Calm, tranquil waters. Lush, vibrant vegetation. Groves of towering, sentry-like coconut trees. Endless green rice paddies. Vivid sunsets striped with orange, red, and gold. These are the images that often come to mind when you think of the Kerala Backwaters. A complex, interconnected network of lakes, rivers, lagoons, and canals along the Kuttanad region of India’s Malabar coast, this is one of the many gems that make India a treasure trove of adventure for travelers. And the best way to enjoy it is to book a houseboat experience in Alleppey, Kerala, India.
The backwaters near Alleppey, also known as Alappuzha, were once known as the Venice of the East. It was essential to India’s spice trade, as Alleppey was the port from which spices from the Idukku district made their way to other parts of the world. But while the spice trade has changed and evolved, the pristine backwaters have remained virtually the same. They’re still every bit as gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they were when the Portuguese used these waters to export valuable pepper back to Lisbon back in the 16th century.
But now, instead of boats filled to the brim with pepper, these serene waters now play home to over 800 houseboats. These are the main attraction in Alleppey. Here, locals and tourists alike can book multiple-night stays on these floating accommodations. Think of them as floating Airbnbs. I had the pleasure of spending a day on one during my trip to Kerala in January of 2020. It’s something I’ll never forget. This is my 24-hour houseboat experience in Alleppey, Kerala, India.
Stay on a Houseboat
I mentioned earlier that there are over 800 registered houseboats that cruise the Kerala backwaters near Alleppey. But what exactly is a houseboat? A houseboat is a modified kettuvallam boat. These boats were used by locals for centuries to transport their rice from the paddy fields to the market towns. But now, these boats have been converted into 80-foot-long floating rental homes.
Houseboats can range drastically in their size and quality based on your budget. There are smaller, one-bedroom houseboats; houseboats that have two stories and upwards of five or six bedrooms; and everything in-between. The one-story, three-bedroom traditional Cruise Land Houseboat I stayed on cost 30,000 rupees (about $393 USD) for 24 hours. It boasted a cozy living/dining room with lots of seating and a TV, as well as a kitchen and an outdoor balcony beyond it. Each bedroom had its own attached bathroom, complete with sink, toilet, and shower. There was also a communal sink midway down the hallway that leads to the kitchen.
Things to Know Before You Book
In addition to what the inside of a houseboat looks like, let’s dive into the onboard experience. You should arrive at the port in Alleppey in advance of your check-in time, which is usually at noon. While I usually lug a huge suitcase with me when I travel, I don’t recommend bringing massive luggage on board unless you’re staying multiple nights. If you do, you’ll also have to get it off the boat at the end of your journey.
The price you pay to rent your houseboat takes care of all meals and activities you take part in during your houseboat stay. It also pays for the staff, such as the captain and the cook. While nearly $400 USD per night might be pricey for some, it’s well worth it in my opinion. I’ve long believed that travel is the one thing we pay for that actually makes us richer, and that certainly applies here.
You will leave port after you check-in, so for me, that meant sometime right after noon. You’ll cruise the backwaters at about 25 knots or so for four to six hours until 6 p.m. At that time, river regulations dictate that houseboat engines must shut off, so your captain will dock for the night.
Depending on the number of houseboats in the area, there may be dozens of docked houseboats in the vicinity until engines are allowed to come back on at 8:30 a.m. I usually steer clear of heavily touristed areas, being more of an off-the-beaten-path kind of guy, but I was pleasantly surprised and happy that I never felt as though I was shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of other tourists.
Check out the Things to See, Do, and Eat in Varkala, Kerala, India
I recommend thoroughly researching multiple houseboats before committing to one so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Consider your options and choose the one that’s best for you and what you’re looking for. I personally recommend the Cruise Land Houseboat, a three-bedroom luxury houseboat that can accommodate up to six people. They have a friendly and welcoming staff who will take care of anything you need while you’re on board. Their $393 USD price point is extremely reasonable and well worth the experience you’ll have. You can also easily book a stay on other houseboats on Booking.com.
