India: Calm in Kerala by Camilla Frumar

I’m at that stage in my life where many of my closest friends from home have flown the nest and jetted off to all the corners of the earth in search of success, love and adventure. While it’s great to have such global friends, coordinating time off work, compounded by a few oceans in between us, means that catching up with your nearest and dearest becomes a little more tricky than meeting for after work drinks!
 
 Luckily three of my best girlfriends, who share my love of travel, got themselves organised to come and visit me in India. These ladies have a great sense of adventure but like all women love to be pampered too, so we decided that after exploring  Mumbai we would  take a side trip to a spa resort in Kerala, located in Southern India and famous for its traditional Ayurvedic therapies.
 
I insisted that my friends read Gregory David Robert’s novel Shantaram as a prelude to their arrival in Mumbai which got them curious about the grittier underbelly of the city and led us to Chor Bazaar (literally Thieves Markets) where you can find a bric-a-brac of stolen items, along with slightly more reputed stores selling both genuine antiques and reproductions. We also went on an eye opening tour of Dharavi, Asia’s largest ‘slum’, which we were a bit hesitant to go on at first but found the tour to be fascinating and conducted with the permission of and sensitivity towards those living there.
 
After the requisite grit, I showed my friends the more glam side of my city – bellinis at Dome, my favourite bar in Mumbai located on the rooftop of the InterContinental Hotel, offering a breathtaking view of the iconic Marine Drive, also known as the Queen’s Necklace due to the pearl-like effect of the street lamps at night. We toasted to our reunion, mused about where we might meet next and after a few too many drinks decided we were definitely ready for a bit of pampering in Kerala.

We flew from Mumbai to Kochi (previously known as Cochin), a major seaport with many significant historic sites, having formerly been colonised by the Portuguese in the beginning of the 16th Century and later the Dutch and British. A driver came to meet us from Kumarakom Lake Resort and as we were taking in the greenness of our surroundings, he asked us if we wanted to take a slight detour to see Fort Kochi and its famed gigantic Chinese fishing nets as well as its beautiful Dutch and Portuguese architecture.  Happy to soak up some culture my friends and I agreed on the detour but exchanged knowing glances when told it would add an extra hour or so to the already two-hour trip, as this was cutting into our relaxing spa time.

Nevertheless, it was great to see Fort Kochi and since we only had time for a sneak peak I will definitely make a trip back there to see Jew Town, a quarter of Kochi dating back to the 2nd Century and home to a magnificent synagogue built in the mid 16th Century, and also to see India’s oldest European built church, St Francis Church.

After hitting the road we were anxious to get to the resort, but unfortunately we had brought some of Mumbai’s traffic with us. Luckily, it was an interesting car trip and we did get to see some beautiful Portuguese churches and houses along the way. This also gave us a chance to take in Kerala’s ambience, complete with lungi clad men and a barrage of posters advertising the latest hit Malayalam film starring a policeman with very cool mirrored sunglasses!

As the scenery got greener and greener and the streets started to quieten, we rolled into Kumarakom Lake Resort’s stately drive-way and were warmly greeted with moist hand towels and delicious guava juice. One of the benefits of travelling during monsoon is you get great rates on luxury hotels  and we were lucky enough to be staying in gorgeous meandering pool villas, appointed with traditional Portuguese style furnishings and wrapped by a stunning lagoon like pool.  We were also fortunate enough only to have rain in the night during our stay, which makes for a really good night’s sleep – especially after a few glasses of wine.

Kerala is known for its excellent seafood, so on the first night we dined at the resort’s seafood bar situated on Kumarakon’s placid, emerald green backwaters and poured over the spa menu to decide which treatments we would be indulging in over the next few days.

Amazingly we managed to get up in time to join the other guests for 7am yoga – not an easy feat when you are meant to be on holiday! The class offered wasn’t particularly strenuous, especially for one of my girlfriends, Monique who is a bit of a yoga pro. But it was very calming and in a lovely setting in the gazebo by the infinity pool, offering resplendent views of the backwaters.

