Visiting Kerala backwaters: Forget houseboats

Pick any of the lists of “Top Things to do in Kerala” and I bet that a cruise of the backwaters on a houseboat will be right on the top of it. After our trip to the backwaters, however, I can assure you that you are not risking missing the “quintessential Keralan experience” if you don’t spend a couple of nights on one of these boats. Here are five good reasons why you should consider other options while planning your stay:

1. Save yourself the trouble of choosing

There are thousands of houseboats available for hire in Kerala and if you’re a bit on the fussy side when it comes to choosing your accommodation (let’s call it “seeking charm”) the chances of finding just the right one are close to winning a lottery. I’ve read enough reviews beginning with “what was supposed to be a deluxe air conditioned boat…”, “great experience but beware…” or “inspect the boat personally before committing” to be cautious.

These barges may look very romantic on photos but I doubt that the simple wooden structure with a roof made of palm leaves offer any kind of insulation in hot and humid Indian climate. Nor do I want to imagine where the water for cooking or showering comes from, or where the water from the toilet goes to. Maybe I’m wrong and the boats are in fact an engineering masterpiece. But after I saw one with a toilet seat on the rear deck fully exposed to the view of anyone passing by I remain highly sceptical.

The choice of pleasant family owned homestays on the other hand is relatively limited so it’s easier to browse through the reviews and find a place that speaks to you. In the end we decided for Thevercad Homestay in Kainakary just outside of Allepey and it was perfect in every aspect.

2. Avoid the river traffic jam

The fact that there are so many houseboats means that there’s also a lot of traffic. So forget your romantic idea of slowly gliding on a quiet river without a soul around. Instead, you are highly likely to move around with the crowds and dock in a group of other boats for the night.

Our homestay was located right on the shore of the river and could only be accessed by boat. So in terms of observing the waterway life our location was almost as good as a deck of a boat – we could just sit on the terrace and gaze at the numerous vessels moving up and down the river. However the prime spot had its downsides too, and I believe these are the same when staying on a houseboat.

We were brought to the homestay in a dugout canoe and at first I was all excited about it – absolutely no road traffic around the house, just boats drifting by, what a relaxing place, I thought. I was wrong. There’s a funny little detail with house- and any other kind of motorised boats that you only notice in the middle of the night: they are extremely loud. But I guess that’s the price of staying close to the water, which, if you ask me, is the only acceptable location to stay at in backwaters.

3.  Nice boats come at a cost

I admit I was a bit too negative in point 1. There are in fact boats that look very nice and comfortable that appeal even to a demanding traveller like me (again, always only “seeking charm”). However, the prices come close to a five-star hotel somewhere in Europe, especially if you want to have one for yourself. And since we’re not the most sociable people on earth when it comes to travelling in a group, renting anything that would require us sharing our deck or even bathroom with another tourists was out of the question.

Again, our homestay turned out to be much more suitable for us. The only two rooms located in the 200-year old converted rice storage are lovingly decorated and the beds are super comfortable. Each room has an outdoor bathroom where you can shower under the sky. A nice little touch at a much more affordable price.

4. Pick your own mode of transport

Staying at a private homestay gave us more flexibility than being transported around on the big boat. It’s easy to arrange trips with canoes or small-size motor boats that take you into the narrow canals that houseboats can’t reach. We started before sunrise when the backwaters turn into a public bathroom. Alternatively, you can catch a ride with the locals on the river bus, which is a unique experience of its own. Prefer walking? Can be done too. A stroll through the rice paddies is a great way to observe village life and meet some local people.

5. Food. Need I say more?

In the end if none of the above arguments persuaded you, focus just on this last one. The home cooked meals at the Thevercad Homestay were so incredibly delicious that it’s worth staying there just for the sake of feasting on Keralan delicacies. The room comes with three meals per day and the friendly owner’s wife Bindu really goes out of her way to showcase the best of local cuisine. Just to give you an example: for lunch there is always soup, at least two different curries, rice, a vegetable side dish and a desert. Only thinking about it makes my mouth water now.

There, now you have it, the ultimate reason to forget about houseboats altogether. For Bindus cooking I would be willing to stay at their house again if it was located in the middle of nowhere. But, according to my husband, everything begins and ends for me with food so you might consider other reasons too.

And don’t forget to check my photo gallery of the backwaters.