South India Road Trip Day 16-17: Chennai to Kochi and back via Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagamon, Kumarakom, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore and Yelagiri.
It was at least a 6:30 Hr. drive and the plan was to start early, and maybe stop somewhere on the way for the night if required. As it happened we started late, by about 8:00 AM after breakfast. We may have also taken the longer route as we headed on NH-66 and went all the way till Calicut on NH-66 and then NH-766 from Calicut to Wayanad. We didn’t realize that Wayanad is not a town (we thought it to be a town in the district by the same name), luckily we went all the way till Kalpetta, actually half way across and away on Kalpetta Bypass, when we stopped for a tea break at 5:00 PM close to sunset. We had driven without any breaks except for a quick lunch at 12:30 just ahead of Guruvayur (temple town) and just past the very attractive beach and backwaters and Lake Town of Chettuva with Chavakkad Beach next to it. The road crosses a bridge on the Chettuva Lake and Karuvannur River with a picturesque Mangrove Forest on an island on the lake, and then the lake running along the road for a few miles. As you leave the lake behind the exit to Chavakkad Beach comes up and you get a glimpse of the sea. Next time we must stop there and explore, it was a beautiful place but we were determined to make it to Wayanad as I had made good progress and driving well. The tea shop on our break directed us to a guest house just 100 meters up the slope with great views promised, Green Peace seemed a good name. We had been halted just in time at the largest town in Wayanad, Kalpetta. We drove up and were surprised by the extraordinary build quality of the guest house, high roof, maybe 14 feet with one full wall of glass with lovely valley views, Scandinavian architecture. However we were disappointed with the poor furniture, furnishing and upkeep, and for that reason we got it @Rs.2,000/- per night x 2 nights. A good deal for the place. It was 340 meters walk down to the middle of the Kalpetta market walking opposite to the Bypass road, with many restaurant options there. Recommend this place for the build quality of the building and the views, if not for the poor maintenance, a value deal. We checked in, and then after an hour of rest went down into town, had dinner, and came back and crashed.
Day 17: Wayanad
Horticulture Research Center (HRC) Ambalavayal
Places to see Wayanad
It was a joy getting up early to extraordinary views over the valley and tea estates. I went up to the roof of the hotel to see the sunrise, a great view point. Then walked down to the town for a short walk and get a cup of tea. Once back we got breakfast from the owner’s home. Interesting stew of vegetables and Appams. Something different and tasty. Next day they gave the same stew with Pooris this time and also a banana and coconut sweet (Mithai), interesting new food, and fresh pineapple juice and tea. Excellent breakfast on both days.
In Kalpetta we got a list of things to do, and places to visit with a map from a travel agent. We had met a couple of Scots who had recommended the ‘flower show’ about 15 Km away near the caves in Ambalavayal, at the Kerala Agricultural University, Horticulture Research Center (HRC). So we headed to the caves and bought forest honey and then coffee at the shop there, the honey tasted real good and the coffee smelled heavenly. Later we discovered that Wayanad coffee is entirely Robusta but the smell was so good and strong that we did not regret the purchase. We decided not to climb all the way up to the caves, and went only about half way, as the wife had swollen feet. We pressed on to the flower show. On the way and already in Ambalavayal town we visited the Tribal Museum which has a great collection. Next, the flower show and the range and variety of plants including fruit trees was amazing. The Dahlias were just breathtaking as were the plants on offer for sale at the festival (Mela) at the center. We were there all the way from 12:00 noon until 4:30 PM. We took a lot of photos, quite a few shots of the stunning flowers.
Finally out of the Horticulture Center we had a good late lunch in town and then headed back to our hotel. We left behind a long list of attractions with no time left to see them, maybe 3 ticks on a map with 40 points to visit! Next time we stay for at least 5 days. Once home we were in the hotel a couple of hours till we built up an appetite and headed for dinner at 9 PM. We got an excellent vegetarian meal at Udupi restaurant in town, a really clean and neat place, and filter coffee available once more, though not quite as good as the Kumbakonam Degree Coffee. Nothing is a patch on the degree coffee! Then walked back up to the hotel and crashed.
Houseboat on Vembanad Lake from Kumarakom, 2 nights stay and cruise
South India Road Trip: The Journey: Chennai to Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagaman, Vembanad, Kochi, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore, Yelagiri, and back to Chennai.
