The hotel scene in Kerala, on the southwest tip of India, is all about independent, community-focused tourism initiatives – and they’re on the up. Here’s our pick.
India’s serene southwestern tip is a wonderland of rustling palms, meandering backwaters and a coastline 600km (370mi) long, set against the wildlife-rich mountains of the Unesco-listed Western Ghats. And your accommodation options include recast colonial mansions, centuries-old tea estates, reimagined haveli homes and prize-winning Ayurvedic retreats.
On the doorstep of the Western Ghats’ ethereal Periyar Tiger Reserve – Kerala’s premier outdoor-adventure destination – this fresh-faced hillside retreat is part of a small, sustainable chain, and has its own water-harvesting pond. Views range across spice gardens and bamboo forests, while the country-smart cottages have private balconies, and yoga, meditation and Ayurvedic treatments add to the appeal. Along with treks and lake cruises in the tiger reserve, the region is loved for its courses in Keralan cooking, jeep safaris and tea- and spice-plantation tours.
This breezy, palm-studded escape rests on the shores of serene Vembanad Lake, in the peaceful village of Kumarakom in central Kerala. With modern-rustic cottages, an Ayurvedic spa and sprawling lake views, it’s a rewarding stopover between the Keralan coast and mountains, as well as a scenic base for houseboat adventures, wildlife-spotting in Kumarakom’s bird sanctuary and exploring nearby Kottayam’s temples and churches. Best are the Bamboo Villas with plunge pools and open-air showers in, yes, bamboo-walled private gardens, while its market-fresh Keralan meals might include spiced prawns and coconut-infused stews.
Some of Kerala’s finest mountain-and-valley views spread widely around family-owned Windermere, a lovingly converted colonial-era cardamom estate just outside Munnar, in South India’s premier tea-growing region. Red-cedar beams, terracotta floors and open-stone walls create a country-luxe feel in the light-flooded rooms, filled with locally crafted furniture and hand-embroidered linen; top pick are the balcony-edged Planters Rooms. In-house naturalists lead hikes through the grounds – fragrant with coffee, guava and gooseberry – and the seductive infinity pool overlooks tea plantations. Seasonal market- and garden-fresh produce fires the Kerala-rooted kitchen.
This thoughtfully converted 16th-century mansion with eight rooms lies in the heart of Kochi’s evocative Fort Cochin, with its crumbling European-style architecture and Chinese fishing nets. In each of the rooms, antiques collected from around the world by Le Colonial’s French owners blend with vintage styling and original architecture, such as breezy verandas and marble-and-teak bathrooms. The showstopper is the Viceroy Suite, but each room is a delight. In the lush tropical gardens, bobbing palms overlook a romantic pool. Have an Ayurvedic massage on your terrace, before tucking in to a South Indian thali platter crafted from the day’s market goodies.
A fabulous, traditional Kerala-style family mansion, Flamingo Boutique bursts with intricate woodwork, handmade tiles, fresh flowers and beautiful antique furniture, sensitively revamped into a historical boutique hideaway. The tempting limestone-and-wood rooms have soothing indoor-outdoor bathrooms, and you can paddle straight down to Marari’s golden sands (Flamingo has its own canoe), laze by the frangipani-fringed pool and practise yoga in the lush gardens. The Arabian Sea-washed location, in beachy Marari just north of Alleppey, is a coastal highlight along the Keralan coast, with blazing sunsets, and only 45km from Kochi.
Northern Kerala’s Wayanad is an enchanting, mountainous district, world-renowned for its wild elephant population and 345 sq km wildlife sanctuary. Here, the family-run Pepper Trail makes a terrific base, set on a working 200-acre coffee and spice plantation, founded in the 1800s. This exquisitely secluded hideaway revolves around a 140-year-old colonial-era bungalow, with two antique-filled suites and Ayurvedic massages laid on. For adventure thrills, sleep among the jackfruits in a glammed-up wood-walled treehouse; there are also villas with private pools. Mornings start with couldn’t-be-fresher coffee, grown on the estate, much like the seasonal organic ingredients you’ll savour in the classic Keralan cooking.
Few hotels in India feel as instantly magical as go-slow, barefoot beach retreat Neeleshwar, lost in the coconut-palm beauty of untouristed northern Kerala (fly into Mangaluru or Kannur). Both a seductively stylish hideaway with a strong sustainable ethos and a respected Ayurvedic retreat, it’s built on the principles of Keralan Vastu architecture, with design-led cottages based on fishermen’s huts – the best featuring private plunge pools. Frangipani-scented gardens meander to a seaside infinity pool, while divine locavore meals include lightly spiced pachakkari stew and fresh grilled fish. Bekal’s imposing 17th-century fort awaits investigation nearby.
