Alappuzha (Alleppey) is known as Venice of the East, with its planned canals - the doorway to the famous backwaters. What can be done in Alappuzha over a weekend? Here are a few things I can think of in this well-planned town, a tribute to Raja Kesavadasan's visionary architecture. The most common touristy attraction is the houseboat cruise. You check in to a larger than average apartment sized houseboat and stay for 23hours. Typically you can check-in on Saturday morning 10 am and check-out by Sunday morning 9 am. While you enjoy your lunch, evening tea, dinner and Sunday morning breakfast, don't forget to carry a book or movie DVD. The houseboats start from 'Finishing Point' named after the legendary Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Finishing Point is 10min walk from the Alappuzha KSRTC bus stand, you need to take a newly-built bridge across the canals or Rs 20 by auto-rickshaw. If you are reaching by a train, you can hire an auto-rickshaw to Finishing Point by paying Rs 40 from the train station, 4km southwest of the town center.
There are more than 1000 houseboats in the 900km network of backwaters across the farmlands in Alappuzha and neighboring districts of Kottayam and Kollam. Long before the network of the roads were built, these canals were the main transport channels and even today some of the far inlands are connected by KSRTC boats than buses. The houseboats are the biggest tourist business in Alappuzha post the former prime minister A.B Vajpayee's famous vacation in Kerala. There are differently sized houseboats suitable for any number of people- up to seven bedroom boats are available. When you reach Alappuzha town, you will be surrounded by many travel-agency reps offering houseboat trips. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not possible to travel by houseboat between Alappuzha and Kollam or Alappuzha and Kochi. The quality of the food and infrastructure varies broadly- from old sinking vessels to palatial ships. It is strongly recommended to check your boat before agreeing for a price, make sure the toilet taps and air-conditioner are working fine.
For a couple, one bed room house boat will cost approx Rs 4500 to Rs 7000 for 23hours. The houseboats will be parked by 5pm in the evening next to the farmlands fringed by coconut trees in the far interior backwaters and coming out of the houseboat and going to the town or beach is not practical. If you want to reduce the cost, but experience the houseboat there is an alternative package. You can check- in the night around 8pm and stay overnight in the boat until 9am. This will cost Rs 3000 for two -dinner and breakfast are included. There will be two staff on board- a driver and a chef to cook the food of your choice. Don't forget to let them know your choice of food before hand, as they need to store the food in advance. You will cough up approx Rs 9000 for a two-bedroom houseboat and Rs 11000 for a three-bedroom. Note that this rate will escalate during the peak season -especially during Onam and Nehru Trophy boat race- Aug 2nd week of every year. Book your tickets through KSTDC for a pavillion seat away from the local crowds if you are planning to watch this mega event with thousands of cheering spectators. Carry food,drink and an umbrella as you have to stay there from 10am to 5pm.
Call Sabu (Cell 9446005514) of Goodwill tours for houseboat booking. His experience travelling all around India while he was in army will help to cater the guests' needs-familiar with food choices and conversant in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and English.
Once the boat is parked, you can swim in the backwaters or fish using a bamboo pole and a string machine. Set on foot to visit the nearby villages to watch farming, boat building, coir making, toddy (palm beer) tapping and fishing which makes the backwaters so exquisite. Kuttanadu -the region with the lowest altitude in India, and one of the few places in the world where farming is done below sea level- 300ft below MSL. Kainakary, 10km from Alappuzha by road and 45min by boat is a nice place to see the real Kuttanadu life. You may be lucky to see chundan vallam (snake boat) or canoe construction. If you are adventurous with food, try fizzy toddy and KFC(Kappa Fish Curry) from the local toddy shop. Not everyone's taste buds will tolerate the hot and spicy fish curry or 'kappa' (tapioca) at the toddy shop (Rs 60 for a bottle of toddy and Rs 50-100 for dishes). Ask for 'kallu shaap' if you would like to go on this trails. Consider staying awake in the night for a while gazing the galaxy of stars or waking up at 6am to catch a glimpse of the sunrise reflecting in the huge lake.
If you are on a frugal budget or if you think houseboats are too cheesy, there are some alternatives to watch the backwaters at a cheaper cost. Take a public KSRTC boat from the boat jetty next to KSRTC bus station. The boat jetty is hiding inside the Mangalore-tiled ferry opposite to a swanky jewellery shop on the main road to KSRTC bus station. Hop on to any boat that goes to Nedumudi, Kavalam, Champakulam and you are assured a good experience of backwaters at the cost of Rs 10 for more than 2 or 3 hours. Another option is a long 3hour trip to Kottayam crossing Vembanad Lake and coming back by either boat or bus.
Near bus station along the canals, rented canoe boats are available for a non-guided laze through the canals on a small, covered canoe for up to four people for two hours (Rs 600-1000) - this is another way to run through your Sunday tranquil afternoon before boarding the bus or train. I strongly recommend wearing a life-jacket on these canoes as they can topple easily when unfamiliar feet try to balance. Knowing swimming is not essential but is an added advantage.
If you are not staying in the houseboat, consider staying at a home stay near the beach for an early morning beach experience. Alleppey Beach Holidays Home stay (d Rs 750, with AC Rs 1000), Near Collector's Bungalow, Sea View Ward is an excellent option. Call Jose (0477-2241649, Mob: 9447103852) and book your rooms. From this home stay, walk for 5min passing the railway level cross, you are welcomed by the white sanded beach of Alappuzha and get close to the erstwhile sea bridge ruins and the lighthouse. This sea bridge was used for transportation of food supplies from the vessels to the FCI (Food Corporation of India) warehouse and you will find the remains of the rails along the bridge. Checkout if the boating in the lake near the beach is functional and lay your hands on a paddle boat or a rowing boat. Visit Sree Krishna Ayurveda (0477-329728; http://www.krishnayurveda.com/), near Finishing Point, unwind taking one-hour rejuvenation massage for Rs 600.
Train/Bus to Alappuzha: Taking a train or bus directly to Alappuzha is the easiest way to reach there. If not available, take a train or bus to Ernakulam and board a KSRTC bus from bus station to Alappuzha which will take less than two hours. There will be plenty of buses at the bus station heading south on the NH 47. Waiting for a train to Alappuzha from Ernakulam railway station is not recommended. An auto from Ernakulam railway station to bus station will cost you Rs 20.
Environmental issues - pollution from the houseboat motors and biological waste tfrom houseboat toilets hreaten the backwaters and the community life on their banks. Kerala govt. is enforcing a 'Green Palm Certification' for installing solar panels and sanitary tanks for the disposal of waste. If you are eco-conscious, please try to use the manually sculled boats or public boats to visit the backwaters instead of motorized boats.