This Kerala port town embraces a heady mix of local traditions with the colonial heritage of the many traders who made berth there across centuries.
Cosmopolitan Fort Kochi is spiced with history
I sit at a table overlooking Kochi harbour with my latte and watch the steamers and ocean liners glide by, like stout but dignified matrons. The waters of the Arabian Sea shimmer in the sunshine and small fishing boats pass by. In a flash, I become aware of the way years of foreigners arriving from all over the world have added layer after layer to Kochi and given it such a distinctive character.
The Portuguese, Dutch, Arabs, Chinese and British all came to Fort Kochi over the centuries for spices. You can see their influence on the town. I wander around the spice shops looking at the cardamom, star anise, black cumin, cinnamon and vanilla. In the courtyard of one warehouse, the ground is carpeted with ginger laid out to dry. In another, turmeric is also being dried before being packed and shipped across the world.
As one of the store owners packs my vanilla pods and cumin, he tells me how the spice trade began in Fort Kochi. "The Arabs were the first to know about these spices. They carried them to Europe where they were in great demand. Only later were they followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch and, last of all, the British," he says.
The layers of colonial influence that have been grafted onto the traditional tropical landscape can be seen in the architecture of Fort Kochi: St Francis' Church, the oldest church in India built by the Portuguese; 500-year-old Portuguese houses with hand-painted tiles on the floors; the famous Chinese fishing nets that line the harbour - great spider-like contraptions introduced by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan; and the only synagogue in India.
All this makes Fort Kochi quite popular. It's the perfect place to start a holiday in Kerala: it is small, cosmopolitan, and full of shops, museums and cafes. As you walk around the streets where spices are stored and sold, it's easy to imagine how the ships would roll into the harbour to buy spices, particularly peppercorn, which was as expensive as gold in those days.
It was while wandering around the port area of Fort Kochi when I stumble upon this cafe, sited in the back of Heritage Arts, a gigantic shop filled with gorgeous antiques from the homes of former royals and the mansions of Brahmin priests.
I stay at Brunton Boatyard, a hotel with lots of old-world charm. It is a small, intimate hotel but with some surprisingly immense spaces, such as the vaulted lobby, full of light and air, and genuine old punkahs, or fans.
Fort Kochi is the gateway to the famous backwaters of Kerala and despite several previous visits, I had never seen the backwaters so my anticipation is intense. After a short drive through the lush, verdant landscape that gives Kerala so much appeal, I arrive at Chittoor Kottaram in South Chittoor. This traditional Kerala mansion, the former home of the rajah of Kochi, is set on the backwaters with its own private jetty and boat.
But don't think marble and chandeliers when you hear the word "palace". The kings of Kerala were different from the maharajahs in north India. They inclined more towards austerity than opulence and cultivated a style both understated yet elegant. In fact, the rajahs here never wore their crowns, finding them too ostentatious. They kept them on their lap on formal occasions as a mark of humility.
The mansion has only three bedrooms. It is given out only for single bookings so you have the place to yourself. The Kerala-based resort developer, the CGH Earth Group, has leased the mansion from the current rajah and worked to enhance the original details of this heritage building with its teak panelling and pillars and traditional furniture.
The moment I walk into the courtyard and see the view of the backwaters through the doorway and through to the garden, I fall in love with this gorgeous place. Welcoming me with a big umbrella, owing to the monsoon shower that erupts just as I arrive, the manager, Milton, shows me around. Along with Juned, Michael and Annie, the cook, this small team looks after me for two nights and makes me feel at home. In fact, Milton ceremoniously hands over the mansion's keys to guests on arrival. "These are the keys because this is now your home," he says to me.