As a foodie, one of the main things I looked forward to during my houseboat stay was eating authentic Kerala cuisine. I’ll just say this—I was not disappointed! Immediately upon arriving, I was greeted with smiles, handshakes, and hugs from the staff, along with a fresh coconut filled to the brim with refreshing coconut water! And not long after we set sail, the cook brought me a plate of fresh, cold coconut meat. It was such a wonderful snack that I couldn’t help but devour it standing up!
Lunch aboard our houseboat was a spectacular, flavor-packed south Indian feast. Our impressive spread included rice, mixed vegetables, river fish, sambar, shredded cabbage with shaved coconut and green chilies, papadum, chicken curry, long beans with carrots, pachadi, kingfish, lemon pickle, and more. The aroma had my mouth watering before I even got to taste anything!
Kerala is the land of coconuts, and I could taste coconut flakes and coconut oil throughout the dishes. I loved mixing the rice with the curries and breaking up the crispy papadum into the mixture. It binds the flavors together and adds a new layer of texture! One of my favorites was the cabbage salad, which was like a fresh, mayo-less coleslaw.
The river fish was nice, soft, and flaky. Just remember to look out for bones before you dig in. Flavor-wise, it reminded me of flounder. Another dish that contains small bones is the chicken curry, which tasted extremely fresh, as it came from a local chicken that had been alive just the day before. If you want a meaty dish that doesn’t require you to dig through it for bones, I recommend the kingfish steaks.
Finish up your meal with some of the sweet and sour options, like the tart and tender lemon pickle and a sour yogurt and pineapple mixture called pachadi. I also really enjoyed another yogurt-and-pineapple dish called puliserry, which I ate with the rest of my rice.
After a brief adventure to a nearby temple (more on that below), Ebbin and I returned to our houseboat for dessert. It consisted of a sweet, traditional porridge called payasam. Payasam can be made with rice, tapioca, vermicelli noodles, broken wheat, or even sweet corn. This kind contained a type of grain as well as vermicelli noodles. It also had raisins in it and was a great way to combat the south Indian heat!
Late Afternoon Snack
One of the coolest things about my houseboat experience in the backwaters outside of Alleppey, Kerala, India, is that our hosts kept us constantly fed. They seemed to know that they had a couple of major foodies onboard! Just a few hours after lunch, they served a late afternoon snack that had my taste buds clamoring for more.
The snack included two of my favorite things to eat in India: ginger chai and banana fry. Banana fry is basically a fried banana with a golden, doughy exterior. If you’ve ever had a maduro (something I regularly eat at home in Miami), it’s very similar. The small meal also came with fried bread, which had some banana flavor and also contained spices like cumin. It was like a sweet and savory French toast!
While I loved eating them by themselves, I got the best flavor combination when I dipped the fried bread into the chai. The doughy bread soaked up the milky, ginger flavor of the chai, and combined with the cumin, was a flavor explosion in my mouth. I couldn’t get enough of it!
In-between all of our meals, Ebbin and I went on tons of adventures around the backwaters, so we were able to work off all those calories and be hungry again by the next mealtime. After an action-packed day, we settled down onboard with a glass of toddy. Toddy is a locally-made wine made from the fermented nectar of the coconut flower. It gets more sour and fermented the longer it ages, but doesn’t contain a ton of alcohol, so you won’t really get a buzz from it. The kind we enjoyed was extremely sour!
After our toddy, it was dinner time. We had picked up some fresh seafood from a canalside market earlier in the evening, and while Ebbin and I tried the toddy, the cooks were back in the kitchen, frying everything up. As they cooked, I got to try a crunchy and flavorful chutney containing green chilies, shallots, and coconut oil. It completely numbed my tongue, but I it wasn’t overly spicy. It reminded me of the mumbing Szechwan spices I had tried the previous year in China!
