beaches

Kapu – a delightful beach in South India

Travel and Places

About 15 kms south of Udupi (on the way to Mangalore) lies a delightful strip of sand and surf called Kapu.

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

I had come to Udupi to meet my nephew, who studies at the Manipal Institute of Technology. One morning during my two-day stay there, I found myself free. My nephew would be in class till the afternoon, after which he would meet me. On a sudden whim, I decided to visit one of the beaches dotting the beautiful coastline of Dakshin Kannada (meaning, South Karnataka). After some serious thought (because there is an overdose of options), I plumped for Kapu beach (some locals call it Kaap). Kapu was most convenient for a half-day trip, because it is situated just 15 kms from the town of Udupi where I was shacked up. Buses were frequent. I could visit the beach and be back in time to meet my nephew.

After a breakfast of medu vada and dosa, accompanied by coconut chutney and sambar, I boarded an ‘express’ bus to Mangalore. Unlike regular buses, express buses take the highway to Mangalore and do not get into country roads. They are therefore much faster than their ordinary cousins. About 25 minutes later, I was deposited at the Kapu junction on the same highway. The ticket cost me all of Rs. 18. On the way, I was treated to delightful vistas of coconut palms and arecanut trees, old-style houses with brown tiled roofs, ponds and lagoons and small shops lining the highway. The landscape here is very similar to that of Kerala, since Dakshin Kannada lies just north of Kerala along the same coastline. Even the cuisine (especially the seafood dishes) are prepared and eaten the same way as in Kerala.

Disembarking from the bus at Kapu junction, I took an auto to Kapu beach. The ride cost me Rs. 30/- . Autos have fixed fares from the junction to different places in the area. Bargaining is not of much use, since the auto drivers operate as a union. Passing through shaded country roads with houses on either side (and even the odd motor garage), I reached the beach in 5 minutes.

 

Standing at the entrance to the beach, I took in the entire stretch in one glance. Close by to my right at one end of the beach stood the lighthouse, a somewhat grim and lonely apparition rising into the sky. To my left, the sandy strip curved a long way until it ran into a clump of boulders that marked the other end of the beach. A concrete pathway had been built along the inner edge of the beach and stone benches had been built along this. Through the intense haze of the summer morning, I could see that the beach was deserted. There must have been just a dozen people scattered along its entire length. Some of them were lounging on the benches in the shade of coconut trees (understandable, given the heat), but surprisingly, some other were frolicking in the rushing waters. But then, I remembered that while even during the height of summer, the sea water is cool.

After standing in the water myself for a few minutes, I started walking towards the lighthouse. At some distance into the sea, I could see a lone fishing boat bobbing in the waves. This fisherman must have come late to the fishing party, I speculate idly. Or maybe, he just had a refreshing beer and gone off to sleep. The instant this thought flashed through my mind, I yearned for a bottle of cold beer myself. My thirst for beer was so bad in that instant, that the hair on my arms bristled and I could clearly feel the parched bottom of my throat.

 

 

I had to climb up three flights of stairs to reach the base of the lighthouse (because it was perched on top of a boulder). I saw to my disappointment that it was closed. I could not spot the caretaker either. It wondered if it is an abandoned lighthouse. Or maybe it would open only at night, when ships and boats had to be guided. Climbing to the top of lighthouses and gazing out in all directions is something I love doing. I have done it in several places, like Chennai, Kannur and Daman.

 

Not finding anybody to ask, I plonked myself down in the shade of the tall structure. This vantage point gave me a different perspective of the whole area. To my right, I saw another beach stretching out into the distance. A few fishing boats were parked on the sand and a few mesh nets spread out next to them. The fishermen will claim them again before dawn the next day, when they put out to sea in search of fish. On another side, a shallow stretch of backwater flowed past to form a lagoon. Far away into the sea, I could make out a few dots. I assumed them to be cruise or cargo ships. The breeze was mild. It was all very peaceful and life seemed very good from my perch. It seemed better still, when, a moment later, I remembered that I was lazing on a beach on a weekday.

 

 

 

I did want to get into the water and splash around a bit, but the sun was too harsh for that. Instead, I had a super-refreshing tender coconut and caught a bus back to Udupi.

 

 

I am going to return to the Udupi belt during the monsoon this year, when this whole belt will be lush and wet. I just can’t for that.

