Inspired by his own family holiday to Kerala, our CEO Sam Clark wrote this helpful guide to planning your family’s Keralan adventure.
You know that feeling when a family needs a holiday? That frazzled, frayed, ‘at each other’s throats’ type situation, where almost nothing seems to be going quite right? That’s where my family had got too in March this year. After a long winter and a house move we needed a change of scenery and a reset (apologies for the ‘first world problems’ nature of this whinge.)*
I’m in the extraordinarily lucky position of being able to travel regularly and justify it as work research. It genuinely helps us pioneer holidays for families in Asia if we have done them ourselves, especially with kids. There’s nothing like having such brutally honest critics in tow to make you see beyond those sepia-tinted sunglasses…
So, this April we set off for Kerala to be ETG guinea pigs on our new suggested itinerary for young families (though it’s worth noting here that all our holidays are completely tailor-made). With our local partners, we had put together some new family experiences which we felt would make the best of this beautiful and fairly well-known part of Southern India, in a way that revealed the fabric of the destination. Personally speaking, it was quite important too. Would we get that holiday we needed as well as useful insights for the company?
Rather than share a blow-by-blow account of my holiday, I thought I’d take on a few of the common dilemmas and questions that families have when planning a visit to Kerala and hopefully our experience will guide you in your own planning. As ever, you can book an appointment with our fantastic India consultants at Experience Travel Group, who would be more than happy to guide you through this process themselves.
North vs South Kerala – and what is too much?
The south of Kerala is known to receive more visitors than the north. Since we first launched a Kerala programme back in 2015, we’ve tried not to follow the traditional route and add to the over-tourism of the central Keralan Backwaters. In the north you’ll find some gorgeous small boutique style family hotels, homestays and plantation lodges, as well as a glorious stretch of coastline with swinging palm trees and friendly locals unused to mass tourism.
However, in the end we decided to head south. Whilst we have arranged family holidays to the northern part of the state and most of our couples travel up here, this is not our primary focus for family holidays. This is because shorter travelling distances in a multi-stop stay in the region of Cochin and the south make for a much for relaxing trip. Plus, logistics would make combining the north and south in a two-week holiday a slog. My pre-teen children were less set on peace and quiet than we were, and would actually probably rather meet another traveller or two along the way (if only to get away from their parents for a bit). Furthermore, the idea that the south is over-touristy is a myth. By varying the pattern, travelling around and getting a little deeper into the region, you spend most of the time without seeing fellow tourists at all.
You can read a deeper comparison on the north versus south Keralan Backwaters if you like.
What are the MUST-Do Experiences for a Family on a Kerala Holiday?
There is a great deal to be seen, but getting the balance right between movement and relaxation is always key in any family holiday where you try and get immersive. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, we often find ourselves trying to persuade clients that less is more. The journeys there can be somewhat gruelling. This is less true of the south of Kerala. The general quality of the roads is better and we have access to a brilliant fleet of vehicles, all with top-quality drivers. The comfortable chairs feel almost like sofas and the journeys became a chance to sleep, listen to music and enjoy the scenery.
That said, my own preference is to spend at least 3 nights at the most places to ensure that you really enjoy what you do see. A further caveat is that each person and family is unique and that you’ll have different interests. Our consultants are highly experienced at matching your personal travel style with what there is to do. It’s the same for everyone, but keeping a whole family happy is the most challenging (and fun) aspect of our work! So, in no particular order, here are some places that I’d consider based on my own experiences:
Windermere River House was a huge favourite of ours. The house, nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats on the banks of the river Periyar, was an incredible base for bird-watching, kayaking along the river, spotting elephants and even getting a glimpse into the tribal life in the surrounding hills. Being offered (and accepting!) fresh honey by a tribal elder we happened to pass is not an experience my elder son will forget in a hurry.
The same son was also very taken by Munnar in the hills. With a keen interest in history, he was amazed to see pictures of Stalin, Lenin and Che Guevara alongside more local communist heroes. “They obviously never got the Stalin memo,” my wife commented… The development of labour relations in the hills is a fascinating aspect of history there though and the tea plantation we visited gave an amazing insight into this, as well as the tea growing process. My whole family loved the entire day. The incredible scenery certainly added to the experience. Whether this would have been the same if we visited the touristy tea factory in town is, however, a very open question.
