After a month travelling India’s hectic north, one of the activities we were most looking forward to in Kerala, one of it’s southern states, was exploring its beautiful backwaters – waterways and canals that sprawl for over 900 kilometres.
One of the most popular ways to enjoy the backwaters is to rent a houseboat. With our hearts set on this experience to celebrate the new year, I began researching boats and contacting companies several months ago, fearful that they would be all booked out. With the majority of suppliers charging upwards of 30 000 rupees (approx $630.00 AUD) for the night – New Years Eve falls is the peak of the peak tourist season – we backed out, not wanting to spend so much on just one night, especially as weren’t 100% sure of our movements over the New Year’s period.
As we approached New Year’s, and still wanting the opportunity to spend the holiday on a houseboat, we opted to leave our stay in Varkala a few days early. We chose to head to Alapphuza – or Alleppey as it’s still referred too – two hours away from Varkala by train and also the largest hub of houseboats in all of Kerala – there’s over 1000 in the area. We thought we’d try our luck and see if we could book a last minute houseboat on New Year’s Eve for a cheaper rate.
Our accommodation in Alleppey was conveniently located on the South Canal, just a short walk to the Houseboat Dock. We packed an overnight bag so we’d be ready to go should we be lucky enough to secure a boat, and set off on our mission for a boat, with a budget in mind and our fingers crossed.
We needn’t have worried about the lack of houseboats – on arriving at Alupphuza Boat Dock, there were hundreds of boats moored, their captains calling after us as we walked past – ‘Are you looking for houseboat?’ We inspected several as we made our way up the dock, in an effort to gauge the general asking price. The prices increased with the luxury level of the boat – the bigger the boat with nicer furnishings, the higher the asking price.
After traipsing up and down the dock in the hot sun, we decided to return to the cheaper boat we’d found earlier that morning. It was nearing departure time and we still hoped to pick up snacks and alcohol before leaving. the gentleman we’d met earlier had no single room boats left for that day, but made us an offer for a two bedroom houseboat – 10 000 rupees for the night (approx $210.00 AUD). This was inclusive of two staff – the driver/captain and the cook, three meals – lunch, dinner and breakfast, with tea, coffee, snacks and bottled water. The boat was well kept, a little older but not unlike most Indian hotel rooms we’d stayed in. It also offered air-conditioning.
It was a little more than we’d hoped to spend, but we figured it was something we really wanted to do and was a very unique way to spend New Year’s Eve. At the end of the day it was also much less than the online prices I’d previously received, so taking a gamble and arriving in Alleppey to book one in person had saved us money already. We shook on it, dropped our bag off in the room and took a quick trip into town to pick up supplies – essentially black market illegal whiskey and lemonade!
Departing a little before midday, we cruised along the main canal headed for the larger lake – a junction for other canals headed in every direction. One of the many downsides we’d read about of taking a houseboat at this time of year was how busy the backwaters become – in every direction there is another boat to be seen. That might have been the case – they were everywhere – however, we really didn’t feel this impacted our experience. It was so incredibly peaceful on the canals – the motor was a quiet hum in the background, the other boats not making a noise until they passed by and the children would wave to us.
Mike was given the chance to skipper the boat for awhile, jumping behind its golden wheel and heading for the open seas – well, at least thats what if felt like! Hundreds of cormorants sat bobbing in the sparkling waters, reflecting the sunlight. The canal shores were lined with hundreds and hundreds of tall, slender coconut palms, the fronds a beautiful bright green contrast to the blue skies. Beyond the canals, villages lined with smaller waterways were also home to churches, schools, and lime green rice fields that stretched on and on.
There was something completely calming about drifting down those coconut palm lined canals. We spent the afternoon napping in the sun, reading books, snacking on fried banana and drinking Keralan coffee, without a care in the world.
Mooring just as the sun began to set, we sat on the rooftop of the boat, watching the sky change from a vibrant blue to a haze of purple, pink, orange and yellow, the green palm fronds turning into a silhouette against the night sky. Bats flew overhead as the stars began to appear and the music started to play. We laughed at the eclectic mix of Bollywood music coming from one boat, and Psy’s Gangnam Style from another.
Drinking our illegal whiskey and lemonade, chatting about the year we’ve had together, our travels, and our own personal achievements as the end of 2015 drew to a close was the best way we could have spent our New Years Eve. We watched the few fireworks that went off as the clocked ticked over into the new year, before descending downstairs to bed in what was a surprisingly comfortable sleep.
Waking up to the sunlight pouring through our window and the motor starting to crank, we started our morning with delicious Poori Masala and Keralan coffee. As we headed back to the dock, ‘bus boats’ ferrying children to school whizzed passed, the kids waving to us as we cruised past.
We packed up our bag and shook hands with our captain and cook, wishing them a happy new year as we jumped off the boat. Hiring a houseboat is the single most expensive experience we’ve had in India so far, but one that was well worth it. After the amount of travel we’d done lately – long haul trains, flights and taxis – as well as still overcoming our sicknesses, it was the perfect way to literally sit back and relax, and enjoy the view.
Taking a trip on the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat might just be the best thing you do whilst in India.
- Where do I get a houseboat from?
Just about any hotel or tourist agency in Kerala can organise a houseboat tour for you, but the main departure points are Kollam, Alappuzha (Alleppey), Kottayam and Kochin, with Alleppey being home to the majority of houseboats (over 1000).
- Should I book online or in person?
There’s nothing wrong with securing something online prior to arriving at your destination – most reputable operators have websites. However, as was the case in our experience – we got a much cheaper deal by booking in person, even though it was New Years Eve. Booking a boat in person also means you can inspect the vessel prior to committing – the standard varies greatly.
Where can I find the boats in Alleppey?
See the attached screenshot of the location of the boat dock – it’s on Pannamada Lake and at the end of the North Canal – can’t be missed! There is a Prepaid Houseboat Office at the dock – we did enquire here for houseboats as their displayed prices were quite reasonable, however their allotment of houseboats (it’s a government run establishment) was fully booked on NYE, however they could also be worth a try in less busier times.
- Whats included?
For an overnight trip, the usual departure time is 11.30AM returning at 9 or 9.30AM the following day. There should be a minimum two staff – a captain and a cook, and at least three meals – lunch, dinner and breakfast. Most should also include snacks and water. You can bring any additional food and alcohol on board. Most boats tend to have a common lounge area – usually with a tv and music speakers, a dining area, and if it has a rooftop – a second lounge area. Each bedroom will have its own bathroom as well.