The vitals

  • The fastest and cheapest way to reach Kapu is to take an Express bus from the private bus stand, which is locally known as service bus stand also. The bus ride to Kapu junction on the highway takes about 20 minutes and costs Rs. From the highway, take an auto to the beach. This ride cost me Rs. 30/- one way in March 2018.
  • The waves in the beach are wild; so, tread carefully in the waters. I did not see a lifeguard around.
  • This is a relatively unspoilt beach. . The local village council & citizens take pains to keep the beach clean. Let us help them keep it that way. Look for trash bins to dump your trash in. Alternatively, put your trash in your bag and bring it back to your hotel to dump.
  • There are no resorts or hotels close to the beach. Thank God for that.
  • For accommodation, Udupi is the nearest town. It will make sense for you to stay there, also because Udupi has other attractions, and is a bus & rail hub.
  • Summer (I am talking temperature in the high thirties & extreme humidity) is from March to early June here, after which the monsoon sets in. The monsoon is a magical time to visit this place in. Failing that, you could go anytime between November and February.
  • If you keep about a week, you can cover a few lovely places in the Dakshin Kannada belt.
  • Most people here have a traditional mindset and lifestyle; so, covering up adequately and not being boisterously Bohemian would be a very good idea.
  • Sample the seafood and vegetarian food, both of which are yummy in these parts. In fact, a number of people have migrated from Udupi to various parts of India and set up vegetarian restaurants. These restaurants are famously called Udupi restaurants, especially in Chennai, Pune and Mumbai.

________________________________________________________________________________

 

Marine history: Chennai to Kannur

Travel and Places

Learning about seafaring traditions, playing on the beach, and visiting a fort built by the Portuguese.

This story first appeared in Mint on July 27, 2017 under the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

_______________________________________________________________________________

 

Fisherfolk unloading the catch of the day, Thottada beach. Photographs: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Fisherfolk unloading the catch of the day at Thottada beach.

The lady bore a striking resemblance to my grandmother. Her gaze was benign, and she seemed to be smiling. I almost smiled back, and then, remembering who she really was, I chuckled. For behind the gentle gaze was the hardy queen of the Arakkal dynasty. She came from a long line of rulers of the erstwhile Cannanore (now Kannur) principality. Rani Mariyumma Beebi Ali Adi Rajah, known as “Arakkal Beebi”, had inspired respect and admiration for the way she administered her principality in the year leading up to independence. And here she was, gazing at me from her photograph on the wall.

I was winding up a fascinating morning at the Arakkal Museum in Kannur in north Kerala. The Durbar Hall of the Arakkal rulers has been converted into a well-kept archive of their legacy. The two-storey building showcases solid teakwood furniture, weaponry, sepia-tinted photographs, evocative illustrations of ships, battle scenes, scenes from everyday life, and beautifully engraved ceramic-ware. Yellowed copies of letters that the royals had exchanged with the British threw up a surprise; the Laccadive Islands (part of the Lakshadweep Islands) had once been under Arakkal rule—the islands had been sold to the British.

My search for an offbeat place to spend the weekend had led me to Kannur, a little town north of Kozhikode. The overnight train from Chennai had entered Kerala early that morning, giving me a chance to see the glistening backwaters, hamlets and emerald fields at first light.

Leaving the museum, I headed back to the Blue Mermaid Homestay, where I was staying, for a traditional Kerala meal. Come evening, I headed to the unspoilt Thottada beach, which is just next to the home-stay. Jogging barefoot on the sand, playing beach volleyball with a bunch of local boys and watching a glorious sunset stilled all thoughts, making for a contemplative end to the day.

Thottada beach.

Thottada beach.

On the next day’s schedule was a visit to Fort St Angelo, in the centre of town. It’s among the first forts built by the Portuguese in India, in the early 16th century. The stone and laterite fort has aged well. A thick layer of moss covering the walls and rampart was affirmation of a lavish monsoon. The barracks, magazine room, dungeons, bastions and chapel bear testimony to the fact that the Dutch and British had a hand in modifying the fort in later years.

My eyes were drawn to the mast of an old lighthouse that stands on one of the ramparts. The tourist policeman there offered an intriguing titbit: Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy to India, had kept his anointed successor, Afonso de Albuquerque, imprisoned in a dungeon in the fort, until he was ordered by his superiors to free him.