The last experience I’ll mention was exploring Cochin itself by threewheel. A few years back we explored some northern Indian cities with the kids, which they found a little overwhelming as under-10-years-olds. I think Cochin provides a happy medium. The fun, colour, energy and excitement is all there, just as it is in cities such as Delhi, Calcutta and Jaipur, but it’s all slightly less hectic. It’s a happy medium and all of us loved the day whizzing around and exploring at our own pace with our fantastic guide. Out of the threewheel, Cochin is a fantastic place to explore: with its many islands, vibrant arts scene, great restaurants, harbour, antiques, old Jewish quarter and very much more besides, it’s worth a minimum of a three-night stay to really do it justice.
Cruise ‘The Backwaters’ or not?
Of course, the most famous Keralan experience is visiting the famous ‘backwaters’. There are several ways to explore the Backwaters, but the big question is: to cruise for two nights or not to cruise. We tried both options so we would have a comparison point for future clients. For our family, one option worked much better – to get more detail on what is right for your family, our India consultants would be best placed to advise.
My boys, aged 12 and 10 at the time of travel, are somewhat energetic and ‘boyish’. Suffice to say that as a family, we found the overnight cruise option fun for a while but then very limiting. There isn’t a huge amount to see on the lake and mooring up overnight near many other points is not that exciting. In short, after the initial excitement of being aboard a boat wore off, we were a little underwhelmed with the experience. For older clients we’d tend to suggest a smaller boat and a 2-night stay – which allows you to get right off the main lake and into the backwaters themselves.
In sharp contrast, we all loved the alternative option my colleague at Experience Travel Group developed. This involved staying beside the lake in a gorgeous little hotel but making two separate visits in by smaller boats. The first is a backwaters village experience, in which we were taken by our knowledgeable boatman to visit his village, enjoy curried prawns and generally get a feel for the peaceful agricultural life on the backwaters. The second boat trip we did was exploring Alleppey itself onboard a lovely little British-era riverboat, the sort used until very recently as a ubiquitous form of public transport. The panelled wooden interiors and courteous staff all seemed redolent of a bygone era.
Which is the best beach in Kerala?
Kerala, for me, is NOT about beaches. South India, along with Goa, has been allocated that role, due to a lack of obvious alternatives. However, for a country with a very long coastline (fun fact: apparently not as long as the UK’s coastline as it is much straighter and there are far fewer islands!), India has only a few really world-class beaches. Though there are some excellent hotels and very pleasant sea swimming (and gorgeous sunsets) in Southern Kerala, I wouldn’t bring my own family here purely for a beach stay. That said, a few days at the back end of your stay works well, particularly Marari Beach as it is so close by to Alleppey and the backwaters. A fun, chill-out beach alternative is staying at one of the properties on Lake Vembanad such as Ameya, Purity and Kumarakom Lake Resort.
When is best to travel to Kerala with your family?
Finally, worth saying that whilst the Keralan ‘season’ traditionally runs from November to April, many people think of South India as a winter sun destination. This seems to preclude the idea of visiting during the Easter school holidays. However, to my mind, if visiting as a family, the Easter holidays are ideal. The weather is hot, but then it is generally hot all year round and we found it a very enjoyable change after the long UK winter. It was also considerably cooler in the higher areas which provided a pleasant contrast, along with the much-needed sunny days. There were few tourists, even on busy Lake Vembanad and generally we felt we were able to explore at our own pace in our own time. We spent plenty of quality time together, but met many interesting locals and had a lot of fun too. Considering it was the Easter holidays, this felt like quite a discovery. Take a look at our India weather guide for more information.
What’s the verdict on a family holiday to Kerala?
So for this lucky family, it has to be said that Kerala worked particularly well. It’s fair to say that our holiday experience was a fairly transformational one that came at the right moment for us. It was a case of the right place at the right time too though, as the laid-back charm of Kerala worked its magic: we discovered a place that has a distinct identity all of its own. We were able to explore, get a glimpse of the culture, meet some incredible people, kayak, walk, see some incredible wildlife and really discover what makes the place tick. All of this at a relaxed pace with no stress whatsoever and some lovely hotels. We had the chance to remember that we actually enjoy spending time together…
*Experience Travel Group are huge supporters of the ‘Family Holiday Association’ who help families without our luck and privilege to take holidays away. They consistently show through their work how important a family holiday can be, however you take it.
Curious about Kerala for your family holiday…or elsewhere in India? Experience Travel Group arrange bespoke, privately-guided holidays to India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Call us on 020 3603 0953 or enquire online for a free consultation and holiday quote – we’re always happy to talk travel.