After yoga it was time for breakfast. Buffet breakfast – my favourite! We soon learned that amazing buffets were on offer for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the buffet soon overtook the spa as the theme of the holiday.  Fortunately, the resort had a gym which was essential to counter the triple buffet guilt!

Between the four of us, we managed to sample a fair portion of the resort’s extensive spa menu. My friend Rose, who lives in London, practically squealed when she compared the prices to pounds as she normally paid quadruple the price for her eyebrow threading. If you haven’t experienced threading before I definitely recommend it – an artful alternative to waxing using a thin twisted cotton thread to remove hair. The Ayurvedic facial was also a winner with the group and involved treatments with a series of natural ingredients including papaya which smelt so delicious I was constantly tempted to lick my face.  There was an Ayurvedic doctor on site that provided consultations as to which treatments would suit you best , and the resort also offers a range of 7 to 21 day Ayurveda programs for weight loss, rejuvenation, de-stressing and even mental illness!

The resort also had some other fun little activities on offer like basket weaving and pottery, and while these were a bit touristic they were hands on and fun to participate in all the same.  There were bicycles available so in attempt to work up a buffet worthy hunger we went for a spin to the local villages to check out some handicrafts. Dressed in our gym pants we got a lot of waves and attention along the way as we were dodging the odd cow and rickshaw. My friend Alex picked up a gorgeous red lacquer jewellery box typical of the Indo-Portuguese style in the region and wondered if she would successfully get it through Sydney’s stringent customs.

On our final day we got up early and went on a backwater cruise in a traditional Kerala rice boat and this was for me the highlight of the trip. The backwaters are truly spectacular, fringed with palms and soothing sounds from a nearby bird sanctuary, they are exceptionally serene and an instant de-stress. We cruised past gorgeous water-lilies and majestic cormorants stretching out to dry their wings.

Kerala has the highest rate of literacy in  India and I was forewarned that the local children would ask for pens but unfortunately didn’t expect to see them in the backwaters. But as we suddenly turned into narrow canals we were met with typical daily village life, where women were furiously beating clothes clean on stones and children were jumping into the water joyfully - when they saw us they ran alongside the boat motioning and mouthing “pen pen”. My friends and I looked at each other and our hearts broke a little since we were unable to procure anything.

Suddenly it was time to go and we weren’t ready to leave. This for me was only a taste of Kerala and I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the region, particularly Munnar which is home to some luscious green tea plantations as well as elephants and other wildlife. My girlfriends were definitely bitten by the India bug and have already been talking about coming back again – and if we go back to Kerala next time we will be armed with pens!

Fast Facts: Mumbai
Chor Bazaar: Located on Mutton Street, Bhuleshwar. Go with a local if you can – it’s easy to get lost in the maze of bric-a-brac.

Slum Tours: These are run daily by Reality Tours and Travel, with 80% of the profits going to NGO’s. More info at: www.realitytoursandtravel.com

The Dome: Located on the 8th Floor of the InterContinental Hotel, 135 Marine Drive, T 3987 9999. Stop by at 6.30pm to watch the sunset.
 
Fast Facts: Kerala
Getting there
By air: Jet Airways (part of the Oneworld network) has several daily flights to Kochi from Mumbai. There also flight to Kochi from all other major Indian cities.

Accommodation:

There are various accommodation options available to suit all budgets. If you are looking to spend some time in Fort Kochi I recommend the Old Harbour Hotel: or Malabar House: Approximately 2 hours by car and highly recommended is Kumarakom Lake Resort:

The resort can also arrange House Boats which are a very popular way to see Kerala’s backwaters. See also: http://www.houseboatskerala.net/

Travel Tips:

Make sure to pack: pens and writing pads to give to the local children, a good book, a bathing suit, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, an umbrella (if you’re travelling during monsoon), light cotton clothing and a good sun hat.





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