Dinner was an all-out seafood extravaganza. But unlike the rice-based lunch we’d had earlier, this dinner centered around a flatbread called chapati. Along with it, we enjoyed fried tiger prawns marinated in ginger, garlic, garam masala, black pepper, and green chili paste. We also had a light butter daal, pearl fish, rice soup, dried fish, cassava, dried fish, potatoes with chilies, vegetables, cabbage salad, chicken curry, and the green chili chutney I loved so much.
The daal was light on spices, and the green chili chutney was heavenly with the chapati. I also really enjoyed the crunchy dried fish, which were so small that I could eat them whole with no problem. They were also salty and full of pungent fish flavor. I also loved the spicy potatoes with chilies and more of the amazing cabbage salad from before. It’s seriously one of the best coleslaws I’ve ever had, and it left a slight tingle on my tongue.
The rich, brown chicken curry was nice and peppery, while the cassava was wonderful mixed with the green chili chutney, dried fish, and a bit of the rice soup. The blend of starchy, salty, fishy, spicy, and numbing was exactly what I needed!
But the star of the show for me were our tiger prawns. I had just started peeling the shell off when Ebbin told me to leave it on. I was a little apprehensive at first, but I trusted him and went for it. And I’m so glad I did. The shell contains so much flavor and was easy to chew through. It, combined with the masala, garlic, ginger, and chili paste, was the perfect flavor combination. It had my mouth watering the rest of the night and I couldn’t stop going back for more.
As my 24-hour houseboat experience in Alleppey, Kerala, India came to a close, Ebbin and I enjoyed one final meal onboard before we set off to our next destination, Thekkady. This time, we enjoyed some traditional dosas with an omelet, sambar, and coconut chutney.
In Kerala, traditional dosas are much smaller than their massive counterparts in other states I’d visited like Telangana and Karnataka. I love trying all the different variations when I travel through southern India. I especially love when they come with coconut chutney, which is one of my favorite concoctions on the planet! This coconut chutney contained large chunks of coconut meat and had a strong ginger flavor. To say it was phenomenal would be an understatement. I could not stop stuffing my face with it!
The sambar (a rich, tomato-based soup containing vegetables) was different from other kinds I’d tried. I learned that sambar, like many other Indian dishes, differ slightly depending on where they’re made. For example, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the sambar is thicker and much spicier. Chutneys also vary by state as well.
Meanwhile, the dosa itself was spongy and full of air bubbles, so it was incredibly light. Like other dosas, it’s made from a batter of fermented lentils and rice. It was the perfect carrier for the mouthwatering coconut chutney and vegetable-rich sambar. I also enjoyed it with the omelet, which surprised me. I had never thought to mix a dosa with eggs, but the combination was one I hope to have again someday!
All in all, the meals I enjoyed during my houseboat experience in the backwaters near Alleppey, Kerala were some of my favorites I’ve ever had in India. If you’re a gastronomy enthusiast like me, you will be in heaven at mealtimes onboard your houseboat!
Now that we know what to expect, food-wise, let’s talk a bit about what you need to know if you book your houseboat during the high season.
High Season in the Kerala Backwaters
Keep in mind that most people who rent houseboats stay at least two nights, but I only did one because I had a packed schedule. Speaking of packed, I want to address what it’s like to visit the Kerala Backwaters during high season, which according to my friend Ebbin, coincides with the best weather of the year (January and February).
With the Backwaters being one of Kerala’s top tourist attractions, don’t expect to be on the only boat out on the waters. On average, we passed by a new houseboat every thirty seconds or so, but it never felt oppressively crowded or over-touristed.
Of course, my 24-hour houseboat experience outside the city of Alleppey in Kerala, India was more than just what I did onboard. As someone who likes to see as much as possible when I travel, I had a packed itinerary. There are many interesting things to see and do along these lovely waterways. Check out some of the activities you can enjoy below!
Visit Karumadikuttan Temple
As your houseboat sets sail down the waterways around Alleppey, Kerala, India, you’ll pass lots of small villages where you can see locals going about their day-to-day business along the banks. One of these villages is Karumady, a small village a little less than two miles from Alleppey. This village is known for the famous Buddha statue known as Karumadikkuttan in the temple of the same name.
