Slow down and enjoy life. It's not only the scenery you miss by going too fast, you also miss the sense of where you are going and why
Eddie Cantors words sums up the houseboat experience best. A ride on a houseboat is a unique Kerala experience which travellers repeatedly quote as a dream come true. With all the creature comforts inside and a grand view of the countryside outside, it is easy to forget that you are on a boat.
Is this experience only about a fashionable ride on endless calm waters or are there ways to make your houseboat experience richer? That is the whole point of this article. From food to cruise route chosen and type of boat to activities there are many things you would have to plan well in advance to really spice up the experience. Here’s us letting you in on options to consider, practical travel information and some insider tips along the way. You can click directly to your section of interest if required
Let me take you back to the life and times at my ancestral home in Kumarakom. Generations of my family lived on coconut farms and rice harvested on our fertile fields alongside the backwaters. Curiously, the structure of our home was centred around an ‘Ara’ which is a traditional wooden storehouse for rice harvested twice a year. Throughout the year, depending on ‘Market days’ in towns like Cochin, my ancestors would load our Kettuvallom (houseboat) with tonnes of rice and coconut and row away through the waters to sell our produce in the towns.
For generations, the entire backwater economy depended on transporting farm produce to town markets on rice boats
It was the normal way of life for people in the backwater villages. At some point of time with minor adjustments, these boats were used as living quarters by the royalty. With time and developments, other modes of transport gained traction with fewer villagers opting for the slow country boats.
Kettuvallams have now transformed to full-fledged hospitality centres. The construction of these houseboats is fascinating and clearly sets them apart. Kettuvallom literally means 'Boats tied with Knots'. Traditionally, everything was either tied or sewed and not a single nail was used. Every part of the boat is made by hand and is made totally of natural products like bamboo, coir and palm bark. The boat itself is crafted out of evergreen tree called Anjili. Cashew oil is used on the exterior to waterproof the wood. This hand crafted wonder takes 10 artisans about 6 months to build and it lasts for generations
A glimpse into the lifestyle of the backwaters from the vantage point of a houseboat can be an experience of a lifetime
Picture this: You are in the midst of endless expanse of calm waters, cut-off from the rest of the world and its qualms. The only thing you will do is enjoy the rustic beauty of the backwaters and reminisce some fond memories of your life. Now wouldn’t that be something? A bit of me-time on a floating luxury!
Let me run you through the time-line of a typical premium houseboat experience. Board the eco-friendly boat by noon and as you settle into your rooms, the houseboat starts cruising on the backwaters.
Cosy up on the upper deck or lobby area with a freshly cracked tender coconut. The boat purrs through the quiet waters. Groups of neer kakka (water crows) fly in tight formation while whistling ducks on the surface rummage clumps of hyacinth. Soak in the scenery as you start seeing life nothing like you have ever seen before. From the comfort of your ride, you get a sneak peek into another world lifestyle – the otherwise inaccessible backwaters.
Tip: Once you are done drinking the coconut water, ask your chef to crack it open and dig out the tender coconut from the shell. Sweeten it up with bit of jaggery!
Wander down to the lower deck as the boat halts for lunch. Experience a mind-boggling spread of Kerala rice, sambar, mixed veg thoran and avial (vegetables mixed with shredded coconut) appear alongside fresh catch from the Vembanad – Karimeen fry (pearl spot fish), jumbo Prawns and Meen curry. Learn a few culinary secrets from your chef, like about the Malabar tamarind used to give tangy flavour to fish dishes typical to central Kerala.
Tip: The meals provided on a houseboat are tailored to tourists so you can have it tweaked to your liking. The default would be regional specialities however you can even have the North Indian fix of butter chicken and naan if you like it. You have to fix this when you book because they load the ingredients before setting sail.
As the tranquillity sinks-in, your operator points in the direction of dykes which prevent seawater from flowing into the paddy fields. Disembark near the dykes and have a closer look. “That is R-Block, a 3000-acre patch of paddy crop that is actually below sea level”. Can’t help but wonder at the ingenuity of the farmers of Kuttanad.
