After the relentless hubub of India’s metros – Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai, arriving in Kerala can present a shock to the system, albeit a welcome one.
The strip of land between the Arabian Sea and Western Ghats has been called a raft of complimentary names, but none more fitting, even if used time and time again: “God’s own country”. Here, rolling hills co-exist with a necklace of waterways meandering along a picturesque coast and through a rich alluvial plain nourishing rice paddies, coconut groves and a laid-back lifestyle that by today’s standards can only be described as “quaint”. This is the place to kick off the sneakers, turn one’s face to the sun and breathe in deeply the tangy fresh air. Suddenly, the urgency to tend the BlackBerry vanishes, replaced by a thrilling sense of rediscovery – of nature, self and the awesome realisation that one is merely a speck in the universe.
That is Kerala’s magic at work.
Unfortunately, it’s still not enough to battle the tremendous lure of the Golden Triangle experience, the famous Delhi-Agra-Jaipur circuit that the usual newcomer to the subcontinent puts on their must-see list. “But it can compete for those coming a second time, and India is known for its repeat visitors,” says Mahesh Shirodhikar, director of Tamarind Tours India.
To do justice to a destination he claims “has it all on one platter”, Shirodhikar recommends spending between six to eight nights there, specially for long haulers. In the domestic market, Kerala boasts exceptional popularity, specially with India on the economic ascendant and companies – both multinational and homegrown – constantly organising training sessions, product launches and corporate retreats.
Served by local carriers such as Air India, Air India Express and Jet Airways and international airlines such as Air Arabia, Emirates, Etihad, Island Aviation (Maldives), Kuwait Airways, Oman Airways, SilkAir, Qatar Airways and SriLankan, connectivity from the main cities and overseas is not an issue.
Pankaj Jain, manager-incentives, Creative Travel India, believes that the southern state could be divided into four areas, which offer incentive travel planners distinct attractions and activities.
Central Kerala, he describes as the most popular with industry folk due to the convenient air links provided by Cochin (Kochi) International Airport, existing hotels and general infrastructure.
He says: “The famous Vembanad Lake and Alleppey – the hub of backwaters – are convenient to drive to. The region offers several interesting options like snake boat racing, canoeing in the backwaters, houseboat stays, Ayurveda treatments and plantation visits.”
Lack of capacity, however, restricts most hotels in the vicinity, even the deluxe properties, from accommodating large incentive groups, a tricky, if not an unviable, proposition.
According to Jain, room constraints are more severe in Kumarakom, a highly atmospheric example of life in the backwaters where a group of 80 to 100 people “may require more than one category of rooms at more than one hotel”. But if groups number between 30 and 65 participants, the experience is ideal and becomes much more meaningful.
The destination boasts some surprises though in terms of meeting space such as the conference centre of Le Méridien Cochin. This has been designed with theatre-style seating capacities ranging from 50 to 2,500 people, while its sprawling lawns can host up to 7,000 guests for buffet dinners and cocktail receptions.
South Kerala, accessed through Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), another well-connected secondary hub, is renowned for two magnificent beaches, Kovalam and Varkala, which impress if the itinerary revolves around relaxation, beach activities and Ayurvedic regimens.
The favoured hotels are The Leela Kempinski and Taj Green Cove.
While both are oriented to the incentive market and able to arrange sleek corporate entertainment with the help of savvy event outfits based in Mumbai, Chennai or Bangalore, it’s The Leela that’s got something extra – the Rajiv Gandhi Convention Centre. The facility is capable of seating 1,000 people, theatre style. But due to Leela’s 182-room inventory, not all event participants can be booked here and have to be farmed off to lower-tier establishments.
Taj Green Cove has provision for 150 guests theatre style in its Conference Hall and 500 guests for dinner on the beach.
North Kerala’s most prominent city is Kozhikode (Calicut) along the Malabar Coast, a flourishing spice entrepot centuries ago. It was Vasco da Gama’s first Indian port of call.
Less considered by DMCs for their itineraries due to underdevelopment, this is not to say the area doesn’t lack its own set of attractions. Kozhikode Beach boasts two centuries-old piers and a long shorefront from where to view spectacular sunsets, while Dolphin’s Point brims in the early morning with scores of these friendly mammals gathering to socialise. Kappad Beach, 16km north of Kozhikode, is where Da Gama landed in 1498, and 10km south of the city at the mouth of the Chalivar River is Beypore renowned for its skill of constructing the uru, traditional sailboats of the Arabs.
The hills of Thekkady and Munnar are enjoyed for scenic panoramas, emerald plantations and clement weather, with Thekkady having the added advantage of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. However, these areas again suffer a capacity constraint when it comes to large incentive groups.
