KERALA – the CGH Earth Group Hotels
BLISS, BLISS, BLISS that is my code for complete contentment and comfort which equally might be the mantra for the CGH Earth Experience hotels.
Sometimes in life challenges confront one and sometimes in life some of the supreme challenges all come together in a space of 18 months. For us it had been just such a period in our lives and thus we looked for a much needed holiday that would guarantee rest, relaxation, warmth, sunshine, organic good food, excellent cuisine, Ayurvedic massage, comfort and good service combined with warmth of welcome. The CGH Earth Group sprang to my mind. Fifteen days of this delightful holiday in four places have energized both of us and given a host of happy memorable experiences.
Whether one is sitting on a cottage verandah in the early morning with a welcome cup of tea and listening to the bird calls and cicadas – or watching the backwaters’ fishermen gliding by silently in their canoes; or standing in wonder in the Butterfly Gardens overwhelmed by the flitting and fleeting beauty of these stunning little creatures, or swimming in lovely tepid clear water in the swimming pools, or having an early morning walk along the beach and savouring the start of another day, it is this sort of ambience that we looked for in our holiday.
We flew into Cochin International airport from the UK. There was the Hotels’ Facilitator to greet us and very soon we were in the car with a smiling Joseph taking us to Brunton Boat Yard. We have stayed here fleetingly before in March 2005 when I was researching for my third book India: The Elephant’s Blessing. It was a great pleasure to return to a collective warm welcome. The original Brunton Boatyard was the brainchild of George Brunton who set up a boatbuilding company over a century ago. Enterprising is the description of this man and his sons who not only built boats but started marine exports and other forms of engineering. They were pioneers in their chosen field and indeed such was their craftsmanship and quality that they became a threat to boatbuilding in the UK and consequently it all declined. It has to be remembered that Cochin was a haven for all merchant adventurers and those who embarked on import and export – the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British who all came to Cochin over the centuries as indeed so did the Chinese before them. I do not have the space here to go into the long and fascinating story of this city’s history but suffice to say that the world came to Cochin and indeed the Jewish Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth and was built in 1568 by the Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin. Previous to that in 1502 Vasco da Gama came to Cochin seeking spices and converts. Sadly his devout Roman Catholic faith appeared to conflict with the earlier Syrian Christian religion brought by the Apostle Thomas Didymus in 52 AD. Assertive forms of Christianity do not thankfully always prosper and the residents of Cochin swore on their revered slanting Coonen Cross that they would never accept the aggressive Portuguese suzerainty. Vasco da Gama died in Cochin and was buried initially in the St Francis Church which is reputedly the first Christian church on the mainland of India. Cochin’s rulers were tolerant of other faiths and certainly the European Jews found a safe haven here. This city has much to explore with Dutch cemeteries, Chinese Fishing Nets, the St Francis Church, the Jewish Synagogue, the Santa Cruz Basilica, the Indo Portuguese Museum and the Dutch Palace.
Modern pioneers, the CGH Earth Group bought the old dilapidated boatyard and restored the fine old building and created a special hotel which has the happy relaxed ambience of a bygone era with all the comforts and convenience of a luxury hotel. Once before we enjoyed a full suite but this time we were in a standard suite which was also extremely comfortable. The public areas are airy and all look into a serene green courtyard space dominated by a wonderful Rain Tree – these are iconic of Cochin along with the Chinese fishing nets to which one can walk very easily. The food here is good both in the Armoury Bar/Coffee Shop and the History Restaurant which operates at night only plus the Tea Lounge area. There is also a Terrace Grill. The pool is a delight right on the boundary of the property and one is fascinated by all the huge and busy port traffic that literally steams by night and day. So, all of life is happening here and just outside the property from where it is easy to walk down the roads and see the shops in the various little lanes. We went on a walk the following morning and then were persuaded by a tuk tuk driver called Salim to take his services. He is a good man who took us to the spice warehouses and the spice drying area and indeed anywhere we wished to go. He was fun and also helpful. We were both dismayed by the condition of some of these historic buildings and hope that INTACH or private enterprise will rescue them from total dereliction. We found a wonderful antique shop which doubled as a restaurant near the Spice Auction market near Jew Street – this is a special place in which to browse. That evening we watched fascinated a performance of Ottanthullal dancing which is slightly similar to Kathakali but yet different as the artist plays the part of at least three characters and his facial expressions and contortions make it wonderfully expressive and he engages with his audience; this was hugely funny as he would tease and engage with various tight lipped European tourists who in the end succumbed to his charm and humour. A must do is the sunset cruise which gives one a comprehensive idea of the huge harbour and all of life around it.