Trade in the houseboat for a small country boat and take a ride through the backwaters. The ride into narrow canals offer insightful glimpses into the riverine culture – children rowing their way to back home, men baiting for fish on bamboo rods, vegetable laden boats selling from house to house, coir making, schools of ducks swimming past and toddy tappers on the coconut trees. The life here revolves entirely around water. It is amazing to see this up-close.
Your boat man might invite you to visit a Kallu shaap (local bar) or to visit the village market. Use this chance to buy some local produce, sample the legendary kappa-meen (tapioca-fish) and fresh local alcohol (toddy).
Tip: If you want to drink on board, BYOB or ask whoever is making your travel arrangements to arrange it before you set sail.
Return to the houseboat for milky coffee/tea with traditional Keralite snacks like freshly fried banana fritters and tapioca chips. Resume enjoying your scenery. By 6 p m, the boats anchor at the shores. This is a Government rule for the safety of fishing nets and protecting local livelihoods. The evenings are best spent indulging in activities of interest like leisure walks into the village or reading a book if you don’t feel outdoorsy. Experience a fascinating sunset.
Late Evening is a great time to sneak into the kitchen to take a peek at some of the incredible food being prepared. Chat up with your crew to discover more about the little known flavours of the Kuttanad. Dinner is served: Chicken roast, mango kalan, papad, Kerala paratha (layered flatbread), tiger prawns, fried rice and cut fruits. For desserts, a bowl of ada paradaman and banana. Pure bliss!
Retire to your room for the night. Along the way watch the calm waters shimmer in the moonlight, and wonder why you didn’t book the boat for two nights..
Tip: Bring bug spray and ask the crew for mosquito coils at night to keep the mosquitos at bay..
Wake up to the sounds of the village: song from the temples nearby, gentle thump of the village folk washing clothes and squeals of children getting ready for school. While sipping your tea, savour the sunrise views. Head back to your upper deck as your boat starts sailing toward home.
Enjoy breakfast: coffee, fresh fruits and juices, toast, and pancakes along with the South India staples like Dosa, Upma with sambar and chutney. It is supposed to be the world’s greatest breakfast spread.
Dock, unload, and step back on firm ground with memories to last for a lifetime!
Can we interest you in a tour that takes you behind the scenes of the renowned Kerala backwater experience? Click for more details
Now that you have a general idea of the houseboating experience, the most common query we get is regarding the activities on and off-board. Generally, when a boat is booked, only cruising and food is included. While the boat does stop a couple of times for you to get down and see some unique spots in the backwaters, all activities are optional.
The canoe or country boat ride is the most popular add-on to the cruise experience. You get to interact with locals, purchase fresh catch and also explore the country-side. Some people like to fish but we don’t recommend this as your boat has to be docked and it will reduce cruising time.
For the indoorsy type, many boats have indoor games and also TV/DVD players. When the boat is anchored for the evening, it is possible to visit church/temple, visit coir factory or walk the village. The houseboat staff will be able to arrange any of the above on your request.
For once stop counting calories and count flavours instead! When you opt for a night stay on a houseboat, you will be served three meals on-board. By default, the traditional Kuttanadan style preparations are made and the touch of a blessed cook makes the food served on-board truly exquisite. However, special menus/special dishes can be arranged if you inform your operator well before your trip.
Most operators provide Jain, Vegetarian, Chinese or North Indian cuisine on special request. Before entering the boat, you can also specify your choice of oil – Sunflower or coconut oil. If you prefer the vegetarian cuisine, you will relish a multicourse traditional sadya served on a banana leaf.
For non-vegetarians, Local live preparations of spicy crab or prawns and fish baked in banana leaves are not to be missed. Chicken and duck dishes are also local delicacies you could experience on a houseboat. You can also buy fresh fish, jumbo prawns or crabs from local fishermen and your chef will prepare it for you.
Your choice of houseboat will have significant impact on the quality of experience as unlike hotels, you will spend quite a bit of time inside your houseboat. The difference between boats comes in category and type of boat which we briefly explain below:
Category of houseboats (internal facilities)
3. Super Deluxe
Types of houseboats (construction style)
1. Modern boats
2. Heritage boats
3. Houseboats with sundeck
4. Houseboats with upper deck
This section is to help you get a fair idea of the options you can consider. You can even go for a combination like Heritage type and Luxury category houseboat. We also attempt give an idea of the estimated prices of hiring a houseboat in this section.
