Add spice to your life

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Renata Rubnikowicz tours the forests and backwaters of Kerala, where wildlife and locals co-exist in environmental harmony

The heat! The beggars! India doesn't have to be like that. Look south to Kerala, exporter of spices to the ancient world, now a prosperous, well-educated state, where modern-day travellers find quiet backwaters, long beaches and coconut palms stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Western Ghats. First-timers to India often choose Goa. There, you'll be able to take a snap of a road sign showing a cow and advertising Coca-Cola; in Kerala, you'll read in the paper how villagers have organised to close down a Coca-Cola plant which they say is taking too much of their water.

Sustainability and respect for the environment are key in Kerala's new tourist resorts, too.

Near the gates of the Periyar wildlife sanctuary, where tigers skulk and giant squirrel and Nilgiri langur monkeys clamber in the trees, Spice Village is a luxurious hill resort of traditional bungalows set in a garden of indigenous plants and trees, built and run according to ecological principles. You can spend a night in their treehouse, protected from mosquitoes by a mattress of traditional herbs, have a lesson in Keralan cooking from the chef, take an ayurvedic cure, have a massage or swim in the pool after your wildlife walk in the forest.

With a tracker we get close to a group of wild elephant in the sanctuary, one hiding improbably behind a tree, her waggling ears giving her away.

When the herd breaks cover, a primeval scene unrolls before us, as mother and baby elephant, wild boar and buffalo move across the valley. The tigers stay away from the tourists in a far part of the forest. We visit a small spice plantation run by Mr Jude, whose mantra, as he picks off buds and leaves, is: "You want to have a nibble of this?" He introduces us to a pepper vine reaching up to the sky, strangling a betel nut palm as it does so, and shows us the ladder used to pick the pepper - a single stem of bamboo with insignificant footholds. Expensive vanilla, tall cinnamon, the Christmas-scented allspice tree and cardamom, queen of spices, jostle for space.

Tea and rubber give way to teak and then to pineapples on the drive down to Lake Vembanad and the backwaters, where 44 of Kerala's rivers tangle themselves into 600 miles of calm canals.

Beside the lake, Spice Village's sister resort, Coconut Lagoon, spreads out between a bird sanctuary and its organic rice paddy. Inside my bungalow, I open the door to the bathroom and find the modern fittings are open to the sky in a tiny courtyard garden. I can shower under the stars.

Outside, a miniature vechur cow tinkles its bell in greeting. There are only a few hundred left and the resort is trying to breed them. After a blissful ayurvedic massage, I am taken for a walk around the butterfly garden by Binish, one of the resort's naturalists, who helps me identify the bell-like trill that accompanied my early-morning yoga class - probably a blackheaded oriole - and other intriguing birds, such as the racquet-tailed drongo.

One last swim in the pool, one last lacy masala dosa, and it's time to board a converted kettuvalam, or rice boat, to tour the backwaters. We get a big welcome, and more food, at the house of Thomas Zacharias. "As rice farmers we have a lot of spare time," he says. So the economics graduate has organised his neighbours into a homestay co-op. Each household has at least one person who speaks English, clean and tidy rooms and, if possible, a European-style bathroom. Thomas says the best time to come is between the snakeboat races, held on the second Saturday of August to celebrate the end of the monsoon, and February.

Shockingly, one of our party asks Thomas, a Sunday school teacher, if there is a toddy shop nearby. But Thomas is unfazed, saying toddy, a kind of palm wine, is weaker than beer. At the grimy shack, the home-made toddy smells like something that could take chewing gum off pavements. How can such a brew exist in the land of ayurvedic tea and yoga? But it is all part of life in the backwaters, which includes cooking with the family, meeting the neighbours and seeing Thomas's Syrian Christian church, said to be more than 600 years old and so older than the blue and white tiled synagogue in nearby Cochin. Duck farmers lead flocks from dug-out canoes, children in school uniform queue up at the waiting shed by the boat jetty and a religious procession crosses the water in a series of canoes. The world floats by and everyone, including Thomas's parents, wife and baby daughter Anne, waves.

Avion Holidays offers a range of one- and two-week trips to Kerala and Goa, including twin-centre holidays, with flights from Gatwick or Manchester, and will tailor-make holidays in the region. A 14-night, twin-centre holiday, including all land, rail, boat and air travel, hotels and most meals, costs about pound;1,700 per person. Details: 0870 8354531; Palms Homestay: 00 91 477 272 44 97 or 00 91 477 362 2236; and More information:;

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