Kumarakom Houseboats on Vembanad Lake
We left early as we learned the house boat cruises start around 12:30 and serve lunch on the boat at 1:30 PM soon after departure. We left at 7 AM and calculated 4 hour driving time, time for food and another short break en-route. For once I drove with a mission and did not stop until about 9:30 for breakfast. We went back the way we had come (into Vagaman) via the tea estates, till the crossing on the National Highway. Got a quick breakfast and continued onwards. As it happened we were in Kumarakom at 12:00, then headed towards the boat jetty road as indicated on the GPS. We missed the first few exits to boat jetties (perpendicular to the highway) and crossed the main government boat house as well, and then were on the second last exit when we enquired. We were lost so followed an agent (or tout) who took us to a house boat literally on the last marina, a boat which claimed to have had a cancellation and thus was available. He was asking Rs. 8,000/- per night, first 9K and then final offer 8K. It was a 2 bedroom houseboat and we need only one bedroom, so I offered 7K, and he came down to 7.5K but the agent suggested that he drive us to the next street, leaving the car in the parking (very narrow one way street). We went along. In the next jetty street, under the bridge, boats yet to find customers park, and there we did not find a boat available for 2 nights. One was available for that night but was asking 7K. Finally at 12:45 PM we realized that we would have to take the first boat we had seen as none others were available. However, when we back tracked to the first boat, we found that it was now booked. One boatman gave us the phone number of the owner, who then took us to his brother’s boat, a one bedroom boat which had returned to the jetty at 1:00 PM. We managed to negotiate with this guy and agreed @Rs.6,500/- per night = 13K for the two nights, an excellent outcome but we had lost some precious cruising time! He had a booking for the next night but was able to make arrangements to switch boats for the other booking.
Payment made, the boat cleaned, car parked, we were off at about 1:30 PM. Exiting the backwaters we berthed at 2:30 PM for lunch. It was well-made 3 vegetables and fried fish, an excellent cook, the best food we had had since our departure from Chennai. After lunch we set off at 3:45 PM and cruised the main Vembanad Lake until 5:00 PM and then slowly returned to berth at about 5:30 PM. We cruised only about 2 hours. In a usual one day cruise this would mean that in the morning you would be served breakfast at 8:30 AM, and then the boat would simply move 10 minutes up the same channel and check you out under the bridge at 9:30 AM. Even though cruising is permitted from 7:30 AM until 5:30 PM, a typical one day cruise thus involved only 2 hours of cruising and 30 minutes of very slowly moving up and down the one channel to the lake, disappointing. However for the two day cruise they set off at 9:45 AM on day 2 (very late… but nevertheless…), along the backwaters until 11 AM going up thru the farms and villages on the banks of the channel, and back on the same channel before hitting the big lake at about 12:00 Noon. Along the lake till lunch at 2:00 PM, anchoring the boat next to an island in the middle of the lake. After lunch we went all round the lake from 3:30 until 5:30 and then returned to berth.
It was a full day in the boat, and very satisfactory, but somehow we were left with the feeling that it may be better to buy a few hours cruise with lunch on board and spend the night on shore in a good resort. In any case we berthed both nights at the same spot and spent time on the same channel up and down passing our berth spot at least 6 times. We could have bought cruises @Rs. 1,500/- an hour and had the flexibility of seeing different locations. On shore we would have the freedom drive by the lake, go to the bird sanctuary and places during the evening, apart from living in a much more comfortable room.
We got great photos on the boat and saw life around the water channels. Food was excellent, the second day we had a new cook better than the first. He served fish steamed in a banana leaf for lunch and duck fry for dinner, both excellent. The first day we bought fish at a fish stall on the lake, wife cooked it in the kitchen of the boat, quite an experience. However, this was unnecessary as we couldn’t eat the chicken made by the cook. Most of our fish was left for the cook and boatman. The fish was available for half the price on shore, maybe 200 meters up the road in a number of fish stalls. So the take away from this experience is that the overnight boat can be avoided as boats can move during daylight hours, but they actually cruise at best 9:30-12:30 and 3:30-5:00 PM and the 3 hour cruise in the morning is lost on the first day as check-in is at 12:30 PM and check-out at 9:30 AM. A one day cruise is a wash out, the two day affair effectively 7 hours in total (2 hours on the first day, 5 hours on the second and none on the last). One could buy a 7:30 AM till 5:30 PM ride with self-packed breakfast and lunch, no berthing for meals… a 10 hour cruise… if that is possible?