubles as a guide. Although backwaters can be found in Kerala from north to south, much of the tourist activity is concentrated in the southern districts of Kerala. The popular backwater destinations in Kerala are:

Ashtamudi Lake

Backwater sailing in a Houseboat in Ashtamudi Lake, Kerala
Ashtamudi Lake is the most visited backwater destination in Kerala.

Situated in Kollam district, Ashtamudi Lake is the most visited backwater destination in Kerala. It is also the second largest lake of Kerala. The lake is also called the ‘gateway’ to the backwaters of Kerala, and thus, is frequented by tourists in large numbers. The wetlands in and around Ashtamudi lake attracts many species of migratory birds making it a popular place for bird watchers and wildlife photographers. Inside the vast lake is Munroe Island, a cluster of eight small islands that are largely inhabited.

Vembanad Lake

Kerala Fishing Nets in Vembanad Lake
Fishing Nets in Vembanad Lake, the largest & longest lake in Kerala.

Vembanad Lake in Kumarakom, Kottayam district, is the largest and longest lake in Kerala. Many houseboats begin their journey down the canal leading into the expansive lake. Lining the edge of this vast lake are several high-end resorts, many of whom operate their own houseboats for guests. The annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race, the most popular of its kind in Kerala, is conducted in a portion of Vembanad lake on the second Saturday of August. Drawing crowds by the thousands, tourists can request their houseboats to park at a good spot to watch the ‘snake boats’ race.

Valiyaparambu

Lake Kavvayi is the largest lake in north Kerala, which extends over large areas of Kannur and Kasaragod districts. The Valiyaparambu backwaters may not be as popular as its peers in the south, but this makes it an exclusive houseboat experience with hardly any 'traffic' on the waterways. Much like the above-mentioned backwaters, several small islands dot the way and Valiyaparambu comprises of many estuaries.

Alleppey

Luxury houseboat in Allepey backwaters, Kerala
A luxury houseboat docking in Alapuzha backwaters of Kerala.

Known as "Alapuzha" to the locals, Alleppey is a district 70 kms from Cochin that also shares proximity to Vembanad lake. Alleppey was called "Venice of the East" due to the many canals that snake through villages and farms. The houseboats tours take visitors through the many canals giving tourists a good look at the way of life for the locals that live by the waterways. Also to be spotted along the waterways are many small temples and churches. Alleppey also has a beach which isn't too far from town.

Cuisine you have to try

Wherever you choose to go for your houseboat journey, no backwater experience is complete without sipping on some freshly procured toddy. Toddy is an alcoholic beverage tapped from the sap of coconut palm trees (in Kerala especially). Toddy shops are common in areas popular for backwater tourism. As for food, the specialties are karimeen and other seafood. Karimeen is a pearlspot fish commonly found in the freshwaters of Kerala. Karimeen is either deep fried or wrapped in spices inside a banana leaf and then steamed. In fact, while cruising the deeper waters, you could even try fishing for some karimeen yourself! Just request for a fishing rod before embarking on your houseboat journey. Other meat specialties to try include rabbit fry and duck preparations.

A different cruise experience?

Luxury houseboat in Allepey backwater, Kerala
Luxury houseboat bedroom in backwaters of Kerala. Photo by Spice Routes.

Houseboats may lack the amenities, entertainment and luxuries of a modern day cruise liner, but the backwater experience isn’t about all that. Think of the houseboat as a hotel room on the move. Leisurely cruising along waterways and offering spectacular views, without ever being too far away from land. Where else can you cruise past rice paddy fields on one side and village homes on another… all while relaxing on a hammock? If you do wish to take the wheel, simply ask the houseboat driver and he will allow you to commandeer the boat for a little while. The backwater cruises are also a popular honeymoon experience and the houseboat operators can make special arrangement for romantic dinners on the boat itself. Some houseboat tours include stopovers at ayurvedic treatment centers, where guests can experience traditional massages and holistic body treatments. The keyword is relaxation. The backwaters are unique to Kerala, and so is the houseboat experience. And neither is complete without the other.

The Great Backwaters, Kerala

The great backwaters Kerala, India. Courtesy of Kerala Tourism.

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