Heading north from Cochin, the Keralan coastline becomes steadily quieter and tourists rarer, though the beaches are just as beautiful and the people just as friendly. The only sizeable city before entering Karnataka and then Goa is Calicut (now called Kozhikode), where Vasco de Gama dropped anchor in 1498. Other than that, you’ll find miles of sandy beaches, a handful of fishing villages, the occasional Portuguese fort and a few backwater canals - far calmer than their southern counterparts.
Inland, as throughout Kerala, the Western Ghats provide a leafy escape and the chance to see wildlife, particularly in the Wayanad sanctuaries. Wherever you go, you’ll find a sprinkling of Malayalam words useful, as English is far less widely spoken here than in the south.
Believed to be the source of ‘calico’ cotton, Calicut (Kozhikode) was an important trading post throughout history and is now a thriving city of nearly a million inhabitants, with flourishing timber, boat-building and textile industries. In the central ‘Mananchira’ square, Hindu temples sit alongside mosques and Christian churches. There's also an archaeological museum, a planetarium and a small art gallery. Shoppers can admire wooden furniture and trinkets, and chat easily to deft-fingered tailors. Travel 16km north and you'll reach Kappad Beach, where Vasco de Gama is said to have arrived with the first ever ship from Europe (a cement pillar marks the spot, now inland).
There are several fishing villages and towns north of Calicut, all of them right on the Arabian Sea, with its blinding sunsets and invigorating sea breezes. Tellicherry (Thalasseri) is the prettiest, where fishermen unload their catches from wooden boats in the afternoon, birds circle overhead and the sun sinks into the sea. Nearby there’s a huge cinnamon plantation (watch how they extract the popular spice and oils for perfume) and the wonderfully sandy Muzhappilangau beach, with a tiny island which you can wade out to at low tide.
Near the border with Karnataka lies Kerala’s largest and best-preserved Portuguese fort, a 17th-century structure with imposing outer walls and a tunnel. Nearby are the sandy beach and lake of Bekal (boat trips are available), and the Thanal ‘facility centre’ where you can enquire about backwater boat trips either at Nileshwar or Padanna Kadav (20-30km south). You won't find many tourists here and there's only one place to stay of note - the Neeleswhar Hermitage, 25km south of Kasaragod and 90km south of Mangalore.
Don't let the name (meaning ‘swamp-land’) put you off. There are plenty of marshes and rivers in the Wayanad Hills, but there are also bamboos, grasses, lush woods (including teak) and verdant gullies hiding elephants, monkeys, sambar and barking deer, not to mention myriad birdlife. There are 2 sanctuaries, both of which require a permit available through your lodgings. The largest settlement in the Wayanad Hills is the curious Sultan’s Battery, named its central 18th-century fort (built by Sultan Tipu). Stay at Tranquil, a plantation homestay surrounded by wonderful walks.