After two nights we transferred by car to Coconut Lagoon which was about an hour and a half journey. The car takes one to the Spice Boat transfer jetty and the last 20 minutes is delightful being conveyed across the beautiful tranquil Lake Vembanad. I have done this before but it never ceases to attract me. Previously we had spent a whole 24 hours in a Spice Boat and that was such a memorable experience with beautifully cooked food and comfortable living quarters in a charming bedroom with ensuite bathroom/shower and WC with A/C and mosquito nets. The houseboat crew of three are all so eager and accommodating and one just watches and looks at all of life as the boat serenely travels by and of course reads, and nods off and waves to those on the banks of the waterways. This time we had this short journey and then the next day we embarked on an afternoon cruise with a most delicious lunch cooked for us on board in a modern kitchen. I thoroughly recommend the experience which can be achieved through CGH Earth Coast Cruises from the Boat Jetty or from Coconut Lagoon resort.
The welcome at Coconut Lagoon was warm and noisy and friendly with music and flowers. This is a favourite destination and the original idea was to try and convey the idea of a traditional fishing village in the cottages with their open air bathrooms ensuite to the bedroom; the showers are very good and I particularly enjoy this form of bathroom in the warmth of Kerala. Coconut Lagoon is not accessible by road which makes it unique because arrival and departure has to be by boat. Here you will find careful heritage conservation in some buildings and everything that evokes a feeling of calm and serenity. Little Vechur cows, a bull and the calves are tethered under the coconut palms and add to the feeling of village life. Once before we had a deluxe pool villa which overlooked the lake but this time we were in a heritage bungalow. The food is excellent and varied with a lot of seafood available. The swimming pool is large with a jacuzzi at one curve and a children’s pool; a bar and snacks service is to hand. People come for Ayurveda and yoga and the chefs give cooking demonstrations. The bird sanctuary is nearby and the backwaters can be explored either by spice boat or canoe. The butterfly garden is a delight and that overlooks the acres of paddy fields. I had a splendid Ayurvedic massage here in a room that also overlooked the paddy fields and so could see people working as they must have done for centuries. When showering after the massage and gram scrub the open air bathroom with the sunshine and birdsong made it particularly memorable. In the evenings there are concerts by local musicians and also short dance performances in the activity centre where one can also play various board games. The resident naturalist is available to give information on the birdlife and butterflies and other interesting life forms in the Darter Club where he shows a short film on the butterflies and the dragon flies and also the local birdlife. The laundry service is good too which is important.
Coconut Lagoon is spacious but not huge and therefore one meets other guests and also the Staff interact very well all round. We enjoyed the sunset cruise on Lake Vembanad on which the resident flautist plays his flute. He is a courteous man who normally plays in the reception area of the resort. We were invited to help judge the Pookkallam flower arrangements on the ground that were prepared for the great Festival of Onam. On our last night we also helped light the lamp for the start of Onam in the Staff Mess – for those unfamiliar with this festival it is the way Keralans give thanks for the Land’s Bounty and it is connected to a wonderful myth of a good king that comes down to earth for one day each year to convey his blessing to one and all. The feast of Onam only uses vegetables and part of the preparation is that a family or gathering get together to prepare these diverse vegetables for the wonderful curries and sauces and pickles that will be devoured with enthusiasm off a banana leaf on the day. The whole festival lasts for about ten days and as with Diwali which is such a northern Indian expression of family togetherness, so Onam is for Keralans globally and those within India who try to unite with their family members for some of the time. It was a happy Onam!
On my last morning which was clear and bright (it has to be said that we had arrived on 1st September which normally would have been the end of the monsoon but on this occasion the monsoon was inclined to linger a little too long!). I went out early to photograph in the early morning light and saw some lovely Green Barbets and various of the butterflies like the Blue Tiger (blue spotted), Glassy Tiger which is grey blue and the beautiful Southern Birdwing which is large and black and white with red. Then I spotted two tiny iridescent Bee Eaters – all before breakfast! The water birds included Darters or Snake birds, Cormorants, Herons, Pond Herons and of course wonderful Kingfishers.
We arrived at Marari Beach Resort mid morning and loved being back. This place ticks all our boxes for a relaxed elegant and spacious resort by the sea. For me it resonated with childhood holidays in Orissa at Puri and one can hear the crash of the waves on the shore. This is a place of many mature trees, lawns, shrubs and pools of water lilies; previously they had wonderful pink lotus but that seems to have been replaced by the lilies. There is a huge coconut grove with hammocks and lounger chairs, outside bars and grill restaurant and the pool is attractive with two jacuzzi areas which I particularly like. The pool is really large and thus one can swim lengths or widths and feel that some thing has been achieved! Marari is set in about forty acres and thus there is room to get away from others should you so wish. Walks on the beach and swimming in the winter months are under the watchful eye of life guards and security men and there is an organic vegetable garden with its own kitchen and also the Butterfly Garden. 88 km from Cochin airport it does not take long to reach this destination if it was the only venue in mind. Tennis courts, Ayurveda, Yoga and Meditation are available. One can explore the village life with a hotel guide, cycle, and learn to cook with spices. Alleppey is very close for shopping and I suppose a visit to Fort Cochin if the visitor was not actually intending to stay in Cochin. The restaurant and bar area is very spacious and in season the grill restaurant provides delicious seafood which I experienced way back on a very warm night in March 2005. At tea time a sort of village cart comes to the pool area and dispenses a variety of teas and coffee and biscuits. The Club House has a big television screen and we would go there to hear the news on BBC World….it was the anniversary of 9/11 and we felt it important to hear what was happening on this occasion. People can play chess and board games or cards and there is a Wii Fi zone. The bungalows do not have individual televisions either here or at Coconut Lagoon whereas Brunton Boat Yard does have TV in the suites. The configuration of the standard garden bungalows is excellent and these too have a delightful outside bathrooms in a stunning marble colour way. The pool bungalows are divine and we had No 17 when there in 2005. I recommend these if the budget allows. There are also ten Garden Pool villas with smaller pools set in an attractive private courtyard. The décor at Marari is simple but elegant and the facilities are very comfortable in these spacious light bungalows which also have a lovely verandah with fan on which to sit at any time. Several of the bungalows have ramps for wheelchairs and the bathrooms can accommodate wheelchairs in those as well. Importantly for such a laid back relaxed place there is also The Book House where masses of books are to be found in various languages – obviously left by the many satisfied guests who have read and relaxed here as indeed did we! The Staff at Marari are friendly and helpful and one soon has a good relationship with them all both female and male and naturally one feels sad to be once again saying farewell.
