Our reporter Heidi Fuller-love enjoys a three-day cruise on Kerala’s backwaters, with sumptuously appointed cabin, seamless service and gourmet cuisine.
It was a hot and humid January morning when Shijo, my personable, well-informed chauffeur from Greaves of India picked me up from Cochin, the Malabar coast’s main port and once vital hub of the spice trade, to whisk me the forty minute drive to Vembanad lake, near Alleppey.
Here the Oberoi’s superyacht-sized luxury motor vessel Vrinda waited to take me on a four day tour of the backwaters, a unique 900km long network of lakes, canals and waterways running parallel to the Arabian sea coastline.
As a flurry of welcoming staff bustled out to take my bags, hand me a welcome drink and deck me out with a sweet smelling lei, I had time to notice that the Vrinda is a very stylish vessel.
Built from a mixture of noble woods like teak for decking and interiors, bamboo for fixtures and fittings and palm fronds to make a shaded canopy on deck, the small ship blends perfectly with its surroundings and has a fleeting similarity to the – far less luxurious – rice boats that are generally used for discovering the backwaters.
With only eight cabins, there’s plenty of space to move around on the Vrinda. My own cabin was a delight: a kingsize bed stacked with cushions, easy-on-the-feet timber flooring, spacious bathroom with power shower and, best of all, a large picture frame window looking out over the lake stippled with floating clumps of water hyacinth.
That evening we had our first sunset cruise. We dined alfresco, loving the breeze cooling the tropical heat as we watched the sun set over lake Vembanad. The first meal – like every one after – was excellent: served with a selection of Indian wines, we savoured blend of southern Indian and international cuisine, made using fresh local ingredients ranging from coconuts and Chemmem prawns to sweet bananas and the local, very tasty, red rice.
Slipping anchor at 7am the next day we were well under way by the time I emerged on deck to enjoy a copious breakfast of fresh fruit, coffee and fluffy rice pancake Idli. Puttering peacefully past palm fringed edges of the lake we turned into one of Alleppey’s narrower canals, avoiding the rusted passenger boats criss-crossing regularly carrying passengers from one side to the other.
After lunch, consisting of a delicately baked pearlspot fish from the lake served with a tangy curried sauce, we set out in the Oberoi’s Kettu Vallam rice boat to explore the smaller canals that are inaccessible to the Vrinda. On either side of the narrow channel women washed clothes in water and little children in uniforms and pigtails skipped along to church. Returning to Vrinda later that afternoon we lounged on the sundeck on thick toweled mattresses as we puttered back to dock early that evening.
On day two we set out in the rice boat once more and visited St Mary’s, one of the region’s earliest Syrian orthodox churches, at Champakulam and the village’s 131ft-long snake boat, which can only be manned by 110 rowers.
I was worried that four days cruising could become dull, but apart from daily trips out to explore the backwaters near Alleppey, the Oberoi offers plenty of evening entertainment too. One night we watched a show of Kathakali, the traditional Keralan dance where men dress in elaborate robes, masks and make-up to act out scenes from the life of the Hindu Gods; another night we enjoyed traditional music played by members of the renowned local musical academy.
On day four the Oberoi’s own chauffeur drove me back to Cochin where I met my excellent Government-registered guide VX Joyce (Cochin; tel +91 4842700931/94470 70158) who took me on a tour of the Pardesi Synagogue, bazaars selling spiced, carved wares and pashmina shawls and other delights of the area known as Cochin’s Jew Town.
It was wonderful to be on shore again and doing some walking, but by dinner time I was already missing the gastronomic cuisine and other manifold delights of the Oberoi’s marvellous motor vessel Vrinda. For more information about the three night / four day cruises on the MV Vrinda, please click here.
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