It’s hard to escape the outside world even here in this piece of paradise it seems. That Keralan icon, the kettuvalom, used to navigate the labyrinth of canals and streams nourishing the countryside for generations, has not emerged unscathed. A number of operators have outfitted their vessels with conference facilities with the top deck as a favourite location for a powwow. If they can do it on yachts, why not then on a houseboat?
ITINERARY 5D/4N in Kerala
• Guests will arrive early in the morning and be met at the airport with garlands by Creative Travel staff and the tour escorts. Departure for the hotel on air-conditioned coaches.
• The group will experience a traditional Indian welcome performed by hotel staff carrying silver trays bearing an oil lamp as a gesture of respect and welcome. Tikka (vermilion powder) is applied with the middle finger on the guest’s forehead. Non-alcoholic drinks will be served in the lobby.
A separate check-in area will be arranged by the hotel and guests will not be required to sign a registration card. All keys will be ready for immediate pick up.
Each member of the group will be given a special personalised folder with a copy of their itinerary and information vital to the enjoyment of the trip.
• Breakfast at the hotel, morning at leisure and buffet lunch at the hotel.
• City tour of Cochin, which reflects the cultural eclecticism of Kerala borne out of its heritage as a port of call of sea-faring traders from Portugal and China. Stops include the Jewish Synagogue in Jew Town built in 1568, the ancient Mattancherry (Dutch) Palace built in 1557 by the Portuguese and presented to the ruler of Cochin as a gesture of goodwill (its murals of Indian epics are astonishing), St Francis Church, and finally, the harbour to see the amazing Chinese fishing nets that use huge mechanical contrivances to hold them out 20m or more across the sea to catch fish and crustaceans.
• Welcome buffet dinner at the hotel, with the options of a seafood diner with live Western band or harbour cruise with dinner followed by a Kathakali dance performance.
Kathakali is the highly stylised classical Indian dance-drama marked by the vibrant make up of its characters and their elaborate costumes. Besides the performance, guests will learn the nuances involved in becoming a Kathakali actor.
• Breakfast at the hotel.
• Drive to Alleppey to board your houseboat.
• With over 1,000km of intricately weaving canals, the best way to see the real Kerala is by boat. Journey through the waterways meandering past picturesque villages, fields brimming with rice paddies and rows of swaying coconut palms. Watch Keralans go about their daily lives as they have done so for centuries.
The mode of transport is the kettuvallom, which means a boat made by tying together pieces of wood without nails being used. These “floating hotels” are outfitted with bedrooms and attached baths and feature lounges, viewing decks, kitchenettes and a crew comprising oarsmen, cook and guide. Every effort has been made to offer a luxurious and safe environment.
• Anchor at a scenic spot on the lake to spend the rest of the day and night.
• Lunch and dinner onboard the houseboat to enjoy ethnic meals prepared by the cook with the choice of watching a live dance performance on the floating platform anchored in the middle of the boats.
• Overnight on the houseboat.
• Breakfast on the houseboat.
• Disembark and motor to the village of Kumarakom, a cluster of islands on Vembanad Lake. Due to the proximity of water, the soil in the area is extremely fertile, resulting in a wide variety of flora, especially the mangroves and coconut trees.
• Check in at the hotel followed by a sumptuous buffet lunch.
• Afternoon at leisure to experience an Ayurveda treatment at the spa.
• Buffet dinner at the hotel. There is a choice of cooking demonstration before the dinner.
• Overnight at the hotel.
• Several options are available for the morning: yoga on the hotel lawns to start the day or a visit to the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary on the lake.
• Buffet lunch at the hotel or if the group wishes another setting, this can be done at a plantation where a Snake Boat Race can also be arranged.
• If the group prefers an afternoon at leisure, a demonstration of Kalaripayattu, a Dravidian form of martial arts and possibly one of the oldest fighting methods in existence, can be easily set up.
• Buffet dinner at the hotel and overnight.
• Depart Kumarakom for Cochin to return home.
Prepared by Creative Travel India
WHY CHOOSE KERALA?
It’s a unique destination that has put India on the map. Very few places in India have it all on one platter – the beaches, the backwaters, hills, wildlife reserves, spice and tea plantations, temples, tradition and Ayurveda. It has something for everyone: tourists, incentive travellers, adventurers, spa enthusiasts and honeymooners.
IS KERALA FOR EVERYBODY?
It’s not for people who like the nightlife. India’s metros (Delhi, Mumbai) will answer that need. Those who enjoy visiting forts and palaces should go to northern India and not Kerala.
RATE THE INFRASTRUCTURE
It’s come a long way. Air connectivity is good. Many international airlines come into Trivandrum and Cochin airports. The road network is excellent, and there are some big convention centres such as the Rajiv Gandhi Convention Centre of The Leela Kovalam and the Galfar International Convention Centre attached to Le Meridien Cochin. The backwater resort properties are world class.
