Cruising the Kerala Backwaters on a Houseboat
Back in 2008, I spent a night on a houseboat cruising the backwaters of Kerala. At the time I was just a few weeks shy of my 60th birthday, and the idea of producing a travel magazine for senior travellers hadn’t even crossed my mind. But now that I’m well into my senior years, I look back on that experience and realise what a wonderful travel experience that is for senior travellers.
Cruising those quiet, lush tropical backwaters is the ultimate in relaxation and requires no effort whatsoever on the part of the traveller. The boat crew will look after your every need, and I still recall in mouthwatering detail the delicious meal of marsala prawns that I had on board my houseboat that night. I don’t think I have had a single meal as memorable as that in more than 10 years.
You can read my old blog post here, which describes the journey through the green waterways and what we saw along the way. It was a rainy day so the photographs don’t have as much impact as those accompanying this article, but they document the daily life that we saw along the canals and rivers.
Cost similar to a hotel
I mentioned in the article that the houseboat cost about US$150 to hire for the afternoon and the night, which included a crew of three (captain, deckhand and cook) and three meals (lunch, dinner and breakfast). The good news is that prices have not risen much in the past 10 years, so these trips are still very affordable.
US$150 will get you an average quality houseboat with air-conditioning for two people. That’s no more than a cost of a three-star hotel room, and with three meals for two people included, it’s not much different to the cost of staying in a hotel on dry land.
Boats without air-conditioning are much cheaper, but are not recommended except in the cool season around December and January. However those months are the peak season for cruising the backwaters, so prices can be hiked as much as two or three times during those months.
For two or more couples travelling together, houseboats with two or three bedrooms can be hired, and many of these are quite luxurious and represent good value when the cost is split between the travellers.
There are now about 500 houseboats plying the Kerala backwaters – about 200 more than when I was there. Back in 2008 I didn’t make an advance booking. I just went down to the jetty at Alleppy, inspected a few boats, and started bargaining.
I didn’t bargain hard because I liked a particular one that I saw, and somebody else was looking at it as well, so I may have paid a little more than I needed to. If you bargain too hard, you may not get the same level of service that you would by paying the asking price. That’s not to suggest you should pay the first asking price. That’s almost always inflated. But responding to the first asking price with a comment along the lines of “Hmm, that’s a bit expensive compared to what my friends paid,” will usually result in a lower price being offered that the boat owner will still be very happy to accept.
Check online reviews
Alternatively you can check out reviews of the larger tour operators online, and quickly find out which ones are offering the best service – and which ones to avoid. However, most of these operators are pretty internet savvy these days, and when they see they are getting good reviews will be more resistant to discounting. Of course, booking in advance is only an option if you are on a fixed itinerary, and you know exactly the date you will reach Alleppy (which is also known as Alappuzha in case you can’t find it on your map).
The smaller operators that are not on the web are often the ones that provide the best deals, but there are also some bad operators amongst them. A way to sort out the good from the bad is to get down to the jetty early and talk to some of the travellers coming off the boats that are returning from overnight cruises, and ask them how the service and food was (and maybe even how much they paid, if they are prepared to tell you).
Don’t let the existence of a few bad operators put you off cruising on the Kerala backwaters. Most reviews on the web are positive. On TripAdvisor, for example, nearly 90 percent of people who have taken houseboat cruises rate the experience as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. Only 5 percent rate them as ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’. Do some advance research, or take care with your choice of boat if not booking in advance, to avoid being one of the 5 percent.
For most people, one night on a houseboat is sufficient, but there are also two-night tours available that take you further away from the crowded canals and into backwaters where you will see few other boats. Many who have taken the two-night tours have said they were bored the second day because the scenery doesn’t change, but for some who want to only sleep, eat and watch the world pass slowly by, a two-night cruise might still be an option.
Mosquitos the only downside
It should be no surprise that mosquitoes can be a big problem on the backwaters in the hours before sunset and after sunrise. I took the strongest DEET insect repellent that I could buy, but ended up not using it because I experienced no mosquitoes at all, despite it being a rainy day. But I must have been lucky because most visitors do experience mosquitoes to some extent.
The Kerala backwaters make a great overnight stopover on the way to the Western Ghats. Driving time from Alleppy to Munnar is usually a minimum of five hours. It’s only 170 km but the road passes through many rural villages and becomes even more slow and winding as it climbs up into the foothills.
An overnight houseboat cruise on the Kerala backwaters is an experience that no senior traveller to India should miss. When you are booking, embarking and disembarking it will feel very touristy, but when you are out on the water and away from the crowds, you will feel very privileged to be experiencing it.