You have to envy the travellers who first discovered KOVALAM back in the 1970s. Before the appearance of the crowds and sunbeds that nowadays spill over the resort’s quartet of beaches, not to mention the warren of hotels, shops and restaurants crammed into the palm groves behind them, this must have been a heavenly location. Four decades of unplanned development, however, have wrought havoc on the famous headland and its golden sand bays. Virtually every conceivable patch of dry ground behind the most spectacular of them, Lighthouse Beach, has been buried under concrete, along with most of the area’s Keralan character.
With charter flights from Europe suspended, Kovalam feels decidedly down on its luck these days, dependent on an unlikely mix of hedonistic British fifty-somethings and middle-aged German and Scandinavian ayurveda tourists – although it is hoped that the construction of an off-shore artificial reef may attract surfers and thus reverse the decline. The good news for budget backpackers is that the slump has sent room rates plummeting.Read More
Kovalam consists of four distinct coves, each with markedly different characters. The largest and most developped, known for obvious reasons as Lighthouse Beach, is where most foreign tourists congregate. It takes about five minutes to walk from one end of the bay to the other, either along the sand or on the paved esplanade which fronts a long arc of hotels, guesthouses, handicraft shops and restaurants. A major sea-defences project was in full swing at the time of writing to create an artificial reef roughly 100m offshore. There’s a red-and-white-striped lighthouse on the promontory at the southern end of the cove, when you can scale the 142 spiral steps and twelve ladder rungs to the observation platform.
Heading northwards from Lighthouse Beach, you round a small rocky headland to reach Hawah Beach (or Eve’s Beach) – almost a mirror image of its busier neighbour, although backed for most of its length by empty palm groves. In the morning, before the sun-worshippers arrive, it functions as a base for local fishermen, who hand-haul their massive nets through the shallows, singing and chanting as they coil the endless piles of rope.
North of the next headland, Kovalam Beach is dominated by the angular chalets of the five-star Leela above it. Home to a small mosque, the little cove is dominated by coachloads of excited Keralan day-trippers on weekends. To get here, follow the road downhill past the bus terminus. A short walk further north, Samudra Beach was until recently a European package tourist stronghold, though the large hotels clustered just beyond it, on the far side of a low, rocky headland, nowadays host mainly metropolitan Indian and Russian holiday-makers.
Although now officially in Tamil Nadu, PADMANABHAPURAM, 63km southeast of Thiruvananthapuram, was the capital of Travancore between 1550 and 1750, and maintains its historic links with Kerala, from where it is still administered. For anyone with even a minor interest in local architecture, the small Padmanabhapuram Palace, is irresistible. With its exquisite wooden interiors, coconut-shell floors and antique furniture and murals, the building represents the high-water mark of regional building. Just avoid weekends, when the complex gets overrun with bus parties.
Frequent buses run to Padmanabhapuram along the main highway from Thiruvananthapuram and Kovalam. Hop on any service heading to Nagercoil or Kanyakumari and get off at Thakkaly (sometimes written Thuckalai).