The vast ocean folds and unfolds before me. The sand slips merrily into the waters, as if beckoning me in. I've explored my fair share of beaches before, some surrounded by an overpopulated city and others, a long ferry ride away from the mainland. And yet, as I stand at Varkala's lesser-visited Odayam Beach, I find myself quietly beholding the view with a smile on my face, attempting to express my feelings in words, but failing to do so.
Located four hours away from Kochi, Varkala is a small cliff-town in south Kerala that will surprise you not just with its untouched beauty but also the rich variety of experiences that it offers. I spent one whole week in Varkala and had the opportunity of getting to know the place well enough to share tips and recommendations for travellers who are yet to witness one of India's most precious coastal towns.
Why visit Varkala?
If, like me, you have explored Goa innumerable times and are now looking for a laid-back experience, then humble Varkala is the perfect destination for your next getaway. Its beaches are blue, clean and serene, and the town's culture is vastly different from that of Goa. Varkala is perfect for backpackers, adventurers, gourmands as well as luxury-travellers, so explorers of all kinds are sure to find a host of activities to their liking.
Here's all you need to bookmark for your trip to Varkala
1. Surf and conquer the waves of the Arabian Sea
Varkala's seas are playgrounds for a vivacious surf scene that is worth an experience. You can either opt for 3-7 day courses or simply take one surfing session for a taste of this sport. The ideal months for surfing in Varkala are from April to November, however even during the off-season, you may opt for a surfing course, depending on its availability. Beginners, intermediates and advanced surfers are all welcome to various surfing schools across Varkala.
Where to learn surfing from: Soul and Surf, Surf and Sea, Elixir Surf Club and Moon Waves Surf School.
Cost: Rs 2,500 onwards.
2. Go kayaking in Varkala's backwaters
The calm, palm fringed backwaters of Varkala are an antithesis to its vibrant, roaring sea. For those who do not wish to immerse in Varkala's vicious waves, kayaking is a more relaxing alternative. While there aren't too many kayaking centres in Varkala, you can book an experience with Shiva Kayaking, located 7km from the North Cliff. They offer a Golden Island Trip and sea kayaking that is led by experts. Since the days in Kerala are sultry, you can can opt for a sunrise or sunset kayaking experience.
3. Kiss Varkala's vibrant skies
If jumping off a cliff and soaring across the ocean is your idea of the perfect flight, then you must try paragliding in Varkala. The ideal months for paragliding in Varkala are December to March end, however, depending on the wind conditions, you may also be able to do this activity in October and November. You can book the most exciting flight of your life with CanFlyAdventure.
Cost: Rs 3800 onwards
4. Visit Munroe Island
This is one of the most surreal experiences you will have near Varkala. Munroe Island is no less than an otherworldly destination, 1.5 hours away from Varkala, located at the confluence of Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada River. The boat ride will take you through narrow channels, a mangrove forest and under towering coconut trees to help you witness a unique side to Kerala, to India.
Cost: Rs 1000 onwards. Please note that this cost is for 2 people, you will be charged depending on your group size.
5. Take a boat ride in the ocean
On most beaches of Varkala, you will find boat rides that will take you far into the ocean. Skip the chatter of the crowds and boat to the middle of the ocean where you can enjoy front row seats to a dazzling sunset.
Cost: Rs 2000 for 2. Please note, the price is variable according to the group size.
6. Swim in Varkala's pristine beaches
The beaches of Varkala are ideal for a leisurely swim, yoga or a run. The Varkala Beach, although the most popular, is the most crowded beach of the town. I would recommend that you skip it and instead head to the quieter Kappil Beach (a black sand beach), Odayam Beach or Perumkulam Beach.
