Liz Cleere packed in the rat race in 2008 and has since been travelling the world. After 18 months living in India she knows her stuff... Here are her top ten things to do in Kerala's colourful city
Kochi (or Cochin as most of the locals prefer to call it) is a series of peninsulas, islands, and promontories caught between the lakes and rivers of its inland waterways and the Arabian Sea. Each district has a distinct personality, from the old colonial trading post of Fort Cochin, and concrete city towers of commercial Ernakulam, to the sandy beaches of Vypeen Island. Lace up your walking boots and jump on the ferry for a flavour of Kerala's biggest city.
Packed with old European buildings and pickled charm, Fort Cochin is an area familiar with travellers, and a gentle way of easing yourself into the sometimes medieval comforts of India. Strolling through the flower-bordered lanes around the parade ground – where there is almost always a game of cricket in progress – you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Sussex, if it weren't for the tropical heat. Take your shoes off and enjoy some cool tranquillity among the simple white-washed walls, smooth flagstone floor and elegant woodwork of the 16th century St Francis Church.
For a glimpse into the daily grind, head due east from Fort Cochin and follow the waterfront towards the customs jetty, then down congested Bazaar Road. Buildings line the road on either side, so you won't see the waterway unless you drop into one of the hotels along the river front. Head for the family-run Hotel Fort House, for a cup of thirst-busting ginger tea.
Keep walking and Mattancherry seamlessly turns into 'Jew Town'. This is not meant as a derogative term, but is the real name of the district. Jewish settlers – along with their Chinese, European and African counterparts – left their mark on Cochin over hundreds of years of trading. The 16th century Pardesi Synagogue, the first in India, is worth fighting through the 'antique' shops to visit.
With all this water, Kochi has put in place an excellent ferry system that runs between its districts. You'll be in good company as you stand among the auto-rickshaws on the 2 rupee car ferry to Vypeen Island, or squash together in the separate male and female compartments on the people carrier that runs parallel to it. Ferries are cheap and reliable (unless there is a strike, which happens surprisingly often) and can be a bit of an adventure as you are herded along by the colourful and inquisitive crowd.
For a break from the relentless manicured tourism of Fort Cochin, put on your walking boots and hop on a ferry to Ernakalum's main jetty. Kerala's commercial hub doesn't have biscuit-tin photo opportunities, but it's an energetic city, where Kerala's well-educated inhabitants (there is 93% literacy here, the highest in India) love having their photos taken. The narrow lanes of the market area are an excellent way to meet the locals.
Leave the ferry and head north along Park Avenue, walking straight ahead to Broadway; here's where the fun begins. Ignoring the money changers (who are there to catch unsuspecting tourists straight off the ferry), walk ahead into the narrow lanes that honeycomb Ernakulam's market area. There are no touts, and you won't be hassled to buy a carpet or 'antique', but there are great little shops selling copperware, Indian sweets, religious paraphernalia and all kinds of knick knacks.
The fella coming up and asking your name simply wants to welcome you to Kerala and talk to a foreigner, especially an English speaker.
There are plenty of tourist restaurants in the chi-chi streets of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, some listed in the guide books, all expensive (by Kochi standards) and most serving up pretty good food.
For something different, pick a fish from the Chinese nets and to have it cooked in front of you. Or for a flavour of authentic local food, at a local price, go to Ernakulam.
Head north and turn right onto Banerji Road where you can pop into the Hotel Saravana Bhavan for the best vegetable thali in the whole of Kochi. For less than £1 they'll serve your meal on an ela (Malayalam for banana leaf) and keep re-filling it until you burst. There's an A/C section for posh people who like a bit of space... and cutlery.
Hotel Saravana Bhavan, Banerji Road, Ernakulam Bazaar, Near Sritha Theatre, Kochi, Kerala 682031, India; +91 484 237 0153
Vypeen is a long thin island which trails the coast from Kochi northwards. It is laced with waterways and lakes, groves of palm trees and colourful houses. The scenic bus ride to Cherai beach would be an engaging way of seeing a little further beyond Kochi if the drivers didn't feel it their duty to get you there faster than the speed of sound.
