May 24, 2021
In 2012, Kerala overtook the Taj Mahal to be the number one travel destination in Google's search trends for India. It has been a tranquil getaway for not just foreign tourists but also for all of us back home. Backwater houseboats, secular architecture, Ayurveda and a wonderland for spices, that’s Kerala for us.
My dear friend and publicist LaToyah Trindade accompanied me on a 10-day journey across Kerala. Since we both work in the hospitality sector, we were excited about staying with two different groups of hotels - Malabar Escapes and CGH Earth and learning about each group's distinct style.
In my recent travels I have learnt that it takes roughly two days to disconnect your mind from your everyday life in the city and settle into holiday bliss. I planned my trip in a way that we started off in a slightly busy place (Fort Kochi being as busy as Kerala can be) and then choosing properties that helped us slow down. Ending our trip in the tea plantations of Thekkady was the best way for us to relax and prepare to head back to the city.
Flight to Cochin from Bombay (No Covid test required)
2 nights at The Malabar House, Fort Kochi
1.5 hour drive to Alleppey
3 nights at Purity on Lake Vembanad
30-minute drive to Mararikullam
2 nights at Marari Beach
4 hour drive to Thekkady
2 nights at Spice Village
5 hour drive to Cochin Airport (Covid test when you land at Bombay airport)
Malabar Escapes is a boutique hospitality group. Their style is subtle, customised to the personality of the guest and almost makes you feel like you're at a home away from home. I loved the attention to detail be it in our dietary preferences or the experiences we would enjoy. The staff is warm and caring and are always looking at a way to pamper you. This is more my style of hospitality - Mindful Hospitality.
Now for those of you who are as confused as I was when it comes to understanding the lay of the land in Kochi, here you go. Kochi is made up of a whole group of big and small islands. One of these islands is home to Fort Kochi (not really a fort). Since 2012, Fort Kochi became the blue eyed child of artists, designers and creative folk with the launch of the Kochi Biennale.
In 1992, Joerg Drechsel was traveling the world and landed up in India. He fell so in love with it that in 1994 he returned with his wife Txuku and bought a 20th century bungalow which you now know as The Malabar House. In 1997, it became the first boutique heritage hotel of Fort Kochi. A 16-room house with a swimming pool, restaurant and lounge. If boutique guesthouses are your style of hospitality, then this is the place to be. Resurrected and designed by Joerg, the house comes alive with his collection of art and sculptures. On arrival, we met Saji Joseph, CEO at Malabar Escapes who was kind enough to take us through the history of The Malabar House and the heritage it inherits.
As part of their culinary story, the house serves dishes cooked with local produce and fresh catch of the day which Saji himself picks up at the local market every morning. All veggies are seasonal. The crisp fried bitter gourd really took us by surprise. The beetroot pachhadi tempered with mustard was a winner. The Christian style sambar is my kinda sambar which is more like a dal. And the seabags makes for a nice, buttery fish curry.
PS: Their famous bacon dosa for breakfast
Contact: Surya - 9846669999
Room Rates: Starting at Rs 8000++ in off season and Rs 12000++ in peak season
2 nights in Fort Kochi:
There are two areas on the island that define its architectural and artistic culture. Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. The Malabar House organised a tuktuk (Via Remarkable Tuk Tuk Tours) for us to go to Mattancherry which is on the other side of the island, a good 10-minute auto ride. (Tssk!) Get off at the Dutch Palace and walk the by-lanes exploring handicraft shops, jewellery and textile stores, spice marts and galleries.
Things To Do:
(Fort Kochi had still not fully opened up so we missed seeing Pepper House, David Hall and some of the other local stores.)
Take Home: My favourite meal was at Vella Kanthari, a hyper local joint run by women. We ordered the local vegetarian plate (Read: Banana leaf) with all their local delicacies. This is a meat-lover’s heaven. Squids, prawns, mussels, fish (not just karimeen or pearl spot), fish eggs, anchovies, beef, chicken, pork, duck and everything under the sun. Rs 1000 for 2 / order everything. We were joined by the lovely Fiona Arakal of Ishka Farms who has the best local recommendations and who made this meal even more special.
Purity is a lake front resort, a 2-hour drive from Fort Kochi. Situated on the banks of Lake Vembanad, it is located in the Alappuzha district. Purity is a tranquil retreat with 14 rooms divided into 6 Garden Suites including 3 Wellness suites with spa beds, 4 Vembanad Suites and 4 Deluxe Rooms. Our suites overlooked the backwaters, lush green gardens and a lotus pond. The moment we stepped into the property (A Relaix and Chateau member), we instantly relaxed. The infinity pool, sun deck, courtyard restaurant and the sit out by the lake (which is where I spent many hours reading and reminiscing) are all too welcoming.
