‘Oh God, you’re turning into a twitcher,’ said Mrs Smith as I triumphantly leapt in the air, binoculars in one hand, Salim Ali’s exhaustive Birds of Kerala in the other, shouting ‘it’s a white-bellied sea eagle. I told you!’ She was wrong, of course – upon returning to London from our Keralan holiday, I’m no more interested our hometown’s pigeons than I was before I left, but such is the glory of Lake Vembanad’s fauna that I have to admit to spending a good portion of time aboard the Discovery, Malabar Escapes’ Keralan backwater boat, squealing like a schoolboy every time I spied one of the many kingfishers or herons fishing alongside us.
It was with similar gasps of delight that we arrived at Privacy near the sleepy village of Kumarakom – Malabar Escapes’ departure point at Sanctuary Bay – for our cruise on the stylish Discovery. Here at the backwaters outpost of the famed Cochin boutique hotel, Malabar House, we first set eyes on the contemporary blue-green converted rice barge that was to be our air-conditioned Keralan home for the next 24 hours. After a quick welcome drink of crushed pineapples (how quickly one overcomes airport fatigue in balmy Kerala) we boarded Discovery, speedily changing in our air-conditioned bedroom before heading up onto Discovery’s sun deck as we chugged slowly away from palm-filled terra firme into Alleppey’s celebrated network of canals.
Having been introduced to all of Discovery’s charming staff, we sat down to lunch in the shade, the wind cooling our faces and the local Viognier cooling our throats. An aside on the wines; Indian red wine is, well, ‘unique’ shall we say? Read: ‘Probably best avoided’. Of the whites, the Viognier, made near Mumbai with the help of a Frenchman, was the best that I tried. Not only does it work well with Kerala’s seafood diet, but it also complements Discovery’s confident international cuisine, including a lunchtime triptych of salads that boasted a perfect babaganoush.
After lunch, Mrs Smith retired to a sunlounger while I took up a Kate Winslet-inspired position at the prow of our dedicated-to-leisure boat. (That’s where any comparisons end; I made do without Leonardo di Caprio’s reassuring embrace, and perhaps more noteworthy, we didn’t sink.) Waving occasionally to the occupants of the other more traditional bamboo vessels on this freshwater lake (Discovery is out on its own as Vembanad’s sexiest ship), I took in the beauty of the nature-rich tropical surroundings. As well as the arachnid-like fishing nets in evidence all over the state and a couple of tiny densely thicketed islands, the Vembanad Lake boasts dozens of magnificent feathered creatures. I was particularly taken with the cormorants. Sleek like seals, and as competent at swimming, these little waterbirds spend a lot of their time perching elegantly on poles or squawking exuberantly at the egrets. Had I not been aboard such a beautiful barge I might have been a little jealous of their happy fish-filled lives.
Later, after belly flopping into the lake for a quick swim (less cormorant, more urban pigeon), we moored back at Privacy at Kumarakom. No boats are allowed on the water after 5.30pm, lest they interfere with the fishermen’s spidery nets. This, though, is only a minor nuisance as Privacy is a delightful spot for a romantic candlelight meal on top of this floating boutique hotel-style abode.
A word on Indian food today, for anyone a little outdated on their Indian tourism. Aged 19, I visited Delhi. Scared of nothing, and stupidly naïve it turned out, as some things can be very scary – like the Indian capital’s namesake belly-affecting bug. Having been very ill, upon I have to admit to being a little hesitant about eating anything other than thoroughly boiled vegetables in India. This mighty country is a much-changed place though, it took just a few bites of Keralan food to realise that I had nothing to fear from the delicious masala-grilled scampi in front of me. Mrs Smith is used to getting her dessert and mine, but the chocolate samosas with a mango colis was a rare pudding moreish enough for me to finish.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of the boat’s engine gently stirring in preparation for our final foray on Lake Vembanad’s smooth waters. This time we headed north, further away from the Arabian Sea coastline and while we purred along, we enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit and tasty poached eggs as we passed tiny coconut-framed thatched villages on the shore, the postcard-perfect homes of fishermen and their families.
As dusk drew closer, we returned to sister-to-Malabar House, Privacy. Made up of one air-conditioned detached suite that opens up onto the water and two smaller rooms housed in a separate building surrounded by foliage-laced ponds, Privacy is a secluded idyll a world away from the more commercial resorts that dot the shores of Lake Vembanad. Our traditional wooden cottage, with its quietly humming fan, had three doors. One led to an outside bathroom, which as well as offering the possibility of starlight showering was laden with huge chunks of natural soaps wrapped in banana leaves and little bottles of rose water. Mrs Smith can no more pass by free toiletries than she could a drowning kitten, and we’re now considering an extension to house the unguents and balms that she picked up during our time in India. The second led to a spacious communal reading room, which housed deep comfy sofas and a small but well-stocked library. The third door opens to Privacy’s swimming pool – a bright-blue rectangle around which we spent the afternoon gazing out at the lake, only flinching to marvel at the shocking-pink lotus flowers or the plump fish occasionally causing a splash in the ponds.
The star of the final evening of our Malabar Escape, proved to be the tasty, tender seer fish we enjoyed in the soft glow from the bangle-like lights curled round the arching tropical tree trunks. Inexplicably, seer isn’t a fish coveted in Britain, probably in part because no one’s heard of it. And if you’ll pardon our new friend the seer providing a metaphor for Privacy and Discovery, it’s crazy too that more visitors to Kerala don’t know this marvellous boutique backwater spot. It felt like our little secret. And in all honesty, having revelled in our exclusive adventure, I feel reluctant to share such a special experience with anyone, as cat-out-of-the-bag worthy as a Privacy and Discovery proved to be.