Should I go to Kerala, India, if I don't want a beach holiday?
November 18, 2018 3:34 PM   Subscribe

We're traveling to India in a few weeks. We're splitting time on the trip between big cities and then hopefully something different. We don't want to spend a vacation on a beach. Is Kerala a good destination? If not, where should we consider?

The trip will be the latter half of December and the first half will be in Delhi and Rajasthan. We were looking for something different for the second half of the trip and Kerala has been recommended by a lot of people. But after investigating a bit, it seems like a very big draw is the beaches and beach resorts, and the absolute last thing we want to do on a vacation is sit around on a beach or go to a resort. We also are not looking for some secluded place; we like being around people but want something other than the huge cities where we'll be for the first half of the trip. Looking at the backwater boat experiences, for instance, the regular state-run ferry service is much more the sort of thing we like to do than chartering our own boat for a night.

Is Kerala the right place for us?

We're hearty travelers and like to go off the beaten path. We're most interested in food, culture, history, and exploring somewhere we've never been. Walking along beaches for days or the backpacker circuit is the opposite of what we want. Should we be considering somewhere else that will still offer a different experience than Delhi and destinations in Rajasthan?

I've spent a lot of time in Gujurat and Mumbai, so we're looking for somewhere other than those places, and somewhere relatively warm is preferred.

I'm very familiar with traveling around China, so if it helps, the closest analog I can imagine is starting a trip in Shanghai for a bit and then going to Kunming and spending a while making our way down to the Vietnam border through the mountain villages and smaller cities. We're looking for a similar sort of variation in experience in India. Conversely, we didn't have a great time when we went to Hainan and, especially Sanya; we're worried that Kerala tourism is more geared toward something like a holiday trip to Hainan than we'd like.
posted by msbrauer to Travel & Transportation around India (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
No you can absolutely do the kind of trip you're looking for in Kerala. I actually think the beach resorts are a fairly artificial thing to do in Kerala. My dad's side of the family is from Kerala, I've done several touristy things there and never done a beach resort. That said, the houseboats are fun so I wouldn't rule them out - but you don't have to do the most high end version. Kerala is an amazing place. More than 90% literacy so very different from most of India. People are just super nice too. Much of it is sub-tropical rainforest so it's just incredibly lush and green. I would recommend looking into the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Munnar (amazingly beautiful tea plantations on the hillside) and Cochin/Kochi (harbor city but not really beachy). Go! It's not for nothing that they call Kerala God's Own Country. The beaches are the least of it.
posted by peacheater at 4:17 PM on November 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

PM if you'd like more ideas.
posted by peacheater at 4:17 PM on November 18, 2018

We loved Kerala after doing all the tourist thinkgs in Rajastan. The food is fantastic and pace is much more relaxed than Mumbai. Seeing the backwaters was great and getting up into the tea plantations in the hills was even better
posted by genmonster at 4:25 PM on November 18, 2018

Kerala is awesome. I'm not a beach person but happily spent two weeks on the cliffs at Varkala watching Braminy Kites and the monsoon roll in. The place is colourful, friendly, historic, lush, and just all round one of my favourite places on the planet.
posted by Thella at 4:29 PM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Californian ex-pat-Brit here .. my daughter & I were in Kerala not long ago, and yes you can have a great time there without beaching. We were there in July, so monsoon, different than your plan. We stayed in Kochi, Munnar, and also in a 'homestay' on the backwaters of Vembanad Lake, traveling by local bus and water-bus. If you go to Munnar be prepared for the different cliamte (we weren't, and bought coats as soon as we were off the bus.)

As peacheater pioints out, literacy is exceptionally high there, perhaps partly because the elected government was communist for a while (not sure that's still the case, but the bus depot had Lenin pictures and the hammer-and-sickle flag). I think poverty is also less extreme than many other parts of India.

Echoing see the wildlife sanctuary near Munnar, if you can; wild elephants; tigers.
posted by anadem at 6:28 PM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Kochi Biennale will have begun by late December - definitely go to Kerala! There is a whole lot more than beaches, and Kochi really comes alive while the Biennale is on. I'd suggest making bookings soon though - it's a very popular time to travel there.
posted by 9000condiments at 6:29 PM on November 18, 2018

I've visited Kerala twice and would love to go more—I'm a bit of a Keralaphile, despite dealing professionally with North India. As others have mentioned, there is so, so much to do there that has nothing to do with the beaches—and truth be told, they probably don't have the best beaches in India in any case. Varkala beach is pretty, but the surf is quite heavy.

