Even though northern Kerala’s history as a major spice-trade destination is well documented, it remains relatively untouched by tourism. This is largely because of the 8- hour drive it takes to get here from Kerala’s better-favored beaches and backwaters. Nevertheless, this can be a wonderful region to explore if you are looking to get far away from the tourist crowds, and have time to spare. Certainly if you’re traveling overland, from Goa or Karnataka to Kerala, it makes excellent sense to spend a day or two exploring this undervalued part of the subcontinent, particularly the Wyanad Hills, which remains one of India’s last true wilderness areas.
CALICUT & THE WYANAD RAINFOREST
Calicut is 146km (90 miles) NW of Kochi Archaeological evidence suggests that civilizations inhabited the fertile forests of the Wyanad around 3 millennia ago. Today pockets of tribal populations still practice ancient rituals and eke out a simple existence in harmony with nature, but the wonderfully temperate climate and almost permanently sodden soil has also meant that the region supports a sprawling network of coffee, cardamom, pepper, and rubber plantations, stretching over the undulating hills in every direction. Malabar trade, which is still largely focused on spices and textiles, once centered on the teeming coastal town of Calicut, the unofficial capital of the North. Today this is one of India’s cleanest cities, and incidentally where the term calico (white, unbleached cotton) originated. Vasco da Gama was first welcomed here in 1498; at the nearby village of Kappad, a commemorative plaque memorializes the spot where the Portuguese explorer is said to have landed. Now also known as Kozhikode, the city is of marginal interest to travelers, being more of a go-between point for journeys farther south or north, or inland to Kerala’s highest rainfall region, the Wyanad Hills . One of India’s last true wildernesses, the hills are home to Tranquil Resorts, wonderful homestay accommodations surrounded by a 160-hectare (400-acre) working coffee plantation (see below).
Kannur is a pretty coastal town predominantly inhabited by what is locally known as the Malabar Muslim. Unlike North India, where Islam was more often than not established through violent conquest, here it arrived initially through trade, and grew through love; Arab sailors coming to Malabar in search of precious spices married local women, establishing the Mappila (or Malabar Muslim) community, which in turn developed its own Arabi-Malayalam songs and poems and the “Mappila Pattu.” This oral record of the unique history of the broad-minded Calicut rulers stands in stark contrast, for instance, with that of the intolerant Portuguese tyrants. Tourism in this northerly region of Kerala is only recently coming into its own, which has distinct advantages if you’re looking to get away from the crowds. It also means that infrastructure remains scant. Don’t be put off, especially if you are traveling by road between Karnataka and destinations in south Kerala. If you’re looking to find a safe, practically untouched sunbathing and swimming spot, head for Muzhapilangad Beach, 15km (9 miles) south of Kannur, where you’ll probably have much of the 4km (21⁄2-mile) sandy stretch all to yourself. Closer to the city, which the Europeans called Cannanore, the Portuguese built imposing Fort St. Angelo (daily 8am–6pm; no admission fee), a monumental laterite edifice from which visitors can view the fishing harbor below. Seventy kilometers (43 miles) north of Kannur lies Bekal, Kerala’s largest fort, thought to date back to the mid–17th century, though there is no accurate account of its construction.