In the case of houseboats, you pay for ambience, quality of construction and season of travel. The difference in category is basically in the quality of internal furnishing, spaciousness, facilities, air conditioning and certifications. You get to choose between standard, deluxe, super deluxe and premium/luxury houseboat categories. We explain the differences below:
Per boat (1 bed)
Enjoy a holistic backwater experience and a comfortable ride without frills
Good For: Experience Seekers
Timings: 12 pm to 9 am
Duration: Day Cruise or Overnight stay
A Deluxe houseboat is a value-for-money houseboat experience. This is the most popular category and what is offered by most operators.
This is the same as deluxe houseboat with full time air-conditioning in the rooms. Some families might prefer this especially if they have small children. Generally, it is not worth it as you are likely to spend your day time on the deck and will use the room for the night only. Houseboat operators charge close to INR 2000 extra per room for this facility.
This is for the budget traveller who wants to soak up some fun at the backwaters without feeling the pinch. Generally, they are non-air conditioned boats with basic facilities taken care of. Because of the humid conditions in the backwaters, the journey can sometimes become less enjoyable on standard houseboats.
Per boat (one room)
This is houseboat experience at its best, with full air conditioning, extra facilities and a spacious boat
Good For: Luxury seekers, Local experiences
Timings: 12 pm to 9 am
Duration: Overnight stay
A Luxury houseboat is a “Floating Fortress” with all modern amenities for your complete comfort and happiness. If you stay in the upper echolon of hotels, choose this option.
Houseboats have over the years evolved from the traditional hospitality centres they were. To serve a variety of specialised trip requirements, there are now different types of boats. The difference is basically in the construction style. Each of these variants will appeal to a different type of traveller. We run you though the most popular types below:
The modern boat is the most popular, competitively priced and default option for houseboat type in Kerala. They come equipped with the best of facilities and good area on the deck.
This is the most commonly available type of houseboat and is the most popular option. The exterior looks traditional but the interior and facilities are modern. These boats are available in deluxe, luxury and premium variants. Even speciality houseboats like honeymoon special boats are made on this platform. The boat has only a lower deck. As most boats are in this category you will get this type at the best prices.
Heritage houseboats are simply re-worked model of the traditional Kettuvalloms that were originally used to transport cargo in the backwaters. The construction style is unique as not a single nail is used in construction. They are made from wooden planks that are stitched together by coconut ropes. Most of the houseboats are made from a wood known by the name of Anjili.
These types of boats are usually preferred by international travellers seeking an authentic old-worldly luxury experience of the backwaters. The boats are also eco-friendly.
Palm leaves tied over bamboo poles form the roof of these houseboats. Cashew Nut oil is used as a varnish to ensure a protection for the houseboats. There are also some variants which recreate a traditional style construction also. However, all modern amenities will be available in these boats too. The concept of luxury is minimalism with old world feel and not the ostentatious type.
While fewer in number and a bit costlier, a boat with a sundeck can be a nice touch for those seeking a bit more privacy and better views
Some houseboats in kerala have a small private sun deck. This can add great value as it gives a private vantage point to enjoy the backwaters without distractions on the lower deck. Usually there will be a staircase from the welcome area which will connect to the sundeck.The sundeck can be both open or glass covered. If you are ok with spending a bit more, the glass covered premium will be worth the extra spend.
This is a great option for large groups or families travelling together and is also perfect for conferences or small functions on a boat
The upper deck offers an unrestricted view of the backwaters with all facilities like bedrooms with attached bath, music system and air-conditioning. The deck is usually converted to a dining area. The boats of this type will have a minimum of 3 rooms. Some operators rent the same boat to type different groups simultaneously. We do not feel this is a great option. You can never predict how other group members are like. Always make sure it is exclusive.
