There’s a dog missing in the picture to the left. In a similar picture that I took on my phone the last morning of my stay at the Beach Gate Bungalows in Fort Kochi, s/he (not sure, since her/his name was Doggy and I didn’t look carefully) posed on those steps prettily. A little thing, Doggy is gentle, friendly and available—if you want her/ him around; if not, Doggy hangs with the guard in his little outhouse. A bit like the folks at all CGH Earth properties, I reflect. They all somehow know precisely if and when you might want them around and only then present themselves; at other times, they retire into various figurative outhouses.
But then, as the line in the famous Mandarin Oriental hotels ad campaign goes, I’m a fan. Of the CGH Earth hotel group. I’ve stayed at and/or visited 10 of their 16 properties (and four of those remaining six are ‘wellness’ places— vegetarian, non-smoking, etc; unlikely places for me). The essential reason I think this is the best hotel chain in the country is because their hotels are nothing like chain hotels. Operating only in South India, for the moment at least, they do everything from largeish city hotel (Casino Hotel in Kochi’s Willingdon Island) to sprawling resort (Coconut Lagoon and Marari Beach Resort, in Kumarakom and Marari, respectively), to small heritage hotel (Palais de Mahe and Maison Perumal, both in Puducherry; Visalam in Chettinad and Eighth Bastion in Fort Kochi), to wellness resorts (SwaSwara in Gokarna and three others). And now, their latest experiment: the Beach Gate Bungalows.
I am reclining on the large front balcony, sipping at the Southie filter coffee that Sheenu (my butler!) has magically procured from somewhere because I’m a polite fusspot, and gazing with deep pleasure at the terracotta floors, the pure white walls and the green. Oh, the green. A jackfruit tree hangs over the front of the balcony, and I will it to drop one of those near-ripe chakkas at my feet. Instead, a massive and gorgeous frangipani tree flings flowers with the pre-monsoon breeze onto my face. To my right an old walnut tree isn’t ready to part with its gifts yet but when it does, it might send them into the pool below. I then begin taking pictures and, even more unusually, send them on WhatsApp to a childhood friend. I check my kids’ school calendar for long weekends. I then check Delhi- Kochi airfares for October/November.
The reason I am doing all of this is that the Beach Gate Bungalows would make for a perfect family-and/or-friends holiday. I have arrived solitarily though and I need to people the place to imagine exactly how wonderful it can be. Not that it isn’t enjoyable alone. It’s like being in a gorgeous, impeccably maintained, fully serviced three-bedroom home—alone. Some of my pleasure derives from nostalgia: I have spent many holidays sitting in a bay window with a book, alternately reading and gazing out at life on the quiet streets of Fort Kochi, when my uncle and his wife lived in a similar bungalow here. He worked with one of Kochi’s old tea companies. These bungalows share some of that history: the Art Deco bungalows are identical twins, on adjoining plots of land on a small lane off K.J. Herschel Road, and served as residences for senior officers of Brooke Bond.
Sheenu takes me on a tour of these superbly restored bungalows. Thus far, I only know that my room is generously proportioned, with large windows looking out onto green on two sides and onto that lovely balcony on one. I have noted that the décor, in familiar CGH Earth style, is that terrible word and often wonderful thing—minimalistic. White, green and brown rule: white fabric of various weaves and prints work as curtains all over the house; all those simple and comfortable sofas and armchairs are upholstered in a plain, pleasing green; the woodwork is a rich teak. The flooring everywhere is the original terrazzo, save in the bathrooms, which are a smart black stone. How not to overdesign is a rare art these days, and these CGH Earth guys are past masters at it.
