Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kerala Travel Mart

Blog from Diana Syrett – MD of Kerala Connections – October 2010

I recently returned from a three week trip to Kerala in order to attend the Kerala Travel Mart (KTM) and while in the area - do a Familiarisation Trip (FAM). I had not visited Kerala for some time so there were a number of new hotels that I had not yet visited. There were also a lot of old friends to catch up with.

Kerala Connections has attended every one of these biennial events since the first in 2000. It is a useful show for us as it enables us to see a lot of our associates in a short space of time and it also enables us to learn about new activities. The KTM started on the Thursday with a fantastic cultural show followed by dinner. During that first evening it started to rain – but none of us took much notice as rain at night during September is not unusual. However, the rain continued to fall throughout the night and became heavier. In the morning when I looked out of the window of Tissa’s Inn (the delightful hotel in Fort Cochin that I was staying at) I saw that the next door neighbour’s compound was completely under water. It looked a bit like a house emerging from a river. At breakfast we discovered that there was a major flooding problem across Cochin, roads were closed and six refuge centres had been set up during the night for people whose homes had been flooded. The KTM organisers really had a difficult job – it is hard enough arranging such a large event at a new venue – but coping with additional complications of torrential rain as well!! But they did a sterling job, and all went well.

Following the KTM I made my decisions regarding where I needed to go and which properties I wanted to see and an itinerary was devised. I spent two nights at one hotel (an opportunity to get some washing done) but other than that I spend one night at each place and visited as many other hotels as I could while at each destination. Altogether I visited around 70 properties. I will not tell you about all of them – some we already use and will continue to recommend, others were not suitable for our customers. But a few are worth a mention and these are below:

Nattika Beach Resort
This is a new resort right on the beach in Thrissur district. It is 1.5 to 2 hrs from Cochin Airport so just as convenient as Mararikulam. As the resorts at Marari are often full this makes a good alternative. The first impressions were good and the welcome warm. The rooms are all villas and the Deluxe and Super Deluxe are perfect for our customers. The beach is immediately in front of the property and the new swimming pool was almost finished. The food we had here was possibly the best meal on the trip.

Fort Cochin Boutique Hotels
So many hotels have opened here that we are now spoil for choice. Those I particularly liked included: Tissa’s Inn where I stayed is extremely comfortable with a very high quality finish and service considering the cost – very good value for money and with a swimming pool too! Tea Bungalow, used a lot last season with fantastic feedback from our customers (including Robson Green who stayed here during the filming of his last series of Extreme Fishing). The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel – rather a long name for a great hotel. Lovely rooms, a fantastic position overlooking the sea and a decent garden with swimming pool.

Marari Villas
This is a new place and is currently just two serviced villas – but more are on the way. It is owned and run (very hands on) by Rupert (the architect) and his wife Olga (the wonderful hostess). This place is perfect for Kerala Connections customers who, at the end of a tour want to do nothing but relax, read and be pampered. It is a similar model to Beach Symphony, which is often full, so I’m sure we will be using the Marari Villas a lot. They will be added to our website soon.

Houseboat and Backwaters
Most of our customers have at least one night on a houseboat if they are visiting Kerala so it is always good to keep an eye on the other houseboat operators to see what they are offering. At the KTM a number of houseboats were lined up for inspection. Most of them were huge, glitzy ‘gin palaces’ and not to my taste at all. Only two, dwarfed by the others, looked authentic – The CGH Earth Spice Coast Cruises boat and the Lakes and Lagoons boat (both of which we use). Lakes and Lagoons sent one of their premium boats. The premium boats cost a little more but most people think they are worth it. One has an upper viewing deck and another provides AC dining (and it was this one that they supplied me). The last time I saw this boat it was still being built and I was not at all sure about the concept. However, I was completely won over after staying on it. Anyone who has stayed on a houseboat will know the insects at dusk can be a real nuisance. The normal practice is to sit in the dark waiting for all the bugs to settle for the night – hopefully, elsewhere. If you try to eat your dinner at this time you can not be sure that you are not eating the odd insect! Not good particularly if, like me, you are vegetarian. But on this boat you can retreat to the air-conditioned comfort of the dinning room and play cards in the light until your dinner is ready.

I used the houseboat as my vehicle to visit hotels along the backwaters. Casa Del Fauno we have used for many years and it has been popular with our clients. Recently it was taken over by the Malabar House group. It has now become a ‘Malabar Escape’ and been renamed Purity. Major renovations were taking place but two rooms were almost finished so I could see the end result – and it is even better than before. Add to this the excellent management, superb food and spa treatments to be offered I’m sure that this property will become even more popular. Malabar House already own Privacy a little further along the same stretch of water. With the option of Purity nearby it has been decided to make Privacy even more exclusive. The two room villa will be turned into a villa suite – making this a two villa property.

