Kerala is an excellent place to discover by bike; a true tropical paradise with an idyllic coastline, lush tranquil backwaters, colourful temples and old stone churches. It's not surprising that Kerala is often referred to as 'God's own country'. Offering a gentler experience than the often frenetic north, Kerala is great for a first time bike trip or your first visit to India. From the old spice port of Cochin to the laid-back beach town of Varkala, we gently cycle through beautiful landscapes, fascinating towns and colourful fishing villages, sampling superb south Indian cuisine along the way. A night in a village homestay provides a unique insight into the warm Keralan hospitality, and the backwaters of Kerala are cruised on a traditional houseboat before relaxing on the sweeping beaches of Varkala.
Start Cochin. Those on the group flight usually arrive at our hotel in the afternoon. We'll then have our bike fitting and test our bikes.
Today is a good opportunity to get used to the bikes, exploring the historical town of Cochin (Kochi) by bike and foot. The Portuguese established a base here, followed by the Dutch, who were forced to hand it over to the British in 1841. With a multicultural heritage, it is now the bustling commercial capital of Kerala. Merchants began trading spices such as pepper and cardamom with the Chinese, Arabs and Portuguese more than 600 years ago. Warehouses are still filled with the smell of tea and spices are lime-washed bright green, yellow and blue; rickety old bikes and hand-painted trucks piled high with goods fill the narrow streets and food stalls stand on every corner. Most of the major sights are found in Fort Kochi and Mattencharry. We'll visit St Francis Church, which is close to the hotel. Built by the Portuguese in 1503, it is the burial place of Vasco de Gama and his tomb can be found inside the church. We then make our way to the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry. Constructed by the Portuguese in 1568, it was gifted to the Maharaja of Kochi before the Dutch took it over. Close to the palace is Jew Town and the Paradesi Synagogue. Built in 1568 for the Jewish members of Kochis trading communities, it is adorned with hand-painted tiles from China and elegant Belgian chandeliers, all donations from wealthy merchants. The area around the synagogue, called Jew Street, is a heritage zone with many antique and handicraft shops and is excellent for shopping. The fish market near the Chinese fishing nets is also worth a visit. Cochin is also the centre for Keralan arts, so this evening we'll enjoy a Kathakali dance performance, a form of religious dance and play unique to Kerala.
Riding out of Fort Cochin, we pass 500 year old Portuguese villas, a striking contrast to the tiny fishermen's huts dotted along the beach road, with their wooden boats pulled up under the palm trees and nets hung out to dry. Many of these fishing villages are Christian. At Arthungal we can rest under the shade of the coconut trees, sip tea and admire the view of the old stone church. Continuing along the coastal road, we make our way towards the backwaters of Muhamma. Kerala is renowned for its backwaters; a network of canals and lakes which we cruise on a traditional rice barge later on in the trip. Tonight we stay in a backwater resort overlooking Vambanad Lake. The veranda and the gardens are excellent spots for relaxing whilst backwater life unfurls before you. Treatments such as Ayurvedic massages are offered here.
We continue along the coastal road towards Alleppey, another start point for the backwaters trips. Our ride takes us through Kainakary Village, eventually reaching Chennamkary, a traditional village in the Kuttanad backwater region of Alleppey. We'll spend the evening here in a homestay, arriving in time for lunch. The homestay is spread across a number of houses owned by different families. Rooms are air-conditioned and come with their own bathroom. It's a fantastic opportunity to experience warm Keralan hospitality. We'll enjoy a cooking demonstration in the evening, followed by dinner.
A laid-back morning today. You can either relax at the homestay or go on an optional short bike ride to explore the village. At midday, we board our houseboat for a backwater cruise to Trikunnapuzha. These converted rice barges consist of 2-berth cabins with en suite bathrooms, and are equipped with their own cook. We stack our bikes on the side of the boat (we'll be saddle free for the next 19 hours) whilst we watch the world slowly go by. Vessels of all sizes use the network of canals and lakes, with smaller boats ferrying passengers and goods between tiny hamlets perched on narrow spits of land. On one side of the canal we can see vast paddy fields, and on the other side are fishing nets and coconut trees. As the sun begins to set, the boats are moored together and we gather on the deck for sundowners and dinner.
Breakfast is taken on the houseboat before we disembark. We then enjoy a cliff-top ride to the laid-back beach town of Varkala. We set off along a quiet coastal road to the Valaazhikal ferry crossing, loading the bikes onto a local fishing boat to cross the river estuary to Karunagapally, where we meet our support vehicle and transfer to the beautiful beach town of Varkala. We'll stop for lunch en route. We spend the next two nights at Varkala, staying close to what is considered one of India's best beaches. With coffee bars, shops and yoga schools perched along the red sandstone cliff-top, this town is an excellent place to chill out.
After breakfast, we enjoy a small morning ride to explore the surrounding coastal areas. Returning to the hotel by lunch time, there is time to enjoy the beachside location and perhaps try one of the beach shack restaurants, which serve excellent seafood. We recommend trying some of the Tandoori dishes - the clay ovens give a more authentic taste to the breads and curries. Tonight there is the option to enjoy a final group dinner at the hotel's restaurant, which serves a variety of Keralan dishes.
Those on the group flight will be transferred to Trivandrum airport for their flight back to London. For Land Only travellers, the trip ends after check-out.