The mast of an old lighthouse on the rampart of Fort St Angelo.

The mast of an old lighthouse on the rampart of Fort St Angelo.

The western corner of the rampart offered a view of slim, colourful fishing boats with seagulls perched on the bows, at the edge of the waters. The sun glinted off the sea, casting a magical light. It was a scene straight out of a painting. This was Moplah Bay, a bustling port-of-call for Chinese, Arab and European traders in ancient times.

The next stop was MVK, the town’s go-to restaurant with an impressive list of local dishes, for delicious Thalassery biryani.

I spent the afternoon at the lighthouse museum. One of only four in India, the museum provides a rare insight into Kannur’s long seafaring traditions. It unveiled everything I ever wanted to know about lighthouses: from lamps, models of primitive lighthouses, navigational buoys and electromechanical parts to letters written by mariners. What’s more, there were no tourists—and I felt vindicated in my choice of an offbeat weekend break.

 

 

 

 

Five reasons you should go to Fort Kochi right away

Travel and Places

Fort Kochi, the most interesting part of Kochi city in central Kerala, deserves your attention. To me, it is one of the most interesting parts of Kerala, infinitely more interesting than Ernakulam, its cousin across the bay. Ernakulam is your regular Indian city, forever caught in an urban tizzy. It has lost much of its cultural identity and sanity over the past two decades.

Fort Kochi, on the other hand, is a different world; an oasis of cultural and historical riches that soothe the soul of the discerning traveler. Here, you will find a co-mingling of several histories, because a number of dynasties and communities have left their imprint on this tiny piece of land.

For many centuries, Kochi was ruled by several native Malayali chieftains and kings. It is a documented fact that Kochi state was formed in 1142 AD, when the kingdom of the erstwhile ruler Kulasekhara, broke up. Not much is however known about this kingdom until the late fifteenth century, when Vasco da Gama landed on the coast of Calicut.

Fort Kochi came into existence only after the arrival of the Portuguese in India. A few years after they made landfall on the Calicut coastin 1498, they ventured south and built a settlement on a land parcel gifted to them by the then king of Kochi. Their interests lay mainly in trade. They were keen to ship back pepper and other spices. Soon after they reached Kochi, they fortified it with permission from the Kochi Raja and named it Fort Emmanuel. When the modern city of Kochi was formed much, much later, Fort Emmanuel was renamed Fort Kochi. Except for a bastion and a cannon (which you’d be hard put to find), nothing remains of the fort today. But the town has emerged into a vibrant tourist destination.

I give you five specific reasons why you should go there right away.

One: the Portuguese heritage and the churches

The Portuguese were aggressive conquistadors. At the same time, they were prolific builders too. Wherever they went, they put up all manner of beautiful structures – including stately mansions, churches and forts. Fort Kochi is a superb example of the architectural legacy of the Portuguese.

I love two things the most. The first is the way in which they beautifully blended Portuguese and European sensibilities with the native Keralan architectural style. And so, you will find tall columns, arches and gables in houses that are roofed with local tiles. And since no house in Kerala is deemed complete without a backyard and a well, you will find a lush backyard and a deep well too.

Stroll along the streets of Fort Kochi and you will see what I mean. Several of these buildings have been converted into cafes, art galleries and guest houses, which is great. It means that tourism is being built on the strong foundation of a heritage conserved. Bishop’s House, Cabral Yard, Bastian Bungalow and several hotels around the Vasco da Gama Square are fine examples of Indo-Portuguese architecture.

The other thing I love about the Portuguese are their churches. Here, you will find solid masonry, tall spires and belfrys, exquisite stained glass, unshakeable wooden furniture and beautiful murals and frescoes.

Fort Kochi has the best collection of medieval churches in India, all within a few miles of one another. From the church where Vasco da Gama was first interred after his death (St. Francis Church, 1516 AD) to Santa Cruz Basilica (1505 AD), Our Lady of Life Church (1650 AD), Our Lady of Hope Church (Vypin, 1605 AD) are some of the best churches I have been to. It is a pleasure to sit in the pews in silence for a bit, then gaze up at the murals, take in the liturgical furniture and finally, stroll around in the church yard. I get goosebumps when I find tombstones dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Speaking of churches, Fort Kochi has one of the most intriguing museums I have ever seen. The Indo-Portuguese Museum is located inside the compound of Bishop House and contains a number of rare artefacts from the Portuguese era. With one important twist: these artefacts are all liturgical in nature; which means, they pertain to the history of the Catholic Church in India. From medieval versions of the Bible, chalices, crosses, altars and vestments, they are all on display here. If you love love the intersection of history and religion, you will love this museum for sure.