Catch a glimpse of northern Kerala’s inland reaches at this riverside outpost of the homegrown Raviz chain, handily located 15km from food-loving Kozhikode (Calicut) and its international airport (from where it’s a quick jump to wild Wayanad). Palm-sprinkled grounds set the scene for a soothingly contemporary reinterpretation of Kerala’s traditional nalukettu architecture, with smartly dressed rooms overlooking the sparkling pool or rushing Chaliyar River (don’t miss the kayaking). The kitchen grows its own herbs, which pop up in elegantly prepared Malayali favourites such as karimeen pollichathu (banana-leaf fish).
A converted 300-year old heritage monument that was once the office of an English tea broker, the Old Harbour Hotel exudes the charm and sophistication of a bygone age. It has a rich history and culture, stunning views of Kerala’s iconic Chinese fishing nets, beautiful interiors embellished with antiques and art and, of course, stellar amenities and service. The rooms are comfortable, plus there’s an onsite restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, Ayurvedic spa and a courtyard garden with a pond and fountain.
Overlooking the Arabian Sea at Fort Cochin, this charming boutique hotel blends colonial-era touches with modern elegance and comfort. Inspired by Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and German style and architecture, the Killians offers a relaxing ambience and welcoming service, within an eco-friendly setting. Guests can relax by the pool, take a yoga class, or use the in-house spa offering professional Ayurvedic treatments. There is a multi-cuisine and seafood restaurant that serves lavish, delicious fusion and South Indian cuisine.
Surrounded by the Arabian Sea on one side and lush greenery on the other, the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel ensures an absolutely relaxing stay. There’s a variety of beautifully designed rooms and world-class amenities, such as a spa with traditional Ayurvedic therapies and yoga sessions for rejuvenation. The on-site restaurant and bistro offers local and international delicacies with panoramic Arabian Sea views.
The Malabar House is a blend of heritage and art, and has earned a cult status in the world of heritage hotels, as well as winning ‘Best Heritage Award” from the Kerala government. Rooms are colourfully and artistically designed with antiques and artworks, alongside all the modern amenities. There’s a swimming pool, plus Ayurvedic treatments available. Feast on delicious seafood, South Indian and Western fusion food at the gourmet poolside restaurant. The wine lounge offers a selection of Indian wines. Ultimately though, it’s the bright and tranquil setting as well as the warm and friendly service that attracts tourists year-round.
Once the guesthouse of a British tea company, this restored colonial villa is now one of the best boutique hotels in Kerala, offering beautiful plantation-style en-suite rooms, each named after spice and tea trading ports. The interior showcases a perfect blend of old-world charm and modern amenities. Indulge in rest and recreation at the multi-cuisine restaurant, pool-side barbeque lounge, swimming pool, and coffee lounge.
The Brunton Boatyard offers colonial-era tradition and charm, elegant rooms and welcoming service. The decor is a perfect blend of Dutch, Portuguese and English influences. In addition to the awe-inspiring views of the sea, this hotel offers an outdoor pool, a tea lounge and an excellent restaurant. Nature lovers will feel right at home here, as the property is surrounded by lush greenery.
Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra is a perfect option for those who want to relax on a beach, swim in the clear blue waters of the Arabian Sea and take in the beauty of nature. With its rejuvenating spa and sauna treatments, an outdoor swimming pool with a poolside bar and lavish dining with excellent views, this property has relaxing facilities for everyone.
A peaceful and relaxing retreat, the Eighth Bastion Hotel is a perfect blend of colonial and contemporary styles. The Dutch influence and Portuguese and British touches are evident here, from the lobby to the guest rooms. The rooms with airy balconies or patios come with beautiful views of sea breezes. Enjoy an espresso in the lobby bar, and relish Asian and Dutch fusion cuisine at the onsite restaurant. Need more? There’s an outdoor infinity-style pool, and sunlit, verdant lanes for strolling. This hotel has the added bonus of being close to the major attractions of Fort Cochin.
A Beach Symphony is known for its four well-appointed cottages, some with private gardens and all with spectacular views and sophisticated style. There’s a swimming pool, Ayurvedic massages, and a beach garden for dining. Even better, Marari Beach is just 30m (30yd) away.
Formerly the home of an affluent Cochin-based Jewish family, the Koders, this property has been resplendently restored and transformed into a magnificent three-story heritage boutique hotel with Indo-Portuguese architecture. The Koder House offers guests luxurious heritage-themed suites with balconies overlooking the Chinese fishing nets on the beach. Guests can enjoy a soak in the outdoor pool, rejuvenating treatments in the in-house spa or simply relaxing with a drink in the outdoor lounge area. The onsite restaurant serves Jewish cuisine and traditional Keralite food, as well as Chinese dishes and seafood.