Posted by: Gideon | October 9, 2009

India with Kids: A Kerala backwaters houseboat cruise.

Post #20:

Emerald Isle


Our island was called Emerald Isle and we did very little there – it was just a place to chill out from our pretty hectic itinerary. The historic family house that has been in the same family for generations has been converted into guest accommodation and is a great example of truly local architecture. The rooms were large and a nice touch was the well appointed outside (en suite, private) bathroom – in the heat one doesn’t need the bathroom to be inside. We were staying the room that the current owner had when he was a child! At night, a fire was lit and a cultural dance program took place purely for us.



We are not a fishing family but the boys and I took a piece of bamboo each, some line and bits of bread and fished in the fish ponds – we actually caught a tiny fish but when we took it back to the kitchen we were told it was “not an eating fish”. We lay in hammocks reading, explored the island, and the girls had a cooking lesson which they really loved – since the kitchen was tiny and the chef was the owner’s wife, it was all very personal. I went for a great massage – Ayurvedic massage relies on various oils, and so the masseur explained exactly what oils he was going to work with – he began, and I fell asleep. When I woke up I felt great. (Very different from  a massage I once had in Turkey – scrubbed from head to toe with  a cloth that felt like velcro).


Kitchen secrets revealed.

The next day we went on a houseboat which is arranged by Emerald Isle. When we visited Kerala years ago, we toured the famous “backwaters” by small motor boat. The backwaters are one of the great highlights of India – a system of canals and lakes in the most incredible lush tropical environment imaginable.  But more than  that – whole communities live alongside these canals, and the water dominates their life – they bathe in the canals, water taxis zip in and out and commerce is conducted on the canals.  Back then, in the early 1990’s, tourists were a rare site, and we were greeted wildly by kids everywhere. We may have seen one other boat with tourists.


New found friends outside the houseboat.

Things have changed. Entrepreneurial locals discovered that there was demand for overnight stays on boats in the backwaters, and they refurbished traditional rice boats into floating accommodations. Today, houseboats are built resembling the original riceboat design, but have never carried a single load of rice. We saw fleets of these houseboats.


Our boat was pretty comfortable.

Our riceboat floating “hotel” with two bedrooms pulled up to the island at lunchtime, and a short while later we found ourselves cruising the largest waterway into a lake. I was afraid that the kids would find this whole experience boring, but they loved sitting up front with the driver and later, they really enjoyed popping in and out of the torrential downpour that lashed the boat. The crew closed all the palm flaps, and we cruised along, watching people and animals on the shore rushing to find shelter from the pelting rain.


It's raining like crazy out there!

After the rain had stopped later that afternoon, we pulled up to a small village and we went for a walk through the local market looking for CD’s or dvd’s to play on the machine on the boat. The only vaguely western movie we found was a pirated Chuck Norris action movie with Malayalam subtitles which we bought to watch after dinner.

The food was exceptional – prepared on the boat, it was very simple, fish and vegetables, and was really excellent. We saw our movie and then it was time for bed, in small but comfortable rooms and a tiny bathroom that did the job just fine.


Backwaters traffic...sometimes fast

If we had one complaint, it was that clearly the crew was trying to conserve gas, and so we spent a long time moored when we would have prefered to be cruising. We really didn’t go very far at all and in our 24 hour experience on the boat we might have cruised for about six hours tops.  The kids loved the whole experience. It really felt like our own private hotel.


...but usually S..L..O..W

One night was enough to make it a great experience for all – almost certainly two nights would have been too much and I’m glad we didn’t go for that.

I’d recommend one night on a riceboat to any family. It’s a lot of fun, comfortable and the food is good. It is fascinating watching everyday life on the canals.  But don’t expect to be going very far – you won’t be, and its best to know that in advance.

PS These days I’m designing great family trips to India. For more info on how I can help your  family, visit here.



  1. I really enjoy to view & read your blog……………….it’s superb……….may be we can see more on this………….

  2. Yes, I thinkone night is sufficient for anyone. We also did a backwater trip and it was a local boat that had to wait until it was a full. The trip through the canals was interesting to see the local people going about their tasks but once hte boat got out in ooen water there was nothing to see, just the occasional water hyacinth piece floating by waiting a nice piece of mud to attach itself to.

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