Kumarakom, 10km west of Kottayam, is spread over a cluster of islands on Vembanad Lake, surrounded by a tangle of lush tropical waterways and low-lying paddy fields.
It was here that the British missionary Henry Baker chose to reclaim land to make a small rubber and fruit farm in the 1820s, which was subsequently expanded by his descendants into a full-blown plantation.
After Independence, the estate and its main house were ceded to the government, who designated the core are abutting the lakeside as a nature reserve. Due to its easy accessibility by road from Kottayam, this has since become the focus of a boom in backwater tourism, with a row of large luxury resorts lined up along the water's edge.
Baker, meanwhile, became immortalized as the "Kari saippu" (Black Sahib) of Arundhathi Roy's The God of Small Things, while his house, featured as the ghostly "History House" in the novel, has been converted into a luxury hotel.
Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary and Driftwood Museum
Kumarakom can be reached quite easily by bus (every 20-30 min) from Kottayam, 15km to the east. The best time to visit the Bird Sanctuary (daily dawn-dusk), occupying the westernmost island of Baker's former estate, is between November and March, when it serves as a winter home for many migratory birds, some from as far away as Siberia.
Species include the darter or snake bird, little cormorant, night heron, golden-backed woodpecker, crow pheasant, white-breasted water hen and tree pie. Dawn is the quietest and best time for viewing. Although the island is quite small, a guide is useful; you can arrange one through any of the hotels.
Birds, or representations of them, feature prominently in the area's most bizarre visitors attraction, the Bay Island Driftwood Museum (daily 10am-6pm), just off the main road on the outskirts of Kumarakom. While out on rambles along the shoreline of the distant Andaman Islands, schoolteacher Raji Punnoose used to collect lumps of driftwood, twisted and worn in to shapes resembling animals, birds, fish and people.
Once finishing touches has been applied with a chisel and varnish, these were shipped home to form the basis of curious exhibitions. Raji guides visitors through the highlights with a breathless commentary that's as idiosyncratic and entertaining as the pieces themselves. Allow at least an hour for the full tour.
With couple of exceptions, Kumarkom's resort complexes are resolutely upscale and exclusive, screened by the waters of Vembanad Lake on one side and by high walls and uniformed gurkhas on the other.
However, smaller, authentic homestays are also starting to mushroom in the backwaters and rubber plantations further from the lakeside, the majority of them in landed Syrian-Christian households.
The original and still the most stylish of the grand-scale luxury resorts in this area, reached by boat from Kavaratikara jetty. The launch glides right into the heart of the complex: a miniature village of red-tiled "heritage bungalows" groups around a transplanted 1860s mansion on the lakeshore.
Although fitted with mod cons, the rooms have a traditional feel, with old wood, open-roofed bathrooms and some antique fixtures. A beautiful ayurveda centre, Kalari pit and butterfly garden complex the picture.
Award-winning homestay, buried deep in the watery wilds between Kottayam and Kumarakom. The accommodation comprises four comfortable guest rooms in a separate block behind a family home, overlooking paddy fields.
There is a garden and hammocks to lounge in, and husband-and-wife hosts George and Dai take you in a canoe to look at the local snake boat and other sights. Delicious home cooked food also is available. Phone ahead from Kottayam to be picked up.
Illikkalam Lake Resort
A nice little mid-priced option: eight simple, spacious chalets right on the waterside with wave lapping against the garden walls. Each has its own lake-facing sitout, and extra room to the rear side for children. The owner, a lawyer from Kottayam, stays on site, but this is more anonymous than a homestay, which some will prefer; meals available.
Kumarkom Lake Resort
One of India's top spa resorts, built on a similarly opulent scale to Coconut Lagoon, with relocated "heritage villas" ranged around a huge pool and network of canals, right on the lakeside-though it feels very artificial.
Luxury homestay on a working island farm, 40min drive from Kottayam in the remote backwaters of Vembanad Lake. Five beautifully furnished villas, built in traditional style with whitewashed walls, tiled roofs, antique doors and open-plan interiors, offer private hideaways set back from the main farmhouse looking across the backwater.
Owner Anu, mother-in-law Aniamma and children create a welcoming family atmosphere, leading cookery classes and walking tours of the 50-acre plot where nutmeg, bananas, cocoa and pepper are grown organically.
Vivant by Taj Kumarakom
The Baker family's Edwardian mansion-the "History House" of Arundhathi Roy's The God of Small Things- is the nucleus of this five-star resort. Its old wooden floors, high ceilings and verandas have been extensively refurbished but retain much periodic character, though the plush a/c villas and cottages dotted around the grounds, with their pool and private lagoon, posses much less charm.
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