Canoe being pushed through the backwaters of Cochin, Kerala. (Karen Trist/LPI)
Further south are the beaches of Kovalam, while inland the mountainous Ghats are covered in a blanket of spices and tea plantations.
Venice-like, the shady streets of Alappuzha (Alleppey) are set around a grid of canals that spill into the watery highways of Kerala. As the gateway to the backwaters, this is the place to soak up village life before taking a trip on a houseboat. Lakes & Lagoons offers gorgeous accommodation on traditional rice boats (lakeslagoons.com; from £70).
With guesthouses and restaurants perched perilously along a cliff edge, Varkala is a sight to behold. It’s also more laid-back than Kerala’s other beach resort, Kovalam.
Munnar town in the Western Ghats isn’t much to look at, but wander just a few miles outside the city and you’ll be engulfed in a sea of tea trees and mountain scenery. Book into one of the tea estates-turned-guesthouses such as Dew Drops (00 91 484 231555; Kallar; from £15).
Only in Kochi can you find giant fishing nets from China, ancient mosques and Portuguese houses. Don’t miss the fantastic Hindu murals in the Mattancherry Palace (00 91 484 2226085; Bazaar Rd, Kochi; 10am-5pm Sat-Thu; 10p).
Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is a green medley of rice paddies and spice plantations. You’re almost guaranteed to see wild elephants here. Entry is as part of a guided jeep safari that can be arranged at the entrance (00 91 493 6250853; Tholpetty; 7am-5pm; jeep safari £8, guided trek £20).
Eat and drink
For good-value, authentic Keralan food, drop by Sreepadman. A hole-in-the-wall with a view, this is where you will rub shoulders with rickshaw drivers rather than tourists. Located near the Devaswom Building, it also has seating out the back with temple views (Varkala; lunch and dinner; mains from 40p).
Located in Munnar’s main bazaar, Rapsy Restaurant is packed with locals, lining up for Rapsy’s famous paratha and biryani. It also makes a decent Spanish omelette (Bazaar; lunch and dinner; mains from 50p).
You’ll hear the buzz about Dal Roti before you arrive – it has the best food in Fort Cochin. Owner Ramesh will guide you through his North Indian menu, which includes melt-in-the-mouth Mughlai parathas and Hyderabadi biryani (Lilly St, Kochi; lunch and dinner; mains from £1).
Chakara is an 1860s heritage home that’s been restored to its former glory. The creative menu combines traditional Keralan cooking, such as Alleppey fish curry, with European dishes such as tuna niçoise (00 91 477 2230767; raheemresidency.com; Beach Rd, Alleppey; lunch and dinner; threecourse lunch/dinner from £10).
Rambling Pachyderm Palace lies outside just the gate of Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary. It consists of simple rooms and a good restaurant that serves excellent curries and biryanis (00 91 484 2371761; Tholpetty; lunch and dinner; from £17 per night, including meals).
Just six miles from Alleppey, Green Palms Homes is a series of homestays set in a picturesque backwater village. Your host can double as a guide to the village and will also prepare three Keralan meals a day if requested. You can hire bicycles here or take cooking classes (00 91 477 2724497; Chennamkary; full board £25).
Wayanad’s Stream Valley Cottages sit on the bank of a stream, 1½ miles from Vythiri. Each cottage has separate sitting areas, large private verandas and comes with a hushed soundtrack of singing birds and babbling brooks (00 91 493 6202787; streamvalleycottages.com; Vythiri; from £40).
Villa Jacaranda is a romantic retreat set amidst a subtropical garden, near Varkala. The four large rooms are elegantly furnished with white bed linen and period furniture. The delicious complimentary breakfast is served on your veranda (00 91 470 2610296; villa-jacaranda.biz; Temple Road West, Varkala; from £55).
Set in the hills of Munnar, the Windermere Estate is a luxurious yet intimate country retreat. There are rooms in the main farmhouse and newer, garden cottages, all with views. The plantation grows cardamon and coffee (00 91 484 2425237); windermeremunnar.com; Pothamedu; from £70).
The gorgeous Olavipe Homestay is set on a 40-acre farm surrounded by backwaters. The restored mansion dates back to the 1890s and is a traditional Syrian-Christian home with large, breezy rooms, all skilfully finished with original period décor (00 91 478 2522255; olavipe.com; Olavipe; £140 including meals).
There are frequent trains from Kerala to Varkala (£2), Kollam (£2) and Ernakulam (£3), with trains passing through Alleppey (£2.50). Within the towns, autorickshaws are the main mode of transport (30p-£1).
Air India, Jet Airways and Gulf Air fly to Trivandrum from Manchester (from £450), Birmingham (from £400) and Heathrow (from £350; airindia.com, gulfair.com, jetairways.com). Pick up prepaid taxi vouchers at the airport (£3 to Trivandrum).