Varkala: Maybe the most popular among foreign backpackers, Varkala is attracting more crowds than Kovalam in the last 10years, though the beach is very narrow and surrounded by cliffs. There are many options for accommodation and restaurants, catering to the needs of backpackers. At the south cliff, SaMudra (Tel 9847184462, dbl Rs1500) offers trees and peace! Yoga classes/meditation/reiki/ayurveda –you name it, you get it here. German Bakery near the parking lot offers masala tea, croissant, used books and almost everything. Friendly owner Binu Joseph ( 9846348943) can arrange accommodation. His brother teaches Yoga at McLoedGanj, Dharamasala, Himachal Pradesh. Surf boards are available on rent Rs 50 or 100 depending on the demand. The waves are strong and the seabed is not even, be careful and follow the instructions of the life guards. Varkala train station is just 2km away, and you can get frequent buses to Kollam, it takes 1.5hrs by road. Avoid weekends and holidays if you intend to get sun tanned in a bikini to stay away from gawkers.
Kollam: 70km away from the state capital Tiruvananthapuram, Kollam is famous for fishing harbours and cashew factories. With Arabian Sea at west and Western Ghats at east bordering Tamil Nadu, this bustling district offers a lot to travellers- less hurried backwater cruises and beaches. Be sensitive in dressing at the beaches, not so bikini-friendly.
When you reach Kollam by KSRTC buses, walk to DTPC (District Tourism Promotion Council) office next to the boat jetty (docking station for boats). DTPC offers well organized backwater cruises at different price levels. Cruising through Ashtamudi Lake, named after the eight channels leading to Arabian Sea, in a houseboat is a pleasant experience. The advantage is that, you don’t need to haggle with the agents. A single bed room boat for a 22hrs See-Sleep cruise will cost Rs 7000 and a two bed room will cost Rs 9000. Check in at 11am and checkout next morning at 9am. Lunch, dinner, breakfast included. A cheaper option will be to go for a 4hr cruise to Munroe Island, Rs 400 per person- there are two trips 9am and 2pm, knowledgeable guide will be accompanying you. Contact Arshaj Dev 9847090111 for more details, he works for DTPC as a guide. For a shoestring budget traveller, taking a local mass transport boat for less than Rs 10 will be ideal, less touristy and more real life.
For an approved homestay near Thirumullavaram beach for Rs 600, the friendly staff at DTPC office can make bookings (Tel 0474 2745625/2750170, www.dtpckollam.com). Avoid staying inside the town, mosquitoes and noise permeate to keep you awake. Unlike the auto drivers in North Kerala, a bit og haggling and fixing the price upfront is required at Kollam. Ask the staff to hire an auto for you, you will not be charged double the normal price.
The light house at Thangassery is 15min from bus station and open to visitors till 5:30pm. Strolling up to Residency Bungalow built by Lord Munroe and walking around sprawling Ashraamam grounds is ideal for an evening. Adventure park behind Residency Bungalow offers backwater views in the cool shade of green trees. Mermaid statue at Kollam beach is impressive; otherwise there is nothing to see here except the fishermen and filthy fish market.
Kollam-Alleppey Boat : The most comfortable mode of transport for us is a boat. No turbulence, potholes, jolts. One of the oldest trade route and inland waterway, Kollam-Alappuzha was a bustling route until circa 1940. KSWTD (Kerala State Water Transport Department) runs two double decked boats between Alappuzha and Kollam – starting at 10:30am reaching the destination at 6:30pm. Call 0477 2252510 (Alappuzha) and 0474 2741211 (Kollam) for advance booking, 8hr trip costs Rs 300 per person. The service comes to a halt during peak Monsoon- July and August. The boat stops for lunch and evening snacks, a major stop en-route is at Amritapuri, 3hrs from Kollam- the abode of Amritandamayi, the cuddling mother. Known as National Waterway 3 and West Coast Canal the route is Ashtamudi Lake-Valiyavila-Kayamkulam Lake-Thottappally-Karumadi-Pallathuruthy, cruising through narrow canals choked with water hyson and sea-like vast lakes. You can spot many birds on the less inhabited shores of the canals. We were thrilled to watch the jelly fish of different sizes and turtle, which we had seen only on Discovery channel and the colourful animated movie - Finding Nemo. The friendly staff and very comfortable seats ensure you have a pleasant ride.
Alleppey: When you reach Alleppey, you will be surrounded by unscrupulous auto drivers. For accommodation, you can shop around the road on the other side of the canal opposite to the bus station. Behind bus station, Lemon Dew is handy (Tel 0477 2238495, 9895108332 dbl Rs 500), beware of mosquitoes. By the end of our boat trip, Andreas and Anette from Germany had become our good friends, thanks to our common interest in travel and Megha’s fluent German. They wanted to stay near the beach, so we hired an auto to Sea View Ward adjacent to the beach with many home stays. . An auto from the bus stand to the beach should cost no more than Rs 60. To reach here, head towards west from Finishing Point (houseboats are parked here) until you reach the beach. Sea Shore near Munnody Temple, run by Faizal and wife is backpackers’ favourite (Tel 9387812427/9605929988, dbl Rs 500). Shop around if the rooms are full, almost every house until Vijaya Park is a home stay. If you are not a beach person, you can stay near the backwaters. From Alleppey boat jetty, take a local boat to the jetty called Punchiri (Rs 3, 15min) and stay at River Side home stay.
After an elaborate dinner at Panoramic View resort south of the sea bridge, we bid adieu to Andreas and Anette. On Sunday, we met them for a guided tour to Kainakary to watch a houseboat built by my friend Babu. Relishing tea and masala vada at the local shop, we shared our travel stories, followed by dinner at the Toddy Shop (Kallu Shappu). We were amazed at Andrea’s in-depth knowledge about photography - www.alluminati.de – a professional but humble photographer. Anette hails from a smalll Island in Sweden and multilingual –Danish, French, German, English... Strangers are friends we have not met yet!