With its courtyard, the colonnaded verandah, balconies, lawns, private jetty and boat, Chittoor Kotaram is a tranquil haven far removed from the bustle and noise of India. The gardens are insanely lush. All is quiet save for the chirping of birds and the occasional temple bell. The food that Annie serves is the vegetarian cuisine traditionally eaten at Brahmin wedding feasts in Kerala. No fewer than 10 different types of food are served on banana leaves for lunch and on silver thali (large platters) for dinner. Be warned, though: the meals are strictly vegetarian and that includes the absence of poultry, fish and eggs. But I've been told they are going to start boat rides across the backwaters to Fort Kochi soon, so carnivores will have the option of going into town to satisfy their urges. (That said, I would urge them to eat at some of the small outdoor seafood places lining the harbour - my meals at Brunton Boatyard were only so-so.)
The boat ride along the backwaters is magical. Amid the extravagantly green landscape, I glide past the banks, seeing homes, children walking to school, quaint churches and temples, women washing their clothes on the steps, old men dozing in their garden chairs, and delivery men in boats dropping off groceries.
For the evening cruise, the boatman, Anthony, takes me farther away to where the waters broaden out and you reach the beginning of the Arabian Sea, and we are in time to see the sunset. I munch the slices of fresh jackfruit that Annie has packed for me and feel happy to be alive to gaze at such beauty.
Chittoor Kottaram is a great place to relax and read in the garden but if you want more to do, visit the Lord Krishna temple in the village next to the palace. At evening prayer time, bare-chested priests play drums and blow conch shells. At the palace, Hindu priests perform in the evenings, singing sacred songs in Sanskrit. Or you can enjoy an Ayurvedic massage administered by some redoubtable local woman.
From Chittoor Kottaram, I drive for two and a half hours to a totally different kind of place, a homestay at Kadalikad called the Pimenta and run by Jacob Mathew. I'm here to learn how to cook Kerala food. Located in a region known as the Midlands, it is often bypassed by tourists who flock either to the state's coast and backwaters or to the highlands.
Mathew leads me through his private Eden, two hectares teeming with coconut, coffee, jackfruit, pineapple, banana, peppercorn, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, all spice and hundreds of exotic flowers and shrubs.
Actually, although homestays are now a highly popular concept in Kerala, Mathew can probably lay claim to having introduced the concept to this area. A former lawyer, he opened his home to visitors in 1995, offering an intimate yet private experience for travellers interested in the food and culture of the region.
There are four cottages with verandahs amid the dense foliage. The rooms are clean but basic, with no air conditioning or television and with bathrooms in need of renovation. For me, they are a little too basic to feel welcoming.
There are three other people staying at the Pimenta: a Pole and an Australian couple. We all get along well, largely due to Mathew's presence. He is erudite, articulate and a mine of information on Kerala and India. As he teaches us to cook Keralite food - all fragrant spices and freshly grown vegetables such as snakegourd, okra, pumpkin and black chickpeas lovingly cooked with coconut in myriad manifestations - he keeps up an interesting commentary on the local culture.
When you are not learning to cook or lazing in the garden, Mathew will take you out to a vanilla processing factory, an elephant retirement home where you help give an elephant a bath, watch banana and tapioca chips (a local snack) being made, observe truck drivers paint their trucks with images of Bollywood stars and mythological Bollywood actors and mythological figures, and visit the local fish and vegetable market, where we see mountains of pineapple.
I also visit some local weavers where gaunt, bare-chested old men working on noisy clackety-clack looms and clad in traditional cotton mundu (the lower-body garment worn by the residents) is a scene that could have come from two centuries ago.
Back in the kitchen, where we are preparing to cook okra with coconut, Mathew explains what kind of tourists enjoy his homestay: "People who want to experience life and culture and cuisine. People who don't mind trying new things," he says, stripping some curry leaves off the stem and crushing them between his fingers to release their aroma.
If you go
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.ethihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Kochi cost from Dh1,600, including taxes.
The stay A sea-facing double room at Brunton's Boatyard in Fort Kochi (www.casinogroupkerala.com; 00 91 484 3011711) costs from US$400 (Dh1,470) per night. Chittoor Kottaram (www.cghearth.com; 00 91 484 3011 711) has double rooms from US$1,000 (Dh3,673) for two nights, full board, including boat rides. Prices at the Pimenta in Kadalikad in Kadalikad (www.thepimenta.in; 00 91 9447302347) vary depending on the packages.