If you’ve seen Season 2 of BBCs ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’ or ITVs ‘The Good Karma Hospital’, you may be tempted by Kerala’s chilled-back lifestyle. As we’d visited 10 years ago, we knew it would provide a relaxing finale to a tiring month-long tour.
Having previously explored Kochi, the Tea Bungalow was just somewhere to sleep before embarking on a two-night cruise on Kerala’s famous backwaters on a converted rice barge known as Kettuvallam.
Lakes and Lagoons’ two-berth, premium houseboat had air-conditioning: essential with temperatures of 30°. The open deck, with four, comfortable cane armchairs had an enclosed dining room behind. The good-sized bedroom had wardrobe, cupboard and compact TV. A surprisingly spacious bathroom had walk-in shower, toiletries, good-quality towels and plenty of hot water. Decor was tasteful with silver elephant-head door handles. Crew quarters and the kitchen were at the back of the boat.
Having bought beers and soft drinks from the office shop, we were introduced to the crew: Captain Laly, Murali (mate) and Suresh the chef. Having being shown our route on the map, we got ensconced on cushions directly behind the captain, with camera and binoculars.
We cruised on both wide channels, lined with houses with wooden boats moored outside, and narrow waterways carpeted with abundant lilac water hyacinth. Lime-green paddy fields had silver glittering streamers to scare the birds. Pots and pans, bodies and hair were all washed in the water with a ‘thwack, thwack’ signalling laundry time as clothes were bashed against stone.
Men fished with simple rod and line on banks full of banana and papaya trees, whilst ‘toddy tappers’ scaled tall palms to collect sap. Black cormorants, herons, egrets and kingfishers waded in the reeds or perched on electricity wires.
On the water, a school boat picked up noisy children, wooden canoes laden with various goods drifted past powered by motor or oar, a crammed commuter ferry had people hanging from the doorways whilst smaller boats took villagers from bank to bank.
At Champakulam, we visited St Mary’s Basilica, a huge, well maintained, 500-year-old Catholic church and St Thomas’ Fine Arts Studio which carved wooden religious items. A motorised canoe took us along channels too narrow for the kettuvallam, and allowed us to see the water’ clarity, floating tiny purple flours and coloured flies skimming the water.
After dropping anchor around 6pm, we stretched our legs with walks through villages. At a private fish farm, we were invited to watch the evening feed, whilst a man fished with huge bow and arrow.
Breakfast – Having declined eggs, we chose a light option: freshly-squeezed pineapple juice, a beautifully presented fruit selection and toast, butter and jam.
Lunch – Our first lunch was an absolute feast, with six curries and vegetables dishes with rice and poppadoms and a whole small fish followed by a spiced, nutty noodle pudding to follow. But this was surpassed when dishes were served onto large banana leaf plates; banana chips, spicy lime pickle, pineapple, beetroot, cream-coloured mango which belied its punch, green banana, warm mixed vegetables, rice, prawns, poppadoms and fish wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf.
Dinner – Like lunch, dinner was a superb selection of curries, vegetables, breads and rice. Despite two lunches and two dinners, no dish was repeated: not easy bearing in mind the number of dishes and the small kitchen.
Snacks – Just in case we were still hungry or thirsty, there was a constant supply of snacks and drinks: spiced banana fritters, warm roasted cashew nuts and banana chips with green tea, fresh lime sodas and coconut juice.
This was the perfect way to relax and as there was no signal or wi-fi, mobiles were only used for photography: it was lovely to literally switch off and dream about our final destination.
We’d experienced the peace and tranquillity of Marari Beach before and it was an obvious choice. The 53, detached and thatched, white-washed bungalows, resembling local fishermen’s houses, are spread over 36 acres.
Our bungalow had a separate area for relaxing with wicker furniture and a spacious bedroom with lots of hanging space and shelves. It was well equipped with safe, mini bar with soft drinks, tea and coffee facilities and hairdryer. The semi-open bathroom housed a large, pebbled shower area. Baskets of fruit were provided daily and there was a nightly turn-down service.
Blissfully routine days began with a buffet breakfast (Indian and western, hot and cold), followed by sunbathing on either beds or in hammocks on a huge grassy area between the hotel and beach. Tall palms trees provided natural shade and tethered grazing cows kept the grass trim. We swam in either the warm Arabian Sea or the salt water swimming pool which was excellent in size, shape and depth.
Lunch was a snack from one of the three bars before more sunbathing. Most guests opted for the buffet dinner but we chose from the a la carte menu with Chef Rinto, happy to cook to order as we were long- stay guests at 12 nights. A fish restaurant appeared an expensive option.
The Ayurveda Spa tempted. I decided not to have the Chavitty Uzhichil massage ‘specially for the obese’ although after all I’d eaten, it was appropriate. Instead I had 4.5 litres of warm herbal oil trickled over me for 60 minutes – an interesting experience.
The hotel ran a daily programme of in house activities: cookery classes, yoga and meditation, saree and dhoti demonstration, village walks, music lessons etc and trips could be arranged to see the local fisherman, nearby temples and further afield to Kochi and Alleppey.
I left thoroughly relaxed, if a bit oily, ready to face the UK’s February chills.