Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Courtallam Natures Own Water Spa

Courtallam, a tiny town in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, is blessed with abundant natural beauty and offers the best waterfall experience in India. There are several waterfalls spread across this town where people could experience one of the best gifts nature has to offer mankind. The icy cold water crosses huge forests before cascading down and is believed to  have therapeutic properties as the forests are known for their medicinal herbs. This otherwise quiet town comes to life with the onset of Southwest Monsoon, and one can experience the periodic drizzle, cool breeze, waterfalls in full throttle and views of beautiful mountains in the backdrop making this places a wonderland.

The feel of taking bath in a natural waterfalls is rejuvenating. The gushing water descends from several feet above breaks at several rocks and then separates into different streams reducing the flow and comes crashing down on us, it is definitely once in a lifetime experience. It can easily outrun any of the luxurious and excellent spa treatments. The wonders of Mother Nature are so tough to put in words. The main falls of Courtallam is a three tier massive water body towering several feet high.

If you are a first time visitor here, the gigantic waterfalls and crowd could easily freak you out but please do shed all your inhibitions, conquer your phobias and once you stand at the rocks where the waterfall breaks you are guaranteed to fall in love with this place. Initially the threshold is a couple of minutes and the more you enjoy the feel of ice cold water hitting you on your back and shoulders, the longer you would want to stand under these majestic falls. Rightly so, it is called the Spa of South India. Courtallam has its own charm and is kind of addictive in a positive way.

 The waterfalls are open 24 hours and attracts hordes of people, all the waterfalls are divided into designated men and women sections. There is a designated area for women to change. Even late in the night, the waterfalls are open for people to take bath and it looks like day time with several shops doing brisk business.  Late in the night, you see vendors selling steaming hot herbal tea locally known as "Chukku Kapi," it is very good for health and feels excellent after a cold bath. Several hotels serve piping hot food throughout the night. The cycle of life in Courtallam goes like - Wake up- Eat- take Bath for long hours- Eat- Sleep- Repeat. Life rolls by very slowly, the surroundings are so calm and serene with nature at its best.

En-route to the falls are several shops that sell hot and cold beverages, seasonal fruits, plenty of snacks and abundant toys for kids. Courtallam is known for its exotic fruits such as Mangosteen. They definitely are the sweetest and taste heavenly. Early morning and late night are perfect time to visit the falls and enjoy the serenity of the place. During season time, which is from July to September, the climate is excellent.

There is high presence of law enforcement personnel, strict laws are implemented so that tourists can have a peaceful and joyful time at the waterfalls. There are no storage units to keep valuables or cash so it would be better to carry very minimal stuff such as a towel and cash in a plastic zip lock bag. Using soap, shampoo, oil, detergents is a strict no no and violators face hefty fines.

Another striking feature of the waterfalls is that there are carvings of many Shivlingas on the rocks where the water falls with full flow. Very close to the waterfalls is an ancient temple Kutralanathar temple dedicated to lord Shiva. This beautiful temple has excellent carvings and several few thousand year old idols. The view of the falls from the temple and the thundering sound of water crashing on rocks is a phenomenal experience. Within the same compound is a jack fruit tree that is believed to be as old as the temple. You can see a demarcation on the walls with different shades and this shows how high the water level rose when several years ago massive floods engulfed this temple. The temple is open from 4 am to 12 pm and 4 pm to 6 pm.

A couple of kilometers from Courtallam is the Kashi Vishvanathar Temple in Tenkasi which is considered as the Kashi of Southern India. The highlight of this temple is its magnificent Gopuram. The brightly colored colossal monument towers 180 feet high adorned with excellent carvings. This  temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and many Hindu mythological creatures take center stage here. This temple is famous for its massive monolithic avatars depicted in stone and as you enter the main sanctum you are greeted by massive monolithic carvings on either sides the temple, an ingenious construction dating several thousand years ago. The beauty was not limited only to sculptures, they beautified even the minutest things such as the water drain channels that captures your attention and you tend to forget the purpose that it serves. The water management system is ingenious and works fine till date. This talks a lot about their dedication there was no room for concentrating only on the important features, every part of the temple was given equal importance.

To ensure that the temple was lit with natural light at all times of the day, the temple was constructed in such a way that they left openings in the ceilings for natural light to seep in and fill the temple with a beautiful golden light and bright up the entire temple. The walls of the temple have ancient inscriptions carved so that several generations can read and gain knowledge. A phenomenal feature of this temples is the cool breeze that constantly flows and pushes one in the direction of the temple. This phenomenal super natural effect can be experienced under the massive Gopuram as one enters the temple. The temple is open on all days from 4 am to 12 pm and from 4 om to 9 pm.

