Heritage House home stays in southern India
By Jan Wheatcroft
I just returned from a wonderful month’s visit to southern India in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I went with my friend, Barbara, and it was an independently planned trip where we were the trip planners, travelers and guides (for the most part).
About half of the trip was planned in advance so we were sure of getting our preferred lodgings and the other half was left to chance, making the plans and reservations as we traveled. It worked out really well and we stayed in very special places that were quite inexpensive and very comfortable. The only expensive and fancy hotel we stayed in was in Chennai (formerly Madras), where our plane landed after over 20 hours of flying time leaving me with a gigantic jet lag problem causing me to drop into sleep at the strangest times.
At that point, we were glad to have fancy digs and to float along in great comfort albeit more expense than I am used to in my travels. However, the beds were yummy and I was in and out of them a lot. The food spread was ginormous at breakfast time and was all inclusive with the price. A breakfast buffet of about 40 feet long stretched along one huge wall and contained every southern Indian dish imaginable, the best yogurt ever, western food and anything special one could want to order specially cooked, as well as at least four fresh juices, lassies and tons of fresh fruits. We took advantage of it all. Super comfort won out at this beginning point.
Then then real part of the trip began. We drove (car and driver, not us) down south to the town of Pondicherry on the southeastern coast, which had been originally settled by the French and had a gallic look and feel and where I had always wanted to visit. Luckily, I had a lot of input from two dear friends, Frances and Penny, who had stayed there a few times and whose stories had served to rev up my desires to visit. They suggested where to stay and special places to visit. (Penny, who lives two hours from Pondicherry for half of the year, visits the town quite often.) We made the first of our two home stay reservations.
We used two places due to the popularity, it was difficult to get space in only one for all nine nights that we stayed. It was so nice to be in one place for a long enough time so that the town felt like home. Pondicherry is divided in two parts, the more residential “French” side with the heritage homes and the more “Indian” side bustling with shops, businesses, both somewhat a world apart even though it is all Indian, after all.
A home stay is quite like an English bed and breakfast in the sense that it is in someone’s home, has a great breakfast included, is run by generous and super friendly people who just can’t do enough for you and is inexpensive by our standards. Our two places, Dumas Guest House and Les Hibiscus, were both in old family homes and were decorated with local antiques and old furniture, including a nice bathroom and a daily supply of bottled water necessary to have while in India. We could have our laundry done for us and returned in a day, often without charge.
Morning and afternoon tea was brought to us while we read or worked on our ipads. We were taken shopping for antiques by the lady of the house at Les Hibiscus as a special treat and all the bargaining was done through her. These were to places we would never have found on our own, out of town with the antiques buried in the dusty back areas. Lucky me.
Any trips or touring about was easily arranged by the lovely Bala at Dumas House to places we never would have thought to visit but proved to be highlights of our stay. Questions were answered, tailors found, telephones offered, help given…all this because we stayed “in their homes, almost as their guests.” Before this experience on previous visits to India, I had often stayed either in hotels with no personality or in very simple places with water buckets for showers and mostly cold water. Here I was a guest.
Eventually, we moved over to the western coast of India to Kerala, an even warmer and more tropical area. Here we found our heritage house stay on the Internet after trying to get space through the Lonely Planet Guide. We stayed right in the center of the small town of Fort Cochin at Walton’s Guest House. Again we found the people helpful and friendly, the breakfasts large and filling, and the room comfortable and modernized. We met great fellow travelers and had lovely long conversations over breakfasts of the sweetest papaya ever served.
After a short stay in Alleppy in a small guest house recommended to us by fellow British travelers and a night on a rice boat on the Keralan backwaters, we journeyed up into the mountains to the hill station of Munnar, an area of tea plantations and another place I had longed to visit. We found this place through the same British couple who had stayed there two years before and loved it then. We loved it as well. It was a three or four hour drive up a winding mountain road, which changed as we climbed higher through fields of pineapples, tapioca, rice and spice farms. All this was wonderful but the best part was the glorious green of the tea plantations of Munnar, which climbed up mountains, down hills and stretched far and wide; shades of vivid green, electric green and soft velvet green. I could never get enough.
Our home stay was at Royal Mist, just at the edge of the tea plantation area with a view of the valley below. This consisted of three sweet rooms at the top of Anil and Jeeva’s house, again clean, comfortable with bath and bottled water and a delicious breakfast with fresh juice (my favorites were pineapple and tree tomato) and Indian specialities, as well as eggs, toast and fruit.
As we ate supper, we got to taste a nice selection of specialities of the home. We had a car and driver for two days included in our stay and we drove all around immersing ourselves in the sights of tea plants and tea pickers. In the afternoons, we were invited into the house for tea and biscuits and long, lively chats with our hosts.
This is what makes staying in a home stay special—the kindness of the hosts, being a part of a family for a while, a chance to learn about life on a local level and eating a good meal. I cannot imagine staying in a hotel again in India, no matter how fancy or exclusive it might be. The personal touch makes all the difference. It made it hard to leave and to say goodbye to our hosts, who had become good friends. Never plan too much in advance. Allow for things to develop and for flexibility while traveling. We did and it made a great difference.