Your trip to Kerala will be incomplete without a cruise on Kerala Houseboats. These slow-moving barges (earlier called as Kettuvallam) offer a leisurely and wonderful experience of the palm-fringed backwaters of Kerala.
The original kettuvallams were used to transport rice and spices in the region. The hull of the kettuvallam is built using wooden planks, held together with coir knots and no nails! The upper portion which accommodated the crew is built using bamboo and coir with thatched roof covers. These kettuvallams were replaced by modern transport like trucks and therefore were given a new lease of life by transforming them into tourist houseboats that we are familiar with today.
Where to Find the Kerala Houseboats?
Alappuzha (also called Alleppey) is the stronghold of Kerala houseboats. Majority of houseboats are located at the Finishing Point of Nehru trophy boat terminal area. This area is called simply as the “Finishing Point” or the Punnamada jetty area. Hotel Ramada Alleppey is the landmark at this point. At this place is a prepaid counter by All Kerala Houseboat Owners Association. There is also a District Tourist Promotion Council (DTPC) prepaid counter. The jetty has a parking area for cars, coaches etc. There are facilities like toilets, small restaurants which serve snacks and beverages and an ATM. Of course, you will encounter lots of touts in this area offering you houseboat and Ayurvedic massage ‘deals’ – its best to avoid them.
What to do in a Kerala Houseboat?
Kerala houseboats feature the comforts of a hotel including well-furnished bedroom/s, clean, Western style toilets, a comfortable living-cum-dining area, a functional kitchen and in some cases even a balcony. The living & dining area may have a sofa / lounge chairs / hammocks and dining table/s. They usually have a TV, DVD player and a sound system, although I suspect not many passengers might be using them. We have seen people playing cards, chess etc – an excellent way to enjoy especially when it is dark and the houseboat is anchored and there is nothing else to do. A houseboat cruise is a leisure trip with hardly any outdoor or adventure activities save for some fishing or angling.
Many houseboats also have air-conditioning usually for the bedrooms, although some even have an A/C glass-covered living area. Having an aircon in the bedroom/s makes sense if you plan on an overnight cruise. However, I don’t see any logic sitting in an air-conditioned glass enclosure while cruising the waterways! In that glass cage, you just can’t enjoy the sights, sounds and smells as also experience the cool breeze when the houseboat moves leisurely along the villages.
The crew of a houseboat comprises two oarsmen and a cook. Most speak a smattering of English or Hindi besides the local language i.e. Malayalam. If you strike a conversation with the houseboat crew, they might even allow you to pilot the houseboat – yet another way to enjoy the cruise. You will be served with a delectable Kerala lunch spread, cooked in Kuttanadan style. Inform the representative of your meal preference while making the booking as they usually serve a fixed menu. If you require prawns or shrimps or any other seafood, it is better to request in advance rather than purchasing from some store in the backwaters who charge higher than the normal rates (your crew might hustle you for buying as they too get some commission). A typical menu is as follows:
LUNCH : Rice, Sambar,Salad, Mixed Vegetables Thoran (Carrot, Cabbage, Beans), Mezhukupurathy (Long Beans), Fish Fry (Pearl Spot / Seer Fish), Pappadam, Pickle, Fresh Fruits
TEA & SNACKS : Coffee or Tea,Milk,Banana Fritters/ Finger Chips
DINNER : Chappati, Dal Curry, Chicken Roast , Vendakka Mezhukupurathy , Boiled Vegetable ,White Rice, Salad, Tea/Coffee on request
BREAKFAST : Bread, Butter, Jam, Eggs to order, Dosa/ Idly, Sambar, Fruits, Coffee/ Tea
Plan Your Houseboat Cruise
December is the high tourist season, with lots of foreigners who pay a premium which implies that houseboats at this time of the year are costlier. If you plan on a day cruise, which starts at about 11 a.m and finishes at 5 p.m, you may consider a non-AC houseboat to bring the cost down. There are many websites who offer online reservation for your Kerala houseboat experience. They may ask you for an advance payment of upto 25% which is ofcourse non-refundable in case you cancel / don’t show up. Cost for a day cruise in the high tourist season (December / January), start at Rs 5500 onwards for two persons (extra person at Rs 1000 onwards), which includes lunch and tea onboard, and may include a welcome / parting gift hamper containing chocolates, beverages etc. Cost for an over-night cruise are Rs 7000 onwards. Luxury Kerala houseboats cost even more – some are known to charge as high as Rs 55,000 per couple (Oberoi MV Vrinda) which also includes free WiFi – yeah, right. DTPC prepaid counters will certainly have lesser cost packages – you may like to check with them directly through the DTPC website at http://www.dtpcalappuzha.com/intinerary.html or http://www.dtpckollam.com/intinerary.html
On the day of your cruise, report to the jetty well in time. Present your voucher / invoice to the representative there who will guide you to the houseboat. Once on board, the houseboat will depart immediately and you can settle down and enjoy the ride. The houseboat will dock at / near a village for lunch as well as for the night- some even have trips to the villages or other places of interest. After the cruise if over, you are back to the starting point where you disembark. If the crew has provided good service it is a good gesture to tip them at least Rs 100 each, since they earn a meagre salary of Rs 9000 to 12000 per month.