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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

My Kind of Place: Varkala, Kerala

The naturally beautiful coastal town in South India offers a heady mix of restaurants, beaches and Ayurveda.
The cliff above Varkala Beach has multi-cuisine cafes and souvenir-stacked bazaars. Photo by Frank Bienewald / LightRocket via Getty Images
The cliff above Varkala Beach has multi-cuisine cafes and souvenir-stacked bazaars. Photo by Frank Bienewald / LightRocket via Getty Images

Why Varkala?

With languid beaches, Ayurveda and yoga schools, coconut-spiced Keralan cuisine and a carefree Bohemian vibe, Varkala may have been “discovered” by the dreadlocked and tie-dyed set, but today the soul-searching beach bums are joined by a mix of travellers: young families, surfers and grey nomads seeking a coastal break with a side order of spirituality.

Clinging dramatically to ochre-coloured cliffs, Varkala’s shore is tightly packed with markets, boutiques and rickety cafes with staggering views over the Arabian Sea. The sheer, laterite cliffs are the backdrop to Papanasam Beach, a long stretch of golden sand reached by clambering down steep staircases carved into the rock. It’s a hub of activity from dawn to dusk, with yogis saluting the sun, surfers taking advantage of Varkala’s waves and fishermen hauling in nets. The waters are said to wash away sins, with Hindu priests from the nearby 2,000-year-old Janardana Swami Temple performing rituals on the sand, next to restaurants and volleyball nets.

A comfortable bed

Clafouti Beach Resort (www.clafoutiresort.com; 0091 944 684 8535) commands an enviable position on North Cliff, with private cottages and villas, an on-site Ayurvedic centre and a restaurant with dreamy views. Seaview villas start from 5,500 rupees (Dh325).

The boutique guesthouse Villa Jacaranda (www.villa-jacaranda.biz; 0091 470 261 0296) on South Cliff has tranquil gardens, private verandas, sumptuous breakfasts and outstanding vegetarian Keralan cuisine. Rooms start from 6,089 rupees (Dh360).

Across the road, “Nice” and “Really Nice” are among the room categories at Soul & Surf (www.soulandsurf.com; 0091 963 367 6581), the region’s first yoga and surf retreat. Rooms are set in a historic Keralan house painted in pastel hues; surfing lessons, rooftop yoga and open-air movie nights are some of the other drawcards. Doubles start from £50 (Dh283).

With its black sand and fishing communities, Odayam Beach has a less developed charm; the modest cottages at the Blue Water Beach Resort (www.bluewaterstay.com; 0091 944 684 8534) lack hot water, but the position smack bang on the beach makes up for it. Seafront cottages start from 4,796 rupees (Dh283).

Find your feet

Stroll along Varkala’s Cliff Walk, a (mostly) paved pathway constructed by the Keralan government. About an hour’s round trip from the North Cliff car park (known as “the helipad”), it’s a colourful walk taking in North Cliff’s bustle of markets, cafes and restaurants, its untamed, palm-fringed coastline homes to fishing villages, the mint-coloured Pambil temple and Odayam Beach.

Book a table

It’s a world-cuisine bonanza along North Cliff, where you can find Keralan curries, spicy dosas, parathas and biryanis, Nepali momos and even a few German patisseries. Clafouti has charming Nepali waiting staff and a wide-reaching menu, including tandoori dishes and an impressive nightly seafood haul. Mains cost about 200 rupees (Dh11) each.

Health nuts can guzzle freshly squeezed juices and smoothies infused with spirulina and wheatgrass at Juice Shack (0091 999 521 4515) from 90 rupees (Dh5).

For caffeine fans, Coffee Temple (0091 812 905 0685) is like stumbling upon nirvana, with baguettes, burritos, juices and salads to boot; lunch from 150 rupees (Dh9).

Meet the locals

Watch the early morning ritual of fishermen hauling in their catch at Odayam Beach – and earn a smile if you lend a hand. The priests along the south of Papanasam Beach are happy to perform rituals (even for non-Hindus) for a few rupees.

Shopper’s paradise

With Ganesh babushka dolls, bespoke leather sandals and handcrafted Indian sitars, the markets lining the cliff front are a souvenir lover’s heaven. While vendors call out to passers-by, there are no aggressive sales pitches. Buy fine Kashmiri shawls from Best Marigold (0091 979 777 5152) and Tibetan handicrafts from Tibet Souvenir (0091 989 532 5577), or have something made in raw silk by one of the many local tailors.

Don’t miss

Kerala is the home of the 5,000-year-old healing system of Ayurveda. You can undergo panchakarma, a rigorous prescription of diet, massage and treatments, or simply relax with kizhi, a soothing therapeutic massage using herbal pouches dipped into hot, medicinal oil. Ayurvedic centres are a dime a dozen, but some are more reputable than others. Try the Doctor’s Ayurveda Panchakarma Centre in Odayam (0091 994 681 2278).

What to avoid

Wobbling back to your accommodation late at night along the Cliff Walk isn’t advised – much of the cliff-top pathway is unfenced, unlit and even crumbling in some parts.

Getting there

Air India Express (www.airindiaexpress.in) flies daily from Abu Dhabi to Trivandrum; return flights start from Dh626, including taxes. Etihad (www.etihad.com) and Emirates (www.emirates.com) also fly direct from Abu Dhabi and Dubai from Dh1,100 and Dh1,200, respectively. The flight time is four hours. Varkala is about 50 kilometres away, which takes an hour in a taxi.

weekend@thenational.ae