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Cochin (Photo:Vladimir Zhoga/Shutterstock)
3.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Sharon McDonnell
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Kochi (Cochin)

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.

About Kochi (Cochin)


Pro

History- (especially Jewish history), culture- and food-lovers will find lots to savor

Con

Tourist attractions in the historic districts require transit from the cruise terminal

Bottom Line

European-influenced city melds cultures and lacks the chaos of other Indian cities


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Port Facilities

Cruise ships dock on Willingdon Island at Samudrika Cruise Passenger Facilitation Centre terminal or at nearby Ernakulam Wharf, both on the island's northeast tip. Decorated elephants and a band have been known to greet ships. The cruise terminal has a cafeteria and restrooms; the wharf has no facilities. Willingdon is between the peninsula, where the historic district is located, and the mainland. To reach Fort Kochi or Mattancherry, located on the peninsula west of Willingdon, or Ernakulam, the new city, on the mainland east of Willingdon, take a ferry, taxi or auto-rickshaw. You can see the nearby ferry pier from where your cruise ship arrives.

A Government of India Tourist Office is on Willingdon Island, near the Vivanta by Taj Malabar -- Cochin hotel. In Fort Kochi, a Tourist Desk Information Counter, a private tour company, offers many tours. Ask for the free brochure with a map and self-guided walking tour of Fort Kochi. In Ernakulam, a tourist desk by the ferry pier (also a private tour agency) offers full-day backwaters houseboat tours.

Good to Know

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.

Getting Around

By Ferry: Ferries to Fort Kochi from Willingdon Island take about 15 minutes (Mattancherry is five minutes more; the stop is between the Dutch Palace and the synagogue) and run every 20-30 minutes, from 6 a.m. to 9:10 p.m. It's a pleasant ride and a great way to see the unusual Chinese fishing nets that are the symbol of Kochi and colonial-style houses. Ferries to Ernakulam, the new city, from Willingdon Island run every 20 minutes, and similarly from Fort Kochi.

On Foot: You can't walk to Fort Kochi, Mattancherry or Ernakulam from Willingdon Island. But, it's a delightful half-hour walk from Fort Kochi to Mattancherry, after you arrive by ferry, taxi or auto-rickshaw. Walk on Bazaar Road from the ferry stop to pass many aromatic spice shops and warehouses.

By Taxi: Taxis and auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled open-sided motorized vehicles) are at the port gate, both inside and outside. But, the ferry to Fort Kochi or Mattancherry is faster, since the bridge that connects Willingdon Island with the peninsula is much further south, and traffic is hectic. Auto-rickshaws, which fit two people, are much cheaper than taxis, and the noisy, hot open-air ride, weaving in and out of traffic, can be exciting or scary, depending on your point of view. Both taxis and auto-rickshaws generally have meters, but drivers often don't turn them on, so agreeing on a price before entering is best. Take small bills; drivers generally don't have change. You can arrange inexpensive guided tours of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry that include shopping stops with the driver; feel free to haggle. Uber is in Kochi, uses cars only (no auto-rickshaws) and drivers take cash if you change your settings, if you want to avoid haggling.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

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.

Language

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.

Food and Drink

Kerala food is very different from the rest of India. Coconut milk, seafood (shrimp, soft-shell crab, fish, spiny lobsters), rolled crepe-like pancakes called dosas and tamarind paste are popular. Signature dishes are coconut milk curries, masala dosas (long rolled crepe-like pancakes with a spicy potato-onion filling), vegetable stir fries with grated coconut and palappam, lacy thin rice flour and coconut milk pancakes.

Ginger House: Behind an antiques warehouse utterly packed with sculptures, furnishings and a snake boat used by up to 100 men in racing is a waterfront restaurant that serves South India specialties, like ginger shrimp with local spices. (Jew Town Road, Mattancherry; +91-949-5513744/+91-484-2211145/2213400; open daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.)

Cafe Crafters: Above Crafters, a huge antiques shop in an ex-spice warehouse whose goods hail from all over India, this cafe serves moderate-priced Kerala food, like shrimp and fish curries, and also Western meals like fish and chips. A balcony overlooks the street, near the Dutch Palace. (6/40 Jew Town Road, Mattancherry; +91-484-2223345; open 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.)

Rice Boat: This gourmet restaurant specializing in Kerala seafood, like giant tiger shrimp, soft-shell crab, spiny lobster and fish, is worth a splurge. Designed to resemble a traditional rice boat, with big picture windows facing the Arabian Sea, it's in the Vivanta by Taj Malabar - Cochin hotel, near the cruise terminal. (Willingdon Island; 0484-6643000; open daily, 12:30 to 3 p.m. and 7:30 to 11 p.m.)

Kashi Art Gallery: A serene oasis, a gem of a cafe with a lovely garden patio serves Western-style food, dessert and Indian-spiced burgers behind the gallery displaying lndian contemporary art. It's a casual, delightful spot to relax amid soft music, perhaps with coffee mixed with coconut milk and honey. (Burgher Street, Fort Kochi; +91-484-2215769; open 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.)

Shopping

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.