Kerala - they don't call it 'God's Own Country' for nothing. It is one of the most popular travel destinations in India. The pure beauty of green nature, rivers, beautiful beaches, wonderful backwaters, fascinating hill stations and Ayurvedic tourism will calm all your senses as well as your body, soul and mind.

Travelling through India is not complete until you've visited the state of Kerala, located in the South West on the Malabar Coast. One of the thirteen paradises on Earth, according to the National Geographic Traveler, is truly worth visiting. Not only because of stunning nature, serene beaches, unforgettable sunsets, magical festivals and exotic cuisine, but also because Kerala is India's cleanest state and winter there actually means only a slight drop in temperature from the normal range of 28-32°C. This year described as a 'true heaven for travellers', Kerala has been pegged also as a 'Destination to see' in 2017 by the ABTA, UK's largest leading association of travel agents and tour operators.

Here are 10 top reasons why you should visit "God's Own Country" as selected by Zen Zone to help us discover the land of coconuts. Right after landing in Cochin, we were already left speechless by the mesmerizing surroundings and the world's first airport that is powered entirely by the energy of the sun. And so our journey began... 

1. Munnar, the mountains of tea
Breathtakingly beautiful - a haven of peace and tranquility. 1,600 meters above sea level, this hill station was once the summer resort of the erstwhile British Government in South India. Sprawling tea plantations, picture-book towns, winding lanes and holiday facilities make this a popular resort town. Among the exotic flora found in the forests and grasslands here one finds Neelakurinji - a flower that paints the hills blue once in every twelve years, will bloom next in 2018, so you now have a pretty good reason to visit the place next year. On the way there you should also stop by the waterfalls of Valara and Cheeyappara. Also, better not miss one of the main tourist attractions, famous for its endangered inhabitat, the Nilgiri Tahr -  the Eravikulam National Park. Love tea? Take a look inside Tea museum - you will leave full of impressions of the distant past of this tea planting district.

2. Tropical beaches
Alappuzha, Bekal, Chavakkad, Kovalam, Varkala, Chowara, Nattika and many more exotic beach locations. Beaches in the Kerala are spread along the 550 kilometers long Arabian Sea coastline. Some of them remain relatively deserted, yet, in case you are not looking to relax, you'll find plenty of things going on at others. At some of them you can stand right on top of a cliff, overlooking the ocean, or enjoy yourself surrounded by coconut groves and lotus ponds. The best, perfectly clean, so-called golden beach of Kerala is Cherai Beach, rightly dubbed " The Princess of the Queen of the Arabian sea". And yes, curious dolphins occasionally drop by.

3. Traditional Kerala's cousine
Kerala is every food-lover's paradise. We felt confident that this journey would be a magical one but we weren't really aware that it would also turn out to be an exquisite gastronomical delight. "Kerala takes pride in its wide variety of non-vegetarian food. We've got chicken, mutton, beef, pork and a thrilling variety of seafood - mussels, crab, tiger prawns, king prawns, tiny prawns, oysters, sardines, mackerel, tuna and also red lobsters. Our couisine is characterized by the use of coconut, either chopped or grated and used as garnishing, coconut milk or paste is used to thicken gravies and coconut oil is used for cooking," explained chef Tibin Thomas from Fragrant Nature Munnar. 

Though one can't imagine Kerala food without chilies, curry leaf, mustard seed, tamarind and asafetida. "Also Kerala fish delicacies have earned a name for themselves among travellers worldwide. Karimeen Varathadhu (Pearl spot fish fry) is a popular dish here and the Karimeen /Pearl spot fish is found in backwaters of Kerala like Kumarakom, Alaapuzha (Alleppey) and is traditionally served on banana leaf in house boat for lunch," said Ajith Narayanan from Fragrant Nature Kollam.

4. Backwaters and houseboats
Cruising the backwaters of Kerala spells houseboat heaven. This is one of the most serene, beautiful and peaceful things we have been lucky enough to experience and a true highlight of our time spent in Kerala. The Kerala backwaters is a system of canals stretching 900 kilometers across Kerala incorporating rivers, lakes and lagoons, all lined by palm tress of a thousand shades of green, paddy fields and colorful houses and a way of life that seems romantically unchanged for centuries. House boating there can be the most relaxing experience for any age - you can go on a lazy day trip and if you need to, you can take a nap in one of the bedrooms. While enjoying the lifestyle of the villagers, you will also enjoy tasting the south Indian Kerala meals, served on a boat, of course. 

