I am hours away from escaping that gruelling schedule into a retreat of peace and I encounter uncompromising city traffic that fails to accommodate me on this first day of my getaway. I bravely forge ahead with my plans, and while journeying through the green alongside the road from the airport towards Our Land resort, my chaotic frame of mind slowly calms down, and completely relaxes when I step foot on the landscaped grounds of Our Land, greeted by my namesake Madhu, the manager and chef in charge.
Our Land is an island resort on the backwaters of Kerala, south of Alappuzha, surrounded by green paddy fields fringed with coconut palm, bamboos and banana trees that stretch right up to the horizon. This hideaway island harbours secrets, much like it once harboured a fierce bandit, who was immortalised by the local community as their Robin Hood. Today, the team of Our Land is led by Menon, who found this bandit hideaway and may have shed it of its notorious origins but has tried to remain true to its hard-to-find tradition. The sense of calm is complete at Our Land, which offers a taste of the simple life, away from the tourist trail.
A charming 6-room island hideaway surrounded by a rustic landscape, Our Land has been built in keeping with the essence of the area. The rooms are simply decorated with neutral colours, which complement the natural feel of the wood in the room. You can sit in the balcony that overlooks the lake and enjoy the solitude with some well-chosen books and music, and witness life as it unfolds on the lake.
The food is home style and delicious, so be prepared to walk-off the excess calories you will inevitably consume; you’ll be treated to a sumptuous meal of rice, vegetables, fish, poultry and spicy lentil curries accompanied by crisp pappadoms and platters of fresh papaya, mango and other seasonal food.
Beyond the cottage, food and the pampering, there is a whole world of rural Kerala to explore. Either rely on your trusty walking shoes or hop on to a bicycle to explore the other side of the island, which is just a canoe ride away.
Our Land is doing all it can to make a positive ecological impact. It aims to be as socially and environmentally responsible as possible. With an attentive local staff and rustically manicured grounds that blend in with the area, it has already made a great start to achieve this objective.
The exterior of all the rooms is fashioned in a traditional Kerala style and blends right with the area. Each bungalow has two rooms and a separate sit out. They are perfect for privacy when needed, but accessible for a family travelling together.
All the rooms are almost identically done up, but display a touch of difference, seen either in the windows or in the statues in the rooms, which are locally made by Benny, who doubles up as guide and caretaker. The walls are spotlessly clean and the furniture is locally made – all dark timber and simple lines. Beds are typically two single beds pulled together and covered with white sheets to go with the room décor.
There is a desk and chair in one corner and a cupboard in another – perfect if you are staying longer than a couple of days. Behind the beds is a little alcove to store your knick-knacks. Air-conditioners and electric ceiling fans keep the room cool.
The bathroom has white walls and fixtures and shiny steel trimmings – and no plastic containers. One of the best features in the bathroom was the local ‘toothpaste’, or in this case, ‘toothpowder’. It reminded me of my grandmother’s cabinet!
The extended original first cottage was closed for renovation. But at a glance, the original cottage is larger than the independent bungalows and has a dining room for guests. The best feature of the exterior is the proximity to the large bamboo trees surrounding the original cottage standing guard hugging the bungalow.
In 2007, to cater to couples, ‘Tree Top’, a tree house that is a concrete and thatched roof fusion, was constructed. My personal tastes run to a tree house made entirely of wood, but this one can grow on you. Its ideal location, tucked away from the cottages behind a copse of bamboo and almost directly on the water, makes it a choice for many of the holidaymakers. The stairs lead to an en suite room and a matching bathroom to round out that perfect hideaway in the secret island.
Meals are served in the dining room (new one under construction) or in the private sit out in front of your room.
Breakfast: I requested typical Kerala breakfasts, but if you need a European breakfast, you won’t be disappointed. The European breakfasts are hearty – eggs to order, toast, butter and preserves. For me, though, it was idlis (rice and lentil cakes), dosas (rice pancakes) and puris (puffed wheat-flour bread) that you drown in spicy lentil curries or coconut stew. Hot chutneys of mango and coconut (all fresh from the land) spice things up. Madhu has his own specialities and one of them is called adda. This is a cylindrical idli made from a combination of wheat flour, shredded coconut, banana, jaggery (unprocessed cane sugar) and flavoured with cardamom. The whole concoction is placed in cylindrical containers and then steamed and fried.
Finish off with a platter of fresh seasonal fruits, some from Our Land’s gardens and others locally sourced. You can start with pineapple, papaya, mango and watermelon. And if your heart desires, a tender coconut!
