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Published: November 17th 2009
Sunset on Varkala beachSaturday 14 to Wednesday 18 November
Returning from a swim as the sun went down
It rained almost non-stop during our 3½ hour journey from Kanyakumari, but it eased shortly before we reached Varkala. Little did we know that this was merely a lull before the storm!
Having struggled to find a way by road into the Varkala Marine Palace
and eventually coming to a halt at the foot of a steep incline by their tradesmen’s entrance, we were met by the owner, Bhasker, and shown to our room, one of three traditional Keralan style apartments on the first floor of a recently-built block among the coconut palms. It’s a large room, wood-lined from floor to ceiling, and, as well as the usual shower and wc, it comes with a TV, a kitchenette and a sea-facing verandah with table, two wicker chairs, a wicker seat suspended from the verandah roof, and a huge hammock too. It's not air-conditioned but there are fans and the windows at front and back all open to allow a through sea-breeze. Perhaps it’s not quite as new and smart as the website would suggest but it’s comfortable, full of character, and only a few dozen paces from the beach, bar and restaurant. This is the
only hotel in Varkala that's right on the beach, all the others being up on the high, red cliffs that rise to the north and south of it.
While we had a late lunch of prawn biriyani and a mixed lentil dhal washed down with a cold Kingfisher, it started to rain, gradually increasing in strength to an incessant downpour. As I sat down later to start preparing this blog in our room, cooled by two floor-standing fans and a ceiling one whirring madly like a helicopter, it had been raining heavily for over four hours non-stop. An hour later, there was a power cut - a frequent occurrence in these parts - and I ended up using my laptop by candlelight!
It’s a dream to sit beneath a thatched roof and twinkling coloured lights, sipping a cold beer to the sound of the waves lapping against a beach just feet away, while waiting for a dinner of grilled barracuda with a spicy masala. It’s a nightmare, however, when the sea’s pounding ferociously against the sand and wind-driven rain’s soaking the floor beneath your feet! We did enjoy the barracuda, however!
The storm continued long into the
night but, by Sunday morning, it seemed to have blown itself out and the day started dry and overcast but bright. Apart from minor damage to the roof of our building caused by falling coconuts and a few leftover puddles, all was more or less as it should be. We even had some sunshine during breakfast and our subsequent walk along the beach. It was positively warm when we climbed the steps up the side of the north cliff and the sweat poured off us as we wandered along the path past countless little backpacker-oriented hotels and shops selling everything from wooden elephants to Kashmiri carpets, and the usual baubles, bangles and bright shiny beads. There are all manner of restaurants up here too; we stopped for a sit down, a banana milkshake and a nearly authentic cappuccino at an Italian one.
It was near here that we unexpectedly met the German woman we’d last encountered at our homestay in Munnar a week ago. Actually, the chances here of bumping into someone you know are probably quite high. Varkala is a small resort and, although there are one or two largeish hotels, most accommodation seems to be in places
The path along the top of the north cliff
Bars, shops and restaurants to suit every nationality
with a handful of rooms. Some of these are simple bamboo huts charging less than a tenner a night, popular with Europeans wearing rucksacks front and back or dreadlocks and hippy-style baggy clothes bought for a few hundred rupees in local shops. Bob Marley is alive and well in the bars here too!
After lunch back at the Marine Palace, we took another walk on the beach, this time towards the short section next to our hotel and beneath the south cliff. This part of the beach is considered auspicious and Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the sea and conduct small rituals here. Fish eagles and kites swooped overhead, mobbed from time to time by crows that squawk from their perches among the coconut palms throughout the day, and a paraglider rode the thermals along the north cliff before disappearing around the headland.
As grey clouds filled the sky, we escaped the humidity beneath the fans in our room for the rest of the afternoon then, just as we were about to leave for an early dinner, the skies opened. We got soaked just running down the stairs and through the garden to the restaurant. There, we
enjoyed sweet & sour prawns, egg fried rice and a prawn biriyani while watching sheets of lightning on the horizon from under an umbrella that prevented driving rain from adding to our discomfort.
In contrast, Monday and Tuesday turned out to be wonderful, sunny days. We strolled along the sands, swam in the Arabian Sea, took long lunches at the hotel and in the Café del Mar up on the north cliff - complete with Spanish flamenco music, Olé! - and just did lots of nothing, as you do in any seaside resort when the sun shines. After a glorious sunset, we tried another restaurant down by the beach last night - the tiger prawns were really good but there was no atmosphere and the service was indifferent. So, dinner tonight (Tuesday) - butter fish marinated in mint and yoghurt then cooked kebab-style in the tandoor and served with good old-fashioned chips - was taken at our hotel, in the tree house near the top of the coconut palms high above the beach.
This afternoon, up on the north cliff, we'd been in need of a cold beer - and it was here that we experienced "special tea"
The lifeguards blow whistles and have a life-saving ring thing to throw to anyone seen drowning
for the first time. You see, an alcohol licence is expensive, but beer is still served in unlicensed places - with an ever-watchful eye for passing policemen. It comes to your table either in a teapot or with the bottle wrapped in newspaper and is poured into tea cups or coffee mugs. On the bill, it's identified as "pop"!
And so ends this chapter of our holiday. Despite a very damp start, we've enjoyed our few days of relaxation in Varkala. Tomorrow, we're off to Kollam to pick up a rice barge for a cruise through the backwaters and even more relaxation. We'll be positively horizontal by the time we get back to Mumbai at the end of the week!
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