A fascinating amalgam of Portuguese, Dutch, Jewish, Chinese and British cultures, Kochi (aka Cochin) was Portugal's first settlement in India after Vasco da Gama's discovery of India in 1498. A major port in the spice trade for centuries, it has India's oldest synagogue, oldest European-built church, Chinese-style fishing nets, colonial Portuguese and Dutch buildings, distinctive dance forms and a big Christian minority, including Syrian Christians (St. Thomas Christians) who believe their Hindu ancestors were converted by St. Thomas in the first century. Called the "Queen of the Arabian Sea," Kochi traded with Arabs, Romans, Jews and Phoenicians over 2,000 years ago. Portugal built a fort in the early 1500s, the Dutch conquered it in 1663, the British took over and ruled from 1791 to 1947.
Cochin is the second-biggest city in Kerala, a tropical state on India's southwest coast filled with coconut palms and backwaters, a tangle of lagoons, canals and lakes that can be traveled by houseboat past tiny villages and traditional ways of life. Kochi's tourist attractions are concentrated in the historic districts of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry on the peninsula, reached by ferry or motor vehicle from Willingdon Island, where cruise ships arrive. But, the excellent Kerala Folklore Museum is in the modern city, Ernakulam, on the mainland east of Willingdon Island. Fort Kochi is calm and sleepy, Mattancherry is more touristed and Ernakulam is hectic and crowded.
With the highest literacy rate in India (over 95 percent) and a strong emphasis on education with many schools, Kerala is considered one of India's most progressive states. One of the world's first freely elected Communist government was here in 1957.
South Indian food differs greatly from that at most U.S. Indian restaurants and resembles Southeast Asian food in its love of coconut milk and spices. There are many good restaurants, from fine dining to casual eateries. Some are in a few of India's top heritage hotels, inside colonial-style buildings crammed with Indian art and handicrafts.
A visa is required to visit India. Make sure your passport has four blank pages, though instructions say two blank pages are needed. Immigration clearance upon ship arrival is very thorough.
The swastikas you see in India are ancient religious symbols in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions; the word is derived from Sanskrit. They face right or left, but aren't tilted, as in the Nazi appropriation of the symbol.
The rupee is the form of currency in India. Paper money is in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 2,000. Torn, dirty or written-on paper money is rarely accepted. Take smaller bills, as merchants and drivers often don't have change. In Fort Kochi, a South India Bank ATM is a few blocks from the Chinese fishing nets, and two ATMs at Federal Bank and ICICI, plus UAE Exchange, are a few blocks further on Amravathi Road. Credit cards are accepted at bigger shops, restaurants and hotels. For current currency conversion rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Bargaining is expected, but the more upscale the shop, the less likely you are to succeed. Release your inner haggler.
English is widely spoken, since India is a former British colony. The official language of Kerala is Malayalam, which is nothing like Hindi and uses a different script.
From sandalwood and rosewood carvings, antiques, spices, coconut fiber items, clothing to inlaid boxes, there's lots to buy. Many Indian antiques and handicrafts shops are in Mattancherry. Heritage Arts (Jew Town Road, Mattancherry; +91-484-4059898; open daily, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.) is the most spectacular: a snake boat in front, tons of inlaid marble and wooden furnishings, carved tiled ceilings, majestic columns and, a bonus, Ginger House restaurant in back. The biggest selection is at Crafters (6/141 Jew Town Road, Mattancherry; +91-484-2223345/2223346; open daily, 9:15 a.m. to 6 p.m.); besides its main store in a 20,000-square-foot ex-spice warehouse, it has other shops.
For stylish contemporary clothing by top Indian designers in a hip white gallery-like space, check out Cinnamon (1/658 Ridsdale Road, Parade Grounds, Fort Kochi; +91-484-2217124; open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.). To buy cinnamon and other spices like black pepper, cloves and cardamom, walk Bazaar Road, a 1-mile narrow street that connects Mattancherry with Fort Kochi, whose small shops are cheaper than in Mattancherry. Fabindia (1/279 Napier Street, near Parade Grounds, Fort Kochi; +91-484-2217077/6456682; open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.) is a high-quality Indian chain whose clothing (from cotton tunics to silk saris), bed/table linens and housewares are handmade by thousands of rural artisans.
For saris, Kasavukada (Church Landing Road, Ernakulam; +91-484-2372395/2353993; open daily, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.) in the new city sells handwoven Kerala kasavu sarees, which are cream-colored cotton with gold borders (traditionally pure gold, but today gold-plated silk thread). Across the street, Ramachandran Handloom (Church Landing Road, Ernakulam; +91-484-2409739; open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.) sells a variety of screen-printed saris at lower prices, plus kasavu saris. In Ernakulam, the main commercial street, Mahatma Gandhi Road (M.G. Road) sells everything from clothing, spices to souvenirs, as does Broadway, full of narrow lanes despite its name.