‘And what are your good names?’ asked our waiting driver as he led us to his white Ambassador, India's signature Forties-style taxi car. Wood smoke, incense, jasmine and open sewers were the colourful smells of Kerala that greeted our nostrils as we made the journey from Trivandrum airport. The drive to the Marari Beach Resort in Alleppey took six bumper-to-bumper beeping hours and was peppered with a few ‘I’m gonna shut my eyes now’ moments as we ducked oncoming traffic, potholes, people and cows, with our driver leaning on his horn to warn every vehicle, person, animal and approaching corner that we were coming until we eventually arrived at our destination. But what a fantastic start to a true Keralan adventure.
The reception at Marari Beach Resort was suitably soothing, an open-sided lodge with wickerwork roof and dark wood and bamboo furniture within. We were welcomed by a friendly smiling face, offering fresh orange coconuts to drink, which taste more tangy and citrusy than their white-fleshed cousins. Indeed, what a welcome. A slow-paced guided stroll to our villa took us through the beautifully lit grounds, dense with lush vegetation – breadfruit trees, Chinese guava (OK, I confess I’m not a botanist, much of the plantlife is labelled) – and a cacophony of exotic nocturnal sounds. I was tingling with excitement at the sensory explosions so different to London and was already won over before we'd even reached the villa we'd so look forward to staying in.
Positioned in a little village of villas, here ours sat: white and thatched with floor-to-ceiling windows and two lovely high-backed, low-slung cane chairs on the deck. And I was happy to see that as charming as the thatched roof is, it wasn’t in evidence from inside the villa – I have a lifelong war with mosquitoes and dark colours camouflage them all too well. I knew the white-plastered ceiling and large fan would give me an advantage come bedtime. The air-conditioned interior revealed itself to be fantastically fresh and spacious, with a big bed and a wicker-seating area that wouldn’t look out of place in a smart, suburban conservatory.
As for the bathroom – what a gorgeous surprise. Part open-air, with the roof sloping to a finish over an ornamental stone rockery from which grew a tropical palm, while the thatch covered the shower, wash basin and toilet area and kept them sheltered. (This ensuite was just perfect for our budding romance as the mere thought of going to the loo in badly ventilated bathrooms is a natural Imodium for this traveller. Mr Smith thinks I exude roses and I’m happy to keep it that way, at least until the honeymoon period is over.) There was even an array lovely products including a small bark loofah – an attention-to-detail beloved by this bathroom-goodies junkie.
Having arrived at Marari Beach in time for supper, we found our way to the thatched one-storey, open-sided main restaurant, at this time soundtracked by local musicians, complete with tabla and sitar. Carved dark wooden furniture and low lighting helped make it surprisingly intimate for its size. Dinner here in the main restaurant is buffet-style with soups and salads to start, and masses of Keralan main dishes to try – ideal if you’re not familiar with the flavours and the spices of the region. Vegetarians will especially revel at this country's varied meat-free aromatic cuisine. White-hatted chefs barbecue meat and fish to order and are on hand to advise, and there are always a couple of Western dishes for the less adventurous. Our bellies full, we retired to our cool, calm villa for an early night in beds by now garnished with pretty fresh jasmine petals.
The next morning, I was delighted to wake up in India bite-free – a far cry from my backpacking days – and I jumped out of my crisp white sheets eager to explore Marari’s frond- and flower-filled grounds by daylight. Mr Smith had risen early for a yoga class and joined me in the restaurant for a breakfast buffet of fresh juices, fruits, cereals, the usual cooked suspects and a selection of Keralan offerings. Now, I have to confess that I’m quite a traditionalist when it comes to the first meal of the day, and as much as I enjoyed watching the chef dropping and spreading dosa batter onto the hotplate to make a very large thin and crispy pancake, I decided to play safe and eat a croissant. Silly mistake, as India isn’t renowned for its French-style pastries. Fortunately the chef had mistaken my interest in his dosa-making as an order and promptly arrived at our table with a plate bearing a fresh creation accompanied by sambar (a mildly spicy gravy with vegetables), coconut chutney and chillies for me. It was traditionally Keralan and delicious.
There’s a big board in the restaurant outlining that day’s activities offerings, so resisting the lure of the sparkling emerald-green outdoor pool and its masses of sunloungers, we opted for an 11h eco tour with Jesan. This smart soul took us on an exploration of this eco-friendly resort’s sprawling grounds. We visited the organic vegetable garden and learned about local produce, praised the composting of old thatching, admired solar panels equipped to produce sufficient hot water for the whole resort and even saw evidence that all food waste is converted into an impressive amount of methane gas. Not just a pretty face, this Marari Beach. Even the herb garden provides the Ayurvedic centre with many of the ingredients for its cosmetic and therapeutic treatments.
Feeling proud of ourselves after an enlightening morning spent learning so much, we felt we’d earned a long, lazy lunch of barbecued fish at the Beach Shack washed down with pineapple, honey and ginger smoothies. And the perfect afters? A post-prandial snooze in one of the many hammocks strung among the palm trees that run down to the fantastic white-sandy beach.
We eventually eased ourselves back into action at the circular beach bar, with some very quirky cocktails. Mr Smith chose a savoury fresh garlic-infused concoction that resembled a fizzy Thai soup. Tom Yum? Tom Yuck, sadly. I warned him any bedtime kisses had flown out the window and was pleased to see him abandon it and order another tipple made with ginger. Mind you, there we were being treated to the most beautiful sunset across the Arabian Sea, after the most fantastic start to any Keralan holiday – even the most potent garlic breath could do little to dampen the most romantic Marari Beach moment imaginable.
And, you don't have to go all the way to India to enjoy the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine; in our spa feature, we highlight some Mr & Mrs Smith hotels in Europe that offer excellent Ayurvedic spa experiences.