7. Gorge on delicious food
While in Varkala, be prepared to indulge in a fantastic culinary journey. The choices in this small town range from vegan and vegetarian to beef and sea food. On my trip, I tasted the best of local South Indian food as well as lavish continental meals. Here are my recommendations for cafes and restaurants:
• For a boozy night: Darjeeling Cafe, North Cliff
A massive dreamcatcher adorns the entrance of this cafe that is dressed in fairy lights and laced with a mood that will make you groove as soon as you are seated. The drinks here are fun and affordable, making this the best place on the North Cliff to get drunk. You can try their Surprise Drink (don’t ask, just order!) with a platter of pan-fried calamari on the side.
• For breakfast by the beach: Blue Water, Odayam Beach
A resort located by the Odayam Beach, Blue Water is a hidden treasure. I suggest that you go for a swim in the beach early in the morning and stop by Blue Water for a hearty breakfast.
• For a sundowner: Trip is Life, South Cliff
Dine at the edge of the cliff and watch a lovely sunset as you sip on their watermelon mojito and indulge in their sandwiches.
• For a soulful lunch: Soul and Surf, South Cliff
Although Soul and Surf has a limited menu, I thoroughly relished every single dish I had here. I wish that I could go back for more. If you are heading there, do try their mezze platter, Meen Pollichathu (fish wrapped in banana leaf) and prawn tacos.
• For dinners, cocktails and a vibrant menu: Abba, North Cliff
Abba has one of the most extensive menus in Varkala. Head here for the lovely ambiance and try their beef chilly, sip on a pina colada and enjoy their bakery items. If you’re going there on a particularly hot day, you must have their peach iced tea.
• For a truly local experience: Munthri Panthal, a toddy shop
Visiting a toddy shop in Kerala is an experience that you must not miss! I would suggest that you visit the shop for breakfast to taste Toddy, a fermented coconut drink, that tastes sweetest when it is fresh early in the morning. I would not recommend Munthri Panthal to vegans or vegetarians since the menu only comprises delicious fried prawns, beef and duck curry. If you are a non-vegetarian and love sea food, your taste buds are in for quite an exquisite treat!
Other places that were recommended to me by locals and friends, which I didn't have the chance to explore are Mamma Champos, Inda Cafe, Coffee Temple, Tiki Boo, and Kalyani Kitchen.
Where to Stay:
Finding stays in Varkala can be tricky, At first glance, you will be surprised to see how affordable most stays are, but upon closer inspection, you will realise that not all places offer amenities to make your stay comfortable.
A tip for female travellers: I had a horrible experience at Mint Inside Hotel, a property that might attract you for its aesthetics and surprising rating (8.9) on Booking.com. I had booked a three-night stay, however, my experience on the first night was so dreadful that I was compelled to move to another property. Whatever you do, do not book this property, especially if you are travelling solo.
I would suggest that you skip the crowded North Cliff and instead opt for a stay at South Cliff. You will notice that the resorts located here not only have the best views in town but also offer wonderful amenities.
Zostel, The Lost Hostel, Molly's.
• Affordable stays
Pura Vida, Magnolia Guest House, InDa Hotel.
• Mid range - luxury stays
Soul and Surf, The Oceano, Elixir Cliff Beach Resort and Spa.
A few travel tips for Varkala
1. Do not underestimate the Kerala sun. Varkala can get extremely hot, so try and complete all your outdoor activities during early morning or evening hours. It goes without saying, a hat, shades and sunscreen should be your best friends while in Varkala.
2. Getting around in Varkala is quite convenient. You can hire a scooty or take easily available autos to travel around the town.
3. Most restaurants and cafes that are not situated on the North Cliff do not serve alcohol. So if that's a priority for you, do call and check beforehand.
How to get to Varkala
The nearest airports to Varkala are Cochin International Airport (199km from Varkala) and Trivandrum International Airport (41 km from Varkala). You can hire a private cab, book a bus or take a train to Varkala from Cochin or Trivandrum, all type of transportation is easily available.
Behind each place that I have recommended from my trip to Varkala lies a special memory. I'll save those stories for another blog, but for now, if you visit any of these places, please do send me a picture or share your experience with me. If I missed adding something that you loved in Varkala, you know the drill -- take to the comments section and help out travellers heading to Varkala this year!
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