Kerala may have its crowds, but they don’t typically make it as far north as the serene backwaters of Kasaragod. You should.
By Isobel Diamond
Photographs By John Hooper
A pocket of palm-strewn bliss, soulful and sleepy, Kasaragod moves to an unhurried tempo. Its beaches, backwaters, and outlying towns and villages occupy the northernmost reaches of the state of Kerala on India’s Malabar Coast, well off the radar for most travelers. But change is afoot. Stylish resorts are springing up in the district and soon a sleek new international airport will open in neighboring Kannur, bringing with it an influx of tourists. For now, though, getting here typically involves a seven-hour train ride from Kerala’s commercial capital, Kochi. And so I arrive, giddy from the humidity and somewhat rattled by the journey, intent on spending a leisurely paced week exploring Kasaragod’s highlights.
My itinerary begins with a cruise on the Valiya-paramba backwaters. Early in the morning, this labyrinth of canals and lagoons is shrouded in mist and an eerie stillness. My vision may be hazy, but my ears quickly attune to the soundscape—the swoosh of a fisherman’s oar, the flick of a fish’s tail—as these olive-green waterways slowly wake up. I’m about to embark on a 24-hour expedition aboard the Honey Dew, a kettuvallam (thatched-roof houseboat) operated by the Oyster Opera, a quirky resort of bamboo cottages on Thekkekadu, one of the seven islands that dot the backwaters. As I wait for our departure, I sit with the resort’s owner Gul Mohammed, who plucks at his white, ankle-length lungi as we talk. “More and more people are asking for houseboats,” he tells me. “There are 12 in this area now, and they’ll keep coming.”
The Honey Dew takes me down the spine of this 30-kilometer-long waterway, which is named for its largest island, Valiyaparamba. Some canoes and a few other kettuvallams inhabit the channel, but most often we’re alone. From the boat’s shaded deck, I spot a profusion of bird life: cattle egrets and pond herons, brahminy kites and whiskered terns, all seemingly oblivious to our passage. Compared to mid-Kerala’s backwater hub Alleppey, where high season can see more than a thousand boats cruising its waters daily, this is the epitome of serenity. Waving to an excited band of village children who call to us from the banks of an island is the most active pursuit of the day.
With a double en-suite bedroom and large open-air deck, the Honey Dew is comfortable and modern, and the food is exceptional: karimeen river fish, sea crab, squid, and prawns served in an array of fiery dishes. “It’s all straight from the backwaters and the sea,” says the chef. As if to underscore his words, we soon see the bamboo frameworks of mussel farms. There are hundreds laid in neat rows along the water, hung with coir ropes on which spat—mussel larvae—is grown. Gul introduced mussel cultivation here in 1996 as a way to improve the lives of coastal communities, and the farms have since grown to employ some 6,000 people. Together, they harvest about 15,000 tons of mussels every four months, selling them to local markets. “Mussels have thrived,” Gul had told me earlier. “These farmers now have a crop which is theirs, so they keep 100 percent of the profits.”
Accompanied by the late-afternoon sun, we dock at Monkey Island, so named for the tribes of macaques that reside here. We arrive just in time to see mussel-farming families bring in a harvest. It’s an engaging sight; the green shells shimmer jewel-like against the sand. The islanders speak only Malayalam, but we manage to communicate in other ways as I sit with them and help to pull bunches of muddy bivalves apart, placing the live ones in hemp sacks.
Later, we cruise northward to the mouth of the Arabian Sea, which feeds into these backwaters. At the widest point where sandbanks have formed, we watch as men in canoes, their heads wrapped in cotton scarves to protect them against the sun, shuttle buckets full of sand back to the mainland for building. Soon the light begins to change, and the day that began as an ethereal haze is now winding down with a rosy pink sunset, the lingering mist turning everything sepia like an old photograph. Soon after night falls, I retire to my cabin, where I’m lulled to sleep by the gentle waters.
My next adventure proves more strenuous: a kayak and bike expedition with a local outfit called Muddy Boots. “Northern Kerala is the only place where you can experience the sea and backwaters so close together,” enthuses the company’s manager, Syed Mehaboob, who’s also leading my tour. We begin in the kayaks, managing to travel a few kilometers up and across the waterway before docking at Valiyaparamba Island. It’s a lively day here. Boys ride motorbikes along pathways, and young children playing among the palms come to greet us. And everywhere, it seems, is decorated with an abundance of butterflies. “There are over 400 species here,” Syed tells me, “from the Malabar Rose to the Grass Jewel.”