I've lived in Kochi for just under three years, but my home is on Mulavukad (Bolgatty) Island, closer to Ernakulam (Kochi's commercial centre) than the pretty tourist-beloved Fort Cochin. So when friends said they would be coming for Christmas and asked me to find them a homestay, I booked my partner and myself into Harry's place too. We wouldn't have to worry about getting the last ferry home or trying to find a rickshaw on new year's eve. It would be a holiday in our “home” town.
Sithara is not the prettiest, nor the best appointed homestay. It is set behind high walls and a metal gate, down an alley off the parade ground. There is no swimming pool. There are no smiling white-shirted waiters catering to your every whim, no lounging areas or bar. But Sithara has Harry and Mercy. And Harry and his lovely wife are what makes it such a special place. For Sithara is a REAL homestay, not a heritage home or bijou boutique hotel masquerading as a homestay. Sithara is where Harry and Mercy live.
The welcome is enthusiastic and real. Harry and Mercy want you to enjoy your stay and will do everything to make your trip a success. Harry knows everyone and can arrange anything you like. Booking Sithara by email was easy, Harry's answers were prompt and helpful.
There are four rooms: one downstairs, right next to where Harry and Mercy sleep, “specifically for western girls, singly or in pairs” so that they know Harry is right next door in case of an emergency (he told me this prior to the Delhi rape case); two double a/c rooms upstairs; and a non a/c (but the fans are enormous and all you need) double family room with two inter-connecting bedrooms, a balcony and a separate entrance. The immaculate garden (of which Harry is rightly proud) houses a bird cage containing some amiable, if loud, parakeets, mango trees, banana trees and plenty of exotic flowers. Food is extra, but Harry will cook whatever you like for breakfast and find you drinks and snacks throughout the day (I gorged myself on unsweetened fresh pineapple juice).
Don't use this lovely little place as just somewhere to sleep, sit under the shade of the balcony with Harry and get to know him and Mercy a bit before heading out to see the sights. If you are lucky, Mercy's sister "Baby" might join you too.
Just off Lilley Road in central Fort Cochin, the location is second to none.
If you want to share the home of a knowledgeable, upbeat and charming Keralan family, stay at Sithara.
Kerala is renowned for its food, and Fort Cochin is home to some smart and some simple places for its famous fish curry and other local specialities. Looking like the worst kind of tourist trap, the Hotel Cochin Fort (“Hotel” in this context meaning “restaurant”, as so often is the case in India) stands on a corner opposite posh Brunton Boatyard hotel. We had dropped in a few times for cups of tea and cold beers in the past and were always given fast and helpful service, so we took a chance and booked a table outside for new year's eve. We didn't expect much, just somewhere to stay up late with a few drinks and a place where our friends visiting us from the UK would be able to smoke. But it was so much better than that. The restaurant had quite a few foreign tourists, and I was interested to see some domestic tourists and even some Keralan families there too. Although Cochin Fort offers Italian and continental dishes, we played it safe with the local cuisine. Tiger prawns, seerfish (local name for Spanish Mackerel or Kingfish), chicken and vegetable dishes filled the table and were light, fresh and spicy. My Chemmeen Mango Curry (made with green mangoes) was scrumptious. The wine wasn't bad (Banyan Tree), the beer was cold and the seven of us chatted to the watchful waiters as the clock ticked towards 2013.
Then it all went a bit bonkers: one of the waiters had brought some tunes which he added to an mp3 player belonging to one of the guests and an instant party was born. The doors were barred and we had a lock-in until 2.30am. An impromptu Gangnam Style dancefest to a sound system was so distorted we each danced in the rain to our own rhythm (oh yes, it rained like the monsoon and we all thanked our own gods for bringing some sorely needed water to Kerala). The chef danced on the tables, the waiters and owner's family danced in the rain, my friends danced in the fountain and I danced with a chair on my head.
The next day we passed the guys and had a big hug. It seems that after seven years of being open they had never had a party before this new year's eve. Good times, and hopefully the first of many more.
Bellar Road, Fort Kochi, Cochin 682 001
Last year we shunned the Christmas turkey and made our way to the backwaters of Kerala, where we spent an unusually sunny festive holiday puttering about on a little boat between shockingly white sandbanks and hard-to-reach villages. Christmas morning was amazing: I spent it doling out jelly beans, the only present that I had brought for myself from the UK, into the sticky hands of screaming, smiling young children who lined the river banks. They waved madly as we glided past. It was a humbling experience knowing that a handful of easy-to-buy jelly beans could make these kids so ecstatic!
After we had navigated away from the network of shady-green villages, we found ourselves as far removed from a traditional Christmas Day as we had thought possible. We could smell the tangy scent of the salty sea, feel the heavy humidity seeping through our bodies, and the best Christmas present of all, could feel the Indian Ocean lapping small waves against our tiny white-washed wooden boat.
Google map: bit.ly/V6CCuw
If you are looking for a smooth, polished performance, don't go to the Cultural Centre. But if you want a fascinating evening watching the dancers put on their make up, don fantastical costumes and perform scenes from the Ramayana, then the Cochin Cultural Centre is the place to be. It takes over an hour for the principal dancers to apply their makeup and change into the costumes. It is also excellent for people-watching the groups of European tourists in the audience who have their own cultural norms and practices!
Opposite the RDO office, near Fort Kochi Police Station, K.B.Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, 682 001, Kerala, India
+91 484 2216911
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