From Kovalam to Kumarakom

PETRA O'NEILL travels to Kerala in search of better health, and finds Ayurveda, buffets and sunrises

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India,Singapore Jan Feb 2011 555
A glass of champagne left standing too long loses its bubbles. For a time I too was feeling flat. I set to task on my computer and searched for better health. It generated a multitude of resorts in Kerala with the header Ayurveda. And so while in India, I made a detour to end my stay at resorts that offered restorative treatments.
Kovalam was first brought to prominence during the 1930’s by the Maharaja of Travancore who recognised its tourist potential. By inviting guests to stay at his palace, Haylcon Castle, word spread and Kovalam became a popular holiday destination.  Kovalam also attracted overseas travellers in search of a laid back beach culture and more recently seeking better health.
Kovalam is made up of several of India’s most beautiful beaches that stretch along a 17 kilometre coastline. I spent my first night there and woke to a splendid panoramic view of the Arabian Sea with fishermen pulling in their nets, all the while chanting. The beach was quite lovely but as I walked closer towards Lighthouse beach, it became more developed. Kovalam means grove of coconut trees after all, but instead there were bars, shops and hotels. I caught an auto rickshaw to Chowara beach, 8 kilometres south past villages and coconut groves. Down a narrow winding lane I arrived at a small Hindu Temple and Nikki’s Nest.
Ayurveda, the 5,000 year old traditional Indian health regimen that takes a holistic approach to health and healing by drawing on the benefits derived from herbs and plants for medicinal purposes has become increasingly popular at resorts in Kerala. But “Guten Tag” was not the welcome I was expecting on my arrival at Nikki’s Nest Ayurvedic Centre and my puzzled look did nothing to deter the eager young staff member from handing me a guide of the resort – in German. Of the 69 guests, two were Russian, the rest German.
The organic vegetarian buffet selection, with 12 south Indian dishes to choose from, was delicious. My consultation with the resort’s Doctor, Dr Priveen was less successful. He sensed my lack of knowledge about the Ayurvedic treatments on offer and was suitably unimpressed by my brief 3 night stay. I was then escorted to the massage centre. Unlike any massage I’ve had before, I was seated upright on a stool. Oil was liberally poured onto my head and rubbed in with long stokes rather vigorously from back to front then swirls and more oil.
That night I sat with Dagmar from Berlin who spends one month here each year without venturing beyond the resort’s front gates to recuperate spending her days wearing a robe with her hair wrapped in a towel to allow the Ayurvedic oil to penetrate. All guests wore robes except me and the two Russians who wore golden hotpants and lots of jewellery and did not appear to know what to make of it all.
I had so many sights to explore. Thiruvananthapuram, formerly known as Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala is a lovely city spread across a group of wooded hills. Its bustling markets and handicraft stores make it a good place to shop. There are interesting brass pieces for sale – bowls, urns and water jugs, lungis (sarongs) of light weight cotton, often trimmed in gold, dance masks, baskets and rugs.
Padmanabhapuram Palace 63 kms from Thiruvananthapuram is one of India’s most exquisite but least visited treasures, a wooden palace that once belonged to the maharajahs of Travencore, the rulers of what is now Kerala, with magnificent rosewood carvings built in the sixteenth century. The palace is now in Tamil Nadu after a redrawing of political boundaries along linguistic lines.
There were also beaches to see. Many are crescent shaped separated by rocky outcrops. I walked north past the village of Mulloor towards the seaport of Vizhinjam scrambling over rocks as I went. There were villages, Churches and Hindu temples, spice shops and tailors and a vendor delivering fresh milk on his bicycle.
Next day I walked south along the beach early enough to see the fishing boats go out. In Chowara village women were loading up fruit and vegetables to take to market. I could hear music that progressively got louder, but through the dense coconut groves, I was unable to locate its source. This was the Kerala I had hoped to find. As I went back onto the main road, the tourist shops and eager vendors appeared once more, and I was relieved when I returned to Nikki’s Nest to enjoy the panoramic views of the beach below and sip a bright pink herbal tea infusion.
I knew what was best suited for me the moment I entered the Ayurvedic Spa and Fitness Centre at the Vivanta by Taj – Kumarakom, four hours north of Kovalam. There is much to recommend Ayurvedic treatments for maintaining good health and wellbeing combined with yoga, meditation, regular exercise and a diet rich in fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables. At Nikki’s Nest, the approach requires commitment and self discipline and will appeal to those prepared to stay for long enough to realise the benefits.
For me, a soothing head and shoulder massage, combined with time spent exploring canals and villages on my bicycle, reading a good book while lying in a hammock and enjoying a sunset cruise, such as I experienced while in Kumarakom was absolute bliss. Ayurveda does renew your mind and body and perhaps that offered in such a beautiful setting is the best holiday we can ever hope to have.
Travel Notebook      
Singapore Airlines flies to Cochin International Airport and Thiruvananthapuram International Airport via Singapore. TIA is close to Kovalam. Kumarakom is 175 kms or four hours north of Thiruvananthapuram, and CIA is a further 85 kms or roughly 2 hours north of Kumarakom.
While there is a good bus service from Kovalam to Thiruvananthapuram, you will need taxis or auto rickshaws to get between beaches and resorts.  There are many noteworthy palaces, temples and museums to visit and for this you will need a touring vehicle and reliable driver. Charges are reasonable. I’d recommend Welcome Tours and Travel, Email:agnesh@vsnl.com Website: www.allindiatours.com.
There are many budget and midrange options. Coral Reef, at Mulloor is basic and charming, with only 4 rooms. At the top end, the Vivanta by Taj – Kovalam a resort set on 15 acres of beautifully manicured gardens, with fountains, sculptures and waterfalls leading to a lagoon and semi private beach. Email:vivanta.kovalam@tajhotels.com  Website: www.vivantabytaj.com
For Aruyvedic treatments, the all inclusive full board package at Nikki’s Nest is recommended, that includes yoga, meditation and massage treatments. While Europeans come during the high season especially Jan, at other times the resort
offers activities such as cooking classes and there is a balanced mix of nationalities. Email: nest@sancharnet.in   Website: www.nikkisnest.com
At Kumarakom you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful setting, more dedicated staff or more luxurious surroundings than at the Vivanta by Taj – Kumarakom. Email: vivanta.kumarakom@tajhotels.com Website: www.vivantabytaj.com Avoid the high season Oct-April when prices escalate. April can be hot and July is wet.
Beachside boutiques are geared to tourists. There are many tailors. Try Sree Murukan, Royal Stitching Shop at Mulloor.
India Tourism, Glasshouse Shopping Complex, Level 5, 135 King Street, Sydney
Tel: (02) 9221 9555 Email: info@indiatourism.com.au Website: www.tourism.gov.in

Petra ONeill
Petra ONeill
After growing up in Australia's outback she enjoys visiting remote destinations in Australia for the wildlife, vast open spaces and brilliant night sky and travelling overseas to exotic destinations to experience different cultures. Her bag is always packed and ready for the next trip

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