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"If you're going to write about this place, just don't tell them where it is, okay?"
... Heaven in God's Own Country
That is, a magnificient sailing ship, with five rows of oars was carrying goods from Ophir to Babylon circa 1500 BCE It is believed that the biblical Ophir, whence Solomon also imported luxury goods, is today the small fishing village of Poovar, just outside Trivandrum.
Today, however, it is not "sandalwood and ivory" that attracts visitors... It is the extraordinary Poovar Island Resort, on a small island at the mouth of the Neyyar river. This is quite simply one of the most charming resorts I have ever been to. It is so serene and tranquil that you are tempted to say: "Stop the world, I am getting off, and I am going to be a Lotos-Eater here!"
What's extraordinary about the place? Location, location, location. Floating cottages -- like anchored houseboats. Sun and sand. Peace and quiet. Tranquil backwaters. Beautifully designed spaces. Ethnic touches like genuine antiques. Very good food. Good value for your money. And last, but not least, very helpful staff, especially the ever-gracious and smiling guest relations manager Uma.
I was taken there by the managing director of Floatels (which owns the property), M R Narayanan, an entrepreneur in Trivandrum. I hasten to clarify that I have no financial or other stake in the resort -- though I must admit that Narayanan bought me a very nice lunch indeed.
The arrival itself is soothing; since the resort is on an island, you have to get there by boat. After a forgettable 40-minute journey from Trivandrum airport, you reach a small landing site with parking and facilities for drivers. There the narrow and exceedingly green Neyyar river welcomes you -- and even at the height of the dry season it is completely full. It is so green it reminded me of the nursery rhyme about the 'gray-green, greasy Limpopo', but here the water is neither gray nor greasy: it's clean and inviting. Alas, you may not take a dip right there.
The ten-minute boat ride to the resort from the landing is absolutely superb -- unlike backwaters elsewhere in Kerala that teem with human habitation, there are no people here, except for a stray few washing their cattle under a bridge. The land we pass is waterlogged, and therefore the only inhabitants are birds -- loads of them. I saw a cormorant, kingfishers, a whole murder of crows, and what I believe was a vulture. Most relaxing, watching them.
There are many coconut trees, productive ones -- people were harvesting nuts and moving them on a poled country boat. There were two men with long bamboo poles who performed a sort of ballet. They would stick a pole in the mud and walk along the gunwales, propelling the boat forward slowly. I wished I could turn off the loud motor on our speedboat and cruise silently as well.
The other wonderful thing about the backwater is the absence of that pernicious weed, the water hyacinth, that has choked many waterways in Kerala, killing off marine life and rendering water traffic impossible.
Then you arrive at the piece de resistance -- the little bay where the floating cottages are anchored. These look like thatched Kerala huts floating like a mirage on the waters of the bay. Made of teak and covered with elephant grass, they are deceptively rustic; for they do have all the mod-cons one might want, as an air-conditioning unit off to the side. There are sunken connections for electricity, water and sewage.
I expected spartan interiors, but they are quite sumptuous: a comfortable king-sized bed, a small dresser and table, and a rather luxurious bathroom with lovely fittings, sporting a glassed-in shower stall and running hot water. A ceiling fan, whimsical lamps in the shape of tall lunchboxes, and lampshades shaped like old-fashioned hurricane lamps complete the ensemble. Oh, and cable TV, although that's a bit of a waste here.
There is also a little verandah for sunbathing or watching the stars, or fishing, or just having a drink. I noticed a neighbour diving straight off the verandah into the shall waters of the bay, and another was reading a book, armed with a large, floppy straw hat. I tell you, these cottages are absolutely perfect for honeymooning couples -- discreet, private, with enchanting surroundings.
Narayanan explained the process of building the platforms: they are apparently made of laminated ferrocement with a patented Californian process that resembles the creation of silicon wafers, layer by layer on top of a base. The base is then filled with water, sunk and then moved into position for the next platform to be built.
The result is a heavy floating platform, 20 tons of it, which is relatively impervious to the light swells in the bay. In fact, there is a pleasant swaying sensation -- the heaviness of the platform damps the waves. You reach the platform by wading across, and there are large stepping stones so your feet only get slightly wet.
