A bungalow-style boutique hotel atop a small hill in Kerala, Malabar Escapes: Serenity is surrounded by plantations growing rubber, fruit and spices – no wonder there's an aromatic tang to the air. Miles from anything but South Indian countryside, the atmosphere is exactly as the hotel's name would suggest.
Double rooms from £177.89 (€197), including tax at 19 per cent.
Rates include Continental or South Indian breakfast.
Mountain bikes are available to borrow for exploring the tropical surroundings. If cycling’s too run-of-the-mill, you can take an excursion by bullock-cart or spend a day, feeding, riding and washing the tame jumbo.
At the hotel
Ayurvedic spa, gym, badminton court, TV room with DVD selection, elephant. All rooms have verandas and fans; one has air-con.
Our favourite rooms
All Serenity’s rooms are similarly decorated in soft rosy tones and all boast spacious double-doored verandahs looking out of the plantation surroundings, The two rooms on the ground floor have polished stone floors; upstairs rooms are carpeted in coarse coir fibre. One of the doubles has a glamorous wooden four-poster, but ask for the room with the mirror at the head of the bed (not for any salacious reasons, of course – we just love the stone tracery that lends it an ecclesiastical air).
Extending into the greenery from the communal, lounger-lined terrace, Serenity’s pool seems like a natural waterhole – at least, that’s how the local birdlife treats it.
Sugar cubes for feeding Lakshmi, Serenity’s resident elephant. Thanks to its hilltop setting, mosquitoes aren’t the pesky nip-dealers they can be elsewhere in Kerala, but the hotel keeps repellent on hand regardless.
Smoking allowed throughout. Reservations between 20 December and 10 January cannot be modified or cancelled.
Under-fives can stay free. Babysitting can be arranged with prior notice. Extra beds cost $30 a night.
Serenity makes use of hydroelectric power, recycles where possible, and cleans with organic detergents.
You can dine wherever you like, so take advantage of the views from your verandah or the poolside peacefulness.
Lazy, laid-back and loungey: sun hats, loose linens and sarongs.
Serenity’s chef models his daily menu on the seafood dishes and Mediterranean-influenced creations at the Malabar House in Fort Cochin. Food is tailored to each guest: you can dictate everything from its spiciness to the spot where you eat it.
There’s no bar as such, but Serenity’s abundant – and possibly telepathic – staff will fix you a drink when and where you like.
Meal times aren’t strictly imposed, but as a general rule, the kitchen closes at about 11pm.
Drinks and snacks can be brought to you anywhere in the hotel and grounds until around 11pm.
‘Are elephants the only animal that can smile?’ I asked Mrs Smith as our taxi pulled into the gates of Serenity. ‘I mean you never seen a grinning pilchard or a chortling gnu, but that elephant was definitely smiling.’
Seconds earlier we had passed Serenity’s resident pachyderm, Lakshmi, as happy-looking a creature as I’ve ever seen. Two hours later and I, too, was beaming beatifically – I’d discovered what Lakshmi already knew: she works in a very special place.
Built in the 1920s by an enterprising Indian keen to match the splendour of the colonial buildings in Cochin, the Kanam Estate that houses the hotel is perched atop a hill in the heart of one of Kerala’s rubber plantations. Although it is well located for a stop en route from the majestic Lake Vembanad to the National Parks in the east, getting to the hotel involves a fairly lengthy taxi journey from wherever you start – ours took about an hour and a half from Kumarakom. Obviously this means sharing the road with the hands-down craziest motorists ever allowed behind the wheel of a car. By the time we arrived, I was quite sure that you could turn up to the Indian driving test blindfolded and high on crystal meth, and, so long as you could find the horn, you’d still pass with only minor faults.
Mercifully, Serenity proved to be exactly the right place to wind down after such a stressful journey. Our room was elegantly appointed; its warm yellow walls a nice counterpoint to the crisp white sheets and impressive hardwood bed. But it was once we opened the double doors to the veranda that the room really came into its own. As well as a table and chairs, we had for our exclusive use a huge pillowed platform upon which Caligula would not have looked out of place. As quickly as it took us to shimmy into shorts, we were both horizontal – lazily reading or following the progress of penguin-sized dragonflies between sips of cold beer.
After allowing us enough time to unwind, the charming hotel manager started preparing our table for lunch. This turned out to be a delicious vegetable thali served on shiny silver tray. For the next half an hour we exchanged languid murmurs of delight as we mixed the different curries and chutneys into the fluffy mound of rice – a coconut-infused prawn concoction was particularly lovely – before polishing our plates clean with chapattis.
After lunch, we retired to the ergonomic sun loungers on the communal terrace. After an hour or so of watching tiny local birds swooping down to cool their hot bellies in the pool, I had to join them. The water was crisp and clear, and the heady scent of palm trees swollen with coconuts and rubber plants oozing their sap was a world away from the sharp chlorine kick of London’s municipal baths.
Incredibly, Mrs Smith decided she could unwind further and booked herself in for an intense massage at the in-house Aruveydic centre. While she was doing so, I retreated to our veranda and, sitting in a special chair that extended out from the arms so you could put your feet up, I flicked through the activities on offer at the hotel. As well as giving you the option of spending a day with Lakshmi, feeding her bananas, watching her have a bath or just generally be very cute (strange that cute is still the right word for an animal the size of a Renault Laguna – it must be that smile), the hotel offers an afternoon meandering through the countryside in the back of bullock-drawn cart. Guided walks through plantations that boast everything from cocoa to cardamom and beautiful orchids are also available.
Tempting as all this was, I decided that Serenity should be serene and so I returned to the loungers, where I lazed my way through the low sun of the late afternoon. The gentle hum of the forest was interrupted just once when Mrs Smith dreamily declared it was really the best treatment she’d ever had before sloping off for a shower.
Knowing that my approach to personal hygiene is of the utilitarian carbolic soap variety, Mrs Smith emerged from the bathroom entreating me to expand my horizons. I took up her challenge and have never looked back. Serenity’s toiletry basket contains a cornucopia of natural products. There’s honey shampoo; honey, rose water and lemon facewash; vanilla conditioner for in the shower; as well as sandalwood moisturising lotion to complete the job.
When I took my seat opposite Mrs Smith, she made it clear that, though the candlelight was dim and the smell of the mosquito coil was pungent, she could tell I was a man transformed. This obviously put me in a great mood to enjoy our unfussy dinner of grilled red snapper, which jostled for space on the plate with two corpulent tiger prawns.
After we had eaten, we took what was left of our wine on to the terrace and lay staring up at the stars. Having discovered that lakshmi was Hindi for beautiful, I thought how aptly named they’d named their elephant and, having spent a day at Serenity, how aptly they’d named their hotel.