The shops at all these resorts are stylish and well stocked with all sorts of delectable items and I bought happily. Sometimes I found the merchandise in Cochin in the tourist shops was of varying quality and thus disappointing whereas here in these shops all has been purchased by a discerning eye and the buyer has good taste. The soaps and personal care lotions and potions are also very nice to use and worth buying to take back home.
On my last morning in Marari I went swimming again feeling slightly sad that soon I would be leaving; as if to cheer me a most beautiful Southern Birdwing butterfly flitted by and then over the water came a dragon fly low and close to me – now what could be better than that?
We drove to Chittoor Kottaram with Joseph. It is not a long drive but the last bit seemed to take for ever because of the congestion of traffic in downtown Cochin or Ernakulum. But then we arrived….well the welcome was so warm and beautiful from the excellent Milton and the other three Staff. Back in the fourteenth century the Rajah of Cochin built a temple for the deity of the royal family far away from his normal palace; the temple was built in a quiet hamlet called Cheranelloor by the backwaters of Cochin. The rajah became a fervent devotee and realized he needed his own small palace just fifty yards away from the temple. That is the Chittoor Kottaram (kottaram means palace in Malayalam). This is the newest venture of CGH Earth and Chittoor Kottaram provides an exclusive mansion/palace experience in the backwaters; it caters for one party with only three rooms. Thus we were the only guests or we could have had members of our family or group had they been accompanying us. The cuisine is pure vegetarian and the Staff caters to your every need. There is a charming front and rear garden; the rear garden leads down to the backwater where the MV The Grey Heron is moored for the occupants’ sole use. This is fun as we went on two sunset cruises from which we observed the backwaters life and plentiful birdlife as well as the last of the sun. A little snack is provided with drinking water and the whole experience is calm and charming and then one returns to the lighted palace and a welcome from Milton. In the evening there is a cultural activity provided – on our first night it was two of the local temple musicians who came and played and chanted their evening ‘hymns’ for us. The food is served in the dining room which is separate from the actual palace in the grounds. The food is served on a silver thali and is good home Keralan cooking done by Annie. Beer and wine is available if you wish but I mostly drink nimbu pani. Tea and early morning tea and other drinks are brought to the palace. We occupied the upstairs full suite of sitting room and large double bedroom and spacious ensuite bathroom. From the balconies one could observe the birdlife, hear the dawn chorus, the priests chanting and then most amusing and also moving the local Christian school next door at Assembly when they would sing their school hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’. I reflected that here in a Hindu Rajah’s personal pilgrimage palace where he resided whilst praying to his personal deity I was joining in with a Christian hymn that I have known since babyhood in India – indeed a land of diversity and hopefully always tolerance. The ethos being spoken of on National Teachers’ Day which was celebrated late on 14th September because of Onam, urged the young pupils to venerate those that taught them as learning would be their passport to the future. I too recall a special guest in my young days at boarding school in England being urged to remember that a good education is about ‘learning how to learn’. Indeed, advice that has stood me in good stead throughout my life.
The second night brought a personal performance of Ottanthullal by the young artist Maruthorvattom Kannan; it was he we had seen at Brunton but this was only for our enjoyment and it was a pleasure to meet this young man and hear from him of his passion for his art form and I urged that he should think of trying to appear at the world famous Edinburgh Festival next year when India is going to be well represented.
So, all too soon we had come to the end of 15 days in Kerala. It had been a wonderful holiday and one I recommend to others. CGH Earth is so mindful of ‘this little earth that is all we have’. They have sound conservation techniques to save water and energy and have been pioneers in this form of tourism.
This morning upon my return home, as I showered (thankfully in cool Scotland not in an outdoor ensuite bathroom!) I used one of the sweet basil soaps and then I put on some wonderful fragrant jasmine perfume bought in Cochin. It was so evocative of a happy time – Clean, Green, Healthy and rejuvenating!