Most travellers head to the south of Kerala for its palm-fringed beaches; many of the best (and quietest) stretches belong to small 'resorts'. From busy capital Trivandrum to the border with Tamil Nadu, you’ll find a string of fishing villages and markets providing gentle entertainment between sunbathing and swimming sessions.
If you can’t stand the heat, head inland towards the Western Ghats, and explore rubber plantations, tea estates and a wildlife sanctuary where elephants roam wild. Wherever you go, expect fascinating religious and cultural sites, as well as ample evidence of the area’s colonial history.
The colonial history of Kerala is evident at the small port of Anjengo, 30km north of Trivandrum. A modest church remains from the 16th-century Portuguese occupation, and a fort and cemetery bear witness to the presence of the English, who arrived in 1684. Further along the coast is the village of Varkala. Although the atmosphere is relaxed and tranquil, the dress code is not: wear modest clothing so as not to offend local fishermen and farmers. The narrow lanes behind the village's south cliff are great for exploring, and lead to fishing settlements and pristine beaches. Nearby Janardhanaswamy Temple is an attractive example of southern Keralan style which, during the Arattu festival, draws thousands of pilgrims.
At the southern end of Trivandrum’s main thoroughfare, Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple covers 2,400 sq.m and hides an impressive 6m-high statue of Padmanabha.
The Art Museum houses an interesting collection of metal, stone and wooden sculptures. The Sri Chitra Art Gallery boasts excellent examples from the Rajput, Mughal and Tanjore schools. Included in the Natural History Museum is an ethnographic collection with a replica of a typical Kerala Nayar wooden house. An observatory, just near the museum complex, affords wonderful views over the city.
The main shopping areas are Chalai Bazar, the Connemara market and the main road from Palayam to the East Fort. Here you can find traditional Keralan handicrafts such as wood inlays and carvings, Kathakali masks and traditional fabrics.
There's much to explore away from the beaches and city, in the foothills of the Western Ghats. The beautiful wooded Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, 30km east of Trivandrum, is dominated by Agasthya Malai peak (1,868m) and overlooks the Neyyar dam. There's a good chance of seeing wild elephants and sambar deer, but the sanctuary is also home to sloth bears, tigers, leopards and marsh freshwater crocodiles (once almost extinct).
Further into the Western Ghats, is the Ponmudi hill station, where there are excellent trekking trails amid myriad mountain flowers and exotic butterflies. Ponmudi would make a good day trip; the journey itself passes through banana, rice, rubber, teak, tea, and pepper plantations, with the odd glimpses of villages along the banks of the Kalar river.
Kovalam is the best-known tourist centre in the south so, personally, we prefer the quieter beaches further along the coast. Here there are several tranquil places to stay, some of which sit on their own stretch of sand. The stylish and luxurious cottages at Niraamaya Surya Samudra are on a cliff top next to small coves, and near to this are the cosy Karrikathi Beach Houses, where fantastic Ayurvedic treatments are available.