The backlit artworks, paintings and sculptures blend in perfectly well (Don't miss the beautiful piece by Abul Kalam Azad. GM Vineeth is your perfect guide on how to best experience Alleppey.
PS: Request them for their ginger pickle. It’s exceptional. They were kind enough to pack us some.
Contact: Vineeth +919947720706
Room Rates: Starting at Rs 9000++ in off season and Rs 12000++ in peak season
Things To Do:
I highly recommend that you spend all your time at Purity and indulge in their curated experiences and locally influenced cuisine.
Discovery Boat Ride: This is a 4 to 5 hour trip on the shikara and includes lunch at a Toddy shop influenced home called Lake View in R Block. With a quick pitstop at the paddy fields (The only paddy fields in the world other than the Netherlands where rice is grown below sea level).
Lake View: is by the water and can only be accessed by boat. Anup who owns Lake View, arrives every morning to fish with his brother. They only serve what they catch that day. Our meal was inspired by a local fisherman’s lunch including mashed tapioca with tempered tamarind and fish pollichathu (fried fish in a banana leaf). The jumbo prawns were a delightful add-on. They are only open for lunch and after service, they pack their belongings and head back to their home in the city. Rs 500 for two. Book in advance.
Fisherman’s Canoe: A ride on the backwaters on a fisherman’s canoe. This included a pitstop at the Chinese fishing nets. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes to climb all the way to the front of the nets.
Cooking Demo: Make sure to sign up for this experience .Chef Sinaj is a delight to cook with. Our Fish Molee and Malabar Parathas turned out to be pretty good (If I may say so myself).
Yoga on the sun deck: They offer yoga lessons at 7.30am but if you’re enthu cutlets like us, we practiced our yoga flow at sunrise on the sundeck. Surya Namaskars in the truest form.
Infinity Pool: Late afternoons are the best time to get into the pool with a side of banana fritters and tea. If there are no other guests, carry your speaker.
Ayurvedic Therapies: If I had known better, I would have signed up for these on day 1. A Kerala massage in simply put terms, is a marination. They douse you in oil and this Ayurvedic practice of abhyanga focusses on blood circulation, muscle relaxation, lymphatic drainage and nourished skin. The therapist recommends a warm water shower after. I’ll add my two cents here and recommend that you follow up that shower with a big meal and a long night’s sleep. It’s pure bliss.
Halais: The only reason to step out of the property is a trip to Halais. Don't be fooled by the store front. This grocery store opens into a restaurant which serves local Malabar Muslim fare. We ditched the fairly large menu and ordered their specialty, an exceptional beef biryani and prawn biryani with a lemon pickle. The grocery shop sells a variety of pickles. We couldn’t resist the beef pickle and the lemon pickle that we had just devoured. Rs 550 for two.
Discovery Houseboat: Make a trip to see the Discovery Houseboat, inspired by the traditional houseboats but designed by Joerg Drechsel in his own peculiar style. (You will see many small elements of his aesthetic in the windows and furniture at all Malabar Escape properties). Unlike other houseboats, Discovery is minimalistic in design, has plenty of natural light, day beds on the upper deck and a butler who resides in the shadows.
Take Home: The quiet. The property is so well managed that you rarely see any staff. They give you all the privacy and quiet that you need but are always at an accessible distance.
CGH Earth prides itself in being mindful about its culture and how it affects local communities. Their properties are larger and hence they do need to follow some cookie-cutter hotel standards. Their gestures are elaborate and their hospitality is more focussed on making sure that you experience their properties through their eyes. If you're someone who enjoys grandeur in hospitality, then this is your kind of hotels to stay with.
CGH Earth is a family owned business that was spearheaded by Jose Dominic who recently stepped down from his position as CEO. Jose has been a pioneer in the hospitality industry, building hotels that focus on preserving the cultural diversity in the regions where they are situated. In the 1950s, he opened his first hotel, Casino Hotel on Willingdon Island and the group now owns 18 properties across Kerala, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu.
The one most delightful experience across CGH Earth hotels is the tea cart that is brought out every evening doling out tea, coffee and local snacks to all guests.
A 20-minute drive from Purity is Marari Beach with its palm lined driveway. Marari Beach is a seaside village experience spread across 30 acres of a botanical universe. The experience of the hotel has been inspired by the fisherfolk community and you see nuances of this in the design of their 52 villas. The villas fit in beautifully with the social distancing norms, each one safely distanced from the other. There are 13 pool villas including 3 deluxe pool villas for larger families and the rest are all garden villas.
