A world away from the rest of India is the verdant, peaceful state of Kerala. And the absolute highlight of any trip to Kerala with kids is a couple of nights sailing the “backwaters”. Silently cruising the tributaries, lakes and canals and witnessing life happen around you while you eat the local food and relax is an strangely exhilarating combination of chilled out yet culturally enriching experience. There is no doubt, a trip on a Kerala houseboat with kids in the backwaters is the perfect family holiday destination.
Unlike Delhi or Rajasthan or all those stereotypes of India, Kerala feels very rural, quiet and safe. Although it is a developing country, over crowdedness and extreme poverty aren’t quite so front-of-mind and the local food tends to be milder and more palatable for kids.
Wherever you plan to go in Kerala, it is essential to plan at least a couple of nights on a picturesque kettuvallam (traditional house boat). Hanging out here is the perfect way to unwind and spend some quiet family time bonding while you cruise silently over the water.
From the deck you’ll see families fishing, kids swimming and playing, laundry women going about their business and farmers herding droves of ducks. There are also plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting and maybe even a spot of fishing too.
After a leisurely few hours, the boats usually pick an isolated spot to stop and cook up your meal – whether it be local fish or some of the ducks sighted earlier – before another afternoon of cruising before dinner.
Most tourists begin their backwater experience at Kollam or Kottapuram. While you can pre-book your boat via a travel agent, it is quite easy to arrive at a port and wander down to take your pick of the boats that are available. It is best to physically inspect the boat before you agree to book it so you can see the range of options on offer. Pre-agree the total price before you set sail.
Houseboats in Kerala come in all shapes and sizes but typically have a separate sleeping quarters (indoors and sometimes air-conditioned) and lounge/dining quarters (outside on the deck) and are rented out one boat per family or party. Depending on your budget some come with an extra top deck too which will allow for extra privacy from the crew. There is usually a Western style toilet and a crew who sails the boat, then acts as your kitchen staff at meal times.
The entirety of an experience at the backwaters is spent on the kettuvallam so it’s not an activity for kids who need to move and run around. Particularly because the boats are not equipped with safety rails, this is best done with infants who can’t move themselves or older kids who will appreciate a few days playing cards, do crafts or reading books. (You will need to bring these activities with you – most houseboats in Kerala do not come with televisions or entertainment beyond a few old magazines onboard.)
Bring all your own baby supplies with you and plenty of bottled water for cleaning bottles and making formula.
Water hygiene is a very serious concern in India, so do not consume any uncooked vegetables or fruit unless you have washed it in bottled water yourself. (Fruit that you can peel, such as bananas or pomegranates, is probably fine.) It is not safe to drink the water from the tap in India. Only use bottled water for drinking and be wary of children drinking water in the shower or the bath. It’s a good idea for kids to practice brushing their teeth with a bottle for a few weeks before the trip so they don’t use the taps by mistake. [For more travel tips on visiting developing countries with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]