India is unique for many reasons, the delicious food, riot of colour, frenetic cities and awe inspiring backdrops that vary between lush green vegetation and blisteringly hot coastline, being just a few.
One that is still completely under the radar is surfing. While Sri Lanka, Bali, Banda Aceh and Sumatra are all known for their excellent waves, India, and specifically Kerala, remains surfing’s best kept secret.
I’ve been fortunate enough to surf in some of the world’s most iconic locations and while Waikiki, Malibu, Venice Beach, Hossegor, Biarritz and good old Watergate Bay in Cornwall all have their quota of great swell, there is something very special about not having to share a wave with dozens of others.
The trip was designed as a stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off break for me and my best friend Sarah. Where could we go to surf, do some yoga, kick back and eat great vegetarian food in a balmy climate? Soul & Surf in Varkala, on the south western coast of Kerala, hit the spot.
A 10 hour flight from the UK (you can also fly from Nice via Dubai with Emirates), it is the undiscovered jewel in surfing’s crown and the perfect destination for two fortysomething buddies who refuse to grow old gracefully and make up in enthusiasm what they might lack in expertise.
On arrival at the Soul & Surf hotel in South Cliff, a quaint, verdant patch of coastline on the Arabian Sea, we checked into our room, which was comfortable, clean and offered gorgeous views through the gardens towards the sea.
This is not a trip for the faint-hearted. We were up with the dawn larks at 6am each morning before heading off, fully snacked on coffee and bananas, in the Jeep, the battered pink Ambassador and a variety of rickshaws to enjoy (I use that word loosely) a bracing beach warm up with the instructors.
Only after being put through our paces on the sand could we throw ourselves into the warm waves of the Arabian Sea - no need for wetsuits here - for two hours of patient tuition for complete beginners, guiding from the experts for intermediates or a chance to hone your own skills in the surf.
The instructors make it fun, giving tips on how to pop up more effectively on your board, identify the best wave to catch and occasionally force you out of your comfort zone in the white water and onto a big fat green (that’s an unbroken wave for the uninitiated.) Thank you Nick, that was one wave/wipe out I will never forget.
It wasn't just surfing that drew me to Kerala. There was yoga too, and the two disciplines make for a complementary - and highly addictive - double act. If the early morning surf session is your wake up call, the sunset vinyasa flow and sloflo yoga classes run by Hayley each evening on the rooftop in the warm breeze were the perfect wind down, gently stretching and elongating the muscle groups that had been pushed to their limit a few hours earlier. Tellingly, many of the instructors were at the yoga sessions too.
In the course of our 10 day break, I learned two key facts.
- You don't have to be an expert.
- You are on holiday and you have nothing to prove.
Once I stopped trying to be Kelly Slater or Cameron Diaz, I started having a lot more fun. There is no law against playing in the white water and practising your pop ups (mine was the frog, go figure) until you feel brave enough to venture out into the greens.
By 10am each morning, we were back at base camp, hair matted with sea water, swapping stories and wipe-outs over a communal home-cooked breakfast, typically consisting of banana and cinnamon lassi, fresh fruit, fluffy pancakes or scrambled eggs.
The Soul Food Café in the garden is an oasis of delicious fayre…home-made cakes, mezzes and delicious salads washed down with a lemon mint cooler, iced coconut flesh blend or fresh watermelon juice (Soul & Surf is unlicensed but they get around that tiny detail by offering hip flasks to transport your duty free from the room. Genius.)
Expect to pay no more than €6 a head for supper at the loveliest of North Cliff’s restaurants, falling to a ridiculous €3 a head for Mrs Kumari’s jungle feast featuring a host of mouth-watering dishes including pineapple and banana curry, okra, poppadoms, lemon rice, onion bhajis and home-made banana and cardamom ice cream.
Soul & Surf is the brainchild of Ed and Sofie Templeton, who worked in design and fashion respectively in Brighton before quitting their jobs in 2009 to take a round the world surfing sabbatical that was to change their lives. ‘I was the yogi, Ed was the surfie,’ laughs Sofie as we chat overlooking the deserted beach below.
‘We thought it would be lovely to have a surf and yoga space so with that in mind, every time we arrived at a new place, we would wonder if we could do it there. We travelled around in a camper van, reached India and found we had the waves all to ourselves. I did some teacher training for yoga and went to an ashram for a month and we started thinking ‘we really could do it here.’
During a break in Tonga, where it was very expensive and there was no surf, the pair sat in their hotel room and Ed created a small website. By the time they arrived in Central America, the bookings were flooding in. ‘We had no promotion, people just found us,’ says Sofie. ‘We went home for two months and came back to India with two weeks to find a place, decorate it, buy cutlery and crockery and set everything in motion.
‘We started with four rooms and we were fully booked on our first day. I cooked breakfast and dinner, taught yoga, looked after the house and Ed would take everyone surfing. Me and Ed did everything. It was like our home but with a few guests thrown in. We chose lifestyle over everything else and although we lived like church mice for a long time, we have created something we love and it turns out that other people love it too.’
Such was their success that the current guesthouse has 15 rooms and Ed and Sofie have plans to expand elsewhere. ‘It’s not meant to be cool, just somewhere that’s really nice where you can enjoy some activities and relax,’ adds Sofie. ‘We wanted it to be a retreat but not to be too worthy.
‘There’s space for everyone to get enough waves, there are no line ups. Often people come to us if they are thinking of taking a sabbatical to start something new. We have had people start businesses together after meeting here, even write books together. It is a creative hub and many friendships are formed here.’
I have to second that. If you’re looking for luxury, lie-ins and haute cuisine, this probably isn’t the trip for you. If, however, wood-fired pizza, barbecues and movie nights under the stars watching The Big Wednesday and Point Break are your thing, you really couldn’t choose better.
To find out more about Soul & Surf, check out the website for SoulandSurf.
Emirates flies to Thiruvananthapuram via Dubai.