Ker­ala caught me in the palms of its land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AUSTRALIA - Stella Martin

EMERG­ING from Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram air­port, I am sur­rounded by men ea­ger to take me to my ho­tel.

The ad­dress on my com­puter print­out, how­ever, in­spires an an­i­mated round of lin­guis­tic gym­nas­tics as the driv­ers dis­cuss my des­ti­na­tion in Malay­alam, the won­der­ful rip­pling and rolling lan­guage of south­ern In­dia. (What other cap­i­tal city has seven syl­la­bles in its name and takes for­eign­ers a week to learn?)

‘‘ Yes, this man will send you to your ho­tel,’’ an English-speaker as­serts fi­nally, guid­ing me to a white Am­bas­sador, an in­car­na­tion of my par­ents’ 1957 Mor­ris Ox­ford.

I had tried to book a ho­tel in Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram (or Tri­van­drum for those in a hurry) rather than the beach­side tourist hub of Ko­valam, 16km to the south. But my ev­ery at­tempt was foiled.

Even­tu­ally, when Wild Palms home­s­tay, though full, of­fered a room at its beach­side branch I gave in. Ar­riv­ing late at night, jet­lagged and dis­ori­ented, I would need a bed.

The roads are sur­pris­ingly quiet. My driver must be tak­ing the back roads to Ko­valam. He speaks no English so I settle back in the Am­bas­sador, peer­ing out into the dark­ness.

A half-hour passes. The driver stops to en­gage in a round of ver­bal ac­ro­bat­ics with some lo­cals. Heads wag­gle and fin­gers point con­fi­dently ahead. We go on. The roads get nar­rower and qui­eter and more lo­cals are con­sulted. If I were a ner­vous trav­eller, I would be get­ting anx­ious.

Then sud­denly we are there, pulling up in front of a three-storey ter­ra­cotta Ker­alan-style build­ing. Wild Palms on Sea home­s­tay is not at Ko­valam, as I had as­sumed, but north of Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram, and it is the only re­sort on the beach. I have es­caped the tourism hub af­ter all.

The staff lead me up a spi­ral ramp. A cel­e­brated fea­ture of the ho­tel, car­peted with lo­cal coir and dec­o­rated with carved balustrades, it oc­cu­pies a prom­i­nent tower on the side of the build­ing.

My room is spa­cious with walls of sim­ple red brick and ter­ra­cotta plas­ter, the furniture solid tim­ber. From the bal­cony I can see co­conut palms sway­ing in the moon­light and hear waves crash­ing on an un­seen beach.

Next morn­ing I watch the fish­er­men haul­ing in their im­mense nets, a dozen or more men on each one, dig­ging their heels into the sand as they strain to drag it, and what­ever marine life has been caught within, to shore. Af­ter a break­fast of omelet and curry, served at a solid tim­ber ta­ble where I later share a Ker­alan evening feast with other home­s­tay guests, I chat to the own­ers, Justin and Hilda Pereira.

Af­ter spend­ing 40 years in Eng­land, work­ing as ac­coun­tants, and hav­ing suc­cess­fully run Wild Palms home­s­tay in Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram since 1996, the pair de­cided to re­tire to the land where Justin’s grand­fa­ther, a fish­er­man, was born. They first built a bun­ga­low for them­selves and then the much big­ger home­s­tay.

I com­pli­ment them on the in­trigu­ing spi­ral ramp, which was Hilda’s idea.

‘‘ So many peo­ple have lug­gage with wheels,’’ she re­marks, ‘‘ it seemed like a prac­ti­cal thing to do, but we find that ev­ery­one loves it.’’

In the af­ter­noon I park my­self be­side the pool and doze away my jet­lag. Then, re-en­er­gised, I tackle the bois­ter­ous surf of the Lak­shad­weep Sea. Keen to en­joy the sun­set over the ocean with a beer in hand, I am dis­ap­pointed to find — as is com­monly the case in Ker­ala — a li­cence to sell al­co­hol is too ex­pen­sive.

How­ever, liq­uid re­fresh­ments are even­tu­ally forth­com­ing, sup­plied in teapot and cups; I toast to an In­dian sun­set, and a lucky ac­com­mo­da­tion dis­cov­ery, in fine style.

Check­list

Wild Palms on Sea, Beach Road, Puthen­thope, St Xavier’s Col­lege PO, Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram 695 086, Ker­ala, In­dia. Phone: +91 471 275 6781 or +91 471 275 0749; www.wild­palm­son­sea.com. Tar­iff: Dou­bles are Rs1795 ($47) or Rs2195 with air­con­di­tion­ing. Get­ting there: A taxi from the air­port (16km) takes about a half hour. Check­ing in: West­ern tourists who want a qui­eter al­ter­na­tive to Ko­valum; Euro­pean fam­i­lies seek­ing a trop­i­cal beach hol­i­day in win­ter. Wheel­chair ac­cess: Dif­fi­cult, as steps lead into re­cep­tion; spi­ral ramp too steep for wheel­chairs. Bed­time read­ing: The Man Booker Prize-win­ning TheGod­ofS­mal­lThings by Arund­hati Roy, set in Ker­ala. Step­ping out: The beach is just be­yond the wall mark­ing the home­s­tay grounds. Bi­cy­cles are avail­able for those want­ing to ex­plore the quiet roads of the neigh­bour­hood. Brick­bats: The nu­mer­ous black crows that be­gin caw­ing very early in the morn­ing. The beds are hard (but all beds in Ker­ala seem to be hard). Bou­quets: The peace­ful set­ting and very friendly staff.

Pic­ture: Liam Walls

Port in a storm: Safely de­liv­ered by white Am­bas­sador taxi to Wild Palms on Sea

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