Visit the Closest Thing to Paradise in India
If you've never been to India, go with a company that knows the ropes, even in a well-traveled state like Kerala. Here's how to do it right.
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Delhi-based Ibex Expeditions specializes in custom adventures and is well connected countrywide, so you can, say, track tigers in Karnataka, pilgrimage to the Ganges, and immerse yourself in Keralan Ayurveda all in one trip. The Indian government recently instituted a quicker visa-on-demand program for recreational travelers ($60). Malaria is said to have been eradicated in Kerala, but according to the CDC, anywhere lower than 6,561 feet in India can be risky, so check with a local travel clinic about medication. For a comprehensive overview, go to keralatourism.org.
ParadiseLeave your manic Western self behind in favor of paddling hidden backwaters, indulging in Ayurvedic treatments, and chilling out on unspoiled beaches.
How to Get There: Air India has direct flights to Delhi from Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. From Delhi, it’s a two-to-three-hour flight to Calicut, Cochin, or Trivandrum, Kerala’s three major airports.
When to Go: September is the tail end of the monsoon, when Onam occurs, and precedes the crush of the official tourism season, which starts in October. January through March is high season and monsoon-free, with temperatures in the high seventies and eighties.
Getting Around: Indian Railways is a good way to travel between cities, or hire a driver. Most good hotels and travel companies work with the best car-hire services.
Where to Stay in Delhi: The Manor Hotel in the Friends Colony neighborhood has a new spa that specializes in Ayurvedic treatments (from $117). Visit Humayun’s tomb, the Red Fort, and Old Delhi’s Khari Baoli (spice market). Government-approved guide Sujata Solomon seems to know every vendor in Old Delhi.
Where to Stay in the Western Ghats: Windermere Estate sits at 5,000 feet, with easy access to hiking and mountain biking (from $156). Spice Village in Thekkady has an Ayurvedic spa, thatch-roofed cabins, and an impressive environmental ethos. Periyar National Park is just a few miles away (from $302). Vythiri Resort, near the district of Wayanad, is a good stopover on the way to Karnataka, nestled in a forest that receives 157 annual inches of rain (from $262). Kestrel Adventures offers day trips and overnight trekking, wildlife, and cycling tours out of the mountainous city of Munnar (from $13). Responsible Tourism Kerala guide Sijo Manuel in Wayanad can take you hiking up 6,900-foot Chembra Peak.
Where to Stay in Karnataka: Orange County, Kabini, on the edge of Nagarhole National Park, is a luxurious oasis with award-winning naturalists and cabanas with open-air hot tubs (from $485).
Where to Stay in the Backwaters: Philipkutty’s Farm has six beautiful bungalows and the best fish molee in Kerala ($262, all-inclusive). Eco-resort Coconut Lagoon on Vembanadu Lake has hatha yoga classes, a bird sanctuary next door, and a killer menu of Keralan food (from $320). Lake Palace Resort sits between the backwaters and the rice paddies, with easy access to the city of Alleppey (from $419 for a two-night, three-day package). Guide Binu Joseph of Kerala Kayaking offers tours (from $50 for a seven-hour kayak tour). Hidden Places Travel has a 12-day Kerala trip that includes kayaking the backwaters and two nights on a kettuvallam ($3,750).
Kettuvallams: Spice Routes Luxury Cruises‘ new “Abigail” has three air-conditioned staterooms, a dining room with 180-degree views and a cushioned space in the bow to be closer to the backwaters action. From $211 per couple, per night.
Where to Stay on the Coast: Marari Beach Resort’s lawn extends to the endless white-sand beach (from $385). Soul and Surf in Varkala, owned by a British expatriate couple, is the first surfing and yoga retreat in the state (from $40).
Where to Stay for Ayurvedic Treatments: Somatheeram, 30 minutes south of Trivandrum, sits in a tropical garden overlooking the Arabian Sea. The 20-year-old center offers yoga, meditation, and a full menu of Ayurvedic treatments (from $2,165 for 14 days). CGH Earth Hotels’ Kalari Rasayana is on a lake in the southern city of Kollam. The minimum stay is two weeks and requires strict adherence to Ayurvedic principles (from $8,427, all-inclusive with treatments).