Lunch and Dinner: I wanted to taste my share of local family cuisine and I was not disappointed. Satheesh shares the kitchen duties and aims to bring many of Madhu’s and his own recipes to light.Chapattis (Indian bread) and steamed rice are washed down with spicy sambhar (a spicy South Indian lentil curry), beetroot and cabbage sautéed with coconut and onions and crispy rice pappadoms. Topmost on my list of lip-smacking concoctions was the pumpkin curry. Non-vegetarians – there is a fresh catch of the day – can choose from fish, giant river prawns and local free-range chicken. Duck and beef are served on request, cooked in the local style if you prefer.
I’m sorely tempted to share a recipe of a side dish, which was clearly my favourite. It was a subtle combination of grated coconut with red hot chillies served with yogurt, best with rice. To find out more, you will just have to ask Madhu – it’s no fun giving away all the secrets!
Hammocking: You won’t find this activity in any dictionary but there is no word that quite describes the sheer pleasure of lazing around in a hammock! Lie down with a book and hammock away. Catch a nap after your breakfast just to wake up for your afternoon meal.
Walks: For a leisure walk, take a stroll on the property; check out the local garden where in season, fresh vegetables are grown organically. If you are looking for a longer hike, take the canoe with or without a guide to the other side of the island. Explore the village school or better yet, just discover the landscape – the lily covered ponds, the local fishing spots and the people. Notice the unique architecture of the houses and pay your respects at the local worship sites – you will find a temple and church right next to each other.
Birding: I will do injustice to this piece, as this is a birders area and I’m just an amateur. Don’t be surprised if your enthusiastic guides bring the Guide to Indian Birds along with them and confirm your sightings. Their excitement is genuine and infectious and even first timers will catch some of it. Notice the little friendly competition if you go on two different trips with two different guides
Fishing: Sit by the lakeside or join the kids at their spots. If fishing is something you enjoy, borrow the staff’s fishing line and trying your hand. Maybe you will catch dinner.
Cooking: Learn to cook! There cannot be a better setting to learning some simple recipes than Madhu’s kitchen. The well versed cooks can take an advanced look into the intricacies of the local Keralite cuisine.
Other: Hire a car and visit Alappuzha – its beach and then its marketplace. Walk through the busy streets and pick up a souvenir for home.
Usage of fresh water by having dual flush tanks in all its bathrooms.
There is a local village panchayat (council) supply and the hotel has its own borewell, which is what is mostly used. Chlorine is sparingly used. Drinking water is purified used ‘Aqua Guard’.
The hotel has a freshwater pond that collects rainwater and reduces usage of water meant for the local village and farmers.
Wastewater from the bathrooms is recycled. It is treated in septic tanks and released into the ground water after treatment.
Vegetables and fruits are completely chemical free and biological wastes in this resort are used as fertilisers. Everything, from water lilies to leaves to yard trimmings, is composted.
The bamboo all around the land helps the area stay green and well oxygenated.
Plastic wastes are kept in separate containers, which are sold out through markets for recycling.
In the rooms, all the linen is 100% cotton and customers are given the option to change towels if needed.
CFL bulbs have been used, which bring down electricity consumption and help with frequent power fluctuations.
Also on the cards is an eco-friendly houseboat, which will use eco-products.
There are plans to install a carbon filtration plant.
Other vegetables, which are not grown on the vegetable patch, are sourced from local market. So is all the meat and fish.
The retreat also buys organic floor-cleaning liquids, candles and incense sticks from the local ayalkuttam(neighbourhood gang), a local women’s village cooperative.
The final leg of the journey to the island is done by local auto rickshaw and guests are encouraged to use the resort bicycles and canoes (free of cost). Guests are taken on bus journeys if they wish to do so.
Out of the six staff members employed at the resort, all but one are from the local village. Most of the staff has been with the company or the resort for years.
- Food, food and more food! Home-style food with a touch of the classic that is sure to please your palate. Do insist that they give you smaller portions if you are a light but enthusiastic foodie.
- They remembered my weakness for tender coconut!
- It offers peace and solitude that is hard to come by for us city folks. But you have to bring that mental state of mind with you as well!
- Watch life unfold around the lake, go for walks in the village, taste raw mangoes plucked right from the trees.
- It would have been a good change to have a different setting other than the cottage for all the meals, but the new dining room is under construction.
- The kamikaze mosquitoes, but that is the price one pays for the idyllic setting by the lake.
- Off-season, you may be lonely without neighbours and it may be the time that the owners might choose to finish up the renovation, which you will only see if you go towards the back areas. A minor adjustment; after all, it takes time to make a getaway a ‘home’!
- Sultry afternoons best spent by indulging in a nap on the recliner.
- Can be a little isolated, so explore beyond the small island by hopping on board a canoe or taking a bus into town.
