A deep natural port and thriving spice trade made Fort Cochin one of the most sought after prizes during Europe’s colonial conquests of Asia. Armed with a plethora of colonial mansions- some dating back to Portuguese settlement in the 1500’s- and a rich arts and theatre scene, Fort Cochin is now grooming itself for a new era.

If Fort Cochin’s ramparts could talk, what stories they could tell. Occupying a sliver of land that guards a natural harbour on India’s Malabar Coast in the southern state of Kerala, Fort Cochin became a hub for merchants plying the spice route millenniums ago. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Jews and Chinese came here to buy cardamom, pepper and turmeric, spices native to the verdant slopes of the nearby Western Ghats mountain range.

Gifted to the Portuguese in 1501 by the local ruler for helping wage war against a neighbouring king, Fort Cochin became Europe’s first Asian outpost. One hundred and sixty years later the Dutch conquered and turned the town into a base for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC, the Dutch East India Company. The world’s first multinational corporation with its own army, currency and the power to convict criminals, the VOC’s powers were unbounded. But when it went bankrupt in 1800 and its possessions were sanctioned to the Dutch government, Fort Cochin was swapped with the British for an obscure island in Indonesia called Bangka.

Rickety and resplendent with imposing stone cathedrals, sprawling mansions and pitch-roofed shop houses shadowed by gnarled South American rain trees that were planted by the Portuguese, at a glance, little seems to have changed here since the days of the VOC. Now a neighbourhood of Kochi, otherwise known as Cochin, which includes the administrative centre of Ernakulam and man-made Willingdon Island, Fort Cochin seems trapped in a time warp.

Hugging the estuary, wooden fishing traps believed to have been introduced by Chinese merchants more than 1000 years ago are still used to drag in the daily catch. In enigmatic Mattancherry, a rundown neighbourhood at the heart of the spice trade, cardamom and pepper still permeate the air.

Each Sunday, Mass is held in St Francis Church, an imposing butter-coloured building built in 1503 where legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was buried in 1524 (his remains were later sent to Portugal).

I first came to Fort Cochin 10 years ago. Shabby and dilapidated, back then there was only one decent hotel to stay in, the divine Malabar House, a Dutch-built mansion flanking the parade grounds. But the town held a worldly, lived-in air, less ruffled than the rest of India.

The morning I arrived, fresh off the train from Goa, news of New York’s World Trade Centre attack had broken and the world was on tenterhooks. But Kochi, which has one of India’s highest literacy rates, just took it in its stride. “World War Three,” the doe-eyed man at the news-stand shrugged when I ask what had happened.

Ten years later, Fort Cochin is reinventing itself as India’s coolest tourism destination. Its gorgeous colonial-era bungalows and mansions are being restored and converted into mini hotels, its quaint cottages into cafes, galleries and boutiques.

No longer is the Malabar House the only place to stay in town, although many would argue it’s still the best. Studded with quirky bric-a-brac – an old wooden horse in the foyer; toy trucks with “Horn Please!” written on their tailgates – and vibrant-coloured guest rooms with black oxide floors, tribal bedspreads and antique pieces, it seamlessly blends heritage sensitivities with contemporary flair.

Facing the Chinese fishing nets, the Old Harbour Hotel began its life as Fort Cochin’s first hotel in 1780. It had been lying derelict for 50 years when, in 2006, Kochi-born Edgar Pinto meticulously renovated and converted it into a hotel.

Polished but cool and casual, it hosts jazz in the lobby during the day and live classical music in the garden at sundown. The 13 sun-drenched guest rooms are spacious and cosy with antique beds and pieces from Pinto’s extensive collection of Indian contemporary art.

A stone’s throw away, Le Colonial Hotel was built as a private residence in 1506 and counts among its former house guests Vasco da Gama. Run by Indian heritage hotel group Neemrana, the eight-room property feels more like an expensive homestay, with a common lounge for an evening tipple (bring your own; Le Colonial doesn’t have a liquor licence) and oodles of antiques (French army hats; portraits of various VOC henchmen).

A hundred metres away, Neemrana recently restored another property and opened it as a heritage hotel. The Tower House, once part of a lighthouse that stood on this same spot, isn’t of the same quality but a bargain for 2500 rupees ($50) in low season.

Tucked into a ground floor of a tiny cottage, Shala (Peter Celli Street, phone +91 484 221 6036) is the latest of a string of diners to open off the main tourist drag, Bastion Street. The simple eatery with wooden tables serves mild Keralan curries with beetroot salads (ask the servers for spicier if you prefer a more authentic taste).

Next door, Teapot (Peter Celli Street, phone +91 484 221 8035) is a rustic little cafe with tables fashioned out of old tea crates, vintage chairs and 31 types of tea on the menu.

A few streets over, Upstairs (Bastion Street, phone +91 484 6452 922) serves remarkably good Italian chow for this neck of the woods, with dishes such as schiacciata with thick slices of porchetta; just make sure that the Italian owner is in house – the standard tends to head south when he’s not there.

For shopping, Idiom Bookshop (Bastion Street, phone +91 484 221 7075) stocks a wide range of authors at rock-bottom prices. You can also trust it to send five kilograms of books home for you for the government-set price of 200 rupees. Around the corner, facing the parade grounds, stylish boutique Cinnamon (Post Office Road, phone +91 484 2217 124) has a bit of everything: Gujarati bedspreads, tribal jewellery and pret-a-porter clothes by Indian designers such as Rasa Jaipur and Vivek Narang. For antiques, root around in the shops fanning off Bastion Street, or head to Jew Town, on the far side of the peninsula, where the hard sell will begin before you even step through the door.

But tourism has bred some inevitable ills: touts with cheap wooden drums follow like lambs, “Boing boing, Madam, I give you good price, boing, boing …”; Mafia-like rickshaw drivers park in front of the better hotels and refuse to take you for less than three times the official fare.

Then there are the botched restoration jobs. Fort Cochin’s architecture is overseen by INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which requires all restorations to both follow guidelines and obtain approval from the archaeology department. But rarely are INTACH’s wishes enforced.

The Dutch-built Poovath, with a breezy balcony peering out over the Malabar Coast, is such a startling colour of electric blue that it almost glows – a colour my Dutch husband has never seen in Holland.

Nearby, the former residence of Sir Robert Bristow, who designed the port in Cochin, was recently opened as a hotel. The two-storey mansion was the most beautiful in the fort. But it’s been poorly modified and there are already signs of decay.

Beyond these misadventures, restoration work on other mansions is under way, saving many of them from ruin. It has prompted a fresh wave of enthusiasm to control development and preserve the fort’s special architecture.

This has been teamed with the return home of a string of artists and designers after years interstate and abroad, with new ideas and new gusto. Fort Cochin is beginning yet a new chapter – as worldly and enigmatic as ever.

Staying there

Malabar House has 16 boldly coloured rooms, with antique beds and local art. Or stay at Trinity, next door, where three big rooms with outdoor bathrooms share the upstairs of the former VOC headquarters. Doubles cost from 9600 rupees ($196), including breakfast. See malabarhouse.com.

The Old Harbour Hotel has 13 spacious rooms and a garden pool; book the Bastion Suite for its antique swing chair and French windows opening on to a giant mango tree in the garden. Doubles cost from 6000 rupees, including breakfast. See oldharbourhotel.com.

This article was published in the May 7, 2011 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.