TOPFLOOR’s Esti Barnes and her husband Russell spent Christmas and New Year in India, taking in the sights, sounds, colours and tastes of Mumbai and Kerala. In this blog post Esti shares some of the experiences they enjoyed.
‘We knew Northern India (Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra) from several previous trips, but this was our first trip to Mumbai, says Esti. ‘We stayed at the Oberoi, which is situated on Marine Drive overlooking the sweeping shoreline of the Arabian Sea. With its stunning view, décor and service, it was the perfect start to our journey. We also held our first business meeting here.’
‘Noisy, crowded, colourful and buzzing with energy, Mumbai is a city of contrasts, and it is this diversity that makes it a fascinating and eye-opening place to visit. It is the wealthiest city in the country and boasts some of the grandest and most beautiful colonial architecture in the world – one of our favourites was the breathtaking Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station, formerly Victoria Terminus, which was opened in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It is an elegant example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture and has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
‘Then, in contrast to all the wealth and grandeur, there are the slums, where roughly 40% of the city’s population lives. The most famous one is Dharavi, where some of the scenes of the film “Slumdog Millionaire” were filmed and which is home to around 1 million people. We spent half a day there, marvelling at the many small-scale businesses producing textiles, pottery and goods made from plastic, metal, glass and paper, among other materials. The products are sold both domestically and internationally, generating an estimated annual turnover of up to $1billion a year.
‘Another place that left an impression on us was Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest open-air laundry. Against the backdrop of the city’s skyscrapers, the male workers (or ‘dhobis’) hand wash the clothes and bed linen of Mumbai’s citizens, hotels and hospitals. The laundry gets collected every morning and is returned within 24 hours, without any mix-ups or lost items. It was interesting and humbling to observe such industriousness.
‘After Mumbai, we flew to the vibrant port city of Kochi, in the southwest state of Kerala. Kochi was a spice-trading centre for many centuries and was occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British; as a result, it has a rich, multi-ethnic culture. Its cosmopolitan character is reflected in the distinctive and varied architecture and the harmonious co-existence of Hindu temples, Catholic churches and synagogues.
‘We stayed in Fort Kochi on the southern peninsula. Said to be the oldest European settlement in India, Fort Kochi is steeped in history and is, as a result, a popular tourist enclave. It is well worth wandering its streets to soak up the colonial charm. You can also take a tuk-tuk, complete with a driver/guide – but beware the lack of suspension and the heavy focus on shopping!
‘Our hotel, The Brunton Boatyard, is a delightful colonial-style building on the site of a former Victorian shipbuilding yard. We would recommend it wholeheartedly for its first-class service and delicious food.
‘Near Fort Kochi is Mattancherry, where we visited the Dutch Palace, which was built in around 1555 in the traditional Keralan architectural style. Today it is a museum, its main attraction being the exquisite murals depicting Hindu myths and legends.
‘Kochi also has a burgeoning art scene, most notably The Kochi-Muziris Biennale. It is a celebration of contemporary art from India and around the world and it was being held across 12 venues during our stay, so we were able to see some of the works being showcased.
‘Our next stop was the town of Kumarakom, which is a hugely popular tourist destination because of its location next to Vembanad Lake, with its labyrinth of tranquil backwaters. The best way to explore is, of course, by boat – the waterways are dotted with kettuvallums (traditional Kerala houseboats), which were originally grain barges but which have been converted into “floating cottages” for tourists wishing to take in the enchanting scenery.
‘You can sleep on a houseboat or opt for terra firma – we stayed at Hotel Vivanta Taj, which is made up of a series of villas around a beautiful lagoon.
‘Our final destination was the seaside town of Kovalam, with its three beautiful crescent beaches. Once a sleepy fishing village, it is now Kerala’s most developed resort. We got away from it all at Niraamaya, an amazing spa retreat known for its Ayurvedic treatments. After the hustle and bustle of Mumbai and the colour and culture of Kerala, it was the perfect way to end our holiday!
We loved Kerala’s beautiful backwaters, beaches and tropical greenery. It seemed cleaner than the north of the country, and we saw far fewer animals sharing the roads with the traffic! The climate was hot and dry, but tolerably so, and the people warm, smiley and eager to help. The Keralan cuisine was also a real highlight – invigoratingly spicy, with lots of pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and coconut as well as wonderful fresh seafood and fish. A curry lover’s paradise! They consider cooking a very important craft, preparing each meal with great pride.
‘It’s no wonder that Kerala has become one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Asia. There is so much more to tell about the region, but for now, we can say that we have returned to London feeling inspired and energised by everything we saw!’