The darnedest thing about luxury is how quickly one gets used to it. Twenty-four hours in this slice of paradise, and I am already at home amidst breakfast buffets the size of supermarkets, picturesquely scattered frangipani blossoms to wear in my hair and poolside attendants whose raison d’etre is to lunge at my sundeck armed with fresh towels before I can return to it. The brain is a marvellously accommodating instrument. All at once those mad, bad, city deadlines that were doing strange things to my breathing reveal their essentially fictional nature. This is the real thing—raising myself from a stupor to wonder if the sunken bath in my private garden has filled up so I can stupefy there; asking myself languorously what bird that was that moved so swiftly across my window; imagining that the two masseurs smoothing out my crinkles in perfect unison is actually one woman with eight arms.
‘Perhaps the Only Paradise on Earth’ is Kumarakom Lake Resort’s somewhat coy subtitle, but there clearly is something miraculous about the place. It starts with the drive from the airport, insulated from the world in a crisply cool Innova manned by a chap with superior manners, who (knowing Kerala) might well be a PhD. From then on everything reinforces the word that first comes to my mind as I step into the resort: smooth. Perpetually smiling gardeners and bellboys glide across the unbelievably-green-for-May grounds, servers are trained to read your mind, the food is gourmet in quality and yet inclusive of everything an Indian palate might crave, and attendants make you feel that nothing would give them greater pleasure than spending a couple of hours cleaning your room. Rarely is a question answered in the negative. That’s one definition of heaven.
Kumarakom Lake Resort’s logic is simple in theory but difficult in practice—luxury without ostentation, heritage without pageantry, exclusivity made inclusive. Yet they make it work. If you want to spend a couple of days ducking your children into the pool, watching TV unabated and eating shahipaneer, KLR is the place for you. If you want to study the architecture of Kerala’s houses from a couple of centuries ago, go house-boating on Vembanad Lake, eat typical toddy shop fare in a chic ambience, KLR is the place for you. If you just want to forget all worldly cares and spend your days working off your arthritis in the incense-smoke haze of the Ayurmana’s treatment rooms, KLR is the place for you. If you’ve just got married and want to have at hand lots of pretty backdrops for nice pictures, KLR is the place for you. There can’t be too many resorts that are so many things to so many people.
The heritage angle is clearly what KLR is proudest of, though. Ninety-two old homesteads or illams have been stripped down and reincarnated as the resort’s fifty-one villas. About half of these are substantially made of old materials; the rest are masterly replicas. It is possible to imagine a more showy version of old Kerala, with Kathakali dancers dogging your every step and much multi-syllabic Malayalam thrown at you in the restaurant menus. The emphasis here is on subtlety and thoughtfulness. The little arched wooden bridges over the canals and creeks that flow through the grounds blend in beautifully, the electrical fittings in the rooms are those charming old ceramic kinds, the artwork above each bed is a replica of murals from Kerala’s temples and churches. And I was always a sucker for wicker chairs.
Another delightful aspect is how the grounds are given as much attention as the villas. Trees have hand-painted nametags for the botanically illiterate and small armies of attendants are always mowing the lawns, chopping weak branches off trees, tending the canals. Asa Abraham, the PR Manager, tells me they have 200 employees, an average of four to a villa. There is clearly something potent in the HR strategy, given the manically cheerful staff and the seamless co-ordination between the different departments. This abundance of human warmth is possibly the most impressive thing about Kumarakom Lake Resort.
It is apt, though, that Paul John—the man behind KLR—is from Kerala but has never lived there. KLR is Kerala redrawn as fantasy. Its location on Vembanad Lake helps because a crucial element of the fantasy—the backwaters—are right there, outside your villa window. The resort owns three houseboats and is in the process of building three more. One is always told that these kettuvallams were once used for trans…porting rice but it is clearly only now that they have discovered their true purpose. The lake is jammed with houseboats full of enthusiastically waving tourists, I find when I go cruising on one of KLR’s. It has a flat-screen TV in the bedroom, swanky fittings in the loo and an air-conditioned dining room for those who want to eat in a sanitised aquarium. All of this contradicts my own idea of a houseboat—which is to lounge on the deck, take in the breeze, chat with the boatman and have dinner by moonlight.
The food highlights on the boat are a devilishly red prawn curry, tangy with kokum, and the prized karimeen (pearl spot) in its trademark banana leaf. Earlier in the day, chef Vijay Badauni has finalised the cruise-menu with me with a gravity befitting discussion on matters of state. KLR takes food seriously. The buffet spread at dinner is usually three buffets in one—Con…tinental, North Indian and Kerala, with the occasional Thai, Chinese and other South Indian dishes thrown in.
The masseurs are just as serious, though they tend to hide their knowledge behind the standard “medicinal, Ayurvedic oil, ma’am” whenever you ask them what it is they’re lathering you with. It’s hard to care too deeply once the anonymous oils start taking effect. KLR advocates a mild form of Ayurveda. The masseurs in their crisp white cotton saris switch off the lights in the high-vaulted massage room, light a brass lamp, say a little prayer for you, put on some nice Carnatic violin music and then proceed to give you the regular rubdown.
The only worrying thing about KLR is that it might be too nice for its own good, I think, easing myself for the last time into a touched-by-sunset pool that I, miraculously, have all to myself. The constant whine of an electric drill has been the only irritant during my three days here—it’s the sound of a determined expansion. I had imagined, foolishly, that KLR’s tariffs would keep away all but some kind of mysterious aristocracy, but this is middle-class India from towns like Pune and Hyderabad and Ahmedabad determined to spend its money and have a good time. Whatever else KLR might promise in the future, it’s not going to be solitude. Go check out paradise before it gets too hot.
Tariff Rs 12,750–42,000 Contact 0481-2524900, thepaul.in