Happy hippy beach town
But we asked for beer, not chai, we protested, as the waiter put a large teapot on the table. “This is beer madam, only we serve it in a teapot,” he grinned happily, possibly at our ignorance of all things local. Our surprise was quickly forgotten in the aroma of fried fish masala, made with the local sole that was caught only minutes back from a few feet away.
Welcome to Kerala, which has now become a synonym for ‘God’s own country’. Our search for that perfect beach had brought us to Kovalam, less than half an hour away from Thiruvananthapuram airport. Kovalam is the perfect palm-fringed tropical beach and a quirky, laidback destination which was popularised in the seventies by the flower children who came here on their way to Ceylon on the Hippy Trail. The tourists come here for the relaxed lifestyle, the ayurvedic treatments and the exotic underwater attractions. Once the haunt of the world’s jetsetters including Jackie Kennedy, Kovalam was known as the Monaco of the East, before it fell into disrepute because of aggressive hawkers and overcrowding. But it has cleaned up its act and the beachtown has again started to live up to its glam reputation, especially with the posh Hotel Leela providing luxurious R&R for jaded celebrities working off their jetlag. Three white crescent-shaped beaches, a not-so-rough sea, beachside shacks which serve some delightful cuisine (both local and Continental), souvenir shops with cute surprises instead of haggling hawkers pushing their wares (which is the bane of a lot of beach destinations), a pristine shoreline and sparkling azure water, watersports of every variety – Kovalam has them all. You can visit a traditional fishing village or sail with fishermen setting out to sea from Hawah Beach, which creates a unique aquarelle on moonlit nights. Stroll to the Vizinjham Light House towering over a rock on Lighthouse Beach, a great vantage point for watching the sunset, or you can climb to the top for a stunning view.
Visit the Ganapathi Temple and Jama Masjid located on Ashok Beach or go for a backwater cruise to secluded Poovar beach, sandwiched between the estuary and sea. Or get a special ayurvedic massage on Samudra beach.However, if none of them arouse your interest even a wee bit, just hire a deck chair or grab a towel and an umbrella and laze on the beach, and work on a tan to show off when you are back in the big city. Grab a glass of toddy, and munch on some delicious calamari or succulent prawns, fried right in front of your eyes. The sand is so soft, you could sink into the deepest slumber, so be careful you wake before the tides come in! And when you do wake at sunset, you might think you are in a dream, with the endless sight of coconut trees that give Kovalam its name, framed against an orange sky and stretches of silvery sand lapped by the milky white Arabian sea.This beach town is a tourist’s paradise. There are hotels and resorts which suit all budgets, and a beach ambience that offers both peace and quiet and excellent camera moments or the buzz of a happening holiday hotspot. Surf and swim in the sea as much as you like as you can walk into the sea for almost a 100 metres without treading water. Hire a speedboat and haggle a bit to avoid getting overcharged. The ride is bumpy but quite exhilarating, especially if you can catch a glimpse of the dolphins doing their graceful dives. Or simply scuba dive for a peek into the marine life and amazing coral reefs.
Snorkelling is great fun here because the water is crystal clear. The sea is as blue as blue can be, and with the Chinese fishing nets waving in the breeze, it looks straight out of a picture postcard. Work up your appetite with a stroll to the headland and then head to the nearby beach shacks for a variety of Malabari cuisine and fresh Kerala fish treats. The place is a foodie heaven and most of the hotels also whip up good local dishes. At one of the shacks we made some new friends, a couple from Israel who keep coming back for the surfing and a big group from England who come here for a few days of peace and quiet. We stayed for four days, and the routine was quite simple each day. Wake up in the morning, head to the beach for a swim or speedboat ride or snorkelling, (you can also try parasailing, surfing, catamaran rides, water skiing, kayaking etc.), devour some lobsters or other crustaceans and then just laze around.
You couldexplore fishing villages near this small beach town and visit local temples or churches or spend a day indulging in herbal toning and nourishing mud packs at an ayurvedic salon. In the evening, you can enjoy a kathakali show right on the beach or participate in some beach yoga.Check out Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bai of Travancore’s beach resort, Halcyon Castle (now a hotel), built towards the end of the 1920s and popularised by her nephew the Maharaja of Travancore among the European royalty who were guests of the Travancore kingdom.
You can hire a cab for a day trip to land’s end at Kanyakumari. Or shop in Kovalam for spices, rose and teakwood handicrafts, silk sarongs, coir rugs, sandals, brass idols, coconut shell artefacts, kathakali masks and local jewellery. When you leave, take nothing away but memories, leave nothing behind but footprints. And don’t forget to pack your shades and sunscreen, unless you want to head to the dermatologist first thing when you get back home.