We stayed in a pool villa with its very own plunge pool and an open-to-sky bath. Your room key is a waterproof wrist band that you can swim with (so convenient!). I spent an afternoon over tea with Mr. Shenoi (GM) who weaves a beautiful story around the history of CGH Earth and the hospitality values it stands for.
PS: The yoga shed, butterfly garden, salt-water swimming pool, spa, shop, bookstore, beach shack restaurant and couple of dining rooms are best explored with the help of their map. Make sure to get a copy on arrival. They have also been very mindful about the social distancing and safety norms.
Contact: Mr. Shenoi - 9895074881
Room Rates: Starting Rs 11000++
Things To Do:
Laze: Spread across the property are hammocks, day beds and deck chairs to laze. Nothing like lazing on a hammock suspended between two coconut trees, a good book and a cocktail. You can alternate this with a dip in the sea.
Cocktail Workshop: Get to the beach shack to make a cocktail with Rahul, the mixologist. Rahul taught us the Fall From The Coconut Tree (I wondered why they named it so but the second cocktail explained it all) which includes Old Monk White Rum (Yes, you read that right), cloves, apple cider, lemon juice and coconut water. Served in a coconut with a shoe-flower. This experience was amplified with a picnic on the beach with evening snacks and many “fall-from-the-coconut-tree” cocktails.
Toddy Shop Meal: One afternoon we were invited to lunch at the outdoor grill restaurant. On arrival, we witnessed the construction of a local thatch roofed Toddy Shop next to it. A traditional toddy shop meal (banana leaf with local delicacies, more spicy than usual to wash down with toddy) was prepared along with a pot of coconut toddy, tapped freshly that morning. We were truly humbled by the effort of this experience.
Dinner under the stars: One our second night at Marari we were invited to a clearing by the beach shack. From a distance I could see the silhouette of a three-poled tent. As I neared in, candles were lit and the tent came to life. A magical experience whether you’re with a friend or a loved one (Great experience for those looking at making that big proposal).
Ayurveda Spa: What I loved about my Kerala massage was the open air therapy room. Yet another time to get marinated but this time, in the open.
Take Home: Marari employs over 70% of its staff from the local community and villages. Not a single one will miss greeting you.
A 4-hour drive up winding hills takes you to the picturesque plantations of Thekkady. On our drive up from Marari to Spice Village, we spotted rubber, tea and pineapple plantations. Spice Village is a tribal village set up in a spice garden built on the aesthetic of the Manan tribe of this region. It boasts of 140 species of herbs, shrubs and trees. What stands out, is the roofs all over the property which are made with a dense layer of elephant grass to keeps the rooms cool through all seasons and hence no air conditioners are needed. 52 cottages include 5 deluxe cottages with private gardens and 47 spice garden cottages that are designed with upcycled furniture, local craftsmanship and handmade paper products. The F&B unit in the room is stocked aplenty with local teas and a how-to-brew filter-coffee guide. Mr. Harikrishna (GM) took us over the wide variety of experiences one can explore at Spice Village and the adjoining Periyar Tiger Reserve which can only be accessed via state run vehicles (Unlike the more-than-welcome jeeps of Ranthambore).
PS: You’ll spot monkeys swinging from tree to tree. They are friendlies. Just make sure to keep your door closed and don’t flaunt your edibles.
Things To Do:
Ready Reckoner for Kerala:
We booked a car and driver via Marari at Rs 5500 to take us to Spice Village.
We booked a car and driver via Spice Village at Rs 6000 to take us to Cochin Airport.
Load up on mosquito repellant.
If you’re not a fan of creepy crawlies, make sure you keep your room doors and windows closed at all times.
Even though we travelled in February, it was blazing hot in the day especially at Marari. Make sure you’re hydrating, carrying plenty of sunblock, a sun hat and sunglasses.
Light, airy clothing is highly recommended. Pants if you’re going cycling.
Jew Town is expensive and surprisingly has plenty of Kashmiri shops. Don’t get lured into buying a pashmina. You know better.
If you’re wondering what the alcohol scene is, most hotels are well stocked. You may not find that Bordeaux but who needs one when you have toddy!
All meals include Kerala rice and my favourite variation is from Kaima, a north Kerala Malabar region. Beware, it’s addictive. I’m still trying to get back to my local brown rice.
You can never get enough of crisp ghee roast dosas.
If you have any recommendations or would like any other information, feel free to DM on Instagram @indiawithinsia