Wrong shoes can sabotage the best of trips. And here I am, at the tail of Kerala’s retreating monsoon, standing on a beach in a pair of flimsy, leather ankle-straps, thinking of nothing in particular; not even my shoes. The sun has skydived into the sea, although its namesake Surya, my 19-year-old genie (they call them Holiday Hosts here) at the Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal, continues to talk animatedly about her forays into Kasargod town and her love for fried chicken. The rest is a haze. A happy haze, I might add, with fishing boats twinkling in the distant grey.
Had I been undone by my sandals that briny evening, I’d have been glad to barefoot it back to my room; tracing the gentle curves of the backwaters snaking out of the seas and around this 26-acre property. Trailing me in my golf cart-chariot would have been Surya (“just in case, madam”) — armed with green coconuts, cold towels and a mobile (on silent mode) to call ahead at the restaurant, if I caught a chill and needed a faith-restoring bowl of Chef Biju’sKozhicharu (chicken ‘juice’). And that’s really the gist of it.
Kerala comes in many packages. This is the kind where the customary coordinates of aRs 20,000-a-night-hotel are right under your nose. And yet it’s the people you run into in the corridors and the conversations you stumble upon that give you more pleasure than the warm eddies of the open-air Jacuzzi yoked to your room. The Jacuzzi is great too. So are the downy beds and the pillow menus. But the days are brightened as much by the patch of green ‘framed’ behind the bedstead and the bay window with views of the mock lagoon, as by Dolly the receptionist’s impromptu offer to take you home after work to demonstrate the perfect dosa batter. Whether it’s a reflection of the hotel’s youth (toddling at two, perhaps it’s still a bit wet behind the ears in the practised-smiles department) or the terrier (we’re in the untouristy, northernmost district of the state), I don’t know. But it works.
For a chain that’s citybred — although the group’s leisure properties currently outnumber its city hotels — a neutral or middle-of-the-road approach is par for the course; even in formulaic Kerala. “It’s a piece of Bali in South India,” I’m told. Not surprisingly, you’re never too far from butter chicken and naan, the rooms remain strictly modern, world music plays at the restaurant and Swedish massages jostle with shirodhara and abhyangam on the spa menu. What localises the experience, though, localises it well.
Apart from the people manning the posts and the 2,500 coconut trees that still stand tall, the beautiful but stationary kettuvalam, red-tiled roofs with rafters (they look like inverted hulls of ships from underneath) and design elements drawn from snake boats, Kerala finds expression in things big and small. Not least among them are the ayurvedic treatments at Rejuve–The Spa and the Malabari food at the Nombili restaurant.
With undercooked ideas of what qualifies as Malayali cooking, I put away alarming quantities of aviyal, poriyal and pulucheri (a curry of pineapple cooked in curd) in my very first meal. And prolong the pleasures of seer fish cooked in a banana leaf dinner jacket, letting my nose eat its fill before licking the leaf clean with a fork. The sweet lime-cumin sorbet and the moong dal payasam, which seeks and finds its counterpoint in strips of salty pappadum and a slice of tart banana, also vie for the mock Michelin stars. Yet, they turn out to be the backup vocals on my plate. The lead songstress is the playful, unassuming shallot or ulli theeyal simmered in a curry paste of roasted coconut and spices. Sitting coyly in its tamarind and jaggery sauce, it’s the kind of dish that rudely interrupts dinner conversation and, eventually, consumes it.
However, as is their wont in ‘globalised’ kitchens, coconut oil, the traditional medium of cooking, is sparingly, if ever, used. In order to please a broader cross-section of guests — a list that clearly doesn’t include the odd Malayali patron. But since the chef tailors meals for every guest, especially those who sign up for detox or weight-loss packages, dietary requests, like matta rice, are staples here. So, if you can’t imagine a beef fry without coconut oil, just wave your napkin.
When I arrive, the resort is busy preparing for a festival it hosts for the locals — a fair showcasing the food and wares of North India and a closely-contested kabaddi title. Pelting the grounds on the weekend before Eid, the fickle November rain threatens to play spoilsport at first. But the sun reappears just in time and the drooping red and white buntings, in colours of the Lalit Resort, turn spry again. Women are among the kabaddi participants this year — a minor revolution in a relatively conservative corner of the state. I watch as the battle lines are drawn not ten kilometres from Bekal Fort, where the Nayak dynasty and Tipu Sultan, among others, once trained their cannons at the enemy. The Fort, now restored, has manicured gardens and incredible views of the Arabian Sea.
Back at the hotel, a fortress of tranquillity, trying to recall the loud cheering at the grounds or the crashing waves at the Fort is like evoking ghosts of Metallica at a Vipassana centre. The sprawling lawns dressed with anthuriums, frangipani, hibiscus, lilies and bougainvillea (all in white) absorb every sound, every hum. I almost feel guilty about using the WC and creating a racket! And yet the air is rent one morning by the blades of a chopper at the hotel’s helipad. A sign of things to come, as the Lalit prepares one day to leverage a heli-tour triangle for guests-in-a-hurry keen on visiting their properties in Goa, Bekal and Bengaluru.
For now, the Lalit Bekal is off to a flying start — against several odds. The crumbling Holiday Inn across the backwaters, where construction was halted during the recession, and the road from the Mangalore airport, where the monsoon drills craters every year, tell tales of battles lost and raging. But with inspiration blowing in the wind from Alleppey and Varkala, the Lalit might finally turn North Kerala too into tourist’s own country. Until then, Bekal’s moment is waiting.
Location 75km (a two-and-a-half hour drive) from Mangalore airport and 12km from Kasargod railway station
Accommodation 37 rooms: 13 deluxe, 17 luxury, 7 spa; 1 presidential villa; 1 kettuvalam (stationary houseboat currently under renovation)
Tariff Rs 20,000 (deluxe), Rs 21,000 (luxury), Rs 22,000 (spa), Rs 50,500 (villa), Rs 25,000 (kettuvalam)
Contact 0467-2237500, thelalit.com