This is frankly a very difficult question to answer but as expected very commonly asked. As we have discussed earlier, there are many types and categories of boats and we can get a combination of them. The pricing depends on type, category and season of travel. All other options be it heritage or deck type in deluxe or luxury category are likely to be costlier. This is primarily because there are very few boats available in these combinations and they tend to get sold out very fast.
A modern deluxe houseboat would be the default and commonly available option. This will also be the most budget friendly.
The rental prices start from INR 7500/- for single bedroom ac modern deluxe houseboat to INR 40,000/- for super luxury boats with butlers. For multiple bedroom boats in deluxe category in the range of INR 5000/- per room.
Are you looking for a good houseboat for the right price? We have tramped over the decks of 100s of boats inspecting cabins, kitchens and meeting the staff. Help is just a click away!
The Kerala backwaters run in parallel to the Arabian Sea coast and runs inland from North Kerala to South Kerala. So there are multiple routes in these canals which your houseboat can cruise along. The popular backwater regions are: Vembanad (Alleppey-Kumarakom), Ashtamudi (Kollam) and Valiyaparamba (North Kerala). Within these regions there are different routes and each experience has its own charm. We explore the regions in detail.
Being the longest lake in India, houseboat cruises are most popular here. Around 80% of the houseboats operate in this region, so you will have a variety of houseboats to choose from. The popularity also comes with crowds, so this is not the most exclusive backwater experience available. There are a few routes here that travellers must know about.
The Alleppey round trip is a quite popular and the default route of most boats starting from Alleppey. The natural scenery is lush and the narrow canals (around 100 ft) makes it possible to observe village life up-close. A 22 hour stay in a houseboat can hardly cover 30% of the Alleppey backwaters.
Alleppey round takes you through the core backwater region with a lot of narrow canals. This route covers the lower half of the map below
The main attractions in this route are kuttanadu paddy fields – farming below sea level and country canals. Kerala houseboat rates will be the cheapest for the Alleppey backwaters round of houseboat cruise however the route is crowded.
The Kumarakom canals have many over bridges because of which we cannot cover narrow canals on a houseboat. However, the region comes with attractions of its own. The route passes the famous Kumarakom bird sanctuary giving opportunities to spot rare avian life.
This less crowded route explores a larger part of the backwaters, unique avian ecosystem, pathiramanal island and luxury resorts. It covers the upper part of the map.
The route also covers the pathiramanal island which is replete in history. You also get to see some world class resorts along the way. The sunset is also splendid from this part of the backwaters. The boats here are marginally costlier than Alleppey.
This backwater route is an amalgam of the best experiences in the Vembanad region. It allows travelers to check in Kumarakom and check out at Alapuzha or vice versa at a nominal additional charge. It is popular with travellers who stay in a backwater resort at Kumarakom after cruising in Alleppey. You can cover some distance over boat and reduce road travel if you are heading to Thekkady.
Get the best of both backwater sides at a nominal additional charge. It is ideal if you plan a stay at a backwater resort after cruising. It costs marginally more as more cruising distance is covered.
You get to explore the narrow canals, paddy fields and village life at Alleppey and then head to Kumarakom where the avian ecosystems and the luxury resorts are a prime attraction. The traffic also reduces as you head to Kumarakom. This route is not only extremely popular amid honeymooners but also as a weekend cruise option.
Each experience has its own charm. Be sure to confirm your route with the operator while confirming.
An eight hours houseboat cruise from Kollam to Alleppey or Alleppey to Kollam, longest cruise of Kerala, is one of the best and unforgettable houseboat experiences. There are some routes which you could consider especially if you are looking to spend a couple of days on a houseboat and travel down to south Kerala. However due to blocks in the canal, the entire route from Alleppey to Kollam is currently not possible on houseboat.
Alumkadavu is located at a distance of 21 km from Kollam. The distance is covered in two days and half the distance being covered each day. This one way backwater cruise’s major attractions are Karumadikuttan - 11th century statue of Buddha, coir village, Kumarakodi and Matha Amrithamanadha Math at Vallikavu. You can also visit the boat making yard at Alumkadavu.
