Driving Down

Avoiding “season” in India is probably not an easy task. But it is not an entirely impossible task. Considering the size of the country, it is off-season somewhere. The only time being summer vacations, when hoardes of kids are let loose from schools and Mom and Dad travel the length and breadth of the country with them; wishing that school was still on. But as a tip, if you’re planning to travel to Thekkady, then be advised that off-season is between 1st April and 30th October.

Travelling, as we did, in late January will get you some deals on stays; not as much as you’d think though. Late January and early February is season in Thekkady as people come in from all over to enjoy winter mornings at the Periyar Project Tiger reserve. So do, apparently, a lot  of honeymooning couples. As you can imagine wildlife watchers and honeymooning couples do make a very strange combination of fellow travellers.

But I digress. Thekkady, by itself, is not very big. The Periyar National Park is the focal point here and it has a range of stay options along the NH220 and the Thekkady Munnar road. The stay options range from the budget to the one’s that allow you to wallow in luxury. Why you’d want to wallow in luxury at a National Park, is a debatable.

The National Park provides a well maintained site (with the obligatory apps for your phone). It provides a host of details there. While you’re at it, do sign-up for the early morning walk through parts of the forest. There are 3-4 varieties of these walks, all with varying degrees of difficulties and cost. For details look under the Eco Tourism link at the National Park’s website.

The boat ride on the Mullaperiyar Reservoir gives you a chance at stunning landscapes.
The boat ride on the Mullaperiyar Reservoir is an interesting ride.

The Park is also known for it’s boat ride that take you on the reservoir created by the Mullaperiyar Dam. The ride itself is a bit of a gamble if you’re taking this ride with the sole intent of watching wildlife. The boats are fairly large, with two decks and if you’re stuck away from the sides, you’ll have to edge over your fellow “nature enthusiasts” to catch anything. With cost of storage so cheap, you’ll find people clicking at every little leaf that they ignore in their daily life because “Now you’re in a National Park, it’s Nature and it is meant to be clicked”. Animal sightings are possible if you travel in the summer months when the water recedes from other parts of the Park and the animals come to this reservoir. But, you’re better off taking the trail in the Park itself, if bird-watching or animal sighting is your aim. Having said that, even then, it’s not always guaranteed you’ll see any animals.

The boat rides take you some distance in.
The boat rides take you some distance in.

Apart from this, there are other “things to do” in Thekkady. There are numerous locations where there are short shows of Kathakali and Kalaripayattu. Both forms of art that were originally long drawn affairs, especially Kathakali where stories from ancient texts were played out through the course of a night. For the people who like to get their fix from Twitter and Facebook posts, there are 2-3 hour versions that play every evening in and around the main road in Thekkady. Yeah, they don’t get any shorter than that, so if you can handle what Bollywood regurgitates every Friday, you can damn well handle this.

Thekkady, then, is also part of the triangular circuit that is sold to tourists. Land in Kochi, travel up the backwaters of Vembanad, come up to Thekkady, go further to Munnar and thence back to Kochi and home. Or variations of this with Alappuzha thrown in as well.

Since we trusted the collected wisdom and coupled with the fact that we didn’t want to go to Munnar, Alappuzha was the next stop for us. We’d been here before, more of a social thing than the travelling thing, so we had another go at it.

The town is absolutely bursting with things to do, the least of which are the famed rides along it’s backwaters. A tip here, is to get hold of the smaller shikaras. These are more easily available, cost about 1.5K to 2K for ~3 hours or so. The joy of travelling up smaller lanes of the back-water, the chit-chat with your boatman and the sampling of food from the small places along the way is one of the best experiences you can have as a traveller. The tickets can be availed at the main loading point at Alappuzha and the length of the rides can be negotiated. This obviously works best when you’re in small groups as the largest shikara (as they are known locally) could accommodate only about 8 people or so.

The small shikaras go where the larger houseboats can't and you get to experience the backwaters in a very different way.
The small shikaras go where the larger houseboats can’t and you get to experience the backwaters in a very different way.

If you’re looking for activities, there are a lot to do apart from the backwaters. There are ayurvedic massages, tours of the spice traders or just to walk around the town.

Or you could start driving up the coast. There is an excellent, if somewhat narrow, 2 track that starts from Alappuzha beach and goes all the way up to Kochi’s fort. This road, the SH-66, is one of the best coastal drives you could do in the country. The usual rules about keeping a lookout for that peculiar species, the KSRTC buses, apply. Especially so, since you can easily get distracted by the scenery passing you by.

The drive along Kerala's SH-66 is mesmerising.
The drive along Kerala’s SH-66 comes highly recommended.

You can take the entire day to cover this stretch and it’s just the drive. You’ll still have to find time for the treasures of Fort Kochi. Starting off early, you can stop off at the beaches of Thampoly, Mararikulam, Thaickal, Kattoor, Arthunkkal, all the way up to Fort Kochi. The way back can be a little leisurely and you can stop off at any of the small food places along the way. To be on the safe side, if you’re planning a trip to the Jewish quarter in Fort Kochi, most of their buildings are closed to the public on Friday and Saturday, the days of the Jewish Shabbath.

The beaches along the route from Alappuzha to Fort Kochi are heavenly.
One of the beaches along the route from Alappuzha to Fort Kochi.

Now that you’ve done the tourist circuit, keep in mind to come back next time, out-of-season and soak this up all over again.