Floating in India
Review by Fiona Duncan, published 12th May 2004.
It was a deeply soothing experience, like meditation or being treated to an Ayurvedic massage in the most natural yet luxurious spa you can imagine (appropriately: the ancient Ayurveda system of wellbeing in body, mind and spirit has its roots in Kerala). In fact the floating feeling began before I even stepped on board for a two-night cruise. After the frenzy of Mumbai, I could sense Kerala’s muted, other-worldly air the moment we disembarked at the modern airport of Cochin (also called Kochi). From then on, my time in this exotic sliver of southern India, hemmed in by the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghat mountains and coloured like a parrot’s back, seemlessly glided by.
First we glided around Cochin with its many echoes of the past. We admired the richly coloured murals in Mattancherry Palace, and in the charmingly hotchpotch Pardesi Synagogue, heard that the dwindling number of Cochin Jews had just fallen, with the overnight death of an elderly man, to a mere thirteen. In the streets of Jew Town we were diverted by cavernous antique and spice shops, in which we could browse in peace and emerge weighed down with cashew and cardamom, coloured lamps and carved elephants. En route to the countrified central market, its stalls heaped with strange fruit, strange fish and even stranger cuts of meat, our ebullient guide gave credence to the benign atmosphere. He described a long history of learning to live with outsiders (Portuguese, Dutch, English), religious tolerance (Keralans’ are roughly equal parts Hindu, Moslem and Christian), and the best rates of literacy, healthcare and cleanliness in India. While lives are simple and poverty is not absent, it is not as acute as on the brown, sun-baked plains of India and the region’s coat of green, its long coastline and its many rivers, lakes and canals gives it a welcome freshness.
In the district of Fort Cochin the pace slows to that of a sleepy English village, and indeed it has a village green, surrounded by fine Portuguese, Dutch and English houses. In one corner stands St Francis, the first European church in India and the site of Vasco da Gama’s original tomb (his body was later returned to Portugal). Along the sandy beach you’ll find perhaps the most memorable sight in Cochin: a row of elegant Chinese fishing nets, their tall wooden poles arranged like graceful daddy-long-legs.And so to the boat. “Just you wait”, said our Cochin guide, “it is beyond any dream”. I wasn’t so sure I would agree. Wouldn’t India’s first cruise boat, and the only tourist craft on the backwaters that isn’t a traditional rice boat, with its chefs and flunkies and eight air-conditioned double cabins tricked out with TVs and DVDs, jar uncomfortably with its surroundings? Rice boats converted into houseboats with one or two cabins for tourists may be rudimentary, but at least they are authentic. I was wrong. Locally made using teak, coconut and bamboo (the builder was there to greet us along with the chefs and flunkies, all charming Oberoi employees, faultless at their jobs) the double-decked M.V. Vrinda blends easily into its surroundings, and the interior is restrained rather than flashy. On the lower deck are the refreshingly cool cabins, dominated by big beds piled with huge pillows, plus plenty of storage space, stylish shower rooms and all the extras you would expect to find in an Oberoi hotel. On the upper deck: a veranda set with tables and chairs and the air-conditioned dining room, with picture windows. Best of all, though, is the flat, coconut-matted roof. It was here, lying on a thick towelling-covered mattress and pillow that I was wafted into paradise, cooled by the breeze, mind and body gradually slowing to the gentle rhythm of life in the backwaters. Even the heavily muffled engine noise makes a soothing background accompaniment. (Danger lurks in odd places, though: I was nearly garrotted by a passing power line the first time I hauled myself to a sitting position.)
The first day aboard Vrinda is spent drifting along huge, coconut-fringed Vembanad Lake and into the Alleppey canal before returning to base. I spotted two types of kingfisher, Brahmani kites, cormorants and pond herons; waved back at wildly waving children; glimpsed churches and temples between the palms and coconuts, an elephant being trundled along in a cart, a Bollywood film set, a gondola packed with passengers and their bicycles, umbrellas up. As dusk fell, wonderful smells from the galley began to scent the air and we drifted off to our cabins to prepare for dinner. (One caveat: four cabins have peaceful lake views when the boat is on its jetty each evening; the other four, though, look out on to buildings and parked cars.) Breakfasts, lunches and dinners – with plenty of choice at each course – were superb, and included the best gazpacho I have ever tasted, subtly-flavoured curries, delicate fish dishes and irresistible warm chocolate brownies and ice cream, and the head chef was on hand to cater for any special requests.
We were busier on the second day, transferring, with a guide, to Oberoi’s own rice boat (kettu vallam) to explore smaller waterways than the Vrinda can manage. Lolling in cane chairs and sipping chilled lime sodas we passed paddy fields and duck farms, humble shacks and fine Syrian Christian houses, games of cricket and fishermen selling from their boats to knots of gaily dressed housewives. At Chambakalam we walked, shaded by umbrellas, to St Mary’s Church, its painted interior a riot of merrily clashing styles. We saw too the village’s pride and joy – it’s 131 ft-long champion racing snake boat (chundun vallam), manned during the annual Nehru Trophy race by 110 rowers and ten singers to keep the oarsmen in time. Everything in the backwaters, we learned, has its place and its purpose. “This is a screw pine; it makes sleeping mats that prevent rheumatism; this is a plant from which we make slippers for healthy feet”. The coconut tree, every part of which has a use, is revered above all else. “Each morning without fail we rub coconut oil into our skin – it’s part of our preparation for the day. When we pray, we ask God to make us more like a coconut: hard and strong on the outside, bright and truthful on the inside”, our guide told us. Before dinner that night (at separate tables or in groups, as guests wish) we gathered on the veranda to watch musicians and two dancers, glittering in gold and white, perform the expressive classical Mohiniattam, the dance of the enchantress.
I spent the third morning dreaming on the roof, as Vrinda paced the lake for a final time. Just like having an Ayurveda treatment, though, the pleasure this time was marred by the knowledge that it would soon end and I would be sent packing back to reality.
The Oberoi group are currently considering whether to build a resort hotel – probably one of their sybaritic Vilas properties – in the backwaters. Meanwhile, they’ve done anyone who wants to float on them in comfort and style a great service with the launch of the Vrinda. The thought of sharing such an intimate craft with strangers may put off some, but it shouldn’t: there’s harmony in the air in Kerala.
Cox & Kings Travel (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) offers tailor-made packages to Kerala, including accommodation at the Trident, Cochin and two nights aboard the M.V. Vrinda, operated by Oberoi Hotels and Resorts (www.oberoihotels.com). As a price guide, two nights at the Trident, Cochin including breakfast and a guided city tour, two nights aboard the M.V. Vrinda including full board, and a further night at the Trident, plus return flights on British Airways via Mumbai, including transfers, costs from £1,845 per person..