The black granite statue, located in a small, white stupa, dates back to sometime between the 9th and 14th centuries. But its age isn’t what makes this Buddha so unique. As you approach the statue, you’ll soon realize that the statue’s entire left side is missing, as if it was sawed nearly in half.
No one knows why this is, or where the other half may be. What is known is that the famed statue had spent centuries resting in a nearby stream called Karumadi thodu before being unearthed in 1930. It is now protected by the Kerala state government. It’s one of the most unusual things I’ve ever seen in India!
Check out St. Mary’s Basilica
Further along the waterway, as you continue on your houseboat from Alleppey in Kerala, India, is the town of Champakulam. Located on the left-hand side of the canal, you can see its Christian basilica from the water. It’s known by several names, including Basilica of St. Mary, Champakulam; Champakulam Kalloorkadu Marth Maryam Basilica, and Champakulam Valia Palli.
The church is thought to have been consecrated in the year 427 AD, making it over 1,500 years old. A Forane church with several parishes under it, the house of worship is one of the oldest churches in all of India. It’s also the mother church of almost all of the Catholic Syrian churches in the Alleppey District. Pope Francis and Mar Joseph Perumthottam (the Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Changanassery) officially declared it a basilica on November 27, 2016.
During my visit, I leaned that nearly 26% of the people in this part of India are Christian, and that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in India in 52 AD. The inside of the church is quite colorful and beautiful. The seating atop its blue carpet are removable, and the ceilings are painted with depictions of Jesus Christ, Mary, angels, and other biblical figures. There’s also a beautiful carving of the Last Supper on its walls and an ancient cross outside. There’s a smaller cross engraved into its base, along with script written in the local language, Malayalam.
Visit a Canalside Convenience Store
One of the joys of traveling deeper is shopping where the locals shop. It’s a great way to get a peek into their daily routine and imagine what life is like in their neck of the woods. One of the best places to do that in the Kerala Backwaters is a convenience store along the banks of the canals.
You can buy many things there, but on my quick visit, we were there to buy dinner! The shop was stocked with coolers full of freshly caught seafood, including tuna, snapper, freshwater crabs, tiger prawns, and kingfish. It was a seafood bonanza!
While we were there, I also bought a toothbrush and some toothpaste, as I had accidentally left mine in Ebbin’s car back at the port!
Our packed schedule didn’t leave much time for recreational activities like fishing. By the time we had visited the sites we had wanted to see and bought dinner, we only had a short amount of time to try our luck with the local fish. We cruised over to a canal that’s only accessible after 5 p.m., parked the houseboat, and the local fisherman with us cast his nets.
Unfortunately for us, we only caught a few smaller fish in the shallow waters along the shore as the sun quickly disappeared below the horizon. That said, fishing is a way of life here. Not only are the canals the main way for locals to get around, but it’s also their primary food source. I had a sneaky suspicion that there were much larger fish in the deeper waters, but as we had to be parked for the night by 6 p.m., it just wasn’t possible for us to fit it in.
Take a Canoe Ride
One of the greatest joys you can experience while renting a houseboat in Alleppey, Kerala, India is viewing the sunrise and sunset. And although houseboat engines have to be off between 6 p.m. and 8:30 a.m., there are still ways to manage it. To enjoy this experience, you can take a canoe ride, beginning just before sunrise or sunset, out on the waters.
I like to see as many sunrises as possible, so I got up extra early to be ready at 6 a.m. for my own Backwaters canoe ride. The ride takes about 30 minutes and is a peaceful and relaxing excursion. It’s pretty quiet, too, as there aren’t a lot of people out on the waterways at this time. In fact, besides the gentle sloshing of the water and the cries of birds in the trees, the only other sounds I heard were the morning prayers emanating from a nearby church.
You can’t beat this type of serenity. I felt totally at peace as the sky lightened and swaths of pink, orange, yellow, red, and purple painted the sky like watercolors from a giant brush. The golden, early morning light washed over me and bathed the entire canal and the surrounding trees. The light mist hanging over the water only added to the beauty of the moment. It was truly spectacular.
