It wasn’t hard to sell to Mr Smith the concept of a 48-hour stay at Brunton Boatyard in Kerala. Brunton, as it’s familiarly known, is a beautiful and relatively new hotel – surprising given its Colonial appearance – that has been built on the site of the old Victorian boatyard of Geo Brunton and Sons, overlooking the harbour in Fort Cochin. There must be no better hotel for an historian, cricketer and foodie such as my other half. Fort Cochin itself is the oldest European settlement in India, a melting pot of diverse cultures, with mini test matches being played by aspiring young Tendulkars on every available patch of green and food that sets the mouth salivating at 50 paces. More of that later, but needless to say all this had him rushing to pack his luggage quicker than I could say Rudyard Kipling – or even Salman Rushdie, who, incidentally, based the first chapters of his Whitbread prize-winning The Moor’s Last Sigh here.
After a sluggish early morning taxi journey from the airport through the teeming outskirts of Cochin city, we criss-crossed bridges over numerous, tranquil inland waterways finally arriving in the extraordinary time warp that is Fort Cochin. Originally appointed as an important trading post by the rulers of Kerala in 1341, Cochin’s commanding position at the mouth of the Periyar river, together with its abundant supply of ‘Malabar Gold’ – the highly prized Keralan pepper – soon saw the city fought over by the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British in successive centuries. Influences of all these settlers, together Arabian and Jewish traces, are clearly apparent as you drive through the city.
Back in real time though we laugh as we pass a road sign proudly proclaiming, ‘Kerala – God’s own country. Today beautiful. Tomorrow perfect.’ But as we enter the immaculately uniform-guarded gates of Brunton Boatyard, we realise that this boast may not be in vain. The hotelier behind Brunton, the renowned Keralan hotel group CGH Earth, specialises in restoring traditional Keralan properties into eco-friendly luxury hotels while maintaining the original character and atmosphere of each location. By their own admission Brunton is their ‘most audacious effort at restoring heritage’.
With garlands of sweet-smelling flowers round our necks, we were ushered into Brunton Boatyard’s open-air reception area and witnessed at first hand the incredible restoration; the whitewashed walls and tiled floors felt – in a good way – that this was a property that had been around since Victorian times, so comfortable was it in its skin. Traditional punkah fans hanging from the ceiling, cool the overheated guests, and we were handed a thirst-quenching glass of fresh pomegranate and cinnamon juice before being taken to our suite past the lush, foliage-filled inner garden. All 26 rooms at this Fort Cochin hotel overlook the harbour (the best views are from the second floor) and I thanked my lucky stars that Mr Smith was not an avid ‘boat spotter’ as we could see every size, shape, colour and condition of vessel cruising slowly up or down the river immediately below us.
Inside, our room had been treated with just as much attention to detail as the rest of the hotel. The spacious, high-ceilinged room was furnished with heavy teak furniture, the piece de resistance of which was a huge antique four-poster bed so high it needed steps to reach it. The antique furnishings are complemented by state-of-the-art en suite bathrooms and in our case, a walk-in power shower. Another delicious touch was a huge bowl of fresh fruit sitting temptingly on the table, the scent of which made our room sweetly fragrant throughout our stay at Brunton.
By now my travel-weary partner was muttering the words ‘cold beer’, so we descended to the riverside, open-air Terrace restaurant. Here we also found the hotel’s jetty and launch, and a deckchair-lined swimming pool overlooked by a beautiful stone dolphin statue – particularly apt when we later spotted a school of dolphins playing in the river. Having taken a dip in the delicious riverside pool and ordered ice-cold Kingfisher beers to cool off (it is seriously hot in Kerala in spring) it was time for some sustenance. Don’t be deceived by the size of this hotel – Brunton takes its food seriously and has three restaurants, so we opened the lunch menus at the Terrace restaurant with eager anticipation. It proved the best meal that we would have in a whole two weeks of good lunches in Kerala, and we devoured a tasty seafood thali, the tastes and colours of which I can still remember now.
One of the best things about Brunton is its position on the water’s edge and its proximity to the numerous cultural sights of Fort Cochin. While there are rickshaws aplenty vying for tourist trade, we decided to take Brunton up on its offer of bicycles to borrow to explore the town. Just metres from our Keralan boutique hotel, the riverside is lined with Cochin’s famous picture-postcard Chinese fishing nets and vendors selling every conceivable type of fresh fish which can be bought and taken to nearby stalls and cooked to order. (Although when you hear that these stands don’t have any running water, you may find the dining opportunity a little less appealing.) Turning back into town we rode through streets of houses which can’t have changed much in 300 years; we passed the Santa Cruz Basilica and the older church of St Francis in which Vasco da Gama was originally buried. Heading north, we rode past old spice and linen warehouses towards Jew Town, home of a 16th-century synagogue, an equally ancient Jewish cemetery and Cochin’s famous spice market where you can pick up pepper, nutmegs, saffron and curry leaves for a handful of rupees. It was all that this pair of tourists could hope for from a cycle tour of Cochin.
Bicycling in the early evening Keralan heat meant that we soon needed to put that mighty shower into action and, once dressed, we descended to the colonial Armoury Bar for cocktails mixed with exotic fresh fruits. Having sipped our way through several decidedly un-Indian but nevertheless excellent Mojitos, food was in order and, naturally, we craved curry. Famous Keralan chef Jerry Matthews presides over the History restaurant and has created a great variety of fusion dishes. Favourites include the Anglo-Indian ‘first class railway curry’, Portuguese roast pork and Syrian roast duck. Sadly a passing rainstorm prevents us from sitting outside on the terrace, but we discovered the indoor dining room is fun, the service top-class and the food sublime – my fish curry hit the spot in fieriness and taste. There was even a good wine list to keep us amused – quite a rarity in India
Thanks to this Mr & Mrs Smith Keralan escape, we discovered Fort Cochin to be one of the most fascinating historical towns we’ve visited and we loved walking or cycling through the quiet leafy residential streets or the packed, busy, rickshaw-honking markets. Mr Smith saluted me for our chosen stay – Brunton Boathouse is the perfect hotel from where to explore this historical Keralan hub. Grown up, polite, comfortable and with superb food and service, I suspect Geo Brunton himself looks down with pride at how the very best standards of the Empire are being maintained well into the 21st century.