WHAT GROUP SIZE IS IDEAL TO SEND TO KERALA?
Small- to mid-size incentives, from 80 to 100 people, are perfect for it, not something with 500 people as the hotels don’t have enough rooms and facilities.
CAN KERALA COMPETE WITH THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE (DELHI-AGRA-JAIPUR)?
The first timer to India always wants to see the Taj Mahal and the entry point is through Delhi. Kerala can compete when it is the second visit, but that is fine as India is known for a high rate of repeat visits.
Kerala has three airports – in the capital Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Cochin (Kochi) in the south and Kozhikode (Calicut) in the north. All are linked internationally with flights from Singapore, Colombo, Male, Muscat, Bahrain, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Saudi Arabia as well as from India’s major metropolises.
True followers of Ayurveda know the best time to visit is during the monsoon months from June to October or November when they say the weather is right for such therapies. What passes for winter, which is about 20 degrees and no lower, starts November and ends in February.
Only nationals of Nepal and Bhutan do not require a visa to enter India, while those of the Maldives can stay up to 90 days. Other nationalities require a valid visa which they can apply for in person or post in their home countries at their nearest Indian High Commission or Embassy. No visa on arrival service is available.
Malayalam, the state language, is spoken by over 35 million people. It is derived from another Dravidian language, Tamil. English is widely spoken and understood.
A quick guide to some of Kerala’s best retreats, some with meeting facilities, and some without, but all oozing with laid-back charm
THE LEELA KEMPINSKI KOVALAM BEACH
Its location on a rock face looking out to the mighty Arabian Sea makes this 182-room Charles Correa-designed resort an instant winner with first-timers to Kerala. Not only is it able to please demanding high-end incentive participants – housing them in the exclusive Club wing, but finicky event planners as well with a range of meeting spaces, consisting of the 1,023sqm Rajiv Gandhi Convention Centre – the largest of its kind in Kerala – taking up to 1,000 theatre style, an adjacent pandhal (hall) for 400, a day-lit conference room for 30 to 40 people and two boardrooms with views of the coastline as well as the chessboard park and various other outdoor venues.
TAJ GREEN COVE
Spread over four hectares of lush tropical landscape are 59 hillside cottages with elephant-grass thatched rooftops, consisting of Superior Garden View Rooms, Superior Sea View Rooms, Deluxe Suites with a balcony, Deluxe Suites with a lap pool and the Presidential Suite. Meeting facilities consist of the Coconut Bay function room, which accommodates 150 theatre style and 200 for a cocktail affair. The boardroom seats 28. A business centre, Wi-Fi and video conferencing service are available.
This five-star hotel closest to the international airport has an unusually large range of meeting facilities for such a buccolic environment. The adjacent convention centre has 12 multipurpose halls with 4,381sqm of air-conditioned space with theatre-style seating taking up to 2,500 delegates. Le Méridien is spread across 10ha that features 8,826sqm of lawns sidling up to the backwaters that can welcome 7,000 people for an open-air gala. An amphitheatre overlooking the water is a favourite with event planners for dinners with a cultural twist.
Located on Willingdon Island with views of the Cochin harbour, this 98-room boutique resort has a Heritage Wing built in 1935 that still features Victorian detailing, while its Tower Wing hosts newly renovated suites. Events are catered for in three banquet halls seating up to 300 theatre-style or accommodating up to 250 for a stylish cocktail reception.
Nestled in the confluence of Kavanar River and Vembanad Lake, the resort is a cultural gem, consisting of accommodation in traditional and authentic tharavads (Keralan housing). Accommodation consists of 14 Heritage Mansions, 28 Heritage Bungalows and eight Private Pool Villas, featuring a blend of modern conveniences and a traditional Keralite bathroom. With a focus on respecting the environment, much of the activities offered have to do with nature walks and animated commentaries by three resident naturalists. Even spa experiences have an ecological orientation – the facility is a Green Leaf-certified Ayurvedic centre.
KUMARAKOM LAKE RESORT
Rave reviews on many leading travel sites mark this oasis on the banks of the Vembanad Lake as a luxurious standout. Some guestrooms have private plunge pools and a houseboat affords visitors a chance to experience one of Kerala’s most identifiable icons, even if it’s for only a night.
Lulu Garden Hotels
The hotel is next to the Lulu International Convention Centre. The hotel has 30 executive rooms and five suites. The convention centre can seat 5,000 people at one time and is made up of the Lulu Grand which can seat 2,200 people; Banquet Hall for 1,100 guests; non air-conditioned Lotus Banquet Hall for 1,000 guests; and the function rooms Safina I, II, III for between 20 and 450 guests. Courtyard Lulu Greens is an open-air venue with lush greenery and is ideal for evening functions. It can easily seat up to 2,000 people. Located away from the city, the ambience offers complete peace of mind.