Two: the beaches

Fort Kochi is located bang by the sea. It is home to a few lovely beaches where the sand is golden brown and very clean. Apart from what is known as the Fort Kochi beach, there is a beach in Vypin and another in Cherai. Fort Kochi beach does get crowded in the evening, but you can still have a lot of fun. The crowd is never troublesome. Cherai and Vypin beaches are lesser known and therefore, much less crowded. You have to be very careful though, because the waters are very rough. We have built sand castles, jogged on the wet sand and played Frisbee here.

Being on the West coast, these beaches give you great views of sunset. Finish frolicking in the water by 5:30 pm or so, and then settle down on the sands. Watch the sun slowly sink into the horizon.  The orange and pink glow it casts on the waters is magical indeed! Words have no place at moments like these. I love basking in this fading glow. At times like this, I truly feel one with the universe.

Three: the food and the restaurants

Where there is the sea, there is bound to be excellent seafood. And so it is with Fort Kochi. Eateries here offer you a wide variety of fish, in addition to prawns, squids and crabs. And you can have them fried or curried, cooked in one of several ways in the traditional Kerala style.Pair these dishes with the flaky, crisp Kerala porotta or dosaiand you will reach heaven in this life itself.

Or, you could order a naadan (‘country/local/traditional’ in Malayalam) meal, which is served on a plantain leaf, and ask for a non-vegetarian dish on the side. The meal, known as ‘oonu’ in Malayalam, typically consists of two or three vegetable preparations (such as avial, thoran, kaalan, etc.), sambar, rasam, spiced buttermilk, papad, banana chips and pickle, all this to be eaten with nutrient-rich parboiled rice. Some restaurants add a few other items to this ensemble.

My preferred place for lunch or dinner is a sea-fronting restaurant with excellent views of the harbor and the bay. To eat and drink while watching boats and mammoth ships pass by is an interesting experience, to say the least. Seagull Restaurant on Calvathy Road is my all-time favourite for a beer and meal.

For breakfast, stick to delicious local food options like puttu, appam and dosai, served with kadala curry, meen curry or vegetable stew. My kind of breakfast is eaten steaming hot at a street cart, with the aroma of the food mingling with the chatter of locals who are digging in before plunging into their workday.I love to end the meal with a cup of strong Kerala style tea.

Though some eateries serve Continental food and noodles too, I give these a wide berth, because they don’t make it well. It just seems to be a pretence to serve foreign tourists.

Four: the atmospheric hotels

Nowhere else (at least in India) have I seen so many lovely, centuries-old buildings that have been converted into hotels, B&Bs and guest houses. And each one of these buildings has many tales to tell. Koder House, for instance, belonged to a Jewish family in the 19th century, before it was sold by the last descendent. It is now the lovely hotel with a red façade on Vasco da Gama Square. Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel was the site of the old lighthouse of Kochi and the residence of a senior official of the British empire. The Old HarbourHotel belonged to the Dutch way back in the eighteenth century. I could go on like this.

These hotels are high on history and atmosphere, something you’d not find in a regular hotel.

Five: the native art forms of Kerala

Take in a cultural performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre, located in a tiny winding lane near the Santa Cruz Basilica. A few months back, I spent an enchanting evening watching a Kalaripayittu performance, an ancient martial art form of Kerala. The Centre hosts vocal and instrumental concerts and Kathakali recitals also.

Another venue for such performances is Greenix, which has two auditoria. One of them is located near the bus stand and across from the boarding point for the ferries to Vypin (don’t ask me why, but these ferries are called ‘Jhankar’). Greenix’s second centre is located onCalvathy Road, near a landmark building called Pepper House.

 

When you are there….