Another serene backwater cruise route of Kerala is Alleppey to Thottappalley. This route also has a number of attractions such as traditional houses on the banks called Chavara Bhavan, a sail on Punnamada Lake, Ambalappuzha temple, Karumadikkuttan, and Champakkulam Church.
If you choose Ashtamudi for your backwater experience, then don’t miss out on Munroe island. A day cruise by boat can take you through an expansive unexplored stretch of the backwaters. You will feel like the lake is entirely yours. After a half day cruise, you can then take a country boat and explore the backwater village.
While most cruises take tourists on round trips, if you are going south from Alleppey to kollam direction we can arrange special routes like one night cruise from from Alappuzha to Kidangara and one night cruise from Alappuzha to Mankotta.
This place is a heaven for peace seekers as house boat tourism is still in its infancy here. You can look forward to have a more tranquil experience than the crowded backwaters of the Vembanad. If you choose the stay in Bekal, then these pristine backwaters are just 30 minutes away. You can choose from 2 hour cruises, sunset, lunch and dinner cruises to overnight stay. The boats are prices a tad higher here but it is worth the experience considering the exclusivity and pristine backwaters on offer.
Besides the main circuits mentioned above, there are many off-the radar circuits like the Chettuva-Manaloor route near Thrissur and Poothota backwaters near Kumarakom. The hop-on-hop-off service of the Muziris Heritage circuit also covers a major backwater stretch. These circuits suit people who want a more exclusive and away from the crowds experience.
The best way to get an authentic feel of Kerala is to live like a local in the backwaters. Click for more tips on the backwater experience.
Have you thought of conducting a conference or large family gatherings on a boat? There are boats designed just for the purpose. Planning a luxury honeymoon? A boat with glass panels and a jacuzzi might fit the cause, right? There are eco-friendly solar powered boats, there are boats owned and run by local self-help groups and many more such unique options. So, if you are looking for something special, we are sure we can find some interesting options. Here are some speciality boats featured below:
A unique luxury houseboat tastefully designed with all the requirements of honeymoon couples kept in mind
Good For: Honeymoon couples, Luxury seekers
Timings: 12 pm to 9 am
Duration: Overnight stay
Houseboats have become a quintessential part of the famed ‘Kerala Honeymoon’ experience. Safety and privacy are the most important when you select your houseboat. Featured below is a speciality houseboat for honeymooners. However, luxury does come at a price!
True traditional rice barge. If you want to experience the most classic houseboat and have a minimum impact on the ecology. This boat is for you!. Powered by solar energy & runs on vegetable oil. Sleeps up to 4
A moving banquet/conference hall in the setting of the backwaters could create a fantastic environment for idea generation
Good For: Luxury seekers, Local experiences
Timings: 12 pm to 5:30 pm
Duration: Day Cruise is ideal
A Luxury houseboat is a “Floating Fortress” with all modern amenities for your complete comfort and happiness.
We frequently come across travellers needing inputs when it comes to booking a boat. While all our best advice is written in a different article, we share the highlights below:
It is advisable to book a boat in advance especially during the peak season. Most of the good boats get sold out first. What will be left for spot booking will generally be of lower quality or under maintenance.
Day cruise is ideal if you are pressed for time. But if time permits, by all means go for entire overnight experience. Some complaints regarding the overnight stay is primarily by people going for substandard experiences and operators cutting corners in park zones to meet the cut cost. If you opt for a good boat the overnight experience will be worth it.
From October till February the weather is cool and dry and a great time for a cruise. However, houseboats are available all year around. If you end up coming between March and May ensure that your houseboat has full-time air-conditioning as summers will be humid in Kerala. The monsoon season (July to Sept) is now being promoted as a unique Kerala experience on the houseboat and it will be raining discounts!
Don’t go for the cheapest offer, there are many places where they will compromise on quality to recover your cost. You may end up killing the quality of your experience to save a little money. Take recommendations from sources you trust.
Finalise the special items on the menu and activities like country boat cruising well before your trip. These are add-ons to standard houseboat packages.
So that’s us signing off, hope we have been able to help you along the way to a houseboat experience. If you have some queries related to houseboats, do ask in the comments section below. Have a great houseboat experience in Kerala.
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