Kumarakom Experience

Kumarakom, a cozy little hamlet, is situated on the banks of the great lakeVembanad. The lake itself is a huge expanse of water which is estimated to be about 45 miles long, and over a few dozen feet in depth, during high tides. It has a fascinating history: a long time ago a massive earthquake is supposed to have pushed the seabed up a few feet above what had been sea level, trapping an enormous body of water inland in the process. Lake Vembanad is part of that legacy, and it is almost totally land locked apart from a narrow strip of water to the sea at its most northerly point.

During the long monsoon period, three hundred centimeters of rain fall in Kerala and a lot of this ends up in the rivers, and thence into LakeVembanad. So Vembanad becomes a freshwater lake at that time, as the rain waters push the seawater out. Then, when the monsoon ends, the lake water is drawn upon, predominantly to flood the paddy-fields, dropping the water level and allowing the sea to flood back into the lake system (when the lake becomes briny and brackish). Hence the term 'backwaters'.

For a brief history of the resort (essentially snippets out of the many books at the library and some points from our guide during the ornithology tour): A 750 Acre plot was bought out from the Maharaja of Travancore, by Mr. James Baker around the 18th Century. A keen ornithologist, Mr. Baker developed a 100 acre setting as a private bird sanctuary, while the current main building of the Taj Resort - Bakers Bungalow, used to be his palatial home.
Three generations later, the then Mr. Baker decided to move back to England and hence donated 15 cents of land each to his loyal permanent workers under his 750 acre regime, and sold out the rest of his property to the Kerala government, which included the bungalow and the bird sanctuary. The Taj group, bought out the bungalow along with the adjoining piece of land, which now is tht Taj Garden Retreat. The bird sanctuary remains under the control of the KTDC

The choice of Kumarakom as a holiday destination was simple. Rave reviews from some of our friends, had this high on our list of options (though reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, were not very encouraging) and the unanimous choice of the family was the TajGarden retreat. We left Coimbatore on the morning of the 8th May 2005, on the reliable Honda City, hitting NH47 to Kanjikode, Palghat, Tiruchur, Angamali and finally Kumarakom. The Taj Garden Retreat is about 9 Miles from Kumarakom. The 4 hour drive was an experience in itself, passing through winding semi ghat roads, paddy fields and the famous green country of Kerala in its entire glowing splendor.

At the Taj Garden Retreat, the familiar warm welcome and a personal escorted tour of the highlights of the 18-acre premises by the ever helpful Seema set the tone for a memorable experience. Apart from the mighty lakeVembanad, there is a little lake, which is the centerpiece of this property. Bordered on one end, by the Baker's bungalow, the common pool and the fitness center on the other, lined with small cottages on one side and a covered staff walkway on the other side, this little lake has an assortment of row boats, pedal boats, kayaks and canoes for residents to laze around. Also lay moored were a couple of air conditioned kettuvallams, obviously floating homes. There is an activity room for kids, tree houses and an assortment of play pen gadgets to keep the young ones engaged. A gaggle of geese strut around the lake and a lone guinea fowl hangs around the dining area of the Baker's bungalow.

The hotel is effectively part of the neighboring (and thriving) bird sanctuary, so much so that the management thoughtfully provide a covered walkway around the grounds to ensure that bird droppings from the shady trees above don't end up in your hair, should you choose to use the pathway reserved for the staff on one side of the little lake (the acrid stench of the bird droppings is hard on the nostrils though). Everywhere around you is the flutter and scramble of birds, accompanied by flashes of dappled waterways and ponds, waving palms, bamboo and fruit trees, and discreet little signs in the grass guiding to your evening cocktails, the Ayurveda centre, or the excellent restaurant in the main building.

The description of the experience would be incomplete if mention is not made of the wonderful people who are part of the management team, running the daily operations. Rajesh, Rajiv, Beeda, Leon, Seema, Siju, Murty, and the security guards (in no particular order) the list is endless. The warmth and care that each of them expend in their domains, goes a long way in ensuring all the reservation hiccups (that is a long sad story that was sorted out by the intervention of Vinu and Amala at the Chennai office) were left behind as bad dreams. Thanks folks, but for you, our experience would not have been what it eventually was.

And now I must tell you of our wonderful accommodation. You arrive at a small island on which stands a private villa. Inside the villa is a small lobby, which is a storage space with an electronic safe vault on one side and a neat dressing table on the other. This leads to large hall with huge French windows on three sides, which blends into a private dining cum bar. On one end of the hall stand the large bed, while the other end is a cozy living room with comfortable furniture. This central, not so cool, humidity-managed space has two wings, each mainly open to the skies but enclosed with high walls partly-roofed courtyards, effectively.
In one leafy and flower-scented courtyard, you have a small, entirely private swimming pool, crystal clear and sparkling as replenishing jets refresh and continuously purify the water. A fountain-jet spurts from a large brass spout in the wall, creating a mellifluous sound and intricate patterns on the pool bottom. Underwater benches let you immerse as little or as much of your person as you like, and a huge Zen-style day bed beckons invitingly in the shade should you wish to surrender yourself to sleep in this sub-tropical water-haven

