India can overwhelm the first-time western visitor with its unfamiliar sights, sounds and aromas, which is why John Lewisohn chose to take his children off the beaten track to tranquil Kerala for their first holiday outside Europe. This gentle introduction to the sub-continent proved a winner, with extracts from daughter Daisy’s diary demonstrating her wonder and delight
The fragrance of magnolia carried through the window by a sudden gust of wind roused me from a deep sleep. This was followed by a clap of thunder, lightning and torrential monsoon rain hammering on the roof.
I rushed on to the wet verandah, skidding downstairs to where my children, 10-year-old Daisy and eight-year-old Jonah, slept. They were sitting up in bed, the younger looking a bit scared. ‘The Young Maharajah’, as the staff called him, asked if this was the monsoon rain we had discussed; Kerala, in the southwest province of India, is at its wettest, hottest and most humid in the spring and early summer.
Chitoor Kottaram, the summer palace of a former Maharajah of Cochin, can only be reached by boat on a one-hour trip from Cochin. It was the second of our hotels in Kerala and is part of the CGH Earth group, which specialises in eco-friendly holiday experiences in a variety of locations in the region.
With just two bedrooms, this ‘one-key’ property now provides an exclusive retreat for one family at a time, looked after by a coterie of smiling staff. It was hard not to be beguiled by the permanence of the 200-year-old building, set amid landscaped lawns, with views of the famed Kerala backwaters.
ON THE WATERFRONT
Having travelled to Southern India previously, Kerala seemed to me to be the ideal destination to take a first family holiday outside Europe. We spent 16 days taking a fairly well trodden route from Cochin and staying at different properties, mostly owned by the CGH Earth group.
Emerging from Cochin airport a couple of days earlier, we had been hit by a wall of humidity that was a shock to systems used to chilly English weather. The drive to Brunton Boatyard Hotel took a couple of hours and mesmerised my children. I remembered my first morning in India as a backpacker and was keen to see India through their eyes; it was fascinating watching them trying to take in all the sights, sounds and smells.
Within minutes, they had seen an entire family on a moped, six water buffalo crammed into a ramshackle vehicle, a wiry cyclist pedalling along with an entire hay bale on a trailer behind, and a multi-coloured truck that had recently fallen into a ditch, surrounded by a crowd of men gibbering away in an unintelligible dialect.
Brunton Boatyard, on the Cochin waterfront, provides an evocative introduction to Kerala. The lobby, overhung with enormous old-fashioned fans, suggests the property’s nautical past. A former boatyard, it was spacious and cool and enclosed shady green lawns and fragrant, flowering trees. Our suite had huge windows opening on to a private balcony which overlooked Cochin harbour and islands.
Satich, who was to be our companion for the next 10 days, drove us to our third overnight stay, Mundackal Homestay in Kothamangalam, which proved to be something entirely different. Our hosts, Jose, and my daughter’s namesake, another Daisy, were extremely welcoming, and we took a tour of the estate, where the fertile soil ensures an extraordinary variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables.
Daisy specialises in Keralan Christian cooking and provided at least 10 mouth-watering curries at every meal. My children loved using their fingers to eat from the traditional banana leaves on which the food was served.
While at Mundackal, we visited a bird sanctuary and saw many exotic species.
We also went to an elephant orphanage and followed the animals when they had their wash in the local river. This ritual was as close to Mowgli and Rudyard Kipling’s the Jungle Book as one could imagine.
Our next stop was Coconut Lagoon on Lake Vembanad, reached by barge down the backwaters. The hotel is idyllically located overlooking the lake, each cottage made from reclaimed timber, clay and palm leaves, with an exotic outdoor shower. Coconut Lagoon was also the start of our 24-hour backwater trip on a wonderfully appointed rice barge, which had two air-conditioned bedrooms and spacious living quarters.
Our progress down the sparkling waterway might suddenly reveal a small village containing all the elements of Indian village life: a man dozing in his rickshaw, women doing their washing, a wall with a poster promoting a well-fed candidate for the Communist Party.
Our transit to Periyar Tiger & Jungle reserve, in the hills of the Western Ghats, provided increasingly cooler temperatures. We climbed through astonishingly rich forests to our final CGH Earth property, The Spice Village in Periyar. Again we had our own cottages, thatched this time.
Within the grounds of the hotel was an extraordinary bar containing hundreds of black and white photos of the conservationists who helped set up the nature reserve and the hunters who helped kill its wildlife, both peculiarities of the Raj. For our part, we had a half-day trip to see more elephants in Periyar, this time riding them, watching them work and then washing them. Our final destination was the Taj Vivanta in Kovalam, set in beautiful landscaped gardens, with luxurious rooms. While in town, we took a rickshaw to the local fishing village, a photographer’s delight as the meagre catches were bought up by local restaurateurs.
Our penultimate day took us to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. The heat was oppressive and we visited the main market, which provided an epic landscape populated by specially adapted delivery vehicles, cows wandering down the streets and stalls selling an extraordinary array of colourful products, including 30 varieties of yellow, black and red bananas.
For a family, an all-inclusive resort can tick a lot of boxes, but can such a holiday provide so many extraordinary memories as a trip to Kerala? It offered an almost ‘India-lite’ version of the sub-continent, the perfect introduction to this amazing country that will hopefully whet my children’s appetite to return.