The kettuvallams (Kerala houseboats) in the backwaters are one of the prominent tourist attractions in Kerala. More than 2000 kettuvallams ply the backwaters, 120 of them in Alappuzha.
The kettuvallams were traditionally used as grain barges, to transport the rice harvested in the fertile fields alongside the backwaters. Thatched roof covers over wooden hulls, 100 feet (30 m) in length, provided protection from the elements. At some point in time the boats were used as living quarters by the royalty. Converted to accommodate tourists, the houseboats have become floating cottages having a sleeping area, with western-style toilets, a dining area and a sit out on the deck. Most tourists spend the night on a house boat. Food is cooked on board by the accompanying staff - mostly having a flavour of Kerala. The houseboats are of various patterns and can be hired as per the size of the family or visiting group. The living-dining room is usually open on at least three sides providing a grand view of the surroundings, including other boats, throughout the day when it is on the move. It is brought to a standstill at times of taking food and at night. After sunset, the boat crew provide burning coils to drive away mosquitoes. Ketuvallams are motorised but generally proceed at a slow speed for smooth travel. All ketuvallams have a generator and most bedrooms are air-conditioned. At times, as per demand of customers, electricity is switched off and lanterns are provided to create a rural setting.
While many ketuvalloms take tourists from a particular point and bring them back to around the same point next morning there are some specific cruises mostly in the Alappuzha area, such as the one night cruise from Alappuzha to Thotapally via Punnamada Lake two nights cruise from Alappuzha to Alumkavadi, one night cruise from Alappuzha to Kidangara, and one night cruise from Alappuzha to Mankotta. There are numerous such cruises.
Beypore, located 10 km south of Kozhikode at the mouth of the Chaliyar River, is a famous fishing harbour, port and boat building centre. Beypore has a 1,500 year-tradition of boatbuilding. The skill of the local shipwrights and boat builders are widely sought after. There is a houseboat-building yard at Alumkadavu, in Ashtamudi Kayal near Kollam.
Kerala government has classified the tourist houseboats as Platinum, Gold and silver. Freshly cooked Indian food and chilled beer make the experience even more enjoyable. Those on a budget can go on one of the many half or full day backwater tourist cruises that are on offer. Alternatively, if you want to check out the backwaters very cheaply, it's possible to take one of the public boat services operated by the State Water Transport Department, such as the one between Alleppey and Kottayam. Travel time is two and a half hours, with numerous daily departures.
The cheapest option for cruising the backwaters is on the Alleppey Tourism Development Corporation ferry between Alleppey and unattractive Kollam (eight hours), which departs at 10.30 a.m. daily from each town. The cost is around $5. (Some people will be interested to know that these boats make a stop at the Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission of the Hugging Mother to drop visitors off). Travel agents and hotels also organize boat tour packages, which start from around $12 with lunch. Many include a stop at a coir village. Some day trips also leave from Cochin, such as the recommended one organized by the Tourist Desk.
The best place for hiring a tradtional thatched roof Kerala houseboat is Alleppey. You'll find hundreds of them there. From Alleppey, you'll be taken on an adventure through the various backwaters to places such as Kumarakom, Kottayam, and Alinkadavu (near Kollam). There's a wide range of destinations to choose from to suit all travel plans. Houseboats will usually slowly travel a distance of around 40-50 kilometers (25-30 miles) through the backwaters each day, so you'll get to see lots of different scenery.
You can hire a houseboat for as little as a day, or as long as a week! It's really up to you. Day trips run from around midday until 6 p.m. Most people go for overnight hire, which includes a serene sleep out in the middle of nowhere, in a lake or other similarly peaceful spot. The houseboats then return by 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. the next day. Two night houseboat hire is also popular. However, it can become boring for any length of time longer than this. 48 hours on a houseboat is definitely long enough to take in all the sights and re-charge your batteries.
The cost of houseboat hire greatly depends on the quality of the boat and the time of year. The minimum rate for overnight hire is around $80, however most people pay around $150 to hire a deluxe air conditioned houseboat for two. Rates easily go up to $250 for a luxury houseboat. Large family sized houseboats, with multiple bedrooms and living rooms, are also available for hire. Prices start from around $285 for one of these, for an overnight trip. All costs include freshly cooked food, made by an on-board cook, and drinks.
Peak season is from December to the end of January, when the weather is cooler and dry, but it's possible to hire a houseboat all year round. Some people find that the monsoon season has special appeal and choose to combine their houseboat hire with an ayurvedic treatment. March to May gets very hot and humid, so if you hire a houseboat during this time, an air conditioned one is definitely recommended.
There are so many houseboats for hire at Alleppey that it's advisable not to book in advance, apart from during the peak season. Instead head down to the jetty, inspect the boats there, and negotiate the best price. During peak season, the availability of quality boats drops dramatically, and prices get hiked. As prices aren't properly regulated, they can fluctuate widely. To get an idea of prices and what's on offer (and also to book in advance if you wish), reputable companies that have a range of houseboats for hire .