Kerala is a network of 1500 km of canals both manmade and natural, 38 rivers and 5 big lakes extending from one end of Kerala to the other.
Backwaters is one of the major tourism product of Kerala, being unique to the state. Traditionally used as one of the main transportation alleys, today backwaters offer a rejuvenating experience for tourists visiting Kerala.
The backwaters can be explored by hiring a boat for one or several days. If you go for more than a day, the boat usually comes with a navigator and a cook, which provide you with various facilities when exploring the backwaters .
While hill resorts and beaches can be found in other parts of India, the backwaters are unique to Kerala. Meandering through the coastal areas of Kerala is a 900 kilometers (560 miles) long intricate network of lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries and deltas of several rivers that flow into the Arabian Sea. This is a natural phenomenon, as major rivers and streams that flows within Kerala drain themselves into backwaters regions, resulting in creation of several small land strips, lagoons, islands etc, which opens to sea at few areas. Thus backwaters are one of the largest fresh-water sources and rich in marine habitat as well as adds to natural beauty. Kerala has 3 backwater regions;
The most beautiful and accessible part of the back waters is the Vembanad backwater stretch located in districts of Ernakulam, Alapuzha and Kottayam area. Vembanadu lake is the the longest lake in South Asia and listed as prestigious Ramsar sites, with rich bio-diversity. The north Vembanadu lake opens to sea at Cochin habour. The Cochin coast is dotted with numerous islands interconnected by ferries and bridges, adorning the Queen of the Arabian Sea like a necklace of pearls. The islands break the waves from the sea, thus ensuring that the back waters are calm and navigable. Among the islands, Wellingdon Island deserves special mention as it houses the Port of Cochin and the largest Naval presence in India: the Southern Naval Command.
The southern Vembanadu lake is world-renowned for its natural beauty and large expanse of water, sandwiched between district of Alapuzha and Kottayam. This is the most visited tourist area in South India and enthralls visitors all over world. Houseboat tourism, made this backwaters popular, where tourists can stay overnight in luxurious houseboats, enjoying natural beauty and wind off their stress.
Alapuzha has one of the largest network of canals, lagoons etc is famous for its unique practice of farming below sea-level at Kuttanad, where sea water is prevented using mud bars and lagoon strips. Whereas Kottayam has rose to world fame, when its sleepy lake village- Kumarakom became favourite holiday homes for international celebrities, overnight. Kumarakom is a famous bird sanctuary with home of several rare migratory birds with large expanse of backwaters and lagoons.
The second most visited backwater region is Astamudi Lake located in district in Kollam. This is one of the largest fresh-water lake in India, with numerous navigable canals and rivers interconnecting almost all regions of south Kerala. The Astamudi is also home of several endangered marine species.
The third backwater region is located at Kannur-Valiyaparambu Backwaters located in districts of Kannur and Kasargod, which is least exploited, though it offers amazing natural beauty and presence of numerous small uninhabited islands.
Apart from these three major backwater regions, smaller lagoons could be find in almost all coastal districts of Kerala. The popular options are
To access Vembandu Lake, Cochin International Airport (COK) located in Kochi is ideal as its located just 90 kms from Alapuzha and Kottayam districts.
To access Astamudi Lake, Thiruvananthapuram Airport (TRV) located in state capital Thiruvananathapuram is better, as its located within 68 kms.
Calicut Airport (CCJ) of Kozhikode, should be your choice to reach Malabar Backwaters, particularly Kannur areas. Alternatively Mangalore Airport (IXM) and Coimbatore Airport(CJB) are other options having national flight connectivity.
Alapuzha Town and Kottayam Junction are major railway stations in Indian Railway Network, for all trains bound to South Kerala, where one needs to align to proceed to Alapuzha Backwaters and Kumarakom islands respectively.
Kollam Junction, is a major railway station, which is located in heart of Kollam town where one can reach Astamudi-Sasthamkotta lake regions
Kannur, Thalassery, Kasargod etc are major railway line in busy Konkan Railway line (Trivandrum-Mumbai route), hence align respectively, to proceed to Malabar backwaters region
Most of the backwater regions are interconnected each other with National highways and State highways. While much of Alapuzha region is connected by NH 47, Kottayam is connected with SH-1 (MC Road) and both the regions are interconnected with A-C State highway (Alapuzha-Changassery).
Much of Kollam regions are covered with numerous State highways and 2 national highway- NH 47 and NH 208.
Northern Kerala are interconnected with several SH and NH 17.
Regular cruises call at Kochi port from where tourists can reach Vembandu lake either by car or yachts or light cruisers. A few ships do call at Old Alapuzha Port.
Similarly few cruises call at Beypore Port near Kozhikode, from where tourists can proceed to Kannur Backwaters via cars.
Boat is the best way to go around the region, of-course cars can't ply in waters. Apart from tourist house-boats, regular mechanized ferries operated by Kerala State In-land Navigation Company (KSINC) and traditional country-side canoes also operate in the region, which interconnect between various small islands, strips etc.
However road connections are also available interconnected by bridges, allowing cars and buses to ply. A few islands are connected with small walk-bridges, which needed to be explored either by foot or bicycle/bikes.