Visit during the week when it is less likely to be rammed with tourists, or take an auto-rickshaw for the day and slowly make your way to much less crowded Kuzhippily beach. The Kuzhippily Beach House has a restaurant worthy of a Michelin star, which they might open to non-residents if you're lucky. Better still, stay for a few days (try to secure the front upstairs room, overlooking the sea).
And the spices. Keralans will tell you they have the best food in India and it is difficult to argue with them. Kochi is an important fishing port, so if fish is on the menu always make it your first choice. Also, the local 'red' rice is fatter and fluffier than its northern counterpart, and really worth a try. The fruit is bountiful (go in April for juicy mangoes). There are yellow, orange, green and red bananas, from sweet finger-sized varieties to bitter plantains as big as a cucumber. Buy a pineapple from a roadside cart for 10 rupees.
Fish curry is the speciality, and meen moilee just about sums up Keralan food: seerfish stakes from the ocean, cooked in coconut milk, green chillies, and curry leaves. Karimeen, a speckled fat fish caught in the backwaters, is a huge delicacy and utterly delicious too.
Although India is justifiably famous for its tea, the Malabar coast is world famous for coffee. You won't find it in any restaurants because the Indians take their coffee weak and prefer to export this Western Ghat grown variety to the world's coffee enthusiasts. If you're prepared to hunt for them you can find the beans in Ernakulam, just follow these simple directions to Leela Coffee.
Starting from Ernakulam boat jetty turn right onto Park Avenue, then left onto Durbar Hall Road. Cross MG Road and keep walking until you hit Chittoor Road. From here head south to the Ernakulam South bus junction. Now slow down and keep your nose on sniff alert while you walk on the left (east) side of the road. Somewhere before Valanjambalam bus Junction is a single storey shop close to the Kerala Book House. You will smell the thick, chocolaty scent of delicious roasted coffee before you see it. Inside a dark cave-like shop is a large wooden counter, and behind it, taking up all the rest of the room, looms an enormous coffee grinder. Either buy the beans or have them ground to a fine powder. Vacuum packed bags are 240 INR for a kilo. However many bags you buy will not be enough.
Leela coffee, Chittoor road, Valanjambalam; District Tel: 0484 2375706
Fort Cochin and Mattancherry have lots of pretty boutiques (Fabindia, the national chain, is one of the best) and antique shops to which your auto-rickshaw driver will inevitably take you. There are plenty of roadside vendors here too, their carts stuffed with jewellery, peacock feather fans and assorted toys. Like everywhere else in India, there is a fella selling postcards and maps printed in startling colours. During the early evening promenade by the side of Fort Cochin's scrubby beach, there's a man who sells wooden painted flowers, as well as lots of boys trying to offload flutes, candyfloss and balloons.
Apart from the coffee, one of the best buys here is fabric. Visit Seemati or Chennai Silks on MG road in Ernakulam for floor to ceiling bales of silks and cottons in every colour and shade you can imagine. The prices are one tenth of the UK, so if you know a little about textiles this is a dream place.
Beloved by all photographers, Kerala's elephant temple festivals are world renowned. Thrissur has the Granddaddy of them all in April/May, when they celebrate Pooram. Not a time to visit for the faint-hearted – you will need stamina, sunblock, and feel comfortable in sweaty crowds of excitable worshippers. It's a short hop from Kochi.
But Thrissur is an interesting day trip for anyone staying in Kochi at any time of the year. It's a pleasant introduction to Keralan town life; not too busy, dusty or crowded, and small enough to walk round in a day. Start by taking the train from Ernakulam Junction (any visit to India is not complete without a train journey), which lasts around one and half hours and costs a mere 28 INR for a one-way ticket.
Liz quit the fashion world in 2006, trading designer frocks for T shirts, to live on her yacht with partner, Jamie. 10,500 miles and four years later they arrived in Cochin. They plan to move on, but sailing plans are set in jelly, so it might be a while yet... Find out more about her journeys here: www.lizcleere.com