Locals and their Homes
In the canoe, you can get a good look at some of the traditional- and modern-style homes in the area. I saw a large, traditional two-story house with a fence, a large modern home, and a beautiful church. If you haven’t already, you can also get a good look at the modern and traditional houseboats that dot the waters.
If you’re lucky, you might also meet more locals on your canoe ride. Soon after passing by a floating bridge that connects two islands, I met a local fisherman who had left his nets in the water overnight. He woke up to six or seven fish for breakfast!
Before you make the journey back to your houseboat, I also recommend seeing the beautiful Meenappally Kayal Lake. It’s one of the larger bodies of water in this area and is the site of a boat race in the autumn. Even if you don’t book your houseboat stay in the autumn, this canoe ride is something you must experience in Alleppey, Kerala, India.
Check out the Things to See, Do, and Eat in Varkala, Kerala, India
While Alleppey is considered one of the most important tourist destinations in India, nearly every tourist who passes through the city is there solely to explore the Backwaters. The city of 174,164 is home to lots of farming areas near Vembanad Lake. Farming is the main occupation in Alleppey. Another nearby lake, Punnamada Lake, is the site of the annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which takes place on the second Saturday of August. Outside of that, Alleppey is also a great place to grab a bite to eat before your houseboat experience!
Eat at Brothers Hotel
As you’re passing through Alleppey in the morning on your way to your houseboat, I recommend stopping by the Brothers Hotel for some breakfast. Upon arriving there, I learned that many restaurants in the country are called “Hotel” because it’s easier to pronounce. There’s no actual hotel there. But that’s fine, as I was there to eat!
There, I suggest going with a steamed coconut flour dish called puttu, which also contains grated coconut and brown rice flour. It’s meant to be eaten with their fish curry and duck curry. Like most dishes in Kerala, the three are meant to be eaten with your hands, so wash them good and dig in!
The puttu is fluffy and dense and has a slightly sweet, coconut flavor that blends extremely well with the reddish fish curry and chilies. Make sure to get some of the buttery fish meat as well, which practically melts in your mouth! The brownish duck curry is very rich and is a flavor bomb in your mouth. The meat is nice and fatty, but also tender and peppery. Both curries are served piping hot, so I advise letting them sit for a few minutes before you start mixing them with the puttu with your fingers.
Finish off your meal with a glass of karingali water, a pink-tinted water that’s made from the bark of a tree. It’s said to be medicinal and has a definite earthy flavor.
If you love good Indian food, you have to check this place out before your houseboat experience in Alleppey, Kerala, India. The food is astounding and will have you dreaming about it later!
Eat Brunch at New York Toddy Shop
After you disembark the houseboat, don’t leave Alleppey for any other spots in Kerala, India just yet. There’s one more spot you need to check out in town. That spot is New York Toddy Shop. A toddy shop is a restaurant that specializes in making the coconut wine known as toddy as well as delicious Kerala cuisine. New York Toddy shop has different cottage-style dining halls. Each one is named after a U.S. city, so you can eat in ones named Washington D.C., Chicago, and even my hometown of Miami!
This toddy shop is pretty well-hidden, so you have to know where it is to find it. It overlooks some of Alleppey’s beautiful rice paddy fields, which provide the perfect backdrop for a yummy Kerala feast.
The toddy there was quite sweet, which means it had just been made. I liked it a lot better than the sour variety I’d had on the houseboat. Then, we met a local food vlogger named Shameer, who joined me and Ebbin. We ordered seven different dishes including puttu, fish fry, mussels, crab, and a pancake called appam.
Crab, Puttu, and Mussels
The gravy from the crab was the perfect complement to the sweet puttu, and while the shell was harder to crack because it was a smaller crab, the flavors and freshness of the meat more than made up for it. You definitely have to work to get the meat, but it’s worth the trouble. It was my first time having crab in India, and it was something I was looking forward to having again!
