If you’ve ever dreamed of going to India, a trip along the Kerala backwaters is probably on your bucket list. Most visitors end up making their way to Aleppey, a small city in the southern part of Kerala state for their houseboat experience. But head north and you’ll find a backwater experience like any other. Travel specialists Secret Retreats works with Indian operator ABChapri Retreats to offer exclusive trips on the luxurious Lotus Houseboat that plies the waters of the Malabar coast in north Kerala. And, they can even extend your trip with a stay at the company’s lush, beachfront retreat, Neeleshwar Hermitage. I took a three-day trip over Christmas and discovered an exclusive once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A luxurious reinterpretation of the traditional houseboats that ply Kerala’s backwaters, the Lotus Houseboat combines traditional aesthetics with modern touches. It caters to only four guests in two cabins, so this truly is the most bespoke houseboat experience in Kerala. Each deluxe room is a spacious 320sqft and comes decked out with wood-paneled floors, carved wood-and-rattan beds, and touches of local color in the form of artwork and drapery. Of course, each also comes with a full bathroom and a private balcony that’s perfect for sipping your morning coffee. And yes, the rooms have aircons and fans (though in the name of environmentalism, they’re only switched on at night).
Elsewhere, there’s a shady lounge and dining area at the bow where lunch and afternoon snacks are served. If you really want to kick back, though, head upstairs to the sun deck. Here, you’ll find pristine sunloungers sitting under white umbrellas. All of this comes with a team of four cheerful, attentive staff who go out of their way to ensure guests have an unforgettable stay. The steward, Deepak, who heads the onboard team, deserves a special mention for being a jack of all trades. He acts as host, tour guide, and personal chef during our two-night trip.
You will spend most of your time on the boat, naturally. But, there will be plenty of opportunities to go landside and immerse yourself in some local experiences. One of the highlights was visiting the shaded forest where well-mannered monkeys run free. We get the chance to feed these cheeky critters with cut bananas and are surprised to see that they’re wild but somehow tame. Think of them as the regal, bowing deer of Nara, but in primate form. Used to getting their meals from humans, they carefully take the banana pieces from our hands and peel them before going to town.
The next day, we visit a coir factory to see how coconut husks are used to create a fiber to make things like doormats and brushes. With almost everything done by hand and the limited machinery looking rather ancient, it’s almost easy to imagine that it’s the 19th century and the factory is just seeing the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Later, we visit a local, award-winning farmer. With the Lotus staff making translations, we learn that he makes a rather interesting toddy, a type of local liquor made from palm trees. But perhaps more interestingly, this enterprising farmer also grows a variety of ayurvedic herbs and has partnered with over 60 local schools to teach students to grow these herbs themselves.
If anything’s an absolute certainty on the Lotus Houseboat, it’s that you won’t go hungry. Deepak happens to be a talented chef. And, he’s pretty keen on stuffing guests to the gills with wonderful food. Lunches begin with a soup (the beetroot coconut was a personal favorite), then move onto a variety of curries – mango fish or northern Indian chicken, for example. All this comes with rice and parathas, of course, and finishes with dessert. Later, as the sun begins to set, we sit down in the boat’s lounge area and sip masala tea with fresh pakoras.
Since we’re on board over Christmas, the staff goes out of their way to ensure that we celebrate the holiday in grand style. For dinner on Christmas Eve, we enjoy a candlelit eight-course dinner on the upper deck. The staff even decorates for the occasion. The phrase “Happy X’Mas” is spelled out in flower petals greets us as we head upstairs for the meal. Deepak cooks a veritable feast with an array of chicken and seafood dishes and even offers a mulled-wine-like drink that he’s brewed himself. The next day – on Christmas – there’s even a freshly-baked Christmas cake!
There’s a reason Kerala’s state motto is “God’s Own Country.” The place is truly spectacular, especially when you’re cruising the northern Valiyaparamba backwaters. All those pictures you’ve seen? This is exactly like that, but even better. Dense populations of palm trees line the shores, their vivid green fringed leaves providing a stark contrast to the blue skies and grey-green waters. It’s impossible to convey just how vast these backwaters are – they’re huge, especially compared to the more touristy, canal-like backwaters around Alleppey. Because of this, there are very few other houseboats around. Occasionally, we pass smaller boats from which local fishermen cast nets in hopes of getting their catch of the day. At times, we pass more populated areas and can see clusters of small houses or temples. During our Christmas Eve dinner, we chuckle over the fact that we’re merrily celebrating in view of the local navy base.
The Lotus Houseboat is the water-based arm of Neeleshwar Hermitage, a charming beachfront resort in a tiny town from where it takes its name. Many guests combine the two experiences to get the most from their stay so following suit, we check into the property for a night. Accommodation here is made up of sprawling cottages that are designed with the same aesthetics as the Lotus Houseboat. Each also features an outdoor bathroom (mine featured a sunken tub), and out the front, a cozy patio and a garden with a hammock.
Ayurveda is popular in Kerala and the property’s Priya Spa specializes in this practice. I have a quick consultation with the resident Ayurvedic doctor, who then sends me off for a treatment. This massage, though it’s not exactly the relaxing break you’re thinking of. Instead, the therapist slathers me in oil and uses sharp strokes to beat my muscles into submission; later, she gives me a Tumeric scrub to shower with and complete the treatment. It’s different, sure, but it’s also incredibly effective.
As on the Lotus Houseboat, the service at Neeleshwar Hermitage is impeccable. Since we’re leaving before breakfast the next day, staff take the thermoses from our rooms the night before and fill them with coffee so we can get a caffeine hit before we hit the road. Additionally, by 530am the next morning, pack breakfasts are waiting for us.
As we’re dropped off at the train station, it becomes clear that having Neeleshwar staff on hand is unendingly helpful. Our driver figures out exactly where our carriage will be on the platform and lets us know that because the train will only stop for a minute, we need to prepare to jump aboard quickly, luggage in tow. With this warning, we manage to get away safely. Luckily, the driver didn’t have to chase us to the next station with any left bags. It was a distinct possibility, and yes, he’s had to do that before.
Note: The author was a guest of Secret Retreats and ABChapri Retreats.
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