Ideal For Whom
Ideal for couples, families and single travellers looking to relax. Couples and singles will enjoy the peace and quiet – the best remedy to catch up, write or finish off their reading lists.
It is a perfect place for families as well, as life around the lake can be engaging for children and a respite from the urban crush. Add your extended family to make it a reunion.
Birders, writers and even artists will find this place worth a visit. The bird life in the area all around the year is worth the long walks along the banks of the lake with the paddy fields as the backdrop. So get your binoculars, your birding journal and take Benny or Ratheesh along with you.
When To Visit
The best time to visit the backwaters is from October to May. Temperatures average 28-32°C and the skies are clear (except for a bit in October and November), the air is dry.
My personal preference is visits during the rainy season between June and September, despite the thunder and evening storms. It’s quieter on the backwaters and there are different shades of green blanketing you. It’s a perfect time to re-connect with your inner self and relax, mind and body, if you can brave the elements and the quiet.
How Many Days
Three to four nights would be perfect after a long trip. You could break your stay with a houseboat trip for a day. With three nights, there is time to unwind and enjoy one activity each day.
If you’re looking to relax in solitude for a longer period, there is no better place than Our Land – a good week here could be just what you need.
Things To Bring
Light, cool cotton material works best for the weather. Longer sleeves will keep those pesky mosquitoes at bay and also protect you from the harsh sun on your walks in the area.
A water bottle for filtered water.
Sun block and insect repellent.
A book or two and your iPod (with the charger).
By Air: Kerala has three international airports – Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Calicut (Kozhikode).
Kochi Airport (42km) is the nearest flight connection. The airport is well connected with all major Indian cities with a range of domestic airlines to choose from. If you are flying in from overseas, we recommend you fly direct to Kochi on Emirates (via Dubai) or Qatar Airways (via Doha). The airport is also served by numerous other airlines from Europe, the Middle East and Colombo.
From Kochi Airport: From the airport, either take a taxi from the queue, or pre-book a transfer with the hotel (3 hours).
By Rail: If you are based in India or already travelling in India, Alappuzha is the nearest train station (14 km), and is connected to many major Indian cities by rail. You can catch a local taxi or pre-book a transfer with the hotel (45 minutes).
By Road: Our Land is located at Karimbavalavu, just 45 minutes by boat from Alleppey towards Kollam. It is only 15 minutes by boat from Pallathuruthy Bridge, which any local taxi driver will know.
You can also travel along the Alappuzha-Changanassery Road. Turn right from Pandarakkalam Kayal and continue until you reach the Gopika Tea Stall. Walk for 10 minutes through the paddy field to the canal bank and cross over the canal by village canoe to Our Land.
Madhu: Before the advent of the current houseboats, Madhu started his career as a cook in 1989 with Chalukya Houseboats (Mr Menon’s Travel business). He is a celebrity of sorts with New York Timeswriting about his exemplary services. Later, at Our Land he took over the operations and with the years of service, has created a name for himself and Our Land. He has left a mark on the family-style dishes that the kitchen at Our Land runs.
Ratheesh: He is from the neighbouring district of Alappuzha and has been with the travel agency for nearly 10 years in Chennai before he chose to move to Alappuzha to be close to his family. Ratheesh is an avid birder himself and he has a genuine interest in sharing his knowledge. A perfect walking partner who just adds to the calm of the area.
Benny: He is from a small village near Our Land. Apart from his other talents, he is a mason and was a student priest. He has seen Our Land from the construction phase and stayed on to be part of the operations team. Benny is an artist in his own right. Notice the lovely Ganesh statue outside one of the rooms; the sculptor is none other than Benny. Along with Ratheesh, he keeps the birding tally updated as and when they see new species.
Satheesh: He is from the same village where Our Land is located. Before coming to resort, he worked in the rice fields and fished in season. He joined Our Land 12 years back as a helper and under Madhu, has trained in the kitchen to whip up the daily cuisine. Like the entire versatile group, he has fair knowledge of electrical works, which is something always needed on the island.
Banu: He is from the local village as well. He came to the resort as hire boat and slowly formed a relationship with Our Land. Today he works full time at the resort and does various jobs on the ground, doubles up as a canoe guide and is also the resident farmer.
Chandra: She is the hand behind the clean grounds. You will see her diligently cleaning and raking the grounds as the sun rises.
Madhu (Auto Driver): He is our official carrier of clients from the main road to Our Land through the narrow road. He owns his own auto and helps with errands as and when they arise.
Babu (Coconut Plucker cum miscellaneous jobs): You have to watch Babu climb up and coconut trees. He, along with Banu, takes care of many of the small and big miscellaneous jobs that arise around the land.