Beyond the bay is a narrow beach: you are tempted to wade across to the Arabian Sea, but the bay is too deep. You can be rowed across, or the speedboat will take you there. The beach, really a sand-bar, is breached periodically to let the river flow out to the sea, so the water is slightly brackish, but clean. There is a working fishing village down the beach, and fishermen's vallams, canoes, are pulled up on to it.
Walking up the long pathway you reach the reception area, a large, airy, open building in Kerala style -- sharply slanted tile roofs and gables. Indeed, all the buildings are consciously built in traditional Kerala style. So are the little design touches, a small pool filled with water lilies, the tulasi-tara or platform for the tulsi plant, and the various agricultural implements like a water-wheel and a plough.
Dominating the reception area is a gigantic oachira-kala, a red bull-shaped temple guardian, from the interesting shrine at Oachira about 50 miles north. The Oachira temple is dedicated to the formless, infinite Para-Brahmam, the Absolute, Supreme Principle. Therefore there is no formal shrine there or images. There is some evidence also of Buddhist influence there.
All the woodwork, much of it in blonde wood like teak, I noticed, had a theme -- this was the traditional motif I remember from the granary in our old tharavad or manor-house -- a simple design of a vertical groove with circles at each end.
There are valuable antique pieces -- a lovely lintel of rosewood, rescued from a demolished tharavad; elaborately carved doors in I think jackfruit wood or mango wood, also rescued. I loved the wood in this place -- and there's acres of it. The entire restaurant area is built with dark Malaysian wood that looks like ironwood. Off on the side, there is also a traditional padippura, gate house, beautifully carved out of rosewood.
Beyond the lobby area, there is a koothambalam -- a traditional gazebo for the performance of various art forms. The swimming pool is beyond -- a shimmering expanse of inviting blue water, with the obligatory sunken bar. I lay on one of the comfortable deck chairs, idly glancing out at the sea. It reminded me of balmy days in Bali. Only it's quieter and less crowded here.
The restaurant has a full complement of executive chef, sous chef, et al, and produces a more-than-adequate spread. On the recommendation of the waiter, I had a lamb rara which turned out be quite delicious, if spicy. He suggested the freshwater fish, curried, as well. Maybe next time. The restaurant verandah can accommodate 28, and inside seating also for 28.
They have a total of six floating cottages and twenty-two other rooms. With a complement of almost 50 staff, and managed by the Sarovar Plaza group, I imagine they will be able to offer a very pleasant environment even when the place is quite full. It was opened only in March, and they are still putting the finishing touches to a couple of things.
There is also a conference facility and a new addition -- an ayurvedic massage and treatment centre. This resort may be a perfect location for those tired captains of industry to enjoy a little rest, recreation and rejuvenation.
I was curious about the impact of the resort on the local environment. I was gratified to know that they were doing elaborate waste recycling, including a large water-recycling mechanism to use treated waste water for gardening. The solid wastes are to be composted. They have captive diesel generators to offset any load shedding; Narayanan is also looking to use windmills to take advantage of the steady sea-breeze. They get their drinking water from wells on the island.
At the end of the day, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I asked a couple of guests what they thought of the place. According to Gitanjali, of Los Angeles and Delhi, "This is paradise. I found out about it by chance, from the design magazine Inside-Outside. I was planning to stay one night, but I am staying on for another -- the floating cottage is so wonderful. It's so quiet, peaceful and secluded. By the way, if you're going to write about this place, just don't tell them where it is, okay? I don't want too many people to come here and ruin the place!"
Her brother Sean, of Los Angeles, concurred: "This is the best hotel I have ever stayed in my life." High praise, indeed.
Another visitor, Vila from Spain, told me in his limited English that he too had enjoyed the place very much.
So there you have it -- a pristine, unspoilt, uncrowded resort in God's Own Country. Move over, Taj Aguada Goa and Taj Kumarakom! This is a reasonably priced (although the restaurant is a bit pricey) alternative, and quite possibly better than them.
Rajeev Srinivasan works in sales and marketing for a Silicon Valley multinational. He has degrees from IIT Madras and the Stanford Business School. He usually writes on cinema, religion and diaspora Indian issues, and sometimes on high technology and business.
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