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Cochin Cruise Port

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Cochin Overview
If you've never been to India, brace yourself. Scary does nothing to describe those first few moments when you leave the port, whether in a tuk-tuk, car or coach, and discover that things on the road are not quite as you're used to at home.

Horns parp, cars overtake -- never mind the traffic coming in the other direction -- vehicles pull out from nowhere. It's alarming if you're not used to it, but the best thing to do is relax. These drivers might seem crazy, but they know what they are doing. Mostly.

Cochin, or Kochi to use its Indian name, is one of the favourite cruise ports in India. It's in the southwest, on the Malabar coast, sitting in a natural harbour that was created by a flood in 1341. Make sure you are awake for the sail-in to watch the sun rise over the misty water and the colourful local boats make their packed way from one side of the city to another.

Cochin is believed to have had trade links with China and Arabia for 2,000 years; 500 years ago the Europeans arrived. First were the Portuguese, when Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India and set up a trading station in 1502. In 1503, Fort Cochin, the first European fort in India, was built.

The British arrived in 1635 but were forced out by the Dutch in 1663. However, they returned in 1791 and stayed until independence in 1947.

The city is divided into two halves -- Mattancherry on the south side and Fort Cochin. (You'll see an area that was within the fort, rather than battlements.) The new town of Ernakulam is to the north. There are museums, shops, restaurants and hotels in Ernakulam, but essentially, it's a most modern city. Visitors usually stick with the south side, as that is the most attractive and historic area of the city.

A few hours of exploring in Fort Cochin is time well-spent, but one of the biggest attractions of the city is that it is the gateway to the Kerala Backwaters, a drop-dead gorgeous network of canals, rivers and lakes that twist and turn for about 1,150 kilometres. It's incredibly peaceful and offers a fascinating glimpse into another part of life in India.

You can visit the backwaters alone or on an excursion -- the best cruise-line tours use houseboats for the cruising part of the trip. These boats are hand-built, thatched-roof vessels with up to four rooms and can be hired for a couple of days if you are staying in the area. One note, however: a trip to the Kerala Backwaters involves a solid (and life-risking) two-hour ride, each way, from the dock. So it's a full-day tour that precludes time to explore Fort Cochin.

It's nearly impossible to see both Fort Cochin and the Kerala Backwaters in just one day. Ultimately, the biggest downside of a visit to Cochin is choosing between the two.
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Quick Facts
Best Souvenir
Language
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Where You're Docked
Hanging Around
Getting Around
Watch Out For
Don't Miss
Been There, Done That
Lunching
Accommodations
Staying in Touch
Shore Excursions
For More Information
 
Best Souvenir
Cochin is famous for its spices -- a huge range that includes ginger, red chillies, cinnamon, turmeric and black and white pepper. You'll find little shops all along Bazaar Road in Fort Cochin that sell ready-packaged spices, but look out also for big, colourful tubs of the stuff. Just say how much you want, and they'll weigh it out and package it up.

Other top buys are carved wood, products made from coir (the fibre between the shell and outer husk of a coconut), silks and scarves. Newcastle Gallery -- your driver will know it -- has a huge selection of souvenirs on offer. Just remember to haggle. You should aim to pay about one-third of the original asking price.


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Language
The official state language is Malaylam, but English is widely understood.
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Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the Indian Rupee (Rs), which is divided into 100 paise. There are about Rs 48 to the dollar and about Rs 78 to the pound sterling. Visit www.xe.com for up-to-date currency conversions.

You'll probably use cash most of the time when shopping, but credit cards are accepted in the big outlets and also at good restaurants and hotels. There are ATM machines in the main shopping areas, but they are an expensive way to get money and might not be 100 percent reliable. It is probably wiser to bring cash. Just don't carry too much at a time.


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Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the port on Willingdon Island, a peninsula jutting out beside Mattancherry and Fort Cochin. It would be quite a short distance to Mattancherry if you could walk across the water, but alas, the road to get there is lengthy. Don't even think of walking.
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Hanging Around
There are no port facilities or amenities in the immediate area.
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Getting Around
The choice is yours: tuk-tuks or taxis. The former -- essentially tiny, three-wheeled vehicles that are powered by motorbike engines and have just enough room for a driver and two passengers -- are less expensive and more fun, but it's a shame that you have to encounter taxi drivers before you reach them.