It's extremely hard to dredge up any reason whatever to leave this perfect, cool and totally private waterhole, especially as there are Jacuzzi jets hidden in one of the underwater benches and, of course, there is no dress code. So you lie there, splashing languidly, swimming occasionally, and arguing idly over which bird-call attaches to which bird species and debating whether to have more Foster?s from the private bar or to call up a Kingfisher on Room Service.
But just suppose, after some hours of such indolence, you fancy a shower. Then you must make your way to the courtyard in the opposite wing. The small roofed section here yields a discreet toilet and wash-basin, but to run a bath or take a shower, you must step out into the open bathroom garden, shady trees overhead, sea-shells creating a floor that would be way too sharp to cross barefoot were it not for the little embedded stepping-stones. The shower is a simple, large black stone slab, above which hangs a soup-plate sized brass shower-head.
Turn the tap and a veritable Niagara descends, as hot or as cool as you like, and you can play with the sun and the spray until you're showering inside a hula-hoop made of rainbows.
Awesome, is too simple a term to describe this experience.

There is also a large back verandah, where coolness and privacy are assured through the use of basket-weave blinds, and where a dangling, sultry swing-seat and the ever popular arm chair (grandpa?s easy chair as it is known) beckons. A private little lawn, bordered by a little lagoon, cuts the villa from the private boat jetty of the Taj, on the shores of the great lake. Actually, the French window of the bedroom, opens out to this little lawn and hence directly out to the great lake. The sun set from the bedroom, is an amazing experience.

The activities at this resort can essentially be classified under four distinct heads namely (1) Ornithology (2) Water Sports (3) Rejuvenation and (4) Cultural. Other than these, there are cycles and boats to laze around and a well stocked bar with an internet connection, for the not so adventurous wired geeks.

The ornithology part of the activity is best by dawn. Guided tours are arranged by the resort to the sanctuary next door. A 1 mile walk into the woods at daybreak is a refreshing experience. Think foliage engulf the pathway, where a cacophony of bird calls line the entire way. From Fox Bats, Cormorants, storks, cranes, herons, darters to a whole array of avian kind, line the marshlands. The more common waterfowls, wood peckers and the kingfishers abound the resort as well as the sanctuary in the wee hours of the mornings. It is a great way to start the day, which is wound up by an optional country boat ride back to the resort, right on time for a sumptuous breakfast spread at the bungalow.

The resort offers a wide range of choices on the water sports front. Banana Boats (Small and large version), Speed boat cruise, Wings boat ride, Water Ski?s, Sunset cruise, dinner / breakfast cruise, night fishing ? a huge menu of choices to pick, depending on interests, moods and taste of individuals. The family ride on the banana boat is an experience in itself. An inflated version of a banana carries a family of four on its back, which in turn is towed by a speed boat. The ride gets choppy as the speed boat accelerates and the waves churned out by those powerful outboard motors ensure that jumps, leaps and topples abound during the entire ride. Life jackets are provided for safety.

The wings are another version of the same, only substituted by an inflatable dingy with two holes for seats (instead of the banana upon which one mounts). This is a great option for kids who would cherish every moment of the ride. The cruises and fishing options are for the less adventurous who prefer lazing around on traditional house boats which amble along at snails pace across the silky waters. The rides often take us into the mainland canals, where it is great observing the life styles of the people in the villages along the banks of the river.

The rejuvenation option is essentially around the fitness center and revolves around various forms of massages. A great stress reliever, this has a soothing effect on the body and mind. There are some tough chores that you need to put up with, like you?ve got to get out of all your clothes, that's - all your clothes ! and get into a thin piece of tissue hanging off a string - like a Tarzan loincloth (that you tie around your waist to spare the blushes). I was only praying that no form of Jane was around, and luckily it was a demilitarized male zone. The massage starts where quite a while (lost track of time) is spent just massaging your head and neck with, well, not so good smelling oils.

This is followed by quick but soft snipes down the neck and shoulders and a solemn and insistent head-squeezing that felt like it was capable of exorcising demons. I thought of all the horrible clients I had had to deal with over the years, and the awful golf drives and simple putts, I had missed the previous day at CBE and their faces, and the awful strokes, just floated away.

Then, on to a special massage table with purposeful-looking bumps, recesses, holes and grooves. It had the honeyed, oiled, loved glow of a well-used machine. Classic case of function dictating form. Warm medicated sesame oil flows by the seeming gallon down your body and a very strong-armed guy works like a trained dancer on your back and then your front surfaces. Sometimes working in soft flowing rubs, sometimes in complex synchronized moves, he kneads, chops, pushes, pulls, twists and squeezes you like clay, as gently or as firmly as you like. This is not just body-bashing like you seen on a WWF episode: they knowingly seek out pressure points, tension areas and pleasure zones.

Finally, every inch of you (including your hair) dripping in oil, you pad slowly across to the steam room where, your body is steam-cleaned and lightly cooked for ten minutes. Then, into the shower room. Here, you get rubbed all over with a brownish, slightly abrasive vegetable paste; apparently, the best way to get oil off your skin. Then - get this! they wash your entire body by hand in warm water. I felt like I was two years old again, with Mum washing me in a small tub while I splashed around burbling with my rubber ducks.

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