Cochin, Kerala: The Indian town with all the beauty of Goa without the tourists

A lively waterway out of town
The road from the Cochin airport is lined with enormous signs advertising wedding silk and jewellery shops. Is this India’s biggest wedding depot? “Saris!” was all I could get out of the driver for an explanation. But soon enough, bright pink and turquoise beach shacks began to line the road, Zen-looking men in nappy-like skirts appeared and an aura of localism began to emerge. Geographically at least, Cochin is a backwater – there’s certainly enough water – but it’s a groovy, prosperous backwater.
There is New Cochin and Fort Cochin. The latter was the centre of the spice trade for centuries, from before medieval times. It was the stronghold of the Portuguese, Dutch then British empires.
A curious mix of modern industry (a water treatment plant, construction sites) provides a background for the lively, brightly coloured Chinese fishing vessels and old local ferries with hand-painted lettering that scoot between Fort and New Cochin. It’s too hot to sit and watch them in the open air, especially with the constant flow of cargo ships belching exhaust as they pass, but it makes for a fascinating scene.

Kerala house boat
A traditional boat glides down the river

At first I found myself accosted by so many persistent, leery-eyed tuk tuk drivers that I worried I’d arrived at what was essentially Delhi-on-Sea. But Fort Cochin soon reveals itself as a charming series of lively streets. A strapping, patient man drove me all around them in a tuk-tuk with a big Ferrari sticker on the back. He took me to the Dutch Palace, richly frescoed in images of Hindu mythology, which was built as a thank you by European colonists to the local royalty in the 16th century, then to several churches and on to Jew Town.
Here stands the oldest (15th century) synagogue in the Commonwealth. It’s a curious building, exquisitely shabby, and made even stranger by the presence of a group of Muslim men hanging out near the bimah (altar). Indeed, the whole of Jew Town – including the shop of one Sarah Cohen, Cochin’s oldest Jew at 90 and a lifetime native (though of Baghdadi origin) – was managed by Muslim merchants and shop-keepers. Passing a woman in a headscarf selling white cotton dresses (of which I bought two), I remarked how unusual it seemed that she worked in a shop called Shalom. “It means peace, in many languages” she replied. Indeed, I did feel at peace on this curious stretch of road.
Later I hopped out of my tuk tuk at a block with an Ayurveda centre at the end of it, where I had a terrific and vigorous massage for £12, though the dirty steam room was more than a little claustrophobic.
Word of Kerala’s regal if dusty heritage, soothing waters, bright and prosperous dwellings, friendly locals and fantastic cuisine is spreading. Luckily, it hasn’t spread too far yet. The burgeoning community of eco-luxury hotels and resorts are still affordable and – unlike resorts in Goa and other big tourist spots – blend with the surroundings, making good use of both nature and history. Particularly if you’ve done a stint in Northern India, Kerala is a balm.

Kerala hills
The Kerala Hills

Where to hang your hat

I stayed in a colonial outpost called Brunton’s Boatyard, a large, mahogany-trimmed hotel made up of cool open-air passages floored by tiled brick, all overlooking the busy bay. Sturdy, white-clad men stood guard outside with inscrutable expressions, ensuring the tuk-tuk-driving chancers kept their tenacious, high-volume bargaining firmly outside the big white gates.
Inside is an attractive swimming pool with a big stone dolphin in its middle; a cool vantage point for watching the procession of industry along the canal just metres from the edge of the pool.
Butlers carried out the whims of the red European sunbathers and at sunset, the hotel offers a little ferry boat that skirts the backwaters and floats amid small industrial islands as the sun sinks. There is also free yoga in the mornings, which is immensely satisfying when you’re being taught by a local yogi for whom the practice has some genuine cultural meaning, although my instructor did seem a little annoyed to be up so early. Other activities include complimentary cooking instruction, where you watch and take notes as a young chef creates the purest form of Keralan fish curry, instilling in you a permanent craving for the rich, sweet-sour stew.
An hour’s drive into the backwaters is the secluded eco resort of Marari Beach in Alleppey. Like Brunton’s, it’s owned and operated by the subtly ascendant local hotel group CGH Earth.
The Keralan backwaters are still a curiously remote part of India. Here, tourism has not yet unsettled the delicate balance of natural wildness and social softness: moderately prosperous locals stare, smile and help direct you without harassing, begging or peering daggers as in northern India, particularly, in my experience, at female tourists. Marari Beach Resort is affordable luxury-lite, around $90 a night per person for a villa in medium-season. It’s composed of a series of simple wood villas – a big one for the dining room, small ones for the bedrooms, all of which have outdoor bathrooms. The villas are simple but comfortable, dotted amid acres of ponds and trees, the tops of which wiry men perch upon, hacking off coconuts.
Beyond the huts is a vast lawn of palm trees through which you can glimpse the Arabian sea. Walk into the fronds and you’ll find hammocks and chairs scattered ever closer to the border with the white-sanded beach, but the beach is not intended for hotel guests, so we took our towels out and sat directly on the sand. The hotel is concerned about the meeting of locals with guests and since the beach is public we were watched closely by guards as a parade of people gathered around me, including a schoolgirl who stopped and wrote her address out and a sylph-like man who appeared on two nights at dusk, performed yoga in front of me before touching himself in a suspect fashion and scurrying off into the dark.
I explored the sleepy town by bike, nearly running over a two-metre snake, but with the resort’s palm tree expanse, swimming pool and palm forest bar serving fresh juices and lime sodas, and the Arabian sea a short walk away, there is no need to stray too far.
Flights
Virgin Fly First Class direct between London and Delhi, while sipping Grey Goose cocktails and champagne as you reclining in your pajamas. Economy flights start from around £480 in April; Club Class from around £1,200; virgin-atlantic.com. Spice Jet and Go Air fly between Delhi and Cochin for around $100 return. Visit spicejet.com or goair.in.
Hotels
Marari: garden villas from around £70 per night. To book, go to cghearth.com. Brunton’s Boat Yard: from £90 per night for a standard sea-facing room
Advice
Greaves, the India specialists, helped coordinate the trip, including transfers between Cochin airport and hotels. Visit greavesindia.com.

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