Of beaches, backwaters, a beetroot pickle and a Biennale: Kerala, Relais & Châteaux style

I was a bit late to the whole Kochi Biennale party, but when Relais & Châteaux invited me to a Kerala trail, hopping across three of their resorts and threw in the Biennale as a bonus last month,  I figured, why not?

Besides, I was curious. I had done Kerala a few times earlier, but it was either cushioned in familiarity (staying at my friend Gayatri’s house on Bennett Road in Trichur, listening to her father hold forth on orchids or Che Guevara and eating her cook Ram’s consistently delicious fare ) or a nonchalant brashness (backpacking from Cochin all the way to Thekkady alone) and almost giving up my life in Bombay to live in the hills and grow coffee.

So this was different.

When I arrived at the first resort, Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra in Kovalam, it made me a bit nostalgic. It was an expanse of old heritage homes or tharavadus across eight acres that reminded me of Gayatri’s home in Trichur, except that it was flanked by the sea. And was on a cliff. It was also tradition with a twist. To start with,  I had an open air bathroom with a stone tub.

Bathroom garden at Niraamaya Retreats, Kovalam

No wonder they don’t call them bathrooms, but bath gardens. My home was called Cinnamon and the path to it looked like this:

The road to my home for two days

The road to my home for two days

The only difference between this and the ancestral home I had earlier lived in was that it had all the frills of a five-star and a spectacular view of the sea on one side. So spectacular that I woke up at 6 am the next morning to have tea on the beach. Of course it helped that we had the most endearing and entertaining hosts one could ever dream of, in Poonam and Rejeesh, who with their chutzpah and eye for detail made our stay even more fun.

Tea, coffee or sea?

Tea, coffee or sea?

And while on sea, there were some people at work early in the morning. The early fishing folk.

Fisherfolk on Kovalam beach

Fisherfolk on Kovalam beach at dawn

Well, luxury can get to you and you can spend hours gazing at the waves or the green topped mosque you see at a distance. Or just laze around on the hammocks gazing at this Ganesha.

Reclining Ganesha on the lawns of Niraamaya retreats

Reclining Ganesha on the lawns of Niraamaya retreats

Or just go walkabout spotting the cutest things on this sprawling property

I just pretended this was a wishing well and made a wish

I just pretended this was a wishing well and made a wish

Is your tharavadu bigger than mine?

Why does the neighbour’s house always look better?

The gym was too pretty for me to even think of a workout, so I gazed some more

Pretty gyms can be too distracting for a workout

And why did I forget food? Well, I started the day with idiappams with stew and then did a masterclass with Chef Prakash who has a magic wand hidden somewhere, I am sure. His Venkakkai Pepper fry had me drooling even as he was showing us how to make it (sorry forgot to take a picture) and I also managed to squeeze out the recipe for his Beetroot pickle. The difference between a  Relais & Châteaux resort and any other upscale resort is that they don’t do buffets. They don’t believe in the concept of precooked food, just sitting there for hours. So every meal is freshly cooked and customized to your taste. And you feel like a lord, as no one else is eating what you are eating.

Idiappams,a traditonal Kerala breakfast

Chef Prakash’s heavenly beetroot pickle

And that's how you feel after an Abhyanga snana

And that’s how you feel after an Abhyanga snana. Pic: Shannon Lobo

And then, it was time for some more walkabout and a spa treatment. I had an Abhyanga snana, which actually means one is doused with oil all over and slapped and massaged into a gentle sleep and then eventually, it is time to wake up and have a bath to wash all the oil off. I felt so well scrubbed and rejuvenated that I got all loungy.On the way back, I said hello to mamma jackfruit and baby jackfruit. Once a mom, always a mom, I thought. I tried hard to imagine that this was well-deserved me-time and I must really enjoy it, but each time I saw something interesting or pretty, I couldn’t help thinking of what Re would have said.

Jackfruit fiesta We also went for a boat ride in the Poovar backwaters a few kilometres from Kovalam, where we saw an elephant indulging in some spa treatment

Elephant being bathed in the Poovar backwatersWell, we didn’t realise he was grooming himself for a date later in the evening

Two is company, even with elephantsNext stop: Malabar House in Fort Kochi. Serene and classy, it was love at first sight.

Malabar House, Fort Kochi. Photo: Shannon Lobo

It was like a private garden right in the middle of all the Kochi Biennale action. And the evening buzzed even more, in the company of the absolutely charming Joerg Drechsel, who owns the resort and his Spanish wife Txuku (who admitted gracefully that her name was easy to pronounce by the locals, as she sounded like chickoo, a local fruit). Joerg and Txuku’s love for Kerala dates back 20 years. They came looking for a summer home and found themselves falling in love with Cochin. As they wanted a place to stay, they built Malabar House and it later became a boutique hotel and is now a Relais & Châteaux property.

Fort Kochi otherwise was good, city style fun. First of all, the streets had absolutely come alive with all the Biennale buzz. There was graffiti all around and even a walk through the street was a visual delight. Graffiti in Fort Kochi during the BiennaleGraffiti by the mysterious and iconic GuesswhoIt was the last week of the Kochi Biennale closed, so I just about made it. Spread over multiple venues all over Fort Kochi, Mattanchery palace and Willingdon Island, the Kochi Art Biennale, built on the theme of Whorled Explorations and curated by Jitish Kallat. It was a treat, no less.

Aspin Wall, where the action was at   I wish I had more time, because there were so many spectacular works that caught my eye. Like this tent covered with paintings by Francesco Clemente:Pepper Tent by Francesco ClementeOr this fabulous charcoal sculpture by Shantamani Muddaiah:

Backbone by Shantamani Muddaiah

My favorite moment was when Anju Dodiya walked into the frame as I was gazing at Dayanita Singh’s photography-meets-architecture piece.

Dear Walter by Dayanita Singh

Dear Walter by Dayanita Singh

Lunch pangs had me heading back to Malabar House and what greeted me was a work of art in itself. Chef Manoj’s fennel, lettuce, shallot, beetroot, pomegranate, feta and orange salad. Once again, following the Relais & Châteaux philosophy of food being integral to your stay and cooked to your palate  from fresh organic produce. Chef Manoj at Malabar Housee

Fusion restaurant at Malabar House

Fusion restaurant at Malabar House. Photo: Shannon Lobo

Next stop: Purity on Vembanad lake.

Purity on lake Vembanad is a boat ride away from Fort Kochi, and also accessible by road in an hour. It is another labour of love by Joerg. Purity had me at windows, each one  a piece of art.

Purity on Vembanad lakeJust another spectacular window at Purity The rooms reminded me of some of the work I saw at the Biennale. I pretended to be an artist in residence. This room one was mine, with the famous athangudi tiles from Thanjavur:

Color is the underlying theme at Purity

Color is the underlying theme at Purity

View from Purity. Pic: Shannon Lobo

Wherever you stay, it’s like you have a private lake. And finally, it was time to go. Not before the ceremonial boat ride on the Vembanad lake with the boatman Shaju telling me stories of their nocturnal fishing adventures with the Chinese fishing nets that dot the periphery of the lake.

Girl on a boat

Girl on a boat. Photo: Julie Sam

And then I realized, you can take a girl out of Kerala, but you cannot take Kerala out of a girl. So I spent the next two weeks eating tapioca chips and sweet banana chips and occasionally dipping them in the beetroot pickle that Chef Prakash  of Niraamaya so lovingly packed for me to take back home. It helped.

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