If you're looking for a peaceful beach experience that has yet to be completely spoiled by mass tourism, then Varkala is a little piece of heaven. I loved it; sure, it's a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the real India, but this means it's a great place to relax, get away from it all and recover from a long flight. Evidently I'm not the only person who thinks so, because Varkala is, basically, white (or, to be more accurate, salmon pink), and the only cultural experience you're likely to get is from bumping into fellow Europeans. Still, it's a great place to do it, and the locals are completely charming, and not just because that's the best way to relax their customers into spending a few more days chilling out in the restaurants, shops and guest houses that make up Varkala.
Varkala consists of a crescent-shaped beach, backed by a steep cliff, and it's along the top of this cliff that most of the action happens. There's a promenade along the precipice edge – though as you get the odd taxi or rickshaw bombing along the path, horns blaring, I suppose it doubles as a road – and behind the promenade is Varkala village (though as Varkala town is actually 2km away to the southwest, perhaps 'Varkala tourist village' is a better name). Most of the accommodation is tucked away in the backstreets behind the promenade, as the sea views have mostly been pinched by the bars and restaurants that line the cliff edge, looking over the beach below and staring west into the sunset.
For me, sitting in a cliff-top bar and sipping cold lemon sodas is one of life's great pleasures, but I'm more than happy to leave the surf to those who enjoy it. It's not a crowded beach – at least, not in the shoulder season of mid-March – but because the sea off Varkala has an evil rip-tide that can (and does) carry people off to a watery grave, you are only supposed to swim between the red flags on the beach. This concentrates the action into the centre of the beach, and has the added attraction of turning the officials who man the red flags into an entertainment all of their own. Give a man a whistle, and just like a five-year old, he can't help blowing it, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the beach is home to a mad crowd of ravers, as the constant peeping of whistles travels up the cliff on the sea breeze.
Perhaps this is because, in India, rules don't really seem to be rules, they're more like guidelines (at least, this is how it appears to those of us who are passengers in the rickshaw of Indian life, where driving on the left seems to be more of an option than an obligation). The more the officials peep their warnings, the more the people ignore them, until the level of whistling reaches such a fever pitch and the dancing of the officials gets so animated that eventually the wayward swimmers notice that yes, they mean me, and they move back inside the red flags, accompanied by a gentle but temporary lull in the whistling. And so the cycle begins again, like the bizarre ritual it is.
The most challenging part of waking up in Varkala is trying to decide what to do with the day. Perhaps an afternoon at the beach? Or maybe a morning spent wandering around the tie-dyed boutiques, looking for bargains on kaftans and slippers? Or even a day guzzling seafood in front of the dazzling Arabian Sea? Ah, the decision is difficult, but Varkala is the kind of place where time stretches out and you end up spending days doing what feels like almost nothing.
But what a pleasant place in which to do almost nothing. Whiling away the hours with a fresh mango juice in one hand and a book in the other is one of life's little luxuries, particularly as hints of India still manage to creep into the otherwise rather global atmosphere of Varkala's travelling scene. For example, it's hard not to smile at old favourites, like the wonderful use of English on restaurant menus. The best menu we found was at the Sun Rise Restaurant – a misnomer in itself, as the restaurant, like all those in Varkala, faces west and therefore can never see the sun rise – which proudly serves Chicken Merry Land, the popular pasta dish Spagathy, that favourite of the beach the Sandwitch, a choice of Fired or Plane rice, and a dish for which people will presumably be back, Lobster Termindor. And as if this isn't enticing enough, you can round off your evening meal with a cocktail or two, though I have to wonder how many people order the Salty Dog, the Bledy Merry, the Agg Nog, or the particularly fetching Gin Jizz. Happily the Sun Rise, which looks over North End Cliff and has a fine view of the beach, is actually a great spot for a feed, and the uppumavu and banana we had for breakfast – uppumavu being a kind of spicy semolina – was great. Add in the fact that you can see schools of dolphins jumping out of the distant waves while brightly painted fishing boats head south in search of the day's catch, not to mention the sight of sperm whales migrating north, their dark shadows slowly moving from left to right in the near distance, and you have a seaside spot that's hard to resist.
The day's catch is an important part of evening life in Varkala, as the sun set brings to life one of Varkala's charms – the seafood. Walking along the cliff top in the early evening is an adventure in visual fishing, as the restaurants lay out the catch of the day in an attempt to lure you in. Huge marlin and swordfish lie alongside red snapper, tuna, butterfish, pomfret and barracuda, all surrounded by king prawns – large and small – and squid. Most of the fish really is as fresh as they say, with the bright eyes and clean skin of recently netted fish, rather than the milky, sunken eyes and slimy, ammonia-tinged skin of the fish that has seen better days. You pick your fish and decide how you would like it cooked – in the tandoor with fine Keralan spices, or simply cooked in butter and garlic – and take a seat overlooking the waves, with the sun setting in the distance.
It's delightful, sipping a beer while waiting for your fish, and when it comes, it's utterly divine; the calamari we had at the Sun Rise was absolutely the best calamari I've ever tasted, cooked as it was in wonderfully light, tempura-style batter that brought out the flavour of the meat. It melted in the mouth, which is something you can't often say about calamari in England.
The freshness of the catch is plain to see as the sun goes down, as the horizon darkens to reveal strings of distant lights, flickering in and out as the fishing boats they're swinging from rise and fall with the swell. If you're lucky enough to experience a power cut while you're eating – something that is relatively common, judging by the slick way in which candles appear out of nowhere within seconds of the lights dimming and giving out – then it looks for all the world as if the stars have fallen from the sky and landed on the sea, lighting up the waves like distant, floating lanterns.
And before you know it, that's another day gone in paradise, and the next day it's another difficult choice between swimming in the warm sea, soaking up the sun on the beach, drinking lemon sodas in the cliff-top breeze, and watching dolphins and sperm whales swim through the ocean from which tonight's meal has only just been plucked. As a way to kick off a holiday in a totally relaxing and unchallenging way, Varkala hits the spot perfectly.