Eden on Earth
Golden beaches, emerald backwaters, a variety of flora and fauna, powerful art forms – the choices are many and so are the wonders that await you in Kerala
I must have visited Kerala more than a dozen times. Each time, I have stayed as a guest of either a luxury resort or in one of the famed Kerala homestay properties. Never did I venture to stay in Kerala's many luxurious kettuvalams (houseboats) until my childhood friend Jacob Kutty urged me to try one of Kerala's best backwater destinations – the shimmering Lake Vembanad, which happens to be one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes.
While there is no dearth of luxury hotels and resorts in God's Own Country, the Kerala houseboat segment has provided a kind of shot-in-the-arm for Kerala Tourism and today, Kerala has carved a niche for itself as one of the world's premier backwater cruise destinations, welcoming the discerning world traveller in a most unique way.
I hopped on an early morning flight from Kolkata to Chennai and from Chennai to Cochin. Around 3 pm, I reached Cochin. Jacob was there to receive me and we reached the magnificently appointed Kumarakom Lake Resort.
The unprejudiced eye of the architect echoes in every nook and corner of the resort. Here, at the Kumarakom Lake Resort, the virtually impossible seems graceful and easy. Be it the ethnically designed Heritage Villas, Lake Villas or the marvellously luxurious Presidential Suites, the resort is a supreme adjustment to opportunity and local conditions. All attention has been concentrated on creating art, like one beautiful picture.
I was told by the resident naturalist that the Vembanad Wetland system has been integrated into the list of wetlands of global importance in terms of wetland conservation and happens to be the largest of the three Ramsar Sites in Kerala. Vembanad Lake today has become a major tourist destination due largely to its ethereal and picturesque setting. As we ventured towards the impeccably conceived Kumarakom Tourist Village, which happens to be the most popular site on the shores of the shimmering lake, a sense of fulfilment engulfed me.
For the benefit of travellers, the village offers a bewildering array of recreational pursuits like luxurious boat cruises, yoga & meditation, the famed Kerala Ayurvedic massage therapies, fishing to name just a few.
In fact, the ingenuity of Keralites is admirable – from thoughtfully prepared itineraries to an amazing array of holiday experiences like tracing family history, eco-friendly initiatives and a one-of-its-kind cultural experience with the host community to name just a few. They have compelled the new-age traveller to not only embrace the backwater holiday but also herald the beginning of 'Responsible Tourism' in this gem of a tourist state.
Being a travel writer, it was most refreshing to absorb the sheer enthusiasm of the support staff at the resort who would go that extra mile just to see you smiling and satisfied. Since I had limited time at my disposal, I preferred to remain within the resort premises to explore every nook and corner of this Eden on Earth. It was only in the evenings, with the red molten ball setting on the distant lake horizon, that I would venture to the impeccably designed luxurious houseboat of the resort, embark on a peaceful 1-1.5 hour night cruise, indulge on a few sips of my favoured tipple, have a sumptuous dinner on board and retire for the night in the king-size bed onboard the houseboat.
To explore the nocturnal joys of the backwaters, the concept of 'Backwaters by Night' is becoming a rage in Kerala; and I must admit that the joy of viewing nocturnal creatures is thrilling. There was just enough ambient light, courtesy the moon, and pretty soon things got interesting. The expert boatman knew the backwaters by the tip of his fingers and he would often halt at the right places, by the edges of the lake. All sorts of nocturnal creatures: frogs and snakes, fish, large aquatic insects and other weird and wonderful things could be seen prowling in the shallows, right next to the shore. If it is spring or summer, a nocturnal symphony of frogs may be on display.
After indulging and being thoroughly pampered on the kettuvallam (houseboat), I can vouch that it is one thing to be pampered in a super-deluxe hotel but quite another to spend time on the banks of Kerala!
From the splendid luxurious isolation of Kumarakom Lake Resort, it was now time to appreciate yet another niche backwater holiday in God's Own Country. We proceeded to the west of Kumarakom and soon figured out the gorgeously anchored Park Apsara, which has provided a new dimension to backwater holidays in Kerala – a touch of boutique hotel experience along with a harmonious blend of the famed European yachting spirit; a spirit of inquiry in nature's lap, a spirit of discovery and bliss.
The sophisticated Park Apsara is a pioneer project of India's one and only 5-star boutique hotel chain – The Park Hotels. This luxurious cruiser is innovatively built on two levels by the renowned Dubai-based CDB Yacht Design. With eight elegantly designed rooms, an exclusive gallery, saloon and dining area, a sundeck and a fabulous seating area that offers breathtaking vistas of the ethereal backwaters of Kerala, one couldn't have asked for more. The interiors are sophisticated and ooze luxury.
I was particularly impressed with the harmonious décor and quality of food served in the lakeside restaurant that offers some of the most amazing culinary delights from Kerala along with a bewildering array of gastronomic delights from the world over.
Every evening, to keep guests entertained, the cruise staff organises cultural shows on the vessel's deck (vallom) that reverberate with Kerala's rich heritage and culture. On the penultimate day of my stay, after lunch, which consisted of the quintessential Chettinad cuisine, cooked to perfection by the resident chef, I ventured to an adjoining hamlet; quaint as it was, would you believe, gorgeously dressed womenfolk who were busy preparing for Onam that was just a week away, came out with all guns blazing – singing local Kerala hymns and folk songs as rehearsal that sounded incredibly melodious.
The manner in which the quality of life of the rural folks has improved alongside the preservation of nature and cultural heritage is impressive. Here in God's Own Country, the slow-moving carts still ply on village roads, thatched hutments are in existence, joyful village theatres are active, cows and buffaloes are still being used in tilling the soil and popular folklore remains alive. Add to it the characteristic features of a sustainable backwater holiday option and you have all the makings of an Eden on Earth. The entire experience reminds me of Rishi Aurobindo's immortal poem:
When you and I, we played together,
Who my playmate was I did not know.
Without a fear, without a shame,
Life in quiet ease did flow...