5. Spice Gardens of India
Pepper, cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and countless others await, so don't forget to leave enough room in your travel bag for some spices to take home with you. Kerala is famous for its fertile soil that enables fantastic spices and herbs to grow all year round. The volume of spice trade from Kerala stands at a remarkable 500,000 tons prized at nearly $1500 million per year. Zen Zone driver took us to Periyar Spice and Ayurvedic Garden in Thekkady, which is known as the spice belt of India. A guide gave us a brief explanation about the history and importance of spices and herbs on our walk through the plantation, which improved our culinary skills - on top of that, we've learned that all these rich spices are not only aromatic in nature, used in everyday cooking, but also used for medicinal purposes.

6. Home of Ayurveda
Kerala "Home of Ayurveda", present number of ashrams and rejuvenation or relaxation therapies to tourists. A week at Somatheeram Ayurvedic Resort, which the state government named "Best Ayurvedic Centre" for the tenth time in a row due to the quality of its service, gave us everything we could possibly desire - morning treatments, yoga, meditation and healthy food to rejuvenate our body, soul and mind. Ayurveda, the science of life and longevity, is the oldest healthcare system in the world and it combines the profound thoughts of medicine and philosophy. It's located just 30 minutes or 21 kilometres away from Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) International Airport. The resort itself is situated right by the sea – far away from mass tourism, in the peaceful neighbourhood of the village of Chowara. "You spend your stay in the heart of nature, amidst palms, mango trees and other tropical vegetation. Over 200 different Ayurvedic herbs, some of them rare, thrive in the garden," explained Somatheeram managing director, Baby Mathew. Here early risers have the opportunity to witness Indian culture at first hand – for instance, by accompanying fishermen from the neighbouring village as they haul in their nets.

Somatheeram has also been presented with other quality-confirming awards, including the Green Leaf Certificate from the state tourist association.

7. Wild Life Sanctuaries
The national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of Kerala like Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, Eravikulam National Park, Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, Periyar National Park, and Silent Valley will without a doubt make your travels extra exciting. Nature has really blessed Kerala, it's paradise everywhere you look, and perhaps you will be lucky enough to spot some of the finest creatures of Kerala's incredible wildlife. Try Periyar for tigers and leopards, or go to Wayanad, which is one of the best places to spot elephants in the wild. Once you witness something as grand and awe-inspiring as that, you feel like your life is complete.

8. Art, culture and festivals
Don't leave Kerala without going to a Kathakali show. This is a traditional local dance, so be prepared - you will be absolutely amazed  by the elaborate and colourful make up, costumes and incredible facial expressions that accompany the spiritual music. The state is vibrant during festive seasons and the festivals are always grand in nature. Most of them are based on myths, beliefs and temples. Otherwise, Kerala in its entirety is heaven for all who appreciate dance, drama and music.

9. A land of genuine smiles
Here we were treated with the warm hospitality and friendly, genuine smiles of the people of Kerala, who still reflect their ancient history of welcoming travelers and traders from all over the world with kindness. Many of the wonderful, vibrant and oh so charming people even wish to take their photo with you, a tourist, and it makes you feel as if you were a celebrity! Kerala is one of India's most progressive states in terms of social welfare and quality of life. The State boasts one of India's highest literacy rates, the highest life expectancy and the lowest child mortality rates. The Keralan people are truly famed for their hospitality - ask anyone, anywhere.

10. Stunning nature and colors
As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote: not all who wander are lost! Every place in Kerala feels like a new experience. You will visit places that you had no idea even existed. No other place in India can make you feel as connected to nature as Kerala can. You might be skeptical about this 'flowery language', but the sunsets of Kerala are truly remarkable. Each one is different. The nature and its raw beauty beckons people to come back, over and over again.

As they say, Kerala will leave you speechless and then it will, without you even being aware of it, turn you into a storyteller.

Jan. 5, 2017 Living photo: Katja Štingl

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