Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kovalam calls

Hawah and Lighthouse beaches from the deck of the lighthouse
Did a version of this story for the June issue of National Geographic Traveller India. 

Some of my earliest memories of family vacations in Thiruvananthapuram involve Kovalam. The seemingly never-ending drive zigzagging along twisty roads, the gradual descent between palm groves, the tanginess in the air and the sudden expanse of the beach, with the sea stretching off into the yonder.  
Back then, Kovalam was little more than a fishing village, with few visitors and fewer buildings on its three main beaches—the Ashok or Grove beach, Hawah or Eve’s beach, and the southernmost Lighthouse beach. Today, it’s a small town, the beaches lined by rows of shops, restaurants, and hotels. 
Kovalam’s beaches and its warm, shallow waters ideal for swimming are its biggest draw, which is why it can get pretty crowded with visitors on weekends and holidays. But there are also other ways to explore this laid-back town. 
Deck with a view  
The best place to get a fix on Kovalam’s topography is the observation deck of the candy-striped lighthouse that commands the southern end of the eponymous Lighthouse beach. It’s an approximately 157-step barefoot climb (footwear is not allowed inside the lighthouse), including a final stretch up an almost vertical metal ladder, to the deck. You’ll probably arrive breathless, but the climb is worth it for the view. And if you go up as soon as the lighthouse opens for the day, there’s a good chance you’ll have the deck to yourself for a few minutes (daily 10 a.m.-12.30 p.m. and 2-5 p.m.; tickets Rs 3 to Rs 25; camera passes Rs 20 and Rs 25). 
Surf for a cause 
Kovalam has a small, but growing surfing scene thanks to the Kovalam Surf Club, which opened here in 2005. The club offers surfing lessons to people with varying levels of expertise. The only requirement is that learners have some basic swimming skills, says Mani Sreekumar, the club’s director. It runs classes through the year, except during the monsoon months from June to August. The club also has a shop that sells and rents out surfing gear. And the club’s profits go to Sebastian Indian Social Projects, a non-profit that supports women’s empowerment and education programmes for school dropouts in the area (kovalamsurfclub.com; classes Rs 1,000 for 1.5 hours). 
On the water 
For the mildly adventurous, there are snorkelling expeditions on a catamaran and speedboat rides (prices start at Rs 3,000 for 2.5 hours and Rs 300/person respectively). The speedboats usually head a few kilometers out to sea and zip along the coast, giving those on board a view of Kovalam and its adjoining beaches. Kovalam’s best snorkelling spots are off the rocky headlands that separate its main beaches, but the sea can get rough during the monsoon. So the best time to go snorkelling here is from December to March, when the sea is relatively calm. The region’s marine life includes mussels, plants and a dazzling array of fishes including bat fish, parrot fish, angel fish, groupers, moray eels and so on.  And in May 2015, the Kerala Adventure Tourism Promotion Society launched scuba diving in Kovalam (Rs 3,000/person for 30 minutes and Rs 1,500/person for 15 minutes).  
The sessions, which include 30 minutes of familiarisation in a swimming pool, are best booked ahead. (For more call  +471-2320777/+91-94460-74020 or email: adventuretourismkerala.gov@gmail.com)
The best way to recover from all this activity is to end the day the Kovalam way — with a sundowner (now mostly non-alcoholic thanks to Kerala’s new liquor laws) and a meal at one of the restaurants that line the Hawah and Lighthouse beaches. 
While the best bet on Hawah beach is the multi-cuisine restaurant at the Sea Face hotel, Lighthouse beach has many options, ranging from Lonely Planet (known for its vegetarian-only menu) to Beatles and Malabar CafĂ©. My personal favourite, though, is the German Bakery on Lighthouse beach with its terrace with a view, relaxed ambience and eclectic menu. 
Kovalam also offers upper-end beachside dining options at the Vivanta by Taj-Kovalam and The Leela Kovalam. Dinner at either hotel comes with distinctive views of Thiruvananthapuram’s coastline and fishing vessels twinkling like a thousand fireflies on the sea.