We love Kerala: in fact, I’ve lost count exactly how many times we’ve visited India’s lush green southern state (at least a dozen, I reckon). The attraction is a combo of tropical landscapes, mountains, backwaters, super-friendly people and amazing food (mostly vegetarian, but often fishy, always firey and laced with coconut). One of the best ways to get under the skin of the place is to stay in one of Kerala’s many family-hosted homestays. Most of those we visited are set among the spice farms and coconut groves of the coastal backwaters or, inland, in the rubber belt – a strip of rubber plantations on the lowland slopes of the mountainous Western Ghats. When we picked out our favourites here, they were all still available but, sadly, some owners have now retired from hosting guests (see notes below).

Vembanad House, Alleppey

Sandhya and ‘Mr’ Balakrishnan’s beautiful house on Lake Vembanad sits in 10 acres of coconut palms and paddy fields on an island-like peninsular, best reached by boat. The house is wooden, tharavad-style, built originally by Mr Balakrishnan’s grandfather in the late 1930s, but rebuilt more recently: the teak joinery, the oriental gables on the red-tiled roof, the traditional pillared porch – all are faithfully replicated. Inside there are four simple but spacious guest rooms, furnished with king-size beds, decent bathrooms (with tubs) and sit-out areas overlooking the backwaters or the luminous greens of a tropical garden. We spend most of our time snoozing in the hammocks that swing out over the lake, or in the shade of a palm-thatched pavilion on the jetty. We dine on fresh lobster with plump prawns, clams, spicy fish curry and organic vegetables cooked on bio-gas; then we sit on the jetty, watching fireflies and night fisherman in the dim light of flickering oil lamps (see picture). The house is listed on booking.com

Thekkanat Parayil, Olavipe 

Update: no longer available. Half an hour south of Kochi, Anthony and Rema Tharakan’s mansion of a house sits on the Kaithapphuza backwaters (a backwater even by backwater standards). On an organic farm (vanilla, pepper, nutmeg, fruits, goats, prawns, the odd emu), the house has been in Anthony’s family for six generations. Before semi-retirement (he was head of close protection under Rajiv Ghandi), he and his wife Rema (a former television presenter) and brother Jacob, spends much of his time hosting guests: walks, tea, coffee, conversation, gin and tonic, family meals. As a guest you are invited to fall into the rhythm of life in this atmospheric, rather ramshackle manor with its cool, dark rooms, antiques and dusty heirlooms. There are colonial-era chairs on a tiled verandah that hasn’t changed in a century or so. In our room, I need a step to reach our high bed – an old-fashioned four-poster – and there is no air-conditioning, no glazing (only wooden shutters, and roll-up blinds). There are no luxuries here (unless you count nature and good company) but staying is a real privilege.

Anthraper Gardens, Chertala

Update: no longer available. Our host is Leela, one of five Anthrapher sisters whose home this is (they take it in turns to look after guests). The Anthrapers are Syrian Christian planters, descended from the Portuguese settlers who arrived in Kerala with Vasco de Gama in the 16th century. The house was built by Leela’s grandfather; his portrait hangs in a lofty salon, furnished with antique furniture (including a vintage radiogram). Our room, one of three, is bright, modern and air conditioned with doors opening onto a wide verandah where we drink tea on old planters’ chairs. Leela has made arrangements for the following day: an early morning outing to see the fish market on the Arabian Sea beach at nearby Arthingal, and a sunset boat trip for the evening. And now we are invited to join her for dinner: a feast of coconut seafood curries, rice appams and fresh sapota fruit (grown in the garden). ‘The house used to be surrounded by water,’ she remembers when later she gives us a guided tour of her childhood home. It still is, but here, on the edge of Lake Vembanad, the shoreline is now clogged with water hyacinth – though this doesn’t detract from the charm of this 100-year-old house or its backwater location.

Kalaketty Estate, Kanjuripally

The ancestral home of “Mr Kurian” and his wife Anuja, sits on the edge of the family’s 150-acre rubber and pineapple plantation near Kanjuripally. Across an immaculate lawn, shaded by mahogany and mangostene trees, there are two huge guest rooms, one on each floor of a pretty two-storey villa with a lime-stucco render and a decorative verandah. Each room is furnished with antiques, polished red oxide floors – squeaky clean – and galleries of family portraits. You can take a walk around the plantation or see the latex turned into rubber sheets. Personally, I preferred to hang out and enjoy the views – our room overlooked water buffalo in emerald paddy fields.  Meals are served in the Kurian family dining room, and the food is the best: rich coconut curries, home-grown vegetables, fruits, spices and appams. Check out the website: https://www.kalakettyestate.com/

Teekoy Bungalow, Pala

On a 1200-acre rubber plantation, half an hour north of Pala, this rustic estate bungalow has been owned by the Kottukapally family since the 1950s (see their home – Nazarani Tharavad, below) but it looks much as it would have done when it was built by the British in 1930. Restoration has spruced up the corrugated iron roof, the neat whitewashed walls, the glazed verandahs and the green-painted bay windows which peer out at the Vagamon foothills across a garden of frangipani. Original colonial furniture sits on new tiled floors; there’s air-conditioning in the bright bedrooms and a live-in housekeeper to look after guests. The house specials are plantation tours, Indo-British Raj cuisine (chicken biryani meets cottage pie) and ‘high tea’ served on china sprigged with English apples. More info here.

Nazarani Tharavad, Pala

John and Thressi Kottukapally’s home is built for entertaining, and when guests are in residence, every meal is a special occasion. We arrive in time for lunch and the table is laid with embroidered linen. The food ranges from Kerala curries to ‘Raj cuisine’, but on this occasion we are treated to a baked fish dish from Thressi’s own cookery book, Syrian Christian Favourites. Later we linger over a nazarani sadhya, a traditional feast of 30 dishes arranged on a banana leaf (see main picture, above) like dollops of colour on an artist’s palette and eaten with our fingers. Between meals we explore the cool, marbled salons of the Kottukapallys’ white villa, built in the 1960s by John’s father (an advisor to the Nehru government), or we wander beyond the gates into Pala, an ordinary foothills town in Kerala’s rubber country. After dinner (very formal – with prayers and no alcohol – unless you bring your own), we sleep in a carved antique bed dressed with vivid silks, and wake up to a splendid Keralan breakfast: appams, spiced vegetable stew, fresh tropical fruits. More info here.

Plapally Estate Bungalow, Koottickal

Update: no longer available. On a former rubber plantation founded in the 1920s, this “heritage” bungalow is set on a wooded hillside above Koottickal (getting there involves a rather hairy drive down a rough farm track). The guest rooms are basic, but the views are sensational. Enjoy them from a wicker chair on the verandah or from the deck of a tree house perched in the branches of a huge mango tree. The deep valley below is a wall-to-wall rubber, but the bungalow’s own five acres is a mini botanical garden: a jungle of pepper vines, papaya, plantain, gooseberry, snake flower and hibiscus, crowded around a spring-fed pool (pleasantly cool on a hot day). The food is traditional, home-cooked, often picked from the garden; the home of Saijan Pulickal and family, Plapally is listed under the Eco Kerala scheme. The night-life? Listen to the crickets while gazing at the stars.

This post is a combo of articles that appeared in The Guardian and Conde Nast Traveller.

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