Exploring the great city of Kerala
Story and Photography by Andrea McVeigh
It was always my childhood dream to have a treehouse. It seemed like the perfect hideaway from parents, responsibilities and real life, a place where I could play games and make friends with the animals (I was heavily influenced by Dr. Dolittle). The toys and Dr. Dolittle fantasies have long gone, and I never did get that treehouse, but decades later in the southwest of India, in the state of Kerala, nestled on the tropical Malabar Coast, my dream did come true for one night at least.
In travel, as with real estate, it’s all about location, location, location, and Kerala’s positioning on India’s West Coast, bordering the Arabian Sea, with the Western Ghats mountain range to the east, is one of the reasons why the state of Kerala is so popular with tourists.
A one-hour drive up a mountain, passing nine hold-on-to-the-edge-of-your-seat hairpin bends, is the Vythiri Resort situated on the slope of a forested hill in Wayanad, northern Kerala, beneath the enormous canopy of a lush tropical rainforest. In addition to its luxurious glass-floored villas with private swimming pools, Vythiri is home to not just one, but five, treehouses, all in the middle of the rainforest and adjacent to the resort.
Surprisingly spacious, the most luxurious of the five comes with its own Jacuzzi bath, bathroom and double bed, the usual things you’d find in a hotel, except there are also two thick tree branches rising up from the floor through the roof. And that’s where my travel partner and I stayed for the night. After dinner, we were advised to pack an overnight bag before a guide escorted us up the reassuringly substantial staircase to our bamboo-walled dwelling, 75 feet above the forest floor, on top of a sturdy 250-year-old banyan tree.
Sitting on our treehouse terrace listening to the sounds of nature, we soaked up this taste of rustic luxury. With no TV, radio nor Wi-Fi, we settled back in our balcony chairs as the sun set and the distant sparkle of a thousand planets and stars lit up the midnight-blue sky.
Another side to India
Think of India and, for some people, “Delhi belly,” overcrowding and poverty spring to mind. But step away from the major cities, and there’s a wonderful world of color, hospitality and beautiful, diverse scenery.
The scenery in Kerala alone ranges from palm tree-lined beaches along the Arabian Sea to dense interior rainforest, mountain tea, coffee and spice plantations and inland backwaters with their network of canals. Wildlife sanctuaries also draw visitors, as do boutique hotels offering programs of Ayurveda treatments to balance both body and soul. They may not be the sort of whale-music-and-scented-candles sort of spa treatments you’re used to, but it’s fine. Sitting on a stool in one of Vythiri’s spa rooms, naked except for a paper thong, I knew that what the spa, and many like it, lacked in frills, it made up for in authenticity. Kerala is one of the best places to enjoy Ayurvedic treatments in India. This traditional Hindu practice takes a holistic approach to well-being, believing in balancing the body and mind through herbal treatments, diet and breathing.
My tour took me from Kerala’s northern end to the busy tourist city of Kochi, a bit more than halfway down the state, staying in hotels along the route for just a couple of nights before moving on. We traveled by chauffeur-driven car, usually provided by the next hotel along the route.The better hotels will often arrange transfers for guests because driving on unfamiliar roads in a foreign country isn’t always recommended, and some of the hotels are particularly out of the way.
Kerala is a great “entry level” destination if you’ve never been to India. There is poverty, of course, and in a country numbering 1.3 billion people with a still functioning caste system, that’s no surprise, but Kerala is a prosperous state. Outside of the big cities, women and men still wear traditional dress. The women looking beautiful in colorful saris, the men repeatedly tying and retying their lungi, the rectangular cloth that covers them from waist to knee.
Northern Kerala isn’t much different from the South in terms of weather (there are two rainy monsoon seasons, in June and from mid-October to mid-November), but it’s where you’ll find more of the plantations and hill stations (high altitude towns favored by the colonialists as a place to escape the summer heat). An eight-hour, 248-mile drive from Vythiri is touristy Kochi. (You’ll also see it called Cochin, the British colonial name that is still used by many locals and often used interchangeably.) By either name, it’s a seaport city of modern shopping malls and international hotel chains and the industrial and commercial capital of Kerala.
The fort-less Fort Kochi
Standing in the lobby of the Kochi’s Spice Fort heritage boutique hotel, I’m telling Sujith, the hotel’s affable frontman, about all the things I like about the hotel and this part of town. I like the large courtyard swimming pool and the fact its water is so naturally warm in October that it’s like swimming in a pleasant bath. I tell him I love Saffron, the hotel’s organic restaurant and the importance placed on local, seasonal produce, and I particularly love the masala dosa (a type of crisp pancake made from fermented batter and filled with spicy potato and onions), but he might have guessed that already because I had three for lunch.
I told him I liked the location in the historic district – known as Fort Kochi – with its outdoor market stalls, where haggling is the norm, and near the famous giant Chinese fishing nets. The nets are known as Chinese and not Indian because they are thought to have been introduced in the 14th century by Chinese traders. These days they’re mostly for tourist appeal because they’re too close to the shore to catch many fish. A popular ruse is to invite tourists to use a pulley system to pull up the nets, then demand money before you’re allowed off the dock.
I was intrigued by the history of the 140-year-old building that is now home to the 27-room hotel, each room named after a spice in honor of Kochi’s centuries-long position at the center of the Indian spice trade. Nearby is the Paradesi Synagogue, a 400-year-old synagogue that is now a tourist attraction.
There’s just one thing that’s bothering me. I’ve been exploring all day, I’m hot, sticky and sweaty in the humidity and 86-degree heat, and I still can’t find the fort.
“Ah,” says Sujith, “Fort Kochi has everything. Except a fort.”
There was once a Portuguese fort here, but it’s long gone. Many different cultures and colonialists called Kochi home over the years, the Portuguese, the Dutch and, more recently, the British. Each one left a mark in street names and architecture, cuisine and attractions such as St. Francis church, opened in 1516, and reportedly the first European-built church in the whole of India. Colonialism only ended when India gained independence in 1947.
These days the invaders are hippie travelers, foodies, women like me and you. Seekers of some of the best holistic spa treatments and soakers-up of the local colors, sights, smells and tastes. There’s a reason why Kerala is also known throughout the world as God’s Own Country. Who even needs a fort?