Down south India is known for its passion and love for food. By far, the best South Indian Non Vegetarian meal that we had was at "Koorai Kadai" hotel in Tenkasi. This humble restaurant attracts hordes of food lovers from across the country as it serves an extensive variety of non vegetarian delicacies, all cooked to great perfection. It was here that we tried for the first time, the dry fish curry 'Karuvadu Kulambu'  and it was excellent. Had we not been told it was dry fish, we would have never guessed as it was not tangy but spicy and filled with flavors. It is not just the non vegetarian food, but even the simplest food that was exceptional such as rasam which had the perfect amount of pepper and flavors of various other spices. Their  'Kola Urundai' or minced mutton cutlet is a sensational delicacy and a must try. This beautiful little ball of joy is only 10 bucks. Their service is also excellent for a place that is this famous and the owner, a kind old humble man, took out time to show his gratitude to our compliments. The pricing of their food is unbelievably inexpensive.

Another gem of an eat out around Courtallam is 'Rahmat Parota Stall' in Sengottai 6 km from Courtallam. This place also known as 'Border Kadai' is a local superstar. This road side food joint gives a feel of a dhabha and like the name suggests it serves excellent parota, an Indian bread. It is famous for amazing and spicy pepper 'Natu Koli' or country chicken, the burst of flavors in your mouth and the tender, juicy chicken will make you crave for more. The only place maybe where country chicken can easily pass off as broiler chicken. The parotas are soft, small and melt in your mouth and the non vegetarian curry or "Salana" along with parotas is the reason why this place is always crowded. It is intriguing as well as very exciting to see close to 7 people work in tandem to prepare parotas on a massive scale. They use a huge tawa and in one shot over 80 parotas are cooked. There are plenty of autos that ply throughout the day till late in the night to Tenkasi and Sengotai from Courtallam. Private and state run buses also ply between these destinations.

Courtallam is easily accessible by road and rail. The nearest railway station is Tenkasi and from here autos would be the best way to reach Courtallam which is 8 km away. The nearest airport is in Tuticorin. Madurai is also an option, and there are plenty of trains that ply between Madurai and Tenkasi. A distance of 150 km can be covered in 3 hours. The best part would be to take an early morning train and throughout the journey you can spot peacocks dancing in the massive fields and welcoming the early morning sunshine. It is quiet a sight if you love birds. Also, you can spot the massive Goparum of the famous Srirangapatnam Temple from the train tracks itself. If you do have the time, it would be a good idea to include this place as well in your itinerary. There are plenty of stay options in Courtallam catering to all budgets.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Alleppey A Floating Paradise!

The placid canals and backwaters, massive amount of palm and coconut trees dotted along the backwaters, traditional homes, rich green paddy fields and banana plantations aptly defines what natural beauty is. Kerala is the perfect place to unwind while sipping coconut water and gorging on excellent sea food. Of course a mere mention of Kerala and the first thought that crosses our minds are the houseboats giving you a glimpse of Punammada Lake.

The houseboats on Punnamada lake, which is a part of the longest lake in India- Vembanad, are a pretty sight adding a lot of charm to Alleppey, no wonder it has been named, Venice of  the East. These traditional looking massive built house boats that are in abundance provide all the creature comforts in a luxurious way and complete the whole Kerala Backwater experience making it a pretty sight but cliche. But this most often chosen option of enjoying the Kerala life comes with its own hindrances or loopholes- Traffic jams due to their sheer numbers, docking the boats all of them cramped together at one place at night, limited movement which means less exploration and the food options are not much.

We thought instead of opting for a houseboat it would be best to travel like the locals and take a ferry ride to catch a glimpse of their daily routine. The ferry ride helped us understand how on a daily basis it positively touches millions of lives. We passed through villages that had no roads, saw multiple small channels breaking from the massive backwaters and leading to even smaller and more beautiful villages. Some of these channels were so narrow that they could only be accessed by canoes.

The journey offers breathtaking views of paddy fields, the beautifully scattered churches and schools, the iconic post office and in a true sense we understood how massive and beautiful the backwaters of Kerala are.

It was an awesome sight to see the massive ferry stop on either sides of the banks for locals to alienate and reach their homes. The ferry definitely rules the waters here and it pretty much reminds you of the bus journeys on the road with so many left and right turns combined with a couple of U turns. The ferry clearly wins over the buses as they do not have to face traffic jams, it is an absolute free way! To our astonishment this mighty vessel managed to venture into small and narrow canals with as much ease as a small canoe would have.

