As much as we’d loved staying in boutique hotels in remote rural idylls during our Kerala trip, we were looking forward to a dose of urban Indian life, care of historic Cochin. For me, the beauty of this mighty sub-continent is all its colourful contrasts, and we were eagerly anticipating the sensory explosions of a stay at the Malabar House hotel in Fort Cochin. This stylish South Indian hotel has been open for 10 years, and with the boast that it was the first boutique hotel in Kerala, has earned almost cult status in luxury travel, making our visit to the city all the more exciting.
The heady smells of frying food, incense, fuel fumes, jasmine, frangipani, dust, spices and burning rubbish jumbled in the humid air as we sped through the streets of Cochin. Ridiculously busy and bustling, Fort Cochin’s narrow stall-packed streets were filled with people, animals, rickshaws, cars, scooters, bicycles – and the deafening cacophony they create. Vibrant green, fluoro pink, acid yellow and dazzling orange saris glowed against the beautiful skin of gold-jewellery-adorned Keralan women, clashing spectacularly with brightly painted shop fronts and rickety shacks.
Reaching a large expanse of parade ground where boys were playing cricket and football, it took a second look to spy our hotel, Malabar House, hidden on a corner at the junction of two quiet streets. An off-the-hectic-track location makes this original east-meets-west boutique hotel a calm, cool beacon of space on a gloriously sunny hot afternoon – irresistible after the hubbub of Cochin. A heritage property, Malabar House’s history can be traced back to 1755; its modern-day layout combines two colonial style villas with a connecting courtyard. A few steps into the airy, mustard-hued reception, and eye-catching sculptures ramp up the wow-factor; I’m sure the receptionist noticed that the carved wooden horse and its unmissably large (and detailed) appendage made me blush. Checked in, we had snoop around the Continental café-feel courtyard, resplendent with a pink frangipani tree shading a small pool. Its occupants weren’t quite the swimwear-clad guests we’d expected, though; Mr & Mrs Pigeon were having a quick splash and eyeing up the few sunloungers and director’s chairs squeezed into the rhombus of sun on the terrace.
My eco instincts usually baulk at air-conditioning being left on when no one’s in the room but, I confess, as we stepped into our room, it was lovely to feel chilled air after the long, hot drive from Thekkady. Unfortunately, we hadn’t emphasised our room preference, and ours was a no-view twin on the ground floor at the front of the house, rather than one of the suites upstairs. The room itself was simply furnished, enhanced by an ornately carved and rather lovely cabinet, and a sleek propeller-style ceiling fan; the compact red bathroom had a delightful selection of Malabar’s own pampering products.
By now, night was falling, and dinner was calling – no, hollering – from the hotel courtyard, which looked charming: all green-lit trees, sparkling pool, and tabla-patting, sittar-plucking musicians on a totem-pole-framed dais. The extensive list of Indian wines scanned, we quizzed our waiter about the three rosés on offer. His first less-than-expert bubblegum-pink recommendation was swiftly rejected with good humour; the second was a peach-toned Zinfadel that tasted as good as one would expect from any quality restaurant in London. As we’d been living exclusively on curries for a week by now, we were delighted by the menu’s Mediterranean twist, and didn’t feel guilty ordering salads, gnocchi and an aubergine parmigiano. The pudding list was just as alluring, and we found space for the hotel’s speciality: chocolate samosas. We’d have sat swooning over the delicious deep-fried parcels of melted chocolate in mango sauce for longer, but our table’s close proximity to the pool meant mozzie madness. We weren’t the only ones feasting – some bit right through our clothes. Still, a Bollywood movie on the flatscreen TV back in our boudoir with the rest of our wine was hardly a poor compromise.
After a breakfast of papaya, pineapple and watermelon, muesli, and poached eggs, we were ready to get stuck into some shopping. First on our list was getting some favourite pieces of clothing from home copied by a local tailor. A tip from staff at the Old Harbour Hotel, where we stopped for coffee, led us a short walk to Thomas the Tailor. Thomas recommended somewhere for fabrics a 10-minute rickshaw ride away. Both seasoned India travellers, we’re experienced at bartering, but this being our first buy of the trip, we’d forgotten all our skills, and ended up settling on a price more befitting of Savile Row. Still, back with friendly Thomas, and thanks to his promise of turning our linen trousers around in record time, it seemed a steal. A poke through the clothes shops deemed local purchases a bit too hippie-ish and – with costs matching Camden Market – a bit too pricey for my tastes, so we saved our retail hankerings for FabIndia, around the corner from Malabar House. (It proved a treasure trove for gifts, and I stocked up on well made, gorgeously printed cottons and prettily packaged Ayurvedic toiletries.)
Our walk back to Malabar House took us along the water’s edge, where Fort Cochin’s iconic Chinese fishing nets were silhouetted against the evening sky. Passing so many stands en route displaying freshly caught seafood on ice makes it tempting to stop and buy some, and take it to one of the makeshift cafés opposite to be cooked and served for you. It all looked so authentic and inviting, only we’d booked a table at the famous Fort Cochin fish restaurant at the Casino Hotel on Willingdon Island.
For the true Indian transit experience, we hailed a rickshaw and squeezed in for a bumpy ride. The half-hour drive took us through busy Cochin and crossed over the river to Willingdon Island. Suddenly the streetlights ended and the rest of our journey was in ominous darkness through an area of warehouses, parked-up trucks and dawdling drifters. Our imaginations were running riot by now, and we were sure our driver was planning to sell us to one the shadowy figures, or pitch us into the harbour. Just then our cheery chauffeur chirpily announced that we had arrived at the Casino Hotel. Ah.
We padded through a brightly lit reception to a rustic but surprisingly romantic outdoor restaurant, Fort Cochin. Once seated at an open-to-the-stars table, we ordered incredible-looking seafood from a magnificent trolley. We chatted to the waiter, and mentioned the tempting temporary cafés by the Chinese fishing nets. He informed us that if we’d looked a little closer, we’d have noticed that these cafés have no running water, which means cutlery and crockery is reused rather than washed up. Suddenly they seemed a little less charming, and we were thrilled to have made it to the Casino Hotel restaurant for what turned out to be the best lobster we’ve ever eaten.
With no more surprise twists in our adventure, the time to leave in one of the white Forties-style Ambassador taxis soon came. The receptionist at Malabar House asked if we would like a peek at the other rooms before catching our Emirates flight from Cochin airport. We followed the spiral staircase up to artwork-sporting corridors to spy some of the first-floor rooms. Rooms 10 and 11 had their own roof gardens, four-poster beds and reclaimed wooden pillars. Beautiful semi-erotic artwork adorned the walls, and the bathrooms had big windows with pulley blinds by the bath overlooking private courtyards. How romantic – we were green with envy. Perhaps their plan was to use the suites as bait to make sure we’d come back again? Chances are, it’s done the trick.