Kerala’s Best Kept Secret

The last time I went to Goa,I came back disgusted at having to pick my way around all those bodies on the beach,glistening in sun-screened glory.

Which is why,when someone mentioned the pristine,unsullied beaches of Bekal in Kerala,I jumped at the prospect of getting to a beach where I might have the chance to sit in solitude,write a few pages of my book,bond with family,indulge in some much needed relaxation and ponder about the mysteries of life. At Bekal,I did all that and much more.

I walked on great stretches of golden beaches early mornings,chased scores of tiny crabs and picked sea shells,with colours of the rainbow. There is something about the majesty of nature,her many layers,that bring out the softer side of us. In the quiet of the early morning,overlooking the waters of the Kappil beach,my otherwise self-contained teenager took off her sandals,slipped her hands into mine and walked in harmonious silence with me,for once forgetting her Blackberry messenger! Few things in my life compare to the joy of that moment,forever stored away in my memory.

Bekal’s beaches held other memorable moments. Early one morning,as we walked in companionable silence,the significant other and me,we had another of mother nature’s eternal ‘aha’ moments — the sight of a pair of dolphins leaping into the air and diving back in graciously,only to appear,seconds later at another point in the water. To us,slack-jawed in wonderment,it seemed like an exclusive performance for us. Another day,my daughter and I watched in amazement as a villager walked briskly along the water’s edge,bending down to scoop handfuls of mud just as soon as a giant wave crashed onto the shore and holding up his booty — plump crabs that had been washed ashore by the waves.

A big part of a rejuvenating break for me is also holing up in a comfortable hotel where I can have the good life,if I choose to. This time over,our temporary home was the spanking new Vivanta by Taj at Bekal,a stunning 70-villa property inspired by the kettuvallams (house boats that are unique to Kerala),with touches of Balinese architecture. The property is sandwiched between the Kappil backwaters and the beach. What made the resort even more enticing is that it houses the Jiva Grande Spa,which,at 1,65,000 sq ft,is the largest spa in Asia and offers a tempting array of therapies for mind and body. When was the last time you had a relaxed,leisurely bath in which each part of your body got focused attention? On a balmy afternoon at the hotel,I walked into the spa for what had been promised as a divine experience. It was. The Abhisheka treatment begins with a shower and steam to open your pores after which you kind of sidle into a luxurious spa room to sit,hoping desperately the therapist is not noticing the jelly belly,love handles and cellulite that you are trying to contain in tiny,disposal underwear that have been handed to you. I forgot the embarrassment soon enough when the luxurious,indulgent treatment began with my being bathed in sea water stored in traditional Kerala brass containers. Step two was a pampering session in which the therapist generously slathered the body with delicious ‘panchamrut ’ (a concoction of honey,bananas,ghee,jaggery and milk – a traditional offering made to the gods) and massaged it till the body had slurped up half the goodness. I luxuriated in a milk bath fragrant with honey,rose petals and frangipani which was followed by a sandalwood mask and scrub that left my body tingling fresh and silken smooth. And that is not all. The treatment is only complete after an hour-long relaxing massage with goodness of essential oils such as tewda,frankincense,rosewood,brahmi and amla.

Sounds decadent? It is. The next day I decided to go full hog and try what my friends have been saying is the ultimate — a couple massage. The daughter smirked and the husband’s eyes sparkled behind the glasses at the possibilities. It was the ultimate test of my nerves,as it turned out. I can safely say the couple massage is strictly not for the weak-hearted. There should be fine print on this that goes: “Only for brave hearts,nubile nymphets and their lean and mean partners.” Do you really have it in you to subject yourself and the unsuspecting partner to an intimate look at each other in the buff in the privacy of a steam room,a private plunge pool open to the sky and therefore,under the glare of unflattering day light? If,however,you survive the initial shock and the snoring from the table next to you where the spouse has drifted off into slumber heaven,the reward at the end of the bonding and massage session is a bottle of champagne in a private nook,by the plunge pool,under a starlit night,for other things that might follow.

Bekal has other interesting things to do. We went exploring the magnificent Bekal Fort,an awe-inspiring keyhole shaped laterite structure that stands on the beach,replete with watch towers and secret tunnels leading outside and right into the sea. Bekal was a military station of strategic importance for Tipu Sultan who had led an ambitious expedition to conquer Malabar.

The fort also has had Bollywood relevance. It was the location site for Mani Ratna’s film,Bombay which had Manisha Koirala pictured against the ramparts of the fort,singing AR Rehman’s haunting melody,Tu Hi Re. I still remember the song sequence,each frame bringing out the fragile beauty of the lady,the rugged landscape of the fort and the stormy sea in the background.

There are other perks that come with paying a bit extra to stay in a five star. An early morning walk to the tiny fishing hamlet of Pallikara was a crash course in business management as we watched fishermen tackle the droves of traders who arrived to bid for the catch of the day. The 20 families who live on the beach also share their boats and their catch. For most visitors,a large part of the thrill is in selecting the fish for dinner,prepared by the hotel chefs. My spouse tucked merrily into delicious ‘meen pollichattu’— seer fish steamed with spicy masala and then pan fried — some finger-licking delicious prawn curry and pepper fried small fish.

On our last evening at Bekal,we decided to stay indoors and relax at the hotel and were delighted when the staff put together what they term a “unique dining experience”. We dined out by the backwaters in an elegant gazebo decorated with white curtains that billowed in the cool night breeze,candles and an elegant flower arrangement on our table. The hotel provided us with a personal butler service and chef Valentine kept up a steady supply of succulent kebabs followed by a delicious Kerala meal complemented by a fitting dessert selection.

I will be heading back there once the rains are over in God’s Own Country,and Onam arrives,with its abundance of more greenery,fruits and flowers.

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