I flew into Cochin one December morning, glad of the humidity, like a welcoming hot flannel after Britain’s bitter cold. I was staying a short walk from the shore in the heart of the old fort at Malabar House, one of a group of boutique hotels set up by Joerg Drechsel and his Catalan partner, Txuku. ‘We were told we were doomed to fail,’ says Joerg, a determined-looking German in his early sixties. ‘When we first opened Malabar Escapes in 1997, people were still travelling round India in groups of 20 or more, but it’s not about mass tourism or backpackers any more.’ In 2008, the four hotels that make up Malabar Escapes were the first in India to be welcomed as members of Relais & Chateaux, the global association of small luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants, putting Kerala firmly on the map as a new luxury destination.
Kerala, abundant with spices, tea, coffee and rubber, stretches along the Arabian sea to India’s most southern tip. Its temperate climate remains warm, between 30 and 35 degrees, all year round. The best way to see it is to start with historic Cochin and then head inland to the cool slopes of Munnar, where ‘plantation retreats’ are popular with Indian honeymooners. Malabar Escapes’ Serenity is an old plantation house, painstakingly restored — polished floors, ceiling fans, generous verandahs. The minute you step outside the gates you are in the heart of rural India.
Also in Munnar is the Windermere, a cardamom and coffee plantation owned by an Indian family, popular with more active Brits who love walking. I stayed in a wooden chalet with dizzying views over the mountains and hiked with an experienced guide through the plantation.
From Munnar I travelled down to Lake Vembanad, a vast inland sea and India’s largest lake. Malabar Escapes’ Privacy has only two bungalows and offers exactly what its name denotes. I arrived in the late afternoon when the lake was milky and the horizon melting into sky. Fishermen punted their wooden canoes unhurriedly across the water and a houseboat drifted in the distance. The next day I stepped aboard one to cruise the backwaters. Propped up by white linen cushions, I ate spiced prawns and sipped freshly squeezed lime juice as we navigated, while herons, cormorants, kingfishers, bee-eaters, darters and kites hovered and swooped around us.
I rounded off my trip at Purity, the most recent and ambitious addition to the Malabar Escapes portfolio. My suite of white and turquoise rooms had four windows with ornately carved shutters, looking over gardens to the lake. I dined with Joerg and Txuku in a cushioned bower on the lakeshore as they told me of their plans. This year Purity will become one of India’s most sought-after spas, the fruit of Joerg’s passionate belief in ayurvedic medicine and India’s ability to heal any ailment, physical, mental or spiritual. ‘Who could not get better just being here?’ he asked, waving his wine glass at the lake, now glinting in the moonlight. ‘Even the air is rejuvenating!’ I couldn’t argue. I hadn’t felt so well in months.
www.wildfrontiers.co.uk; 0207 736 3968. www.malabarescapes.com