Varkala, with its undertones of counterculture, is one of the few places in India that celebrate youth and individualism

Travelling across our country, I wished for a time when I could unwind at the end of my gruelling trip. After being on the road for a month, at last it seemed that there were endless moments at my disposal as I stood on a cliff facing the Arabian Sea in Varkala, the most famous beach town of Kerala after Kovalam.

The beach

Varkala beach is like the beaches anywhere else, but for the curved cliff that marks its edges and renders a feeling of exclusivity. The laidback feeling, so often highlighted in travel brochures, had such an effect that we unconsciously hurried through the rituals to experience it. Clothes neatly folded and set aside, iPods and eyeshades taken out of bags, a quick coating of sun tan, and here we were, ready to relax, rather like the tourists you see in the pictures in brochures.Lying beneath a rented umbrella (Rs.100) and stretching out on a rented chair (Rs.100), I looked across the vast expanse of sea that seemed to curve from all sides towards me. The blue waters ended in a white froth before encountering the spongy sand at my feet. The sun ignited the sea and it was hard to stare at the water for long. To avoid the glare, I kept dividing my attention between the book I was reading and the sea. And when I grew restless, I rushed to embrace the waves.Beach sports are not common here. However, a few enthusiasts had brought their own surf pads. A relaxed half hour spent in the warm waters melted the restlessness away. Fellow swimmers shared the camaraderie and laughter. Translucent bodies glistened in the sunlight as we came out of the water and headed for the shore.As the sun went down, the sky turned a golden orange and looked like an artist's landscape. We began cheering as the sun dipped into the sea in the distance. The fishing boats that appeared like specks on the horizon turned homewards. Picking up my things, I returned to the cliff. A few stars began to twinkle and I exchanged goodbyes with the others on the beach.

The cliff

Atop, the scene resembled a village fest. Get a tattoo done, buy beads and psychedelic jewellery, and dress in outrageous beachwear all bought from the numerous shops dotting the place. You will find everything on this small hilltop: bookshops, Tibetan charms, even the desert culture of Rajasthan enveloped in a small shop hidden behind the Tibetan market. As I made my way across to the other end of the cliff where I was staying at The Bamboo Village (shack at Rs.500 per night), I came across scores of eating joints, all facing the sea, each displaying its catch of fresh seafood, ready to be made according to order. The fishy odour overwhelmed my vegetarian nose, forcing me back to my hut. A quick shower later, I set out for a walk.Dining at the sole vegetarian restaurant on wheat puttu (wheat and coconut cake, eaten with honey, mashed banana and milk - a breakfast dish) was pleasant. A while later, I strolled past log cabins serving alcohol in teacups with Pink Floyd playing in the background. I came across a bookshop selling second-hand books, owned by a longhaired former junkie. I stopped to exchange my book of short stories by Maupassant for an autobiography of Dylan (Rs.50 for the transaction). The rest of the evening was casually spent listening to the music of the waves, leaning on the railing along the cliff and watching the people in the town square (which doubles as helipad).Varkala makes you relive Goa of bygone days. Varkala, with its undertones of counterculture, is one of the few places in India that celebrate youth and individualism.

Kollam trip

Next morning, on a rented bike (Rs.250 per day; proof of identity required), I headed for Kollam, 45 km away from Varkala. It's a great alternative to crowded Alapuzha if you want to take a trip down the backwaters. One can also catch an early morning train from Varkala station, located in Varkala town, 10 km from the cliff.At the tourism office at Kollam bus stand, I paid the fare for the `village tour of the backwaters' (four hours cost Rs.800 for a solo ride). As I sailed down the backwaters, a whole new world unfolded before me - villages with their coir-making factories, single family-occupied islands, coconut trees and concrete embankments where you have to bend down to pass through. We stopped at one tiny island to meet the sole family residing there, and to sip on coconut water. Oblivious to the passage of time, I jumped into the water to enjoy a late afternoon dip in the cool waters.

Back in Varkala

Later in the evening, back in Varkala, I stood at the edge of the cliff looking up to the sky, breathing the salty air wafting in from the sea. The people behind me - a young Australian couple, a group of Japanese students, a young Vietnamese girl, a German - seemed determined to dance the night away. I turned back to the sea, which unmindful of our existence, continued to sing its timeless song.Fact fileNearest airport: Kochi/Thiruvananthapuram.Varkala is a two-hourjourney from the capitalBus and train services:From Varkala, frequentbuses and trains run toplaces of tourist interestsuch as Kollam, Kovalam andAlleppeyAccommodation: InVarkala, the best place tostay is on the cliff. For abamboo hut experience,there are The BambooVillage and The KeralaHouse (huts can be rentedfor Rs.500 a day)Food: Varkala has severaleating joints that catering toall the tastesNITIN CHAUDHARY

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