All prices are negotiable, and what you pay depends on how good you are at haggling. As a rough estimate, you should expect to pay Rs 250 for a tuk-tuk ride into the city, with two hours waiting time before coming back. The same trip in a taxi costs about Rs 750 for a taxi.

Obviously if you want to spend longer in the city or have the driver show you around, you need to adjust the prices accordingly. Remember always to add a bit extra as a tip.
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Watch Out For
Hassle. Sadly, you will get this almost everywhere, especially as you walk out of the port to find a cab or tuk-tuk.

Vehicles seemed to be parked in a special order, which probably has a lot to do with how much the drivers tip the men in charge. The most expensive taxi drivers with the best cars are immediately outside the port gates. Walk on a little, and you'll find the older and cheaper taxis. Farther away, you'll come to the authorised tuk-tuk drivers. Finally, there are what I suspect are the wildcat tuk-tuk drivers, who don't pay any backhanders and, therefore, charge the lowest fares.

Drivers will do almost anything to get a fare. I was followed up the road by one taxi driver who drove past me several times and then turned and parked, facing me. So, inevitably, I kept walking into him, and he'd start hassling me again.

Although Cochin felt very safe, you should follow the usual rules when in a town or city. Make sure money is strapped to you and not easy prey in your pocket, don't wear expensive watches or jewellery, and don't flash large wads of cash in front of local people.

Trying some local food from a street vendor might be tempting but is probably not wise, as the cuisine will likely make you sick. Also, Americans should remember that, in India, people drive on the same side of the road as the British.


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Don't Miss
One of the best ways to see Fort Cochin is on a do-it-yourself tuk-tuk tour (or taxi if you don't feel safe in a vehicle with no sides). Don't rush it because part of the joy of being in India is to enjoy the sights and sounds of daily life, and in Cochin there is some wonderful colonial architecture. In about three hours, you'll have seen all the main sights and have time for a nice lunch.

Your stops should include the 16th-century Dutch Palace in Mattancherry, which is nothing to look at from the outside but houses some nice paintings and artwork. Other worthwhile sights are the Chinese fishing nets -- giant nets lowered into the water, left a while, then raised again, a job that requires at least five men -- and Santa Cruz Basilica. The original cathedral, built by the Portuguese, was destroyed by the British. But the new one, built in 1905 and made a basilica in 1984, is ornate and colourful.

You might also swing past Vasco House, a 16th-century dwelling believed to be where Vasco da Gama lived; St. Francis Church, where he was buried (his remains were later taken back to Portugal); the Dutch Cemetery and the Jewish Synagogue, built in 1568, which is beautifully decorated with Chinese tiles and chandeliers.

And don't forget to leave time for a bit of shopping. The spice shops on Bazaar Street are alluring, and your taxi driver will likely have a favourite emporium to take you to (in return for a cut of the profit from whatever you spent, of course).

Once you've done Fort Cochin, you could get your driver to take you to Ernakulam for the ferry ride to Bolghatty Island. The Dutch built a palace there in 1744, and it later became the seat of the British Resident. In 1976, the palace was converted into a hotel, the Bolghatty Palace Resort, operated by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation.
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Been There, Done That
Cochin is famous for its ayurveda massages -- so famous that it was at the top of the list of things to do for many of the Indian crew on my cruise. There are spas attached to the top hotels and standalone spa centres, so it's really a case of choosing one where you feel most comfortable. Prices are incredible -- as in incredibly cheap -- against the cruise ships. At the Indiana Spa at the Anchor House Hotel, a 45-minute traditional ayurveda massage will set you back Rs 700 rupees (about $14 or £9).

You could also take a harbour boat cruise, visiting the places mentioned above, or, if you're staying overnight, a sunset boat trip. Book with the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation at 0484 235 3234.

Kathakali is a dance drama that's exclusive to Kerala and combines dance and dialogue to bring Indian mythology and folklore to life. Performers wear elaborate dress, makeup that is so thick and detailed it is often mistaken for a mask, and make much use of hand gestures and facial and eye expressions.


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Lunching
If you like Indian food, lunch ashore will be a real treat. There are some fabulous restaurants with views over the water -- all attached to the city's top hotels, so you can trust the hygiene -- serving dishes that make the most of all the spices of the area. There are, of course, curries, a lot of fish and a lot of chicken.

