The Organic Traveller
Sunday, 09 October 2016

Kerala: Eco-conscious backwater trips

A backwater trip on a houseboat is an almost obligatory Kerala travel itinerary, and the beauty of the landscape well worth to explore. However, as a matter of fact the waterways in and around Lake Vembanad are quite crowded even off-season (I do not really want to know how jammed it must be during the main season). With nearly a 100 procent diesel-fuelled boats (Most locals react with a disbelieving "What else?" when questioned upon this topic), most of them poorly mocking the look of traditional kettuwallams, and many of them disposing their waste into the water, this grand experience of an eco-system almost seems a no-go for the eco-conscious traveller today.

There is however a niche market for backwater trips on traditionally built houseboats. It requires some effort to find these tour operators, and they play in the upmarket price category.

Diesel driven

A pioneer in sustainable tourism in South India the luxury class hotel and resort chain CGH operates Spice Coast Cruises, offering backwater tours on diesel-fuelled one or two-bedroom boats. Electricity comes from solar panels, and the crew is carefully trained to not at any costs throw waste into the water. (Their relieved looks when it turned out that all we were throwing over board was water -- emptying a glass of drinking water where some insects had been caught -- were speaking for themselves.) There's of course room for improvement: Unlike in the Brunton Boatyard hotel in Kochi where the chain is serving drinking water from a hotel-owned drinking water plant in reused glass bottles, the drinking water on the boat came from plastic bottles, and after the crew had prepared the rooms for the night the AC was running on full power. (Since both, the power switch and the AC control were working we were able to adjust temperature and fan ourselves.)

When I enquired in advance on whether the boats were punted or diesel driven the sales person's argument for the diesel was that this way the crew would be able to sleep during the night. Since the boat was anchoring at the entrance to Lake Vembanad during the night you may question this argument, but in general we got the impression that CGH treats their staff well.

As the Spice Coast Cruises vessels are comparatively small the boats are also cruising some smaller waterways. Compared to all the other vessels on the lake, most of them poorly disguised tourist ferries, our boats were the most elegant ones, displaying mastership in the craft of traditional kettuwallam building.

The tour is easy to book from abroad, but don't be mislead by the information of the starting point -- it is not starting in the town of Alleppey as you may read the announcement. Instead plan for an about 25 km long car or rikshaw drive up north to get to the jetty in Puthanangadi.

Punting boats

Punted houseboats are hard to find, and I have neither seen nor taken one. Here is what I found out -- I'd be happy if you'd give me an account on your experience with the following operators in case you make use of them: Houseboat tour operator Coco Houseboats in Alleppey operates manually driven house boats (among other vessels) which can be easily booked from abroad. I got a quote for "a Deluxe 2 bedroom houseboat Alleppey to Alleppey round for 2+2 persons with tax and food Rs.15,000/- after discount" off season.

Fort Cochin based tour operator Wilson Tours seems to specialize in eco-friendly tours and offers houseboat trips on punted kettuwallams equipped with bio-tank toilets and solar powered light and fan. If you do not order in advance you can step by their office in Princess Street.

Just opposite the street Elite Hotel also advertises "eco-friendly houseboat near Alleppey". Whether they co-operate with Stanley Wilson or someone else I do not know.

2016-10-09 08:00:04 [Kerala, Alleppey, Alappuzha, Kochi, Cochin, accommodation, houseboats, hotel] Link

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