When you plan a trip to a country as vast and varied as India, there are unlimited routes to take. Stay up north and explore the "Golden Triangle" (Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur); spend time in a tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh; escape to an ashram in Pune — the options are endless. But should you, as I did, find yourself in the southwestern tip, be sure to factor in at least one night (although the moment I stepped on the boat I wished I had booked two) on a traditional Kettuvallam (houseboat) in the backwaters of Kerala.
The waterways offer vistas that are hard to describe (or even capture their brilliance to film) and the sense of calm that wraps around you while you watch the patty fields, fishing villages, and palm-fringed panoramas drift by is nothing short of prescription-strength.
Below is the hour-by-hour replay of my short, but memorable stay.
Board the eco-friendly boat (made with local materials, such as coconut fibers and bamboo poles and mats) and meet the staff (a chef, a captain, and an engineer) for a tour of the boat. Mine has a main level with three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a dining/main room directly behind the captain's wheel, and — most notably — an upper deck with plenty of lounging options.
Tip: If you want to drink on board, BYOB or ask whoever is making your travel arrangements to arrange it before you set sail.
Quickly settle onto the upper deck with a freshly cracked coconut, the first of many beers, and a good book … then find it impossible to read as the scenery floating by is like nothing you've ever seen before. Spend most of the time alternating between jaw hanging open and exchanging wide-eyed looks with shipmates.
Tip: Once you're done drinking the milk from the coconuts, don't be afraid to ask the chef to crack it open and dig out the tender coconut from the shell.
Wander down to the lower deck for lunch. Mine included Karimeen masala fry (with pearl spot fish), kingfish curry, Alleppey prawn curry, rice, avial (vegetables mixed with shredded coconut), mixed vegetable thoran, pineapple chutney, and papadum (a thin, crisp round flatbread).
Tip: As the meals provided on the houseboat are tailored to tourists, they can run the gamut between Northern and Southern Indian specialties (which can be nice if you're not traveling up north and still want your fix of butter chicken and samosas). However, if you are looking for meals to be more regional (as I was), simply chat with the team you're booking the boat through; they will be able to tailor the menu for you.
Also, if you're uncomfortable being served French-style, feel free to speak up and ask to serve yourself!
Trade in the houseboat for a small canoe and take a ride through the backwaters. Don't be surprised if you feel like a bit of a voyeur — the boat takes you through everyday life in the backwaters of Kerala, including watching school children walking home on the narrow paths that follow the riverbed, women washing laundry in the water near the boat, and boys splashing and swimming in the water.
Return to the houseboat for milky coffee with freshly fried banana fritters and resume gawking at the scenery.
Dock for sunset. Keep in mind that many houseboats tend to dock together for the night (which can lend an extra sense of security). Wander down the narrow pathways to watch the sunset.
Again, tear yourself away from the upper deck and make it down for dinner: grilled tiger prawns, crab roast, chicken coconut fry, bindi (okra), Kerala mutton curry, mackerel fish fry, rice, lemon dal, Kerala paratha (layered flatbread) and cut fruits.
Tip: Sneak into the kitchen while the chef is preparing dinner to peek at some of the incredible seafood being prepared. The gorgeous prawns and crab tasted even more delicious after we saw how beautiful they were even prior to cooking.
Retire to the upper deck for a nightcap, watch the calm water shimmer in the moonlight, and repeatedly wonder why you didn't book the boat for two nights.
Tip: Bring bug spray and ask the crew for mosquito coils at night to keep the mosquitos at bay.
Wake up for the sunrise, drink coffee, practice yoga, and read on the upper deck as the boat starts sailing toward home.
Enjoy breakfast (coffee, fresh fruits and juices, toast, and pancakes) while the boat sails in the morning sun, past fisherman and more palm trees.
Dock, unload, and step back on firm ground with a lightness in your heart.
Tip: Tip each staff member separately and thank him or her individually.