Housing remnants of the Moors, Portuguese, Dutch, Jewish, Chinese, Arab and British, Kerala’s port town of Fort Cochin has been welcoming travellers for hundreds of years. Its superb colonial era mansions are now being transformed into boutique hotels- and opening their doors to a whole new generation.

 

 

Le Colonial

The Look: Built in 1506, this white Portuguese mansion was where explorer Vasco de Gama slept on his many trips to Cochin. De Gama later died in Cochin and was buried in next door at St Francis Church (apparently there are secret underground tunnels connecting the two). Restored by Ramesh Tharakan and managed by Indian heritage hotel group Neemrana, it’s the latest of Fort Cochin’s centuries-old mansions to swing open its doors.
The scene: The holiday house of French business man John Persen, Le Colonial is essentially a private residence. Overflowing with antiques (all collected from India and including French army hats and portraits of the Dutch East India Company bigwigs), it’s not child friendly and the hotel deliberately keeps room rates high to discourage any riff-raff. Checking in are well to do Europeans and Indians after a bit of colonial glamour.
The Amenities: The leafy courtyard’s original water fountain has been replaced with a small slate-tile pool, cushy lounges and the outdoor section of a restaurant serving Indian food. There is no reception desk, instead guests make themselves at home in the well-appointed lounge room, sipping on their own bottles of whisky and soda (the sale of alcohol is banned due to Le Colonial’s proximity to the church).
The Rooms: Eight elegant rooms are all named after various people who lived in or visited the house. All are finished with polished wood floors, mostly original furniture, Persian carpets, and have bay windows and rain showers in marble bathrooms, although the standard rooms are on the small side (book Aide de Camp for its spacious balcony overlooking the garden).
Nice surprise: Wheelchair access to the first floor and one room equipped for disabled guests. Deliciously soft cotton bathrobes.
Dirty Secret: Despite having 13 hotels to their name, Neemrana’s booking system is archaic and frustrating, taking more than a week for confirmation.
315 Church Road, Vasco de Gama Square, Fort Cochin; +91 11 41825001; www.neemrana.com; Double rooms from $250, half board.

Old Harbour Hotel

The Look: Established in 1780, the Old Harbour Hotel lay derelict for 50 years before reopening in late 2006 after a meticulous refurbishment. The décor blends Portuguese grandeur with rustic Keralan charm and owner Edgar Pinto’s extensive collection of Indian antiques and contemporary art, including works by Bose Krishna Machari and Pradeep Naik. Shaded by a 100-year-old mango tree, and primly positioned looking out over the old Chinese fishing nets and park, the hotel is once again Fort Cochin’s finest place to stay.
The scene: A hip, informal vibe attracts young British and French flashpackers soaking up Fort Cochin’s new found buzz, with a sprinkling of affluent Indians dropping in for lunch.
The Amenities: The hotel’s slate-tile pool guarded by two orange-speckled kittens is the biggest in Fort Cochin. A small upstairs spa offers morning yoga classes on the rooftop deck and basic ayurveda massages. But it’s the hotel’s enormous clay-tiled lobby which draws the crowds, with jazz and sitar remixes on the stereo, free wi-fi and the restaurant 1788 serving Keralan curries, Mediterranean inspired dishes (albeit with an Indian twist) and perfect poached eggs for brekky.
The Rooms: The 13 rooms are named after streets in Fort Cochin. All have been carefully decorated with jute rugs, antique beds, old fashioned telephones and hand woven tribal bed covers. The blend hits the perfect note, although the standard rooms are a little plain and lose their ambience with uncovered air conditioners protruding from the walls. Splurge on the Bastion or Princess suites instead that have spacious sunrooms overlooking the park. Power showers are fabulously guilt free in water-a-plenty Kerala.
Nice surprise: The Old Harbour Hotel’s exceptionally competent, warm and friendly staff who constantly reinvent themselves as butlers, travel agents and secretaries throughout the day.
Dirty Secret: The verdant garden and fish pond are delightful, but also home to a tribe of raging mosquitoes. The uncovered water well could also be hazardous for inquisitive kids.
328 Tower Road; +91 484 2218006; www.oldharbourhotel.com; doubles from $155 ++.

