11 January 2002

Rice, spice and all things nice…

The state of Kerala in south-west India is becoming a sought-after holiday destination.

James Evans had the devil of a good time in Gods own country

Kerala is the ricebowl of India, said one of our guides and on the coastal lowlands, mile after mile of gleaming, green paddy fields justified the appellation.

Our base was the slightly Costa-like resort of Kovalam, a thriving tourist beach area. But to be fair, no Costa restaurants ever offered king prawns, red crabs, kingfish, swordfish, barracuda, tuna and snapper of such immaculate freshness and jaw-dropping cheapness as Kovalam.

The labyrinthine drink laws of the state mean that a glimpse of a passing policeman will see an old newspaper wrapped around your Kingfisher beer, giving a raffish "Prohibition" flavour to dining. But India is India and the merest whisper of  "G&T" will elicit a stonking great glass of Indian gin…and in Kerala they serve tourist-friendly drinks with no ice made from tap-water, the biggest cause of dodgy tummy.

If you are prepared to travel, Kerala has something for all tastes. The five-hour train journey from Trivandrum, the state capital, to the sophisticated and historic port of Cochin was worth every groan of the 4am wake-up call. From Cochin, we headed upwards towards the western Ghats. As the climate cooled and the humidity lifted, the view from the bus gradually changed from rubber, to tea, to spice plantations. Near Thekkady, high in the mountains, there are game reserves within easy reach, harbouring elephants, tigers and vibrant bird life.

Going south from Kovalam to Cape Comorin repays a days travel, passing scores of temples, mosques and churches. On the whole, the three religions are followed in comparative harmony, unlike most of the modern world. The cape lies across the border in the state of Tamil Nadu and is the southernmost point of the Indian sub-continent. When you stand at the tip of India, it is the only place in the world where you can see three great seas simultaneously – the Indian Ocean to the south, the Bay of Bengal  to the east and the Sea of Arabia to the west. Theres a tale to bore your grandchildren with.

Many visitors prime reason for visiting the region is to sail the Kerala Back-waters, a huge network of rivers, estuaries, lakes and lagoons. The now obsolete rice boats have been converted into picturesque houseboats of varying luxuriousness. You can cruise the Backwaters for a day or three, pampered by a cook and two boatmen.

We spent a day aboard and slept, anchored in the middle of a lagoon and open to the sky, under a mosquito net, while the little bleeders hurled themselves ineffectually at our tasty carcasses. It gave us quite a buzz.

&#8226 Two weeks B&B in a comfortable no-frills hotel, flights and transfers can be enjoyed for a little as £500-600 a person through tour operator Manos (phone 01273-427333 or www.manos.co.uk).