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Luxury cruise on Kerala backwaters

October 08, 2004 10:42 IST

At the Kerala Travel Mart, recently concluded in Kochi, among the highlights were two large models of the 32-metre long river cruiser, the MV Vrinda.

The boat itself was anchored close to the Taj Malabar in the harbour days before it was to resume its sailing season on Kerala's backwaters.

Commissioned by the Oberoi Group, the eight-cabin, 16-passenger cruiser is India's first luxury boat with a sailing speed of seven knots, a bar and restaurant with attached kitchen and a sun deck.

The cruiser package costs Rs 65,250 for a couple (Rs 60,750 single) on a four-night package that includes two nights on board the boat and two at the Trident Hilton Cochin at the upgraded Vrinda Suites of the hotel.

Built in Coimbatore with two hulls (most catamarans have one), the boat cost the Oberoi Group Rs 4 crore (Rs 40 million), including the impeccable interior detailing complete with airconditioning, attached luxury baths, wood floors and panelling, and facilities such as cable TV when docked, and in-cabin DVD players.

"We're already booked for 40 per cent of the season," reflects general manager Visheshwar Raj Singh, "but hope to achieve at least 60 per cent occupancy."

For now, the sailing season stretches from October 1, 2004 to April 30, 2005, with the boat lifting anchor every alternate day for the two-day cruise.

In effect, this means 106 sailings before it anchors for the rainy season (May-September). Breakeven point is three occupied cabins, which means the boat should more than cover its cost during its first full season of sailing.

Houseboats on the backwaters of Alleppey are hardly a new phenomenon, many of them converted from old rice boats, others increasingly newly built for the purpose of tourism. They usually have thatched ceilings, with half-open decks in the fore.

But most have only a cabin or, at most, two, and airconditioning is strictly timed. Even so, the romantic houseboat cruises command a fare of Rs 4,000-8,000 for overnighters, all-inclusive. The Oberoi cruiser, by contrast, is far more expensive, but is luxuriously appointed and the restaurant offers a choice of Kerala, Oriental and international cuisine on board.

The four-day package includes local sightseeing, a harbour cruise, or a session at the ayurvedic spa on the premises. With a 75-minute transfer to the boat at Vembanad Lake, the cruise goes underway (all meal costs are included) with sailings across the lake and up the Alleppey Canal, along the scenic waterways of Pamba river.

On the second day of the cruise, guests also transfer on to Kairali, a traditional rice boat that has been acquired by the Oberoi Group to navigate the narrower stretches of the backwaters.

It ends on the third morning following a short cruise to the main waterway channel of Vembanad Lake. The cruiser docks each night at Vembanad jetty; night sailings are not allowed on the backwaters, since fishermen cast their nets in these low waters for fishing.

MV Vrinda is India's first luxury cruiser, and the Oberoi Group's first such venture in India, though it operates two luxury cruise ships on the river Nile in Egypt.
Kishore Singh in New Delhi