Dining at Brunton Boatyard (00 91 484 3011568) is like taking a step back in time. The hotel is only a few years old, but its graceful colonial looks are reminiscent of Dutch and Portuguese architecture. If your cruise ship is staying overnight, dine at the History Restaurant -- the menu tells the history of Cochin with dishes divided into themes, such as naval invasion, explorers and first traders. Or try the Terrace Grill, which specialises in seafood. If you have only time for lunch, dine at the Coffee Shop, which has an Indian-cum-Italian menu with curries and pasta dishes. A curry costs Rs 700.

The restaurant at Anchor House (00 91 484 2223115) on Bazaar Road has a sublime location by the water's edge. There are salads and pastas, but your best bet is to try the local food: chicken marinated in spices and deep fried, vegetable pakoras and Kerala crab. Prices range from Rs 120 for a starter to Rs 1,250 for a seafood platter.

The Travancore Restaurant at the Trident Hotel, Willingdon Island (00 91 484 266 9595), lacks in location compared to the others but more than makes up for that with its food. It specialises in local curries (traditional Kerala vegetarian thali for Rs 525, pearl onions with roasted coconuts and Kerala spices for Rs 275) but also serves good-old fish and chips and pizza for those feeling unadventurous.


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Accommodations
There are just a few top-class hotels in Cochin. Brunton Boatyard (00 91 484 3011568) has to be the best, not only because of its gorgeous location, but also because of the food and facilities. There's a swimming pool, cycles to hire, mini-bars in the rooms, free tea and coffee-making facilities and an ayurveda centre. The hotel also has its own boat and offers sunset harbour cruises.

The Anchor House is off busy Bazaar Street and is a little less lavish but has a lovely old colonial feel. It has a spa and health club, a business centre and offers sunset harbour cruises.

The Taj Malabar (00 91 484 664 3000) and Trident are both on Willingdon Island. Taj is more upmarket; Trident has a more old-world colonial elegance feel. The Taj has a spa, Trident an Ayurveda centre. Both have Wi-Fi. The Taj has speed-boat rides around the harbour.


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Staying in Touch
There are Internet cafes all around Fort Cochin. Expect to pay around Rs 30 per hour.
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Shore Excursions
The top things to do in Cochin are to explore Fort Cochin and cruise the Kerala Backwaters, so most excursions are a variation on a theme -- Fort Cochin with a boat trip or Fort Cochin with a Kathakali dance show. Average excursion times are about four hours.

Best for a Bit of Fun: If you fancy a ride in a tuk-tuk but can't bear the thought of all the hassle and haggling, this is the answer: Fort Cochin by Tuk-Tuk as organised by the ship. It'll be a bit of a whirlwind tour and cost more than five times the price of doing it by yourself, but it's the safe option, and there will be guides along the way to make sure all is OK.

Best for Discovering Cochin: Dust off your walking shoes, and set off with a guide to discover all there is in Fort Cochin. There will be quite a lot of walking, but you'll see everything, including St. Francis Church, the Santa Cruz Basilica, the Chinese fishing nets, the Dutch cemetery and the Vasco House.

Best for Entertainment: This excursion combines sightseeing in Cochin with a Kathakali show. The sightseeing might be by coach or boat and will just be a brief glimpse of the town -- most probably the Chinese nets and St. Francis Church -- because the show is the highlight. The costumes, wigs and masks are bright and flamboyant, the dance performance very dramatic. Look out for those eyes.

Best for Peace and Quiet: An excursion to the Kerala Backwaters has to be the highlight of any cruise to Cochin. After a 90-minute drive along roads teeming with cars, bicycles and people -- all apparently with a death-wish -- you'll arrive at Alleppy, board your boat and enter the sublime world of the backwaters. The cruise takes about two hours. Along the way, look out for the water buses that transport people around the area, local people doing their washing, houseboats and maybe even a wedding if you are lucky.


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For More Information
On the web:www.cochintravelguide.com is a good basic resource. There's more information at www.cochin.org and on the India tourist board Web site at www.incredibleindia.org. www.keralahouseboat.org has information about the backwaters and houseboats.
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--by Jane Archer, Cruise Critic U.K.-based contributor
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