I will, however, sound a bit of a warning: in the ten years between my first trip and my most recent one, tourism in Kerala seems to have exploded. My wife, who had been separately before meeting me, agreed. Munnar was filled with traffic jams, Alleppey was filled with bogus-seeming backwater tours, etc. etc.. So if you want to go to a place that seems popular (like either of those), I would recommend going with a fairly established tour operator to make sure you have a catered experience. Otherwise, look into the less established centers.

Kochi is still wonderful and one of those un-ruinable places, I believe. BIG RECOMMENDATION: if you have any opportunity to be there for New Years, do not miss it. You can look up the general idea but, and I am not exaggerating, every single street had an effigy of Santa Clause stuffed with firecrackers and lit on fire at the stroke of midnight. I could not get a good explanation for this, but it was beautiful.

Another recommendation, but more in the vein of my own dreams: consider a trip from, say, Mangalore or Bangalore to Kochi through northern Kerala. I get the impression there is far less tourism infrastructure in the north, and I've been told that Calicut (Kozhikode) is fascinating. But I have not done this trip myself, so I can't vouch for it.

Regardless, Kerala is a great place to visit, and is really unique vis-a-vis other places in India—you can't really compare it to anywhere, although of course it is connected in all kinds of ways. The language is similar to that of Tamil Nadu—but is more influenced by Sanskrit, ala the languages of North India. It is more religiously diverse than other states (a broad statement, but still). It's food is amazing. As others have noted, very high literacy, and great literature—if you can find it, read The Legends of Khasak. I could go on—feel free to PM me re: Kerala or travel elsewhere in India.
posted by Stilling Still Dreaming at 10:17 PM on November 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

As an alternative Indian destination, you could try Meghalaya. I was there over a December period and it was an amazing place to visit. State language is English, very safe for travelling, amazing landscapes and mysterious histories, and not a beach for hundreds of miles...
posted by Thella at 10:18 PM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Kerala is great and I'm sure you'll thoroughly enjoy it, but, also to throw out something else, you might want to consider Sikkim up north/Himalayas. Super friendly, very different from the plains, and stunning views of the peaks (though going in December may mean more snow than you'd like to deal with, depending on how high up you go -- we went in the summer).
posted by AwkwardPause at 10:49 PM on November 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Kerala is wonderful, but I want to put in a quick word for its neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu. It's got great food, an absurd number of wonderfully beautiful temples, and a lot of other cool stuff besides, but apart from a few specific places it tends to be less backpacker-y than the better known states.
posted by Acheman at 1:31 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Two of our most memorable experiences in India were in Kerala.

Best was Kerala (1 bedroom) houseboat cruise. This was an overnight river cruise of just my wife and myself with three staff on board. We were on small back rivers in Kerala.

The other was staying at a luxury wildlife sanctuary.

Also, we stayed at a fabulous hotel near the Chinese nets. The hotel was brand new (about 14 years ago when we went) but was styled like from the early times of British colonialism. It was near a Kathakali theatre, and of course the Chinese Nets. The latter was great, because in the evening we chose fresh seafood, and had it cooked at a little stand (there are many) nearby, eating on the beach.

This happened 14 years ago, and I cannot remember any of the names. Sorry.

I always thought that people went to Goa for the beaches...we did not.
posted by mbarryf at 7:29 AM on November 19, 2018

My family is from northern Kerala and I love it, and I am not a beach/ocean person. Definitely spend some time in the Kasaragod/Kannur/Kozhikode area, especially the small towns in the hills. Make a side trip to Karnataka and the Deccan plateau, Mysore is just amazing. (And just about everyone speaks English.) Cool wildlife in Nagarhole and Bandipur Natl Parks.

For the "REAL" Kerala experience you should visit during the Monsoon. Everything revolves around the rain, of which there is a ridiculous amount -- it is impossible to leave the house and not get totally soaked. You just cannot see that kind of rain outside the tropics. Experts only!

(I know very little about southern Kerala.)
posted by phliar at 5:16 PM on November 19, 2018

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