Also, from the ferry you can witness various birds from egrets, cormorants to kingfishers busy hunting for fish and some even gracing your camera by posing for photos. We even saw an eagle resting on the compound wall of one of the houses in a village totally comfortable with so much activity around and completely at peace, making us realize once again how awesome and beautiful nature is. She feeds us when we are hungry, quenches our thirst, helps us travel. The least that we should give back is the respect that she deserves.

Since we were in Alleppey to attend the most awaited event of the year- the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, we got excited to see multiple teams prepare for the boat race set to happen the following day. The serene and calm town of Alleppey completely transforms and gives a feel that you are on the sets of action flick 'Fast And Furious.' Every year on the second Saturday of August, the government of Kerala conducts the prestigious 'Nehru Boat Race Festival.' We would definitely rate witnessing the teams sweat it out and practice as the highlight of the ferry ride.

This whole awesome package of a two and a half hour ferry ride with the locals from Alleppey town jetty to Pullicunno church came at an all inclusive price of  INR 15 per person.

We were left speechless when we saw the church on the banks of the water providing a picturesque view. This church with its Portuguese style architecture shot to fame thanks to the Tamil movie "Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa," parts of which were shot in this beautiful church. The church was so peaceful and we were the only visitors, it has a calming aura around it that makes you fall in love with this place almost instantly. We decided to get back by bus and it took us only 40 minutes to reach Alleppey town. If you are short on time or do not wish to take the local ferry there are frequent local buses that ply from Alleppey town to Ramankary with tickets priced at INR 22 per person and as always you have the luxury to hire a cab too.

The best way to explore any place is take a stroll around and you never know what might catch your attention. While walking towards the beach, we came across these beautiful bridges and canals that made us stop and appreciate the beauty all around us.

Alleppey Beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand and deep blue waters, is an ideal destination to watch the sun set in the horizon. It is not way too crowded giving ample space for an evening stroll. Kids and adults can enjoy camel ride and there are couple of eat outs to treat your taste buds. The hot fried peanuts and the view of the sunset makes one's life just perfect, indeed, small things in life give such great pleasure.

The Alleppey lighthouse is also worth visiting. We got to experience Kerala monsoons when we were at the lighthouse. It was a perfect moment with the panoramic view of the massive beach and rail tracks, the thunder of the clouds followed by mighty downpour. Note that the lighthouse is closed on Mondays.

Our enthusiasm to try out Kerala's authentic food had us all pumped up and we were not disappointed at all. Kerala's authentic food will satisfy even the best of food critics. There are plenty of restaurants to dig into for authentic Kerala cuisine and the meals includes Fish gravy, traditional fat red/white rice, two varieties of vegetable curry, sambar/rasam, Morekolambu, buttermilk, pickle, papadam and sweet. The best restaurants to try out the meals in Alleppey are 'Thaff' and 'Brothers.' In Thaff, do try out the chilly fish fry and the parota with chicken curry. If you are uncomfortable with the traditional fat Kerala rice do enquire if the hotel serves the normal thin rice.

For other delicacies like appam or parota, puttu, kadala curry, chicken curry, 'Creme Corner' restaurant is an ideal choice. The perfect way to finish your lunch or dinner would be with piping hot cup of 'Kattan Chai.' If you love sandwiches and puffs  head to 'Himalaya Bakers' that serves a wide variety of baked goodies and cookies to choose from.

The ideal way to commute within Alleppey would be by autos. The auto drivers were such gentlemen, they did not over charge us even once nor did they refuse to go to any part of the town. This was so much in contrast compared to other touristic destinations where they tend to burn a hole in your wallet.

We were fortunate to have the luxury of viewing lotus flowers in a small artificial pond right in front of our sit out bloom to the early morning sun rays. At the same time, we witnessed a darter dip and swim in the pond, and then bask in sun, providing company to the kingfishers perched on the palm trees making it one of the most beautiful mornings. This blissful experience was possible at  the 'Palmgrove Lake Resort.'

Set on the banks of Punnamada lake, this resort has great aesthetics with comfortable and cozy rooms. They offer 24 hour running hot water and free WiFi. Their service was top-notch. Though we did not try the food at their restaurant, we did go for a cup of Kattan Chai which was excellent. The flip side of this beautiful location was that we had to spend a little more to commute.