This place is across the border in Tamil Nadu, a short distance from the temple town of Madurai. It is a cultural centre offering people a unique opportunity to understand the Tamil culture (said to be one of the oldest in the world). There is a huge (500 seat) auditorium – the plan was to put on a cultural show every evening, followed by an authentic Tamil dinner. However, until they have built their reputation and been discovered by more companies (as far as I know we are the only UK tour operator currently marketing Kadambavanam) they are putting on a show at the weekends only. Alongside the cultural centre they have a resort – but you don’t have to stay here to attend the cultural event. I stayed (for two nights) at the resort and was delighted by it. The small and reasonably priced rooms are well designed and delightful with beautiful silk curtains and cushions, comfortable beds, flat screen TV with Sky and really good bathrooms. The restaurant was still being built so my food came from the cultural centre kitchens and was eaten on the veranda – but the restaurant, kitchens and bar will be finished soon. On the second morning I got up early and went for a walk through the local village and up one of the hills behind. It was a truly ‘Indian’ experience seeing the villagers go about their daily lives – we met a man off to cut his grass, machete in hand and a bottle of water balanced on his head; we passed a man coming back from doing his ablutions who I was told was completely blind – but knew his village and the paths surrounding it so well that he moved around without any assistance; an elderly lady carrying large baskets on her head and rather bemused why a foreigner would want to photograph her; another lady was sitting on the ground in the courtyard of her house preparing breakfast.

Back on the Kerala side of the border I visited Aanavilasam for the first time. We have been using this property since it first opened last year and it as been extremely popular with our customers. Again this is a place that does not seem to have been discovered by other tour operators – but with only two rooms (and two more on the way) we are pleased as it does mean that we get rooms for our customers when needed. The owner Salim is an old friend of ours and, coincidently, the hostess (Pirkko, a Finnish lady) first visited Kerala with Kerala Connections. So visiting Aanavilasam was like staying with friends. The two rooms in the main building are extremely comfortable and the two new rooms (almost finished and a short walk) will be slightly smaller but with a steam room and plunge pool.

Mannaas Veedu
This is another property that we have been marketing for some time but I had not yet had the opportunity to visit. It is an attractive building, serving delicious home cooked food and in a position that offers a useful journey break, well away from the main tourist areas. However, what I had not grasped was that the real USP of this place is the nearby Parthasarathi Temple. In Kerala non-Hindus are not normally allowed in the temples, in fact foreigners are often stopped on the steps of the one in Trivandrum before they can ‘contaminate’ it. But the Krishna temple at Aranmula welcomes all so it is a real opportunity to see inside a Kerala Temple. I always enjoy the temple experience, particularly those that I call ‘working temples’ as opposed to the ‘historic’ ones that are looked after by the Indian Archaeological Department and visited by tourists. I watched a baby take its first solid meal; a man washing in the Pamba River before praying to his god; a group of elderly ladies waiting for something (I know not what); one elderly man reading to another from a large book. I was amused by the pujari, bare chested and dressed in mundu only – texting. Only in India do you get such wonderful juxtapositions.

Fragrant Nature
This hotel has fairly recently changed hands and the new owners have added more rooms as well as improved the lobby, restaurant and swimming pool. My time here was rather dominated by the weather conditions. It was dry in Tamil Nadu but most of my days in Kerala included some rain. By the time I arrived at Kollam it was getting really heavy again. Fragrant Nature is a lakeside property but the level of the lake was so high that most of the paths were now under the lake and water was lapping against the sides of the spa.

I completed my FAM tour in the Trivandrum area. I visited a number of hotels in the area – the recently re-opened and completely renovated Surya Samudra is looking fantastic; the Turtle on the Beach (my first visit) was lovely; Bethsaida now has a further 32 new rooms; the Gateway Hotel at Varkala (Taj) is being renovated and the new rooms are great; there are some new hotels in Trivandrum too (ideal for early arrivals/departures).

All in all a very useful trip - being in Kerala is of course very special for me. My activities were somewhat hampered by the rain which was a nuisance, but worse was for the poor customers who were there at that time. I met some during my travels and they were stoic about the weather – but it really was unusual to have rain that heavy at that time of year. Everyone said so, and so did the media. Many locals told me that they had never experienced such heavy rain – and that it was worse than the monsoons. I just hope that this was a ‘one off’ and the depression over Tamil Nadu that was the cause of all that misery does not become a regular event in September/October as the season in Kerala is already short.

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