You can find a series of detailed maps of the region between Kollam and Kochi (not the whole system, but the most popular part) at tourindiakerala.com.
Before trucks became common, the main cargo transportation was through backwaters by 'Kettuvalloms'. Kettuvallom loosely translated means: ‘roofed boat’. They can be as long as 70 foot, with a 30 ton capacity, made with wooden planks joined and tied together with coconut ropes and painted with cashew nut oil outside. Nowadays many kettuvalloms have been converted to House Boats by enterprising boat owners with amenities like beds, kitchens, bars & toilets. The entire houseboats are constructed with natural eco-friendly materials like bamboo, coir, palm leaves and wood. Normally house-boats have 2 or 3 bed rooms with large lobby area, a kitchen and crew rooms. Some larger house-boats are even two storied with open terrace and observation deck connected with bamboo stair case. A few house-boats are floating conference halls to conduct meetings and DJ parties.
They are available on hire for fixed rates (varies according to the season). The package usually includes tour along the backwater with stops at various place with historical or cultural importance. The menu usually includes the fresh water catch along with the seasonal sea food and Kerala vegetarian dishes. Guests who require special menus as well as vegetarian foods in certain specific styles, must inform the crew or operator office, atleast one day before the cruise. Packages include cost of food and all regular amenities. Guests can swim in the backwaters, only in the areas, authorized by houseboat crew. Most of the house-boat operates on 22 hour cruise, starting from 12:00 Noon to 10:00 AM next day. The houseboats will be anchored from evening 8:00 pm onwards and morning 06:00 am next day, as government laws prohibit night movements due to tidal waves and remoteness of areas. Now a days, house-boats are available for 8 hour cruise package for larger crowds, who do-not prefer staying over-night.
The backwaters flow through almost all the districts of Kerala -- Alappuzha, Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Kottayam, etc. Almost all the stretches have breathtaking views. Not to be missed are the Thiruvallam backwaters, Kumarakom (on Vembanad lake) and Kuttanad.
Its water, water and water everywhere, with few narrow of strip of land in-between with huge coconut trees guarding, with its palms swaying in wind. The experience cannot be described effectively by any travelogue.
Imagine you are located in center of a 200 sq km expanse of water, equipped with no gadgets, cut-off from other parts of world and without any daily pleasures? Thats exactly happens when you are in a house-boat.
The Kerala tourism, while aggressively promoting backwater tourism made a policy to provide an avenue or opportunity for tourists to remain idle for a day, wind off stress and relax to rewind back to life. The house-boats are equipped with all comfortable facilities to relax, however most of them do-not provide televisions and radio-sets as a general policy. The only thing to do, thus is to appreciate the natural beauty and rewind to past memories of life.
Recently many houseboat operators started innovative programs to engage guests, by providing them fishing at the backwaters and allowing guests to make a catch and eat it according their style of cooking.
Likewise, many house-boats now-a-days anchor at local vegetable markets and allow guests to choose their vegetables, to cook food as per their choice. Likewise in evenings, the houseboats are anchored near local toddy shops where guests can treat themselves with traditional Kerala palm toddies and shop special snacks.
Another innovative thing, is to do shopping at Floating supermarkets operated by Triveni Co-op. With more than 2000 groceries items and other essentials, this is a native retail innovation, to cater people living islands. The supermarkets are built inside large motorized boats and on-request the houseboat crew brings it closer to supermarket, allowing the guests to enter. A pretty good-idea to have mid-water shopping!
Kerala Connections , United Kingdom offers 7 day/6 nights houseboats cruises from/to Alleppey including Vembanad Lake, Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, Akkathara narrow canal, Parithivalavu, Chavara Bhavan, Kuttamangalam narrow canal, Pulincunnoo, Kavalam, Kidangara, Mannar, Thottappally beach, Champakkulam and Vembanadu Canal) for UKP 542,- (winter 2010).
Menu at house-boats always include freshwater fishes, freshly caught before the eyes of guests, while in house-boat itself. Apart from freshwater catch, sea-food as well as chicken also finds in the menu. Regular menus are prepared in typical Kerala style, freshly prepared by crew in each houseboat. If guests require special menus, it has to be informed to the crew atleast before a day. Guests also can cook food themselves, if interested.
Apart from houseboats, there are numerous small Kallu shaps (Toddy Shops) which is a connoisseur's favourite, due to its huge list of varieties in its menu. However you would be able to appreciate, if you are a vegetarian or vegan, as majority of them are fishes and other non-vegetarian dishes. Kallu-shaps, serves local palm toddy known as Kallu, but today most of the people visit shaps for its signature dishes. Most of the fishes are freshwater fishes, freshly caught from the backwaters. A snap shot of top signature dishes are;
Many travellers stay on houseboats, but you can also find many resorts dotting the backwaters. Most of these are converted ancestral homes where you can stay with the family and have a feel of the local culture and cuisine.
There are few homestays in the island of Kumbalangi, Bolghatty etc. But to see the backwaters, you don't have to stay in any of the islands, there are hotels in mainland Ernakulam, from where you can go the islands, or backwaters.