So, I was saying: people. As I am taken around the other spaces on the first floor, I observe that the second bedroom is just as large, which also opens onto a verandah, only slightly smaller than mine. (AJ, her husband and their two kids could use either of these bedrooms, I think.) Before I descend to the ground floor, Sheenu opens a door that leads off from the landing onto yet another verandah. This one has a table, chairs and sun umbrella. “Sometimes people like to sit here and have their tea or coffee.” Some of the ground floor I had already encountered the night before but their splendours are fully evident only in the daylight: a space that originally served as the garage has been integrated into the house and converted into a dining room, with glass doors on three sides, affording more wonderful views—this time of the pool as well as that ubiquitous greenery. The living room is simple and commodious (Maybe we can allow the kids a little TV time here once it’s dark.). The third bedroom is on the ground floor, smaller and with twin beds (Daddy would have loved it. Or AJ’s mum. But maybe all four kids can use this one for fun; our two seven-year-olds on mattresses and our older kids on each bed, respectively.)
Then there’s the kitchen. Fully equipped, as they say: built-in hobs, fridge stocked with fruit, water and other essentials, cabinets packed with crockery and cutlery, even a dishwasher. “No masalas,” Sheenu responds to my enquiry, “We get those fresh depending on what the guests want.” An optional ‘experience’ at Beach Gate is going shopping for food: fresh fish, meats, vegetables, spices, etc. This can then be self-catered or converted into excellent food—another uncompromising CGH Earth standard, by the way—by a chef from Eighth Bastion, the other group property in Fort Kochi. (AJ doesn’t like to cook, but I wouldn’t mind rustling up a few meals.)
One of the many grand things about Beach Gate is that you can choose your service to be as plentiful or minimal as you like. Because Eighth Bastion is a bare seven-minute walk away, you could easily requisition all your meals from the hotel’s kitchen (there’s a copy of the menu at Beach Gate) if you’re not interested in having a chef cook or in self-catering. But even if you dispense with those services, Shiva of the dazzling smile, who has a room to the back of the bungalow and who takes care of all housekeeping, and an elderly guard in his little guard-house, with or without Doggy, are permanently stationed at Beach Gate.
Bicycles are stacked near the gate for guests’ use; but again, they could use the concierge service at Eighth Bastion to call a taxi or auto. The first would be fun, if you’re there as a gang and want to explore the streets of Fort Kochi. And the last is recommended: Hanif, their standby auto driver, is English-speaking and can double up as a fluent guide. I declined a tour of Jew Town and the Dutch Palace, but was thrilled to be taken to a wholesale spice trader who gave me excellent spices at outstanding prices, and to a very charming young purveyor of Kerala saris, lungis, mundus, etc next door (Muhsin at Kairali Kasavu Palace, Bazar Road, Mattancherry; 9947137132), who gave me a discount only because I attempted to converse with him in my embarrassing Malayalam. Oh, and his email id is email@example.com (now, how charming is that?). Hanif also took me to a local ‘bakery’ to stock up on those Kerala gift essentials—banana chips, curry leaf peanuts, achappam—and, since I could smell the banana chips being fried in coconut oil 10 metres before I arrived and since both the packets I bought for home finished in two days, all I can say is go there.
Sounds like I did a fair amount in my two days, right? But the rains had begun. So I didn’t wet my feet at the beach, a five-minute walk away. I didn’t cycle around town (shy). I didn’t get into the pool (raining). I didn’t cook (for myself?). I didn’t have a barbecue dinner in the lawn outside (raining, solitary). I didn’t see ANJ and AKJ running round and round the house giggling and shouting; I didn’t have long chats with AJ; R and A didn’t play football on the grounds with ASJ and LSJ (they weren’t there).
I told Sheenu I’d see him in October, maybe November. He just nodded. I guess he already knew.
LOCATION Off K.J. Herschel Road, Fort Kochi, Kerala
ACCOMMODATION Two bungalows, each with 3 bedrooms (2 on first floor with double beds and verandahs, 1 on the ground floor with twin beds)
TARIFF Rs 35,000 per bungalow. Special rates possible for bookings of 3 nights or more.
CONTACT 0484-3011711, cghearth.com