If beautiful sunsets are your thing, Kovalam Beach in south west India is a sunset paradise. Every afternoon sit back in one of the small beachside cafes, order a ‘Kingfisher’, the local beer, and watch a ball of fire sink slowly over the Arabian Sea. Sunset brings on a host of activities.
Local fishermen in old wooden boats float across the pink and orange soaked horizon like migrating Siberian cranes. The sound of piercing whistles break the still evening calmness along with red flag waving by beach patrol officers to remove people from the water after 6pm. The local sun weathered beach sellers become more desperate to offload a coral carving, an elephant embroidered table cloth or a brilliantly coloured sarong.
Kovalam beach is still relatively undiscovered. It is bordered by a myriad of boutique shops selling ‘everything Indian’ but the standout is the exquisite jewellery and custom made clothing. We decided to have an Indian cotton ensemble of loose fitting pants and shirt made by a local tailor which was a great choice for a unique, handmade souvenir. Our big purchase was an exquisitely hand painted, oversized, papier-mâché elephant. After settling on the best ‘sunset price’ we then negotiated, with fingers crossed, how it was to be sent back to Australia.
As the sky darkened the local restaurants, famous for their South Indian curries, fresh seafood and our favourite tandoori delights, began displaying their fresh catch of fish, lobster, squid and giant prawns. We rarely eat so called ‘fresh seafood’ in Asian countries as we have paid the inevitable price too many times.
However, in Kovalam the seafood was outstanding, especially a large whole red snapper we ordered to be cooked spicy, tandoor style costing an extravagant $20AUD and just sensational. Overall the food in Kovalam was excellent with some of the best prawns we have ever eaten in the world. The curries were simple but fragrant and delicious.
One of the things we most enjoyed were our lazy days at the beach which was just a short walk down the hill from our hotel. The water is enticingly clean and safe for swimming with a surf patrol watching the locals very carefully. Unfortunately they are not renowned for their water safety skills. Michael, our beach bed seller, would have our beds reserved and waiting each day.
As he unfurled our towels, strategically arranged the beach umbrella for the best shade, he also tried to persuade us to take an excursion to the Back Waters, a trip led by a friend, or was it a relative? We were happily settled for the first few hours before wandering twenty metres to the Spice Garden Restaurant for a lunch of delicious prawn pakora and a large bowl of fresh, spicy chicken soup.
After lunch it was back to our sun beds which Michael had straightened and refreshed the foot wash baths while we were at lunch. We settled in to read our books and watched as hundreds of Indian locals descended onto the beach for the sunset ritual.
Most were happy to walk along the water’s edge but some tried swimming fully clothed while just a few swam further out to catch a wave. This was all under the watchful gaze of the busy lifesavers who wisely kept most local swimmers close to the shoreline.
There are a few good five star hotels, the Leela being the best and most expensive. We stayed at Turtle on the Beach which is not really on the beach as the name might suggest and not really quite a five star standard. Although the rooms are spacious and comfortable the hotel can be frustrating because staff are so poorly trained. There are many 2 and 3 star hotels on the beachfront but none created a great first impression. A wide choice of good standard accommodation is something we found to be in short supply in this area.
A word about alcohol. The sale of alcohol in almost all restaurants and bars is literally ‘under the counter’. Few have a licence and not even so called five star hotels like Turtle on the Beach serve alcohol in their main dining room. However, can you get a drink? Beer is easy, they pour it into a large coffee mug and put the bottle under the table. “The best coffee I’ve had all day!” said someone we met while enjoying a sunset beverage.
Wine is almost non-existent while a few sprits like whisky and vodka are sometimes served but can be difficult to get. Prices are reasonable but be prepared for the wait because, if out of beer, they send ‘a boy’ out in a tuk tuk to get some more.
We did not discover any gay masseurs in Kovalam but there are many places specialising in Ayurveda (the science of body and mind). We both found our massage at Stay Well (http://staywellayurveda.com) on the beachfront excellent, although a little rough around the head at the beginning with the unusual, introductory, head slapping routine.
A number of hotels offer programs for massage, yoga and wellness. Anitha’s Garden Stay is an up market spa, restaurant and boutique hotel offering three, seven and fourteen day programs.
To get to Kovalam we landed at Travandrium International Airport and caught a taxi which took us south for about twenty minutes before arriving at our hotel. This somewhat undiscovered area of south India is a real gem and it will be the first place on our list when we return to India.
Know Before You Go
Kovalam is a small beachside town so don’t expect unlimited choices of five star accommodation and service.
Best time to visit is October to March.
Kovalam is a place to relax, chill out on the beach and take in the sunsets.
Seafood in Kovalam is fresh and wonderful.
Shopping and bartering are the local pastime and you will find some great bargains here.