Goodbye houseboats, and hello luxury. Kerala is loaded with small luxuries, such as karimeen fish roasted in banana leaf and then smeared with turmeric and other Keralite spices; backwaters balancing bushy water hyacinths alongside coir-woven houseboats; and mountain slopes coloured-in green with tea plantations and slender silver oaks.
When it comes to luxury journeys through Kerala’s backwaters and the misty Western Ghats, however, it’s time to tell the state’s teak and bamboo kettuvallam fleet to move aside. Where you stay sets the foundation for your trip, so if you want to steer your central and south Kerala journey down a thoroughly luxurious, heritage-inspired course, the following sought-after backwater resorts, boutique bungalows, plantation properties, and eco resorts should most definitely be in the running for a slot on your itinerary.
Forte Kochi, Cochin
Luxury isn’t hard to track down in Kerala’s pert and plugged-in port capital, Cochin. The city has ranks of heavyweight chain hotels, but those searching for luxury properties with character should sojourn in Forte Kochi. The boutique heritage hotel is located in the crux of the capital’s old town, Fort Kochi, 250 metres from the Chinese fishing nets in Cochin harbour. In its time, the Dutch-crafted bungalow has masqueraded as an eminent 1800s Jewish abode, before its current restoration into a boutique five-star hotel with a Dutch-Portuguese-British architectural identity.
As the saying goes in Portugal, the grander the staircase, the richer the house. That may be why the spiral staircases unite large balcões with the central courtyard’s Portuguese-style ceramic Azulejos tiles, a swimming pool, and a traditional wishing well. With colonial terracotta roof tiles and shuttered windows framed by cantarias typical of Portugal and four-poster beds reminiscent of Tudor England, you might think that you’re lounging in a country home in the mountains of the Algarve or sleeping in a British manor suite rather than residing in Kerala’s tropical capital.
Marari Beach Resort, Marari
In Marari fishing village, time plays out as it did centuries ago. Fishermen hoist mackerel, shrimp, and sardines from coir-woven bamboo catamarans for the auction and ladies wield the fibre from coconut husks into rope, nets, and fishing boats. While the traditional fishing village is yet to catch up with the ways of the big smoke, Marari Beach Resort has spun together a recipe that combines the art of luxurious living with sustaining fisherfolk traditions.
The 30-acre beachfront resort has a palatial saltwater pool, a private beach, an ayurveda centre, and a set of 62 private villas, including a selection consecrated with their own dipping pools. Still, the resort doesn’t forsake its roots or its duty to the community. The private villas are forged in the style of village fishing cottages, the roofs are tenderly thatched by village architects, and trendy art décor is supplied by female coir weavers. Local farmers harvest fare such as tapioca and rice for the farm-to-table restaurant.
Kumarakom Lake Resort, Kumarakom
Honeymooners, wildlife watchers, and heritage appreciators all seek out Kumarakom Lake Resort. It may be the five-star resort’s bearings beside India’s longest lake, which is laden with gently billowing lilies and water hyacinths, it may be the Tharavadu-style heritage villas, styled with teak wood, tiled roofs, Asian-style furnishings, and extended rafters. Another darling feature is the 250-metre meandering pool, which ties together the duplex villas like an opulent, miniature metropolis. Popular, too, is the traditional kettuvallam houseboat, which departs daily at dusk to chase the orange orb on its dash down behind the horizon.
Kumarakom Lake Resort is one of a handful of eco resorts positioned on the banks of Vembanad Lake. However, what sets apart this particular resort is its backwater village feel. If it wasn’t for the selection of swimming pools, the authentic ayurveda centre, and seafood bar, the 16th-century ancestral-style homesteads arranged around slim canals and coconut groves could be mistaken for a backwater community.
Amber Dale Hotel and Spa, Munnar
There’s no need to assemble and jostle with other tourists on hairpin bends to get the best views of Munnar’s fertile tea plantations. The five-star Amber Dale Hotel is positioned 1,532 metres above sea level in the highlands of Pallivasal and the tea plantations are laid out over the slopes below, as if for your own personal perusal.
Yet, the hotel doesn’t lose its heritage in the mist that cuddles around the mountainside and contours of the hotel’s turrets. The ayurveda centre runs traditional treatments such as Abhyanga, marma massage, and Elakizhi and a Village Thattukada serves hot tea on deck. Guests can dine on Malayali, Malabar and international concoctions in the plantation-facing restaurant, but many of the 50 rooms also have their own hot tub spa with a private looking glass over the tea pickers below.
Windermere Estate, Munnar
Munnar may be known as the land of tea, but there are also cardamom plantations sequestered in the misty Western Ghats. One cardamom plantation does more than harvest spices for cardamom-laced Kerala dishes such as semiya payasam and muttamalla. It also hosts a boutique clifftop hotel in the form of a Planter’s Bungalow. The 18 rooms are inspired by old planters’ homes, farmhouses or mountain chalets, and their balconies look over trees populated by Malabar squirrels and cardamom bushes.
Carefully constructed and positioned at the top of the valley by the original Planter, the bungalow catches a valley breeze scented with cardamom, tea, and coffee. Local craftsmen have personally woven and embroidered the coir furniture and cotton linen and polished the terracotta tiles with linseed oil and wax. The hotel chef wields little power over the menu, letting the local harvest and your taste buds dictate his creativity. Dinners are served in the Barn, a design based upon cardamom curing houses, and fried nibbles, hot chai, and barbecued specials warmed over charcoal-fired samovars are served from the hotel’s 70-foot-high bolder venue.