My criteria for the perfect holiday are really quite simple: culture, cuisine and chill-time.
So I’m pleased to report that my recent sojourn to Kochi delivered on all fronts (and in versatile spades too!)…
We were staying in Fort Kochi – a historic enclave spilling over with secrets in each corner, the promise of an enticing new discovery down each side-street and alleyway traversed by foot…
The small port town in Kerala boasts a rich and varied heritage, in no small part a feature of its successive rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and British (not to mention the historic influences of the Jewish diaspora).
Over the course of two days, we immersed ourselves in the experimental world of contemporary art (at the Kochi Biennale) whilst also exploring the old-world charm and character embodied by the town’s antique shops and spice markets, quirky cafés and colonial structures – including at our own hotel, the picture-postcard Brunton Boatyard!
We feasted on the local Malabar cuisine of Kerala, headily finding our way around the current Prohibition too (after all, it really wouldn’t have been a holiday with The Little Brown Eyes without a glass of red in the evenings!).
So here’s rounding up the best of what we did, saw and ate…
Ready to join me for a quick tour around Fort Kochi?
From the Dutch Palace to St Francis Church (the first church built by the Europeans in India), there’s no dearth of heritage landmarks to visit during your stay.
More rewarding still are the sights, sounds and spiced-scents you’ll spontaneously stumble on as you meander down the narrow lanes – such as along the Jew Town quarter, which sheltered the Jewish population as early as the 11th century! Today the street is lined with a plethora of antique shops, each a treasure trove of fascinating finds and bargains…
Wandering through one such warehouse, Heritage Arts (also currently a venue for the Kochi Biennale), we chanced upon the Ginger House – a museum restaurant sitting prettily on the waterfront.
Although we didn’t sample the ginger-tinged specialties here (think ginger prawns, ginger ice cream, ginger lassi etc. etc.)… we did feast our eyes on all the striking antiques strewn across the airy space!
We made sure to visit the Jewish Synagogue afterwards, an ancient structure built over 400 years ago. Sadly we were prohibited from photography inside (#BloggerFail) but the vivid beauty of the interiors will remain forever etched in my memory – the Belgian crystal chandeliers, the cool blue and white hand-painted tiles (imported from China in 1762), the clock tower sporting Hebrew, Old Malayalam and Roman numerals on three faces…
The spiritual journey also led us to St Francis Church, just off the beach road. Built in 1503, the wooden structure is now famously the resting place of the explorer Vasco-da-Gama, who opened up the sea route to India.
Other highlights included the unmissable Chinese fishing nets (best seen at sunset); evening boat rides on the backwaters of Kerala; and of course a visit to the local spice markets which the Mattancherry district is particularly famous for. Needless to say, I left armed with a bevy of new condiments and seasonings I can’t wait to experiment with, the next time I’m in the kitchen!
Kochi Muziris Biennale
A good part of our day was also spent hopping between the multitude of venues at the Kochi Muziris Biennale – a dizzying display of contemporary and experimental art, showcasing 97 artists from over 30 countries.
The theme for this year ‘forming in the pupil of an eye’ invites viewers to move between time and space, between the seen and unseen to embrace different concepts of reality and reason (so easily distorted by sound and scale)…
The art extravaganza runs for 108 days (from December 12, 2016 until March 29, 2017) and is definitely worth planning your visit around. If it sounds of interest, do have a read of my more detailed guide to exploring the Biennale!
The foodie trail
Of course we’d very much come to Kochi for the food too, Keralan cuisine being particularly famous for its bold and colourful flavours generously peppered and polished with local spices.
While varieties of freshly-caught fish were the main draw across restaurants and cafes, we found the menus to cast their net quite wide with plentiful Mediterranean options, alongside veggie-friendly local fare (think spongy appams accompanied by hearty stews).
This foodie’s key recommendations include the Old Harbour Hotel and Malabar House – both for a serene dinner al-fresco, drawn into a soothing lull by traditional sitar and tabla players.
Dating back 300 years, Kochi’s oldest hotel, the Old Harbour, is very much the place to see (and to be seen!) during the Biennale, while the whimsical courtyard of the Malabar House presents a rather alluring setting too.
Dinners here changed our perception of Indian wine (I’d suggest choosing one from Fratelli’s vineyard), with homemade ice creams (championing local flavours such as cinnamon and coconut) going a long way in helping to beat the heat and round off a memorable evening on a refreshingly sweet note!
Meanwhile, wood-fired pizzas at the garden cafe in David Hall (a cultural centre housed within a Dutch-style bungalow) hit the spot for a quick bite on-the-go…
… While we also found a quiet moment to cool our heels at in Kashi Art Gallery’s quirky cafe, where we sipped on cold coffee doused with coconut milk and blissfully experienced death by chocolate (cake)!
Last but not least, 51 – the all-day Malabari restaurant at Xandari Harbour hotel presented a picturesque spot for lunch/ an evening bite. I mean just look at that view…
Our humble abode
… Speaking of awe-inspiring views, we couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay than the Brunton Boatyard.
Lovingly restored to its former glory, the eco-friendly heritage property occupies the site of an old Victorian boatyard overlooking the harbour in Fort Cochin.
From the manually-operated punkahs (fans) lazily whirring overhead to the whitewashed walls and cool tiles, the lush greens of the inner courtyard and the armoury on display in one of the three in-house restaurants – each aspect of the hotel breathes an old-world charm and colonial character.
Our room was spacious and well-appointed, with a teak four-poster bed occupying pride of place (it was so high, we needed steps to reach it!).
Suitably rested, we started our days ‘boat-spotting’ over a South Indian breakfast outdoors, returning after a long day to lounge by the pool before heading off on an evening sunset cruise along the backwaters. The hotel also offered us daily yoga classes and local cookery demonstrations and classes!
Add to all that, its enviable location in the heart of Fort Kochi (and all-too-conveniently right next door to Aspinwall, the main hub of the Biennale), not to mention the superb hospitality of the hotel’s affable staff, who went beyond their line of duty to make our stay as comfortable as possible…
… As I said, we really couldn’t have chosen better than the Brunton Boatyard! Our stay here most definitely completed the vividly rich and enthralling experience offered by this timeless town.
For more adventures in India and around the world, do have a flick through of my travel diaries, here.