  1. Hop onto the large motorized barge, locally known as ‘Jhankar’ and take a five minute ride to the island of Vypin. Once there, take an auto or a bus to the lighthouse and beach.
  2. From Vypin bus stand (which is close to where the Jhankar will drop you), you can take a bus to Cherai junction and from there, hop into an auto to go to Cherai beach. If you don’t like buses much, you could take an auto from Vypin bus stand itself. The ride to Cherai will take between half an hour and 45 minutes. Cherai beach is unspoilt, clean and not crowded on most days.
  3. From Vypin, you could take an auto or bus to Vallarpadam island and visit the beautiful medieval church there.
  4. If you are interested in railway history and trivia, you should visit Cochin Harbour Terminus on Willingdon Island. Until about 1997, long distance express and freight trains used to ply from here. But dwindling business on this route sealed the fate of the terminus. Today, this small abandoned railway station holds a thousand memories and stories. An old weighing machine, fare lists, train schedules, railway tracks, a ticket window…..all these stand mute witnesses to the passage of an era.
  5. I’d also recommend a visit to the Cochin Marine Museum (Willingdon Island), Jew Town and the spice market (both in Mattancherry).
  6. And of course, of course, you must visit the Chinese fishing nets. If you go about 5:30 or 6 am, you can watch the fishermen operate it and cast their nets. It is believed that Chinese traders erected these cantilevered nets a few centuries ago. Little would they have guessed that these nets would one day become the most iconic symbol of Fort Kochi.

 

The vitals

Getting there: Fly to Kochi International Airport and take a taxi to Fort Kochi from there. Or, take a train to Ernakulam from wherever you live. From Ernakulam, take an auto or a bus for an overland ride to Fort Kochi. A more interesting way, however, is to take an auto to the Ernakulam boat jetty and hop onto a public ferry from there.

Shacking up: Like I mentioned earlier, Fort Kochi doesn’t want for accommodation options. From backpacking hostels to luxury hotels, you will find everything here. I think the most interesting way of experiencing the place is to plump for a seaside luxury hotel (high priced, obviously) or a homestay (mid-priced). The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel is one of the best luxury hotels I have stayed at. A sea-facing restaurant, an al-fresco lounge, a swimming pool and lovely old-fashioned rooms make this a charming place. The food and service are very good too (in particular, the enormous breakfast that is part of the room tariff).

From many forays to Fort Kochi though, I know that the following are also excellent options:

Koder House(luxury; not seaside, but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

The Cochin Club (mid-priced, but very comfortable and almost luxurious)

Tower House Hotel (luxury; not seaside but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

Brunton Boatyard Hotel (luxury, seaside)

Vintage Inn (at Jnaliparambu Junction; low-priced, but clean and comfortable)

Happy Camper (at Jnaliparambu Junction; a backpacker’s hostel)

Grub

Here is some more dope, beyond what I have told you above. A couple of my favourite eateries here are:

Seagull: seaside restaurant and bar, best known for its Kerala style food. Try to go at around 5:30 pm and catch a table on the re-purposed boat pier. Sit back for the next few hours and watch myriad interesting sights as you guzzle cold beer and enjoy your food. It is not everyday that you get to have a beer watching a glorious sunset or a mother of a ship pass close by.

Shanu’s food cart: This is where you should go, for a cheap, authentic, delicious local-style breakfast. The cart is permanently stationed adjacent to the Tower House Hotel on Vasco da Gama Square. You will invariably find a crowd here from say 6 am every morning. Gorge on puttu, appam, kadala curry and meencurry. Once you reach the Square, ask a local to direct you to Shanu’s thattukada (‘thattukada’ is Malayalam for food cart).

Getting around

This settlement is small enough (and of course beautiful enough) to cover on foot. This is how I move around whenever I am there. Other good option is to hire a cycle or scooter by the day. Auto rickshaws (known as tuktuks in certain countries) are available too.

Since Kerala is a conservative state, please cover up adequately.Since the weather is extremely hot and humid for six months a year, light, summery clothes would be your best bet.

With the influx of foreign tourists, some local eateries/bars.auto drivers have started acting snooty towards Indian tourists. Which is sad. I have encountered such specimens a few times. So, if you are an Indian visiting this place, be warned. Remember to not take it personally. If you find someone behaving unreasonably, just give him a piece of your mind (politely, but firmly) and move on to another auto, eatery, hotel. There are plenty of options.

When to go

The heat here is torrid from March to June. If you go during these months, you can roam around in the morning and evening, and retreat to your room in the afternoon.

The best time is from mid-June to mid-August (when the place is drenched by the monsoon rains) and from November to February (when the weather is somewhat pleasant).