After a pleasant bus journey from Allepey to Varkala, we climbed down from the bus and wondered where the beach was.
Varkala is a beach resort in the loosest sense of the term but the town itself is some way from the sea. Squeezing into a tuk-tuk driven by a man who assured us that he knew the way to the Hill Top Palace and would charge us 70 rupees to take us there, we puttered off in the right direction.
Half an hour later and hopelessly lost in a maze of flooded back streets, he was stopping every few metres to ask for directions and starting to make noises about why we should book into the Bamboo Palace, that conveniently appeared on the left hand side, moments after its name was first mentioned.
Nice, as I am sure that the Bamboo Palace was, we wanted the Hill Top. So unfolded a war of attrition. Tuk-tuk’s efforts to rehome us were met with our increasing intransigence. In the face of the deepening flooding and an increasing sense of disorientation, we turned again and again in the muddy, watery labyrinth of low rent Varkala.
With hindsight we should have connected the dots. The sound of the sea was not far away and we parted company with tuk-tuk, on less than harmonious terms, in a litter strewn dead end and on the losing end of a 100 rupee dispute. He had us clocked from the start. The consolation was not that Bamboo Palace was down three guests but that tuk-tuk was deprived of the kick back that accounted for his temporary geographical dementia.
Following the sound of the sea for 50m through the back gate of a perfectly manicured estate of Indian gites, we were suddenly confronted by a cliff top path with breath taking views. At the bottom of the vertical drop below us, the Indian Ocean crashed onto the rocks. The air was heavy with salty spray thrown up into a haze that hung in the air. Raffish establishments clung to the cliff top that bent around the bay in either direction. And just to our right was the mystical Hill Top Palace, clearly having just materialised for the moment like some Keralan Brigadoon.
But it was shut, as was just about everything else we tried.
After a while the situation was looking desperate and camping on the beach without the luxury of a tent was seeming more likely as time went on. And then Paranthi Cliff came to our rescue and the delightfully shaggy and permanently apologetic manager welcomed us into to his otherwise empty establishment, nestling amongst the cliff top palms. As he prepared the rooms, having not expected any custom at this time of year, he talked of his twin battles.
The first was keeping the water out. Monsoon rains and sea spray kept him at the handle of his squeeze all day long, pushing the advancing tide of water out of the foyer and corridors. The other was his tooth ache. Visibly in distress, he had only just returned from an, as yet unsuccessful, trip to the hospital to relieve his pain.
Settled in, we made for the string of bars that dotted the cliff top like a necklace - and didn’t actually leave until the taxi driver forcibly prized our fingers off the bottle, three days later.
Varkala promised rain but gave us uninterrupted sunshine, threatened one big off season closed sign and opened like a flower as we buzzed from watering hole to eatery and back again. From Café Del Mar to the Sunrise and Sunset Bars, we meandered, repeating the sybaritic routine with each passing day. The Keralan food was a revelation. A combination of delicious fish and mouth-watering vegetable dishes assaulted our senses at every seating. Seaside food in the UK is served in polystyrene and usually made of it too. Here, the colour, smell and taste of every dish enticed us into a moment of silent appreciation. With each, first mouthful we sat in silence as we savoured it, in a way that rarely happens at home.
Dolphins jumped, far out in the bay. Below us, Sea Eagles rode on the rising thermals at the cliff edge and swooped for their prey in the clear waters beyond the surf.
Looking down on the eagles, I felt a pang of Prog Rock guilt.
Our next bed was at The Hotel California.