Kovalam is famous for its beaches, among the most pristine in India. Kovalam is extremely popular among westerners due to shallow waters and low tidal waves. It is also one of the oldest tourist enclave in India, which known among tourist circuit right in 1930s. Kovalam shot into limelight in the early seventies with arrivals of the masses of hippies. That started the transformation of a casual fishing village of Kerala into one of the most important tourist destinations in all India- the Kovalam beach.
Kovalam was brought to the public eye by Her Highness The Queen of Travancore Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bai decided to build a palace for herself at a rock top near the beach, as her private residence better known as Haylcon Castle. Later, in 1936, the next Queen, HH Karthika Thirunal choose this palace for her honeymoon with her newly wed husband, 1st Prince GV Raja. It was Prince G.V Raja who found immense tourist potentiality of the region and decided promote the region among state guests, by inviting Thomas Cook & Sons- UK to develop the region. The Maharaja of Travancore soon started hosting regular state banquets and accommodation of his European guests in Kovalam Haylcon Palace. This made the beach popular among European families living in nearby Madras and Bombay Presidencies as well as elite Travancore families to spend their holidays. Thus, the move helped to lay foundations of modern tourism industry in South India. Post independent India, the beach was popular among Indians and few tourists. It was 1970s, the hippie culture helped to revive the beach, with vast influx of tourists, spending their wild holidays here. When Kerala government thought of making tourism as a major industry, towards 1990s, Kovalam was the first tourist destination to be highlighted and promoted. Today its an intentionally renowned beach.
Kovalam has 3 major beaches in its 17 km coastline. The southernmost, known as the Lighthouse Beach is the most popular of the three. Many hotels, restaurants, lodges and shops are located here.
It is frequented by outsiders who stay and enjoy Kovalam. The Northern most crescent, (with the different names Main Beach/Leela Beach/Samudra Beach) – is crowded on weekends, is very popular with the locals, day-travelers, and passing-by tourist buses.
During the week it’s quiet. Hawa Beach inbetween is among one of the beaches in India where top-less sunbathing is tolerated and well appreciated by the locals.
The tourism department provides a vigilant life guard service on both Lighthouse and Hawa beach. Note that many tourists in Kovalam are between the ages of 40 and 60 years young. Those expecting a replica of Goa will be pleasantly surprised by the more relaxed atmosphere, a bit more laid back, the food a touch softer and lighter. Kovalam is about 16 km (20 minutes in a taxi) from Trivandrum.
Taxis can charge around 400-500 rupees to get to Kovalam. When asked where you want to go, say Hawa Beach, Leela Beach/Main Beach or Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam.
In an auto-rickshaw 150 – 170 rupees is a fair price, avoid going above 170 rupees. If in doubt ask to use the meter, but in reality they really don’t work at all. Advice being if they are trying to rip you off go to leave for another rickshaw and they will often back down and offer you a fair price, if not, get in a different rickshaw. Even if India is a cheap country, the prices for gasoline are international standard, so don’t expect super cheap private transportation.
If you go by public bus from Trivandrum-East Fort to Kovalam Beach you only pay 8 Rps. for the half hour trip. Buses to Trivandrum can also be caught from Kovalum Junction as well as Ambassador taxis and Autos to pretty much anywhere. Be very careful walking around the junction, especially at night, as there are no traffic lights and the street lighting is very minimal. The intersection can be busy.
Tourist taxis are the most convenient way to travel around attractions, especially while travelling in a group. Most airports and railway stations have tourist taxi services that would take you anywhere you would want to go. The rate should be around 15Rs per kilometer on auto rickshaw but some drivers may try to overcharge up to 100Rs for 1km. A more adventurous option is to get a bike on hire.
The highway is a pleasure to drive on, with the cool breeze and coconut palms lined along the way. Once on the highway, drive north for the plains, drive south for the hills. Avoid driving through Thiruvananthapuram city, it’s congested. The old highway, also called MC road, is also good to drive on. The MC road can take you deep into the hills. Try out the throaty Enfield 350 CC bikes for a truly vintage experience, check your fuel levels before you leave.
Two wheelers do not have to pay the highway toll, simply ride through the side lane. The beaches are the star attractions here. Kovalam has three crescent shaped beaches separated by rocky outcroppings. The larger of the beaches is called Lighthouse Beachknown for its 35 metre high lighthouse which towers over it atop Kurumkal hillock. Most of the foreigner’s stay on Lighthouse Beach, which is more developed. There are some vendors on the beach, but they are not too pushy.
It takes less than five minutes to walk from Lighthouse Beach to the second largest beach, Hawah Beach. This beach is named thus for the topless European women who used to throng there.
It was the first topless beach in India. However topless bathing is banned now. The northern part of the beach is known as Samudra Beach.
A large promontory separates this part from the southern side. Samudra Beach doesn’t have tourists thronging there or hectic business. The local fishermen ply their trade on this part.
What to do
Surfing – Some fine waves from time to time (0.5 – 2 meters). You can hire surf boards and body boards on the beach from $6USD a day. During peak season they will try and charge more unreasonable amounts but just say no. Body boarding can be enjoyed by anyone. Surfing takes a bit more skill.
It is wise to follow the life-guards’ instructions as there are some strong currents that can suddenly whisk the unwary out to sea. Wooden Boat Ride – At Kovalam’s Main Beach/Leela Beach you can go out on the ocean with a traditional Catamaran. These ancient boats are rowed with a bamboo paddle and maneuvered by experienced local fishermen.
There are 11 registered boats available. Rides last from about 15 to 120 minutes and cost between Rps. 300 to 600 p.p. .The best time for going snorkeling from the boat is in the early morning. Most romantic are the “sunset cruises”. No advance booking necessary. First come – first served.
Motor Boat Ride – In 2009 local fishermen/catamaran people added a few motor boats to their fleet, destroying the peace and serenity of the coves. They hope to make some extra money from Indian tourists, but are not aware of the impact on the environment and Western tourism.