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Spice world of India! The hills of North Kerala

we were sleeping 40ft off the ground, atop red flame trees, in a magical treehouse reached by a gangway. It had stupendous views over coffee plantations and a tree growing through our bedroom. At night, fireflies sparkled like fairy dust and we nodded off to the sound of cicadas. “Beware! With the coffee ripening, monkeys are on the prowl,” read a bedside notice. “Don’t be alarmed if you hear strange noises on your roof.”

Next morning, 25 monkeys played on our arboreal terrace, swinging off its gnarled coffee-branch balustrade. They switched our outside lights on and off, peered greedily through the windows at our possessions, and one licked our window before wiping it with his paw. I’d happily be reincarnated as a monkey if it meant living here.

My two daughters (aged 11 and 13) and I were being driven around northern Kerala, India – a place only now opening itself to tourists. Instead of flying direct to Kerala, we started in Bengalooru (previously Bangalore) and drove south slowly, the better to savour the contrasts. India is a difficult place to travel. I’d been 10 times before, and wanted to do it very differently this time. Travelling alone with children, I didn’t want a holiday of missed train connections and pitching up in places that, despite research, turned out to be horrible. Pre-booking a trip with an excellent driver meant everything ran as smoothly as ghee, and allowed us to see things we’d have missed from trains.

Kerala’s scenery is the lush, verdant stuff of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, with plentiful food (paddy fields, spice plantations, coconut groves) and rain. It’s also relatively wealthy, with many Keralans working in the Persian Gulf. I hadn’t been here for 30 years – and then not to the north, which “feels like a region apart” according to the Rough Guide.

The north is dominated by the Western Ghats (and boasts mostly tea and coffee plantations), and is much hillier than the south (where they grow spices, rubber and bananas). It’s also less densely populated and developed, primarily due to lack of infrastructure. There are no trains through the hills, just long journeys on winding roads. For 20 years, the south has been swamped by tourist groups heading to the backwaters (just one hour from Kochi, formerly Cochin) and then to Kovalam’s beachside properties. By contrast, there are no group tours to north Kerala, which offers untouched beaches, better wildlife parks, more authentic accommodation – and is now developing nature, wilderness, eco, spice, jungle and beach tourism.

On our first day in Kerala, we broke for lunch in nondescript Kannur, waiting gormlessly to be seated among throngs of lunghi-clad men eating with their right hands in sauna-heat underneath clacking fans. People spoke only Malayalam, the palindrome language of Kerala. Eventually we twigged the system. Would-be diners bought meal tickets then crowded around anyone close to finishing, pouncing on the seats in a version of musical chairs. Soon we were eating delicious coconut curries from stainless steel thalis, 45 rupees (around 60p) for three of us.

After passing turmeric-, indigo- and lime-coloured villages, piles of finger-sized bananas, geriatric Ambassador cars and sickle-and-scythe posters of the still-influential communist party (north Kerala is the India of yesteryear), we reached the Kasaragod district: a land new to tourism. We arrived at the fishermen’s-style thatched cottages of the Ayurvedic hotel and retreat, Neeleshwar Hermitage, to the thunderous applause of a tropical storm. “You bring us luck,” said a local, welcoming us with kumkum-powder bhindis and jasmine garlands. “The gods and the monsoon have come with you.”

Built following the architectural principles of Keralan vastu, a kind of Hindu feng shui, it’s a place of palm-fringed peace set on miles of “undiscovered” beach. This is a location for sublime Ayurvedic treatments (whose efficacy is allegedly enhanced during monsoon season), even the names of which soothe the spirits: sajooyasandwanaswasthasradha.

We were asked to be sensitive to traditional customs by wearing tops and long sarongs on the beach. “Your good name, madam? Which grade are your children?” six boys independently enquired of us on the beach, before whipping out mobile phones. “Your photo, please.” Neeleshwar’s sand is pristine, thanks to two full-time beachcombers, though venture further afield and you’ll face the plastic detritus that the tide brings in.

With few nearby attractions, we spent the next two days relaxing, practising yoga and eating fresh fish in the beachside restaurant, and lying in hammocks or swimming in the infinity pool, the nearby waves lapping gently.

Our next stop was Tellicherry, a former colonial trading port. The three-hour drive took us past waterways of kettuvallam (traditional rowing barges), and extraordinary trees seemingly sprouting loofahs and cotton-wool buds, on to dusty roads where stallholders touted palm-sugar juice while myna birds, vultures, kites and bee-eaters circled. Six khaki-clad officers stood by a rickshaw driver, pouring his brandy on to the road. “The first day of every month is dry,” explained our driver, Pramod. “You can be put in jail for selling alcohol.”We were staying in Ayesha Manzil homestay with its owners: Mr CP Moosa (he likes to be called “Moosa”) and his wife, Faiza. Author and Indophile William Dalrymple maintains that Faiza, a cookery teacher, makes the best food in Kerala. Moosa, a descendant of gold traders, is a Moppila Muslim – one of India’s oldest Muslim communities – and theirs is a cuisine of the Malabar coast fused with that of their Arab forefathers.

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