Words & photographs PRIMROSE MONTEIRO-D’SOUZA
The banana leaves greet you at the entrance, and, then, they follow you in. The leaf runs through the first hotel in South East Asia from the Tribute Portfolio by Marriott. Port Muziris is sited near Cochin International Airport but is definitely not an airport hotel. Here, instead, is the perfect place from which to begin your journey into Kerala.
You just might have little Lila as a fellow guest. The six-month-old hotel is a reimagination of the story of a little girl whose mother is Malayali and whose father is a Londoner, and who could return any moment to find a wondrous place imbued with her mother’s reminiscences of life in Kerala. It would be a very green place. The ubiquitous banana leaves feature again, interspersed with colourful birds, in the dramatic artwork in the lobby by Shalul Kollengode, on the walls of the 54 rooms and three suites that make up the low-lying property, and even on the custom-made crockery. The green theme continues in the potted plants – rather than cut flowers – that dot the common areas.
You will find Lila on the walls too. Two of the 12 artists commissioned to create works inspired by Kerala and Kochi have interpretations of the girl child; the other paintings are alternately realistic, surreal and mystical, but always compelling.
And, of course, there’s food that will thrill her. In bright and cheerful Lila’s Kitchen, Chef Ashok Eapen wants the food to be a way to culture; he works with recipes that are becoming extinct, or that show the influence of the many peoples who visited Cochin as part of the spice trade. The ‘cheen’ in the ‘cheen chatti’ – the pan that is now a ubiquitous part of the Kerala kitchen arsenal — comes from China; puttu from the Portuguese steamed funnel cake. The lunch-time thali forms not just an introduction to the cultures that informed Kochi, but also a taste of the variety and complexity of cuisine across Kerala. The sambaran, for example, made with a Namboodiri Brahmin recipe, has onions added, but with none of the sharpness you would expect that ingredient to bring to the buttermilk. Or try a tea or coffee tasting at Kettle. Many of the drinks come with names that hark back to our mythical Lila’s history. Aunt Rosy’s anise milk is a Dutch nightcap with no alcohol in it; the apple tea or coffee is named after Miss Cohen.
Once replete, it would be easy to decide to just wallow in the property’s rooftop pool, lie about in the cosy rooms, but don’t. Kochi is worth exploring – its modern shopping distractions like LuLu Mall, or its heritage in Fort Kochi – on the menu are St Francis Church, believed to be the oldest European built church in India; the Indo-Portuguese Museum with its religious artefacts; Mattancherry Palace with its riveting murals. Wander through Jew Town and its centuries-old Pardeshi Synagogue and have a bite: Kashi Art Café has wonderful food in a courtyard dotted with art, while Ginger House on the waterfront offers meals eaten amid antiques.
Go even further back in time; the hotel can help you take a tour of ancient Muziris, the atmospheric port city that was so crucial to the global spice trade before it was wiped out by a flood in 1341. A hop-on-hop-off boat from the Department of Tourism takes you to six historic sites, each imbued with a culture and atmosphere many centuries old.
And, when you’re done with the past, come back to the Port Muziris property, and discover that, to the staff, you could be Lila. Think of how a little child is indulged and given the best time ever. Then imagine it being done to you – it will be.