Beyond Bangalore: Cruising in Kerala

Courtesy Oberoi

Malavika Sangghvi hops aboard the Oberoi M.V. Vrinda, a luxe catamaran plying the waters of India’s southwest coast.

Located at the southernmost tip of India, the state of Kerala has been called God’s own country, and with its hilltop tea estates, wildlife sanctuaries, Ayurvedic resorts, tropical forests, and a cuisine and culture that are amalgams of Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, and British influences, it more than lives up to the description.

And because the state is one of the country’s smallest, all attractions here are within relatively easy driving distance of one another. Munnar, for example, a former British hill station with sprawling tea plantations, is just 80 miles from Cochin (now Kochi), the industrial and commercial capital; Periyar, the best-known wildlife sanctuary in south India, is 120 miles from there, along a narrow single-lane highway.

The best way to experience Kerala isn’t by car, however; it’s by houseboat, especially since good hotels are impossibly hard to find. The entire western half of the state is water bound, in fact. There a chain of brackish lakes and lagoons on the lip of the Malabar Coast—the so-called Kerala backwaters—ebbs and flows into the state’s five large lakes and 38 rivers.

For years kettuvallams—Kerala’s typical cargo vessels—were visitors’ main source of transportation and accommodation. With thatched roofs covering wooden hulls and a government-tourist-board sensibility, they offered a pretty realistic idea of local life. But damp carpets, tacky interiors, and “modest” amenities left many—let’s put it this way—disappointed. Such disappointment, however, had the positive effect of inspiring the country’s top hotels to come up with luxe versions of the humble kettuvallam.

One such nod in that direction is the Oberoi M.V. Vrinda. With its teak-covered dining room, two decks, and eight well-appointed, air-conditioned (but tiny) cabins, each with a large picture window, the 100-foot catamaran makes four-day voyages on Vembanad Lake and the Alleppey Canal. During our time on board last fall, we fell into a delightful, easy routine: Mornings and afternoons spent sightseeing—transferring onto a rice boat to visit local attractions like a 100-year-old Hindu temple or the 17th-century St. Mary’s Church—and evenings spent watching performances by traditional South Indian Mohiniattam dancers or a demonstration of Kalarippayat, the region’s famed ancient martial arts form.

Were we to change anything about the experience, we’d make the Vrinda a little less precious. The food (Continental nouvelle), the ambiance (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing in the background), and, at times, even the service seemed just a touch too posh for the surroundings. While we certainly luxuriated in our floating hotel and enjoyed the sense of nobility it afforded us, the vessel made it a bit hard to see the real Kerala. But for sailing these beautiful backwaters without giving up any comforts, the Vrinda is unequivocally the ticket.

The Oberoi M.V. Vrinda departs from the Vembanad Lake jetty every four days from October 1 to April 30. (The jetty is an hour’s drive from Cochin, which is accessible by a flight from Bangalore that takes an hour and 20 minutes.) Rates are $2,000 for a single cabin and $2,250 for a double cabin, including all meals, excursions, and transportation to and from Cochin’s airport. Call 91-484/266-9595 or go to oberoivrinda.com.