Koder House

The Look: Structured and gabled in Europe then shipped to Fort Cochin to be reassembled, this three-storey house overlooking a string of towering Amazonian rain trees planted by early Portuguese travellers was once the most illustrious building in the fort and remains a Cochin landmark. Built by the prominent Jewish businessman Samuel Koder (who was for a time the honorary consul to the Netherlands), it is here that Fort Cochin’s most memorable parties were held. The stately house, characterised by its maroon façade, is listed by Intach (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).
The scene: Well healed mature couples delighting in Koder House’s understated sophistication; Indian families revelling over the hotel’s past with lunch.
The Amenities: The refined Menorah Restaurant and bar serves Creole cuisine and fresh seafood bought from local fishermen. Upstairs two lounge areas dotted with antique furniture and old chess sets are only for guest-use. A small Serene Spa offers marma point, hot stone and aromatherapy massages (around $30 an hour) plus coconut and spirulina wraps. Chill out afterwards by the small, though exposed, pool.
The Rooms: Grand and spacious (the Deluxe Suites extend over a whooping 80 square metres and each have a separate dressing room), the six rooms have exposed beam ceilings, polished floorboards, small balconies overlooking the park, antique Portuguese-era beds and modern marble bathrooms sporting Forest Essentials organic bath products. Not so graceful are the noisy industrial-style air conditioners and shrilling door bells singing cheesy Christmas tunes.
Nice surprise: Jacuzzis in each of the bathrooms; being asked the night before if you would like to try dosa for breakfast- a delectable South Indian crepe served with coconut chutney and sambal.
Dirty Secret: Thumbs up to Koder House for scoring a much-sought after wine licence, but it’s a pity the red has to be served warm and in thimble-sized glasses.
Tower Road, Fort Cochin; +91 484 2218485; www.koderhouse.com; doubles from$155++.

Trinity

The Look: An annex of Kerala’s oldest and most famous boutique hotel, the Malabar House, Trinity stretches over the second floor of the former Dutch East India Company headquarters, which was extensively modified in the 1970s (look for the VoC – Dutch East India Company – sign on gate. Contemporary minimalism and clean lines in its three rooms are offset with quirky Indian antiques and art work, such as old toy cars, hand operated fans and paintings by MF Hussain. Trinity is currently being extended to include five more rooms, a new swimming pool and a restaurant.
The scene: Couples looking for a more intimate experience than Malabar House; Families and groups booking all three rooms.
The Amenities: A breezy lounge area with mezzanine floor boasts free internet and a butler to divvy up a light breakfast of toast, fruit and coffee. For something more substantial, walk the 200 metres to Malabar House. There, a restaurant serves wonderful Indo-Euro cuisine (stop by during high season when musicians play traditional sitars and flutes in the courtyard which is lit up with candles and lamps). Upstairs a new bar called Divine has an all-Indian wine list, which can also be ordered on room service. A small massage centre offers kalari massage, a firm and invigorating treatment derived from the local martial art, kalarippayat. Downstairs from Trinity is a small but numbingly cold pool and separately run Cinnamon, a shop selling a dazzling array of Indian designer pr�t-a-porter and homewares.
The Rooms: The three split-level rooms have been arranged to maximise space and natural light. Each is different: Red and Blue have mezzanine day areas (which can be used as a second bed) and fabulous outdoor bathrooms with rain-showers falling over urulis, local vessels normally used for festival cooking.
Nice surprise: The hotel has designed and produced a walking map taking in the historical sites of Fort Cochin, including the Dutch cemetery and Santa Cruz Basilica.
Dirty Secret: Trinity was once renowned for its savvy and efficient butlers, but now service needs some work. Breakfast arrived in dribs and drabs over 45 minutes by staff with limited English skills.
658 Ridsdale Road, opposite Parade Ground; +91 4842216666; www.malabarhouse.com; Doubles from $200++

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Travel + Leisure Australia. All prices are in Australian Dollars and were correct at the time of publication.