I also cannot rave enough about the mussels with chilies and onions, which were basically a mussel stir-fry. They were briny and flavorful without being too spicy. The freshness of the chilies and onions helped make it my favorite dish of the meal!
Appam and Fish
I also loved the appam, which had toddy and chilies cooked into it. While it looked very similar to an American pancake, the flavor couldn’t have been more different. It was earthy, spicy, and sour, and had a nice savory feel once you added the crab gravy to it. You also must dig into the spicy fish fry. It had the perfect amount of batter on it that didn’t take away from the soft, tender flesh. After eating the fish, I recommend taking a swig of your toddy, which will cool down the heat in your mouth and cleanse your palate!
But while the fish fry is great, the best fish of the meal was the freshwater fish, which was smothered in a creamy gravy. That’s saying a lot, as I usually don’t love freshwater fish due to the number of small bones. The soft, melt-in-your-mouth meat, coupled with the gravy and the appam, is simply unbelievable. It had my mouth burning for sure, but I love a nice kick of heat!
Eating at New York Toddy Shop is easily one of the best things you can do after your houseboat stay in Alleppey, Kerala, India. The food there is exceptional and a lot of it was unlike anything I’d ever eaten before!
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Eat at Ezhuthanikada Restaurant
Finally, if you’re heading to Alleppey from Varkala, or if you’re heading to Varkala from Alleppey, you must stop at Ezhuthanikada Restaurant. My friend Vishnu and I arrived there early in the morning before they even opened. They opened for us and let us take a look at their kitchens, where they were preparing hundreds of appams, as well as tata dosas, a tomato-based curry, and parottas.
We started with a hot, fresh cake made from maida, sugar, and cardamom called vettucake. The vettucake has a nice balance of textures, with a crispy crust on the outside and a doughy interior. Dip it into your chai and let it absorb the cardamom flavor. It’s fantastic! It reminded me of home, where I often dip bread into my coffee. If you visit in the afternoon, you’ll likely have your vettucake with a curry.
But the main reason to come to Ezhuthanikada Restaurant are the appams, papadum, and the egg curry. The curry contains tomatoes, onions, and coconut oil. Take a piece of the fresh, white, spongy appam and dip it into the curry. The appam is similar in flavor to a steamed rice cake called idli, although the appam doesn’t contain lentils. The curry is not spicy at all, but is full of wonderful, fresh tomato flavor. Then, try the curry with some crunched-up papadum.
Finally, be sure to break up your boiled egg and mix it into the curry. Have some of the mixture with the appam and papadum. It’s extremely messy but heavenly! It’s the perfect meal to enjoy before you board a houseboat in Alleppey in Kerala, India!
Check out the 5 Things You Must Do in Munnar, Kerala, India
Having a houseboat experience in Alleppey is a must when you travel to Kerala, India. I’m usually not a huge fan of doing overly touristy activities. I find many of them so commercialized that it’s no longer an authentic experience I can immerse myself in. But in the case of the houseboat rental in the backwaters of Alleppey, Kerala, India, that’s not the case. While you’ll certainly see other houseboats on the waters, you’ll be around locals the whole time.
You’ll enjoy the food they eat on a daily basis and get to see and learn from locals going about their day-to-day business. And if you decide to eat in town beforehand or afterward, it only adds to the immersive experience. In my opinion, Alleppey is more than just a gateway to the Kerala Backwaters. It’s a whole experience. And it’s one that’s worth having. Book a flight to Trivandrum today to start your own houseboat adventure in Alleppey, Kerala, India!
I have to thank my friend and guide Vishnu for driving me from Varkala to Alleppey. Be sure to follow him on Instagram!
I also must give a huge thanks to my boy Ebbin Jose, who arranged my itinerary in Alleppey. He also graciously showed me around the town and the backwaters. I couldn’t have written this guide or filmed my Alleppey episodes without him. Check out his Instagram and be sure to subscribe to his amazing travel and food channel on YouTube!
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