Living with the past If everything that could go wrong at Fawlty Towers in that famous British sitcom went absolutely right instead, you would be at Old Harbour House. And that makes owner Edgar Pinto very proud. Running the hotel reminds him constantly of the cult show, but it’s also where he feels most himself. Pinto claims that his 300-year-old hotel was the first in Kerala, and it has played multiple roles in the history of Fort Kochi. It has been a Portuguese hospice, a Dutch residence, home to the employees of a British tea broking firm, and, in its latest avatar, plays the role of a gorgeously restored heritage property.
The original façade and architecture of the Dutch and Portuguese-influenced building might take you back in time, but those are not its only highlights. The white walls, awash in natural light, lend a sense of space to the interiors; tasteful knick-knacks are carefully scattered through the hotel, like the antique toy horse outside the Palace Suite, while contemporary artworks by Indian painters like Bose Krishnamachari, G Subramaniam and Yusuf Arakkal dot the walls.
The 13 spacious, high-ceilinged rooms are named after Fort Kochi’s various streets. The picks of the lot are the Bastion Suite and the Lily Garden Cottage Room. While the Bastion Suite has art by Bose Krishnamachari, warm yellow hues and French windows overlooking Kochi’s famous Chinese fishing nets, Lily is nestled in the Utopian garden, steps away from the infinity pool, with an open-to-sky shower, a private verandah and a statue of Goddess Parvati.
But Old Harbour Hotel does not have the prerogative on colonial charm, rather you are surrounded by it. Walking down the bylanes of Fort Kochi, you are bound to stumble across reminders of a time gone by: the Church of Saint Francis that once housed the tomb of Vasco Da Gama, the Dutch Cemetery and the charming colonial homes on Princess Street.
Just two kilometres away is Mattancherry, where you will find antiques warehouses lining Jew Street (check overleaf for details) and the Indo-Dutch Mattancherry Palace, its walls adorned with vivid murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana (00-91-484-222-6085; Bazaar Rd; 10am – 5pm Sat – Thur; ` 5).
The Pardesi Synagogue is also worth visiting for its hand-painted tiles from China and its ornate chandeliers (Jew Town, 10am – 1pm & 3pm – 5pm, Sun – Thur; ` 5). The lane leading to the synagogue makes for an interesting walk as it is dotted with the homes of the last few ‘white’ (Caucasian) Jewish families. Start your day at sunrise with a cup of chai by the Chinese fishing nets; you can see the fishermen in action till about 8am (100m from the hotel) followed by an invigorating yoga class on the rooftop (8am; free), and then get pampered at the spa (8am – 6pm; ` 2,100 for a full-body massage, booking necessary). A highly relaxing alternative is to take a leisurely dip in and lounge by the pool, before hitting Kochi’s gentle charms.
Dusk brings out the Old Harbour Hotel’s romantic side. Treat yourself to a candle-lit dinner in the garden, with fairy lights in the trees and live classical music providing the perfect backdrop. Share the seafood platter of delicately-grilled cuttlefish, tiger prawns, squid, lobster and crab meat, served in a white wine sauce with sautéed vegetables. Though you would be forgiven for not sharing the sinful Moelleux Au Chocolat, a hot chocolate cake with a gooey centre.
Closest metro: Bangalore (539km) Closest city: Ernakulam (22km) Closest airport: Cochin International Airport (45km). JetKonnect and Air India fly to Kochi from all major Indian cities (return fares from ` 5,380). There is an hourly shuttle from the airport to Fort Kochi (cochin-airport.in; 6.25am – 6pm; ` 70). The hotel can arrange a pick-up (` 1,600). Closest railhead: Ernakulam Junction (15km). Take the 16526 Kanyakumari Express (leaves Bangalore CY JN [SBC] 9.40pm, arrives Ernakulam Jn [ERS] 10am; ` 719 Third AC) and return by the 16525 Kanyakumari Express (leaves ERS 5.55pm, arrives SBC 6.55am; ` 719 Third AC). Old Harbour Hotel will arrange transfers (` 600 one-way).
The best way to explore Fort Kochi is on foot, but you will need transport to visit Mattancherry and Ernakulam. Rickshaws are easily available; negotiate fares in advance. We used and liked the services of Travelcart (00-91-484-2663533/ 44; travelcartindia.com; Vidhya Vihar Rd, near S H College, Thevara Ernakulam (Dist); from ` 1,850 per day).
Where to stay
Old Harbour Hotel: 00-91-484-2218006; oldharbourhotel.com; 1/ 328, Tower Rd; Superior Room and Garden View Room from ` 9,250, Garden Cottages from ` 13,050, Suites ` 15,950; all rates with breakfast
Where to eat
Old Harbour Hotel’s 1788 restaurant blends traditional Keralan and European flavours, giving the cuisine an interesting twist. Chef Shafi has a certain dottiness that makes him very endearing (see Where to Stay; 7.30am – 10.30pm; seafood platter ` 1,600). If you’re looking for local veg food, try New Anand Bhawan. This no-frills eatery offers simple, hygienic, pocket-friendly snacks and coffee (00-91-484- 2215514; Calvathy Rd, Fort Kochi; 7am – 9pm; special coffee ` 10)
What to pack
Mosquito repellent, a light sweater for the evenings
The spices in Jew Town are overpriced; instead head to Ernakulam’s Broadway Street, 14km from Fort Kochi, where the locals do their shopping (Masala Centre: 00-91-9847124181; opp Mampilly Dispensary, Broadway; cardamom from ` 275/ 250g). If you’re looking for antiques, you could spend hours at Crafters; this 12,000sqft former spice warehouse has an extensive collection (00-91-484-2223346; crafters.in; VI/ 141, Jew Town; 9am – 6pm).
Clean loo guide
The drive from the airport to the hotel doesn’t require a loo break. Fort Kochi is quite small; you will never be too far from your hotel, though loos at cafés and hotels are usually clean.
In case of a medical emergency, Lakeshore Hospital, 15km from Fort Kochi, is reputed (00-91-484-2701032; lakeshorehospital.com; NH 47 Bypass, Maradu, Nettoor, PO Kochi).
The hotel is full of antiques, so keep an eye on your tots. There really isn’t much for kids to do here apart from waddle around in the pool or play with the resident cat, Felix.
Good to know
Dress modestly when you visit the synagogue.