In the peaceful north of Kerala, far from the hordes and horns of India’s big cities, Belinda Luksic finds bliss among the bougainvillea.
It’s early evening in Bekal, and the sky above me is sprinkled with stars. I stretch out against bright silk cushions as we drift along still backwaters in a bamboo raft hung with organza and wooden lanterns.
From time to time our oarsman, Amal, languidly drags a long bamboo pole through the dark waters, or points out the constellations visible in the cloudy sky. I can just make out the riverbank and the verge of coconut trees, black against the indigo sky. In the silence, a muezzin calls from a waterside mosque. Then another. And another. Soon, the air is filled with the haunting call to prayer.
While most visitors to Kerala head south to the beaches of Kochi, we’ve travelled to the tip of the Kasaragod District and the tiny village of Bekal, a raw beauty at the edge of the Arabian Sea. The beaches here are as golden and the backwaters as abundant in birdlife as those in the south, but for one important difference – there are no tourist crowds. After a week spent traipsing through bazaars, palaces and ancient temple towns alive with colour and chaos, our arrival at this peaceful sanctuary is like a breath of fresh air.
In sharp contrast to the start of our trip, there are no street sellers or sacred cows hogging dusty roads, no sea of saris or tuk tuk drivers hurtling down narrow streets. Here, the sun-dappled path I walk to breakfast, the spa and to yoga is laced with frangipani and hibiscus plants, purple and red bougainvillea, and tall coconut palms. Instead of the insistent tooting of horns, there is the sweet symphony of birds calling out to one another and warm greetings from good-natured staff.
On my dawn walks along the river and beach, I encounter white egrets swooping over the glassy waters and spot the dapper strut of a heron darting across the rocks. In the trees I spy parrots, tiny woodpeckers and the endemic red-eyed koel. The local house crows swoop down on my breakfast one morning when I’m not looking, cleverly casting aside the lids on the plates to feast. Come summer, the resort is singing with more than 40 migrating birds, including pink flamingoes.
Designed by Australian architect Nick Juniper, the 66-villa Taj Bekal Resort & Spa takes as its design the postcard-famous kettuvallam houseboats that still ply the Kerala backwaters today. Scattered across 10 hectares of fragrant gardens, each of the laterite stone villas is like a small home, with a black iron gateway and entry foyer leading to a garden and pool, next to which lies a swing bed and an invitingly deep outdoor tub, both shaded by a thatched canopy roof inspired by the Keralan houseboats. At night, the tub is backlit by a wall of candle-like lights.
Beyond is a sliding glass door and elegant, spacious room with a king-size bed, a feature wall splashed with traditional art, an ensuite and sunlit shower. During afternoons, when the sun is at its hottest, I find myself in this comfortable abode, drifting between the bed, day bed and pool. In between, a host of spa treatments and wellness is on offer.
“You are sitting in the lap of nature,” says yoga instructor Sudeep as we perform early morning asanas in a small backwater pavilion framed by tall palms. “Breathe deeply. All the sounds, the birds, the sky, support you.” I fix my gaze on a tall coconut tree and gingerly lift a wobbly leg, stretching my arms above my head. A koel tweets from somewhere high in what I imagine is a show of support.
Daily morning yoga is only the beginning of wellness programs offered at Taj Bekal. Kerala is the cradle of Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient Indian practice of wellness based on three energy types – vata, pitta and kapha. Along with yoga, meditation and massage, Taj Bekal guests can check in for tailor-made Ayurvedic programs of seven, 14 and 21 days in what is the largest spa in Southeast Asia.
After yoga one morning, I see the Ayurvedic doctor for a consultation. He tells me I’m a pitta personality – fiery and competitive – and, because of this, I must give up chilli. Sad news indeed, given southern Indian cuisine is spicy with the stuff. I check out the menu of oil-dripping Ayurvedic treatments. In the end though, I opt for a signature aromatherapy massage with the affable Kang, who leads me along shaded pathways thick with greenery to a warren of treatment rooms. The blissful hour-long massage is fragrant with Indian spices and begins with a steam and footbath and ends with a traditional Indian head massage.
At lunch, I sample a local Hindu feast known as sadhya. Made by local village women, the vegetarian banquet is served on a banana leaf, accompanied by a series of drinks that include a cleansing cumin seed-infused water, peppery tomato juice and cooling buttermilk. There is a beachside restaurant with a menu of local coast-to-plate cuisine rich in coconut and spices, as well as a poolside grill serving up north Indian cuisine.
On my last evening, Amal takes me on a hike of the beach and coastline, our walk cutting through the local village and past the mosque to a lookout where goats scramble for grass along the escarpment.
While the strong currents at this pretty beach make it too dangerous for swimming, there are plenty of local families taking in the last gasp of day. Children frolic at the water’s edge and we see a fisherman casting off, the setting sun framed perfectly behind him. Above us are the white-bellied sea eagles the locals call brahminy kites freewheeling so high it’s like they are in the heavens. The sun is as big as a yolk and just as yellow as it slides slowly down the bright orange sky. I feel the warm sand between my toes, watch the many shades of green sea crash on the shore and breathe it all in.
The closest airport to Bekal is Mangalore, about 70 kilometres away. Air India flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi, where you can connect to flights to Mangalore via Mumbai
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