Imagine Kent, the garden of England as it used to be known, with its endless orchards, fields of hops and fecund woodland. Now turn the thermostat up to the mid thirty-degree mark, crank the humidity machine up to full and paint in a range of dramatic mountains. Add in the smell of woodsmoke, spices and aromatic cooking, then turn the volume up so that you can hear the gentle susurration of the cooling breeze through the tea plantations of the highlands or the rhythmic chug of marine engines as houseboats sluice their way across the coastal lakes and slowly a picture of Kerala begins to emerge. Kerala the fertile, Kerala the fragrant, Kerala the beautiful. Like Kent, but with the colour, contrast and volume turned to maximum.
This southwestern state of India is rapidly becoming the destination of choice for travellers of all tastes and budgets. They are not wrong. The variety of landscapes and cultures it has to offer are second to none, but so too is the range of accommodation. Homestays are becoming the newest ‘new big thing’ since eco-tourism - the two concepts are not unrelated – and they are playing a key role in the growth of tourism in the region.
On a recent three-centre tour I started in the highlands of Munnar, just west of the border that separates Kerala from Tamil Nadu and the centre of the tea growing industry, started in the 19th century by Scottish planters. The air here, 6000 feet above sea level, is cool and clear. The roads wind and climb the hillsides giving glimpses of spectacular waterfalls one minute and the verdant green, hobbity, topiary of tea fields the next. The highest tea plantation in the world, the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate is here, just fifteen miles from the colourful, pungently aromatic, bustling centre of the little town of Munnar. Not a huge distance, but three hours by bouncing, lurching jeep up an impossibly vertiginous turnpiking track on the private estate. Worth every bruise and scrape of knee for the views from over 2km above sea level and for the purest, freshest tea it’s possible to drink.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the region and not just tea. Cedar Woods, the homestay that was my billet for two nights, is set in 75 acres of cardamom, vanilla, coffee and cocoa plantation. Nutmeg grows wild here, its pear shaped fruit falling and exploding on the ground to reveal the nutmeg within, wrapped in a red sheath that looks for all the world like a waxy, alien, lacework version of something that normally covers a Dutch cheese and which when dried is better known as mace. Cardamom curing houses dot the hillsides, the sweetly fragrant smoke hanging in the air like cathedral incense. Not for nothing is the adjacent homestay, an award-winning pepper plantation, named Spice Garden.
This is not a wealthy area. As the younger generation flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to find work in the hotels and restaurants, the pool of agricultural labour has diminished. A worker in the spice trade who five years ago would receive 60 rupees for a days work can now command 250 rupees. But the value of the spices they pick and process has not risen and so the owners of smallholdings are opening their homes to visitors to supplement their incomes. Warmly welcoming and eager to ensure that guests are spoiled with truly excellent home-cooked food, the hosts of these clean and comfortable family homes manage to be superbly hospitable, attentive and informative without becoming intrusive. They have taken the adage “Invite a guest, send back a friend” to their hearts.
Six hours westwards along pitted roads where monkeys wait for handouts on the verge is Pala. Larger than Munnar and straddling the river Meenachil, it is a lively little town set in the rolling hills of Kerala’s mid country. Here the landscape is more tropical. Palm trees abound. The humidity is turned up another notch or two. The Indian street orchestra of constant car horns and puttering auto-rickshaws (three wheeled Vespa scooters with bench seats and flat bed rears for loading with wood, families, furniture or fare-paying passengers) is louder here, more cacophonous but somehow pleasantly and curiously calmingly so. Outside the town are stands of rubber trees, private groves that support entire extended families one of which were to be my hosts.
The Meenachil Enclave is the heart of a small industry and a good example of the diversity that one family relies upon for its sustenance. It is also properly luxurious, opulent even. The house looks like a Thai temple. Beautifully ornate wood panelling, doors and carvings rise up from the pristine lawns on which are dotted bird cages alive with budgerigars, love birds and in one three very impressive eagles. The marbled interior, with its central atrium open to the sky so that rain feeds the water feature, would not look out of place in a five star hotel anywhere in the world. The bedrooms, crammed with dark wood furniture, designer bathrooms and skin-caressing linens, belie the fact that this is not just a family home but an ancestral home.
Rubber is the mainstay. The result of the mornings tapping brought to the rear of the house for processing, rolling and finally smoking in the lofts above. The cured sheets of latex, thick bathmats of browned rubber are then stored, hung over wooden dowels until the market price meets with the owner’s approval. The rear of the house is where the chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs (oh yes) are kept in hutches or roam the pasture. No pets these though, but good organic ingredients for superb Keralan cuisine. The byre hold cows for milk. There is a pool. There is family warmth. There is impeccable hospitality and gracious attention to one’s comfort. There is even gold cutlery.
Finally to the coast, not that of the Indian Ocean however, but of Lake Vembanad and the town of Alleppey, the Venice of the East.
Here there is a delightful breeze and life takes on the slower pace that proximity to large bodies of water instils. Here there are endless paddy fields of rice. Here there is Vembanad House, a family home surrounded on three sides by water, a spiritual retreat and a balm to the world weary. Here there is lobster fishing from wooden canoes that leave from steps at the bottom of the garden, where clams can be raked from the lake bottom and cooked for you over open fires under waving palms. This is where time can be spent gently, swinging in a hammock, visiting the Church of St Mary in Champakullam, a site of Christian worship since St Thomas founded a church here in AD 52. Here the beautiful husband and wife owners and their wonderful small son will play cricket with you, cook you exquisite Ayurvedic inspired meals to be eaten at night under the star-studded velvety skies by the lakeshore and then treat you to a captivating Kathakali performance by masters of this oldest of theatre forms. Here there is India, glorious India. A little like Kent and at the same time nothing like Kent at all.
Paul Blezard stayed at the following Mahindra Homestays locations:
Cedar Woods, Munnar, Kerala with Jean and Anita Jayan
Meenachil Enclave, Kottayam, Kerala with Jose and Mariamma Kuruvinakunnel.
Vembanad House, Alleppey, Kerala with ‘Bala’, Sandhya and Dhanush Balakrishnan.