The spice of life

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THE people of Kerala know they're on to a good thing. The tourism chiefs responsible for selling the Indian state as a must-visit destination have opted for 'God's Own Country' as their campaign slogan, but they might just as well have opted for 'Heaven' or 'Paradise'.

On second thoughts, the inhabitants of this steamy southern haven - where the literacy rates stand at 91%, comfortably the highest in India - seem far too canny and at ease with their own place in the grand scheme of things to resort to hyperbole, no matter how close to the truth it may be. It certainly didn't take any hype to convince me that I was in a very special place indeed.

I had arrived at Kochi airport on my second day in the country, after a brief stopover in the hectic sprawl of Mumbai, and the contrast between the two places could not have been more marked. As the plane skirted the peaks of the Western Ghats before lowering itself towards the palm-blanketed canopy of the coastal plain, the traffic-choked madness of the megalopolis left far behind, the only thing on the agenda was doing nothing.

As a gateway and introduction to the wonders of Kerala, Kochi is the ideal starting point, encompassing in its compact space a microcosm of the state's ancient and recent history. The municipality is split into a number of distinct cantons made up from islands, peninsulas and the mainland. Ernakulam, on the landward coastal strip, is the commercial and transport hub of the area, and its bustling modernity stands out in stark contrast to the sleepiness of much of the state.

Of far greater interest to the visitor is Fort Cochin. Here, amid a patchwork of artsy cafs, churches, colonial-style buildings and grassy, palm-shaded areas hosting impromptu games of cricket and football, you can while away your time looking for clues to the region's past as a key staging post on the great Spice Route and indulge yourself with some of the most sumptuous food you are ever likely to taste. Traders and merchants have been coming to Kerala to plunder its spices since time immemorial, and you only have to follow your nose and your rumbling belly to see why.

On our first evening in Fort Cochin we chanced upon a relatively out-of-the-way joint called the Fort House hotel. My years as a fan of Indian cookery have served me well, uniting my voracious appetite with all manner of fragrant epiphanies. But this meal - delicately spiced fish steamed inside a banana leaf, and calamari fried with garlic and pepper - was unlike anything I had ever tasted; a perfect blend of coconut, pepper, ginger and lime flavours coupled with a subtle medium-intensity heat, and all for around 1 per head. On returning to our home-stay accommodation, we consulted one of the South India guidebooks in the library to see if it mentioned our new favourite restaurant. Eschewing the usual descriptive spiel, the succinct entry read, "The best food ever." Quite.

Most of our time in Fort Cochin was spent strolling around between seafood snacks and banquets. A day's walking tour can take in St Francis Church, which was erected in 1503 by the Portuguese and is said to be India's oldest European-built church, as well as the Dutch cemetery and the old Jewish quarter, which is still one of the centres of the Kochi spice trade. The air here is filled with the pungent aromas of ginger, cardamom, cumin, turmeric and cloves.

After a few days of leisurely and well-fed historical meandering in Kochi, we decided to slow things down by heading south to Alappuzha (or Alleppey, as it is more commonly known), the gateway to Kerala's main tourist pull: its backwaters. A man-made network of channels linking three major rivers, some 40 lesser rivers and countless tributaries to the vast expanse of the Vembanad lake, Alappuzha is one of the most wondrous areas in India; a luminous wetland teeming with wildlife and dotted with bucolic little communities where the inhabitants till the land and fish the waters for a living.

Public ferries ply the waterways, and are a great way for budget-conscious travellers to experience the backwaters at a rock-bottom price while rubbing shoulders with the laid-back and almost unfailingly friendly locals. For those with a bit more money to spare, chartering a rice barge is the way to go.

Bigi, the host at our fantastic home-stay just off the backwaters outside Alappuzha, organised a boat for us, but a recce along the canalside in the town should secure a floating palace without too much hassle. There is a choice of hundreds, and you should get one at a reasonable price. Once on the water, there is very little to do except luxuriate in unadulterated guilt-free laziness and watch the world drift by as you putter past rice paddies and groves of vanilla, betelnut and cocoa with a cooler full of ice-cold Kingfisher beer within easy reach.

Again, the food is something akin to gastronomic nirvana. Our on-board chef may have had the shy demeanour (and bum-fluff moustache) of a teenager, but he cooked with the assured hand of an old master, preparing two fabulous coconut-scented banquets for us to gorge upon.

After the blissful release from worldly concerns on the backwaters and the fascinating hotchpotch of history and contemporary Keralan culture in Kochi, our final stop, Kovalam, came as a relative disappointment in so much that its palm-lined stretch of sand is no longer a stranger to mass tourism. Reports of its descent into a hawker-ridden visitor destination are completely overblown, though. The scene here is relaxed and benign, with Indian families and Western visitors happy to enjoy the simple pleasures of breathtaking sunsets and show-stopping seafood served by candlelight in the village's excellent beachside restaurants.

The long journey back up the coast to Ernakulum, to catch a bus connection to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, afforded plenty of time for contemplation. Over the course of little more than a week we had sampled some of the finest food in the world, whizzed through a power of holiday literature and mastered the nuances of the Indian head roll - particularly prevalent in Kerala, it seemed.

We had also come away with a deep appreciation of one of India's most unique corners; a place where hammer-and-sickle murals representing the state's long tradition as a hotbed of socialist politics adorn temple walls, where wise-cracking kids talk Premiership football and Westerners seek spiritual fulfilment, where a mass of happy contrasts add flavour to the state's already rich masala. God's own country, indeed.

Fact file Kerala

Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com) and British Airways (www.ba.com) fly daily from Heathrow to Mumbai, with fares starting at around 380 return.

Several airlines connect Mumbai and Kochi, including Air India (www.airindia.com), Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com), Indian Airlines (www.indianairlines.uk.com), Kingfisher (www.flykingfisher.com), Go Air (www.goair.in) and Air Deccan (www.flyairdeccan.net). Fares start from as little as 70 return.

For more information about Kerala, including details of home-stay accommodation, see www.keralatourism.org.