A swimsuit, a sarong and a stick. Varkala essentials. We’re in Kerala for New Years after hearing rave reports about how the beach here is stunning, and more importantly still off the grid. We’re determined to enjoy it before the package tourists seep in, with their sweaty coaches, boisterous children and plastic-wrapped lunches.
The waves here are warm, fierce and stinging with salt. After a satisfying swim, we ramble along on the North Cliff, a two kilometre stretch of restaurants with awe-inspiring views. As evening sets in, men in tight tee shirts bulging with biceps fill massive ice trays with a variety of bright-eyed, beckoning fish. The lithe Blue Marlin, with its wicked spear like snout is the star. Although the fish’s dramatic majesty is tragically diminished by a lemon stuck at the tip of his snout, presumably so it doesn’t snag passing tourists.
Marlin attacks are the least of our worries, however. As we draw closer to New Year’s Eve, the local boys get overly amorous. Not content with gaping, they begin to brush past ‘accidently.’ The last straw is when I get pinched. My gorgeous and tough, Punjabi friend finds herself a stick the size of her arm and brandishes it angrily. My other friend, a glamorous ex-model, picks up a coconut and holds it up menacingly. The boys shrink back. We go for dinner.
Over the last ten years, The North Cliff has evolved a unique style of cuisine, heavily influenced by its visitors. Strangely there is no Kerala food available – much to our disappointment. There is, however, plenty of badly-made North Indian food.
After a fruitless hunt for appams and stew on day one, we settle down at Temple Coffee for breakfast. With seven jet black puppies tumbling all over the floor, zippy Wi-Fi and powerful coffee it quickly becomes our favourite spot. Open at 6 a.m., it’s the perfect place to watch the sun go up, bouncing ferociously off the sea, while drinking cold, frothy, vanilla-scented frappes before an early swim. On the days we wake up late, we go the whole hog: Thick cut bacon between slices of soft brown butter and mustard smeared bread. Crusty toast triangles with golden jam. Crepes folded over a cloud of fluffy freshly grated coconut.
Lunch is at Café Del Mar, bursting with happily sun-burnt backpackers. The menu’s a blithe blend of cuisines, with a smattering of the inevitable Indian exotica. Decaf espressos, Soya lattes and cappuccinos, along with items like Cafe Sufi (espresso, milk, vanilla ice cream), Bombay frappes (tea, vanilla extract, milk) and ‘Lassy’ in strange flavours like pineapple, grape and green tea! Since this is also a hippy haven, there are new age power smoothies, blended with coconut and soy milk.
We try a café called Abba. Varkala must be the last place in the world where the Swedish band is still hip. Or perhaps it’s an ironic post-modernist cultural comment. Either way, we eat Israeli schnitzel served with chips, hummus and pita bread, while listening to Fernando on loop. Something in the air that night? You bet. The creepy boys are back, but The Stick takes us back to the hotel safely.
Fortunately, we bump into some friends on New Years Eve. And fortunately, they’re boys with an average height of 6 feet. They march in front and behind, firmly moving letchy mustachioed monsters out of our way. Dinner’s at Clafouti, with breathtaking view of an inky sea sprinkled with the unsteady lights of tiny boats. There are juicy momos, inexplicable fish pakodas and chewy, batter fried octopus tentacles. The highlight is a hefty red snapper, grilled whole and served with a flourish: soft, flaky and delicious.
We bring in the New Year at a crowded grungy bar optimistically titled ‘Rock N Roll’ café. The Stick accompanies us. And a good thing too. The Punjabi gets pinched this time. Before any of us can react, she turns and wallops the guy with The Stick. He runs like a rabbit, diving into the dance floor in terror. She tears after him, whacking him all along the way. All six of us sprint behind them.
As dawn breaks, we gather on the cliff and release a series of graceful sky lanterns. Goodbye bad karma. As they rise up majestically, everyone on the beach squeals with delight. From the grope-y boys to the constables. The lanterns flicker bravely, and we watch them till they disappear over the dark, restless sea. Happy New Year everyone!
PHOTO CREDIT: PC JACOB