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Journey to Kerala the land of soul and spice

In the peaceful backwaters of Kerala, Laura Harding finds an India that is far removed from the chaos of Slumdog Millionaire

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    The splashing of children paddling a canoe is likely to be the only sound you’ll hear in Kerala’s calm backwatImage Credit: Getty Images
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    The MV Apsara offers a range of on-board services including Ayuverdic massages.Image Credit: Getty Images
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    Paul McCartney and Heather Mills chose the Marari Beach Resort on the Malabar Coast for their honeymoon.Image Credit: Getty Images
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    The rooms in the Marari Beach Resort are decorated using as many locally sourced materials as possible.Image Credit: Getty Images
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    The luxurious dining area aboard the MV Apsara is perfect for an evening meal.Image Credit: Getty Images
  • Kerala
    Image Credit: Getty Images
  • Kerala
    The Marari Beach is a perfect place to relax in peace, or savour some local cuisine like South Indian curry atImage Credit: Getty Images

Sprawled out on plump, comfortable cushions on the bow of a houseboat, drifting along a river in glorious sunshine, I am a world away from the India I imagined.
The scenery is lush and green, palm trees line the banks and brightly coloured laundry flaps on washing lines. Children clamber up to the highest branches of riverbank trees and jump into the water, while fishermen sit in peaceful vigil.

I’ve travelled to India before, I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire; this is not what I was expecting. But this is my first time in Kerala, one of the smallest states and dubbed ‘God’s own country’ by proud locals and in the tourism board’s iconic slogan.

It’s not hard to see why. None of the chaos, noise, poverty and pollution the uninitiated visitor might expect on a visit to India seems to exist here. Some tourists are intimidated by the prospect of a trip to South Asia’s biggest country, worried they won’t be able to handle the intensity, the begging children or even the spicy food. But Kerala could not be less intimidating.

From the warm and welcoming smiles of the locals to the stunning landscapes, blissful beaches and coconut-infused food, everything there is geared towards relaxation I’ve spent three lovely days on the MV Apsara, cruising around the famous backwaters, breaking briefly from sunbathing, sightseeing and sipping watermelon juice for an invigorating Ayurvedic massage.

But it is on this luxurious houseboat that I am really convinced of Kerala’s charms, and that’s even before the captain lets me grab hold of the wheel. The real world feels a million miles away. It’s almost impossible to remember the noise and hustle and bustle of a city. The only sounds I can hear are children splashing in the water and a fisherman casting his net.

When I return to the mainland, I take a stroll through Puthanangadi, the village where the floating boutique hotel is moored. There’s a festival going on and the children are lighting candles in front of a temple, but they come running over when they see strange faces.

The little ones hardly speak any English, but can’t wait to have their pictures taken or show off some basic yoga poses. It’s hard to leave such a tranquil place, but fresh from my watery adventures, I head east to the spice plantations of Thekkady.

Arriving at the beautiful Spice Village resort set amid eight acres of forest, the first thing I want to do is sniff everything. I am presented with beautifully aromatic mint tea as soon as I arrive and from then on all I do is soak up spicy smells.

Every seemingly normal tree is actually harbouring wonderfully aromatic spices and the place is an eco-friendly haven. Much of the resort is self-sufficient and the whole place aims to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. As well as the simple but spacious huts where guests sleep, the resort houses a huge vegetable garden, a place where they make their own paper and an ever-growing expanse of solar panels.

My favourite part is the open-air 50 Mile restaurant, where all the produce comes from within that distance, so it’s all super fresh. After feasting on delicious basil quail kebabs and a huge selection of vegetarian curries, I would be happy to pledge never to eat food that has travelled in a plane again.

All this wonderful cuisine makes me eager to join one of the Spice Village’s cookery demonstrations. One of the lovely chefs has abandoned his dinner preparations to teach a group of us how to whip up a cinnamon masala curry.

The mirror set up above the chef’s head gives us the perfect view of the master at work, and the mouth-watering aromas make me lick my lips with anticipation.
The finished curry doesn’t disappoint. The staff even hand over a beautiful box of spices as a leaving gift, so I have no excuse not to put my new culinary tips to good use.

Blissful luxury

Exhausted from the strain of savouring spices and watching somebody else cook for me, I zigzag back across the country, making the five-hour journey to the Marari Beach Resort on the tropical Malabar coast. It’s hard to sum up how blissful it is here, but the luxury and thoughtfulness at the resort is probably best summarised by the set-up on the beach.

Huge comfy hammocks swing from palm trees and off to the side of each one is a big red flag. Need a snack? A drink? A fresh towel? Just hoist the flag and someone will be along to grant your wish. It’s easy to see why Paul McCartney chose this place for his honeymoon with Heather Mills.

I’m spoilt already, and that’s before I’ve even set foot in the Ayurvedic centre. Ayurvedic massage uses plant-based treatments to maintain a healthy mind and spirit, and the treatment I have involves two women constantly pouring warm oil over me while massaging my whole body from head to toe. Before I fall asleep and slide off the table, they put me in the shower and exfoliate my skin so well it’s soft and glowing for ages afterwards.

When I finally wander back to my huge beach hut, complete with outdoor bathroom, I am in such a daze I need to take a few minutes to compose myself. A yoga session soon brings me back down to earth. Eating so well for so long has not made me more flexible, but my teacher, Gopal, is so warm and encouraging, I am offering sun salutations in no time.

He’s been doing yoga for 50 years, but it’s hard to imagine he’s a day older than that when he shows off his most impressive poses at the end of the class – it’s as though he’s been working on them since birth. Sprawled out on the floor watching him, I can see how 50 years spent in Kerala could do wonders for your mind, body and soul.