Why You Should Visit Southern India on Your Next Vacation
Floodwaters charted the destiny of Kochi, the centuries-old port city in the Indian state of Kerala—a sliver of land stretching some 360 miles along the country’s southwestern Malabar Coast—nearly 700 years ago. The seaside enclave would likely never have become the bastion of multiculturalism it is today if not for a major flood in 1341, which threw open its estuary to the Arabian Sea, transforming it into one of the finest natural harbors in the East and an alluring destination for an esteemed succession of conquerors and visitors alike.
Last August, nature again tried to dictate Kerala’s fate, this time to its detriment. Unusually heavy monsoon rains spurred the state’s most devastating flooding in nearly a hundred years, swamping its coastal regions and killing nearly 500 people while displacing hundreds of thousands more. The floodwaters closed Cochin International Airport—Kerala’s largest—for two weeks, caused roughly $2.5 billion in losses, and damaged tens of thousands of homes across its 15,000 square miles. Predictably, the accompanying worldwide media coverage detailing the devastation decimated Kerala’s tourism industry—which accounts for 12% of its economy and 20% of its jobs—for months after the roiling waters receded.
While it may take years for the handful of areas that bore the brunt of the damage to fully recuperate, the less-reported news is that Kerala is squarely back on its feet and arguably more eager than ever to welcome tourists to its lush and storied shores. A sojourn in this resort state—and in its enchanting neighbors of Tamil Nadu and Goa—offers both an unforgettable immersion in southern India’s myriad charms and a prime opportunity to support its ongoing recovery.
A Melting Pot of Old and New
No place in Kerala captures the state’s enticing mix of history and exoticism more dynamically than Fort Kochi, its oldest fishing village and Kochi’s historic heart, where the city’s complex cultural amalgam comes to life. Stroll along its tree-lined avenues to the breezy seaside to view a horizon studded with its iconic Chinese fishing nets, living monuments still in use and first brought here in the 14th century, when Kochi—the only place in the world ruled successively by three European colonial powers—became the center of the brisk Indian spice trade. Then visit St. Francis Church—the oldest European church in India—to see the original grave site of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, whose maiden voyage here in 1498 portended Kochi’s christening five years later as the first European settlement on Indian soil.
Nearby stands a large weathered gate marked with the initials “VOC,” the monogram of the Dutch East India Company, a former trading titan that was once the richest private company in the world during the 17th century. It testifies to the once-vital trade links between Kochi and the Netherlands. The Dutch, keen to capitalize on the enormous strategic value of “the Queen of the Arabian Sea” (as the city was often called), wrested it away from the Portuguese in 1663. Stand before the gate facing Parade Ground, the largest open green in town, and you can see Cochin Club, a formerly all-male British bolt-hole founded in the early 20th century and a vestige of the final chapter in Kochi’s colonial history, which began in 1795 (when Great Britain officially changed the city’s name to Cochin) and lasted until India’s independence in 1947.
Overlooking Parade Ground from its prime perch on the green’s north side sits The Malabar House, Fort Kochi’s first boutique hotel. India’s inaugural Relais & Chateaux property, the artfully designed hideaway, dating back to 1755, is a casually elegant retreat with top-notch service in a peerless location. Its 17 spacious and colorful rooms all boast verandas or terraces, while the inviting central courtyard buzzes quietly in the evening with the festive din of guests and visitors.
The hotel’s lively destination restaurant, Malabar Junction, serves up some of the best cuisine in Fort Kochi, melding Keralan and Mediterranean influences in flavorful dishes like prawns stewed in coconut milk and turmeric broth, and Indian Ocean sea bass with cauliflower velouté, fennel, and plum, while its Divine wine bar celebrates India’s burgeoning wine industry.
The hotel’s dual role as an exceptional art showcase underscores its unique character. Guest rooms and common spaces brim with a dazzling array of antique and contemporary objets d’art, thanks to the vision of husband-and-wife owners Joerg Drechsel and Txuku Iriarte Solana, passionate collectors and Keralan hospitality pioneers. The German-born Drechsel, a former exhibition designer, was first seduced by Kerala’s charms in 1972 after driving there from Europe across countries including Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—“unthinkable today,” he says—and was especially inspired by its melting pot of religions and cultures. (Some 32 communities speaking at least 16 languages live in Old Kochi, the collective name given to Fort Kochi and neighboring Mattancherry.)
“As a lifetime traveler, many places I’ve visited have become victims of ethnic and religious conflicts,” Drechsel says. “Kerala’s Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities have grown side by side over many centuries, creating an umbrella culture with a common language and a shared way of life. It’s a shining example that there is another way.”
Returning to Kerala some two decades later with Iriarte Solana and thoughts of starting a new life chapter, they happened upon the Malabar House property, then dilapidated and overgrown, and snatched it up in 1995. The hotel opened two years later and is now the flagship of a small circuit of Keralan hotels that comprise Malabar Escapes.
The Malabar House’s reputation as Fort Kochi’s leading art hotel dovetails with the enclave’s emergence as one of India’s artistic hotbeds, thanks in part to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, now South Asia’s largest art show. (The state of Kerala is a major sponsor—noteworthy in a country with virtually no government support for the fine arts.)
Founded eight years ago, the exhibition’s international profile is growing steadily; the fourth edition, which wrapped in March, featured the work of 100 artists from India and 30 other countries. A visit to the pioneering Gallery OED and URU Art Harbour, an exhibition space in a hauntingly atmospheric waterfront location in Mattancherry, is another must for art buffs, as is the private Kerala Folklore Museum. With thousands of pieces ranging from sculptures to paintings to jewelry, it’s a fascinating journey through the astonishing artistic legacy of southern India, housed in a remarkable building, a high temple of Keralan architecture completed over nearly eight years with the help of 62 traditional carpenters. Meanwhile, decor enthusiasts will want to spend days rummaging through Mattancherry’s awe-inspiring antique shops like Heritage Arts and Crafters, whose cavernous, old spice warehouses are filled floor to ceiling with treasures.
Tranquility by the Lakeside
After a few days spent peeling back Fort Kochi’s myriad layers, it’s time to unwind in the seemingly boundless greenery of Kerala’s famous backwaters. A 90-minute drive from Fort Kochi, along roads lined with rice paddies and swaying palms, lies Purity at Lake Vembanad, the Malabar House’s sister property.
Presiding over the widest part of the lake—India’s longest at nearly 60 miles—from its western shore, the resort offers a serene sanctuary perfect for unplugging, where you can lounge endlessly by the lakefront infinity pool, enjoy an open-air Ayurvedic oil massage at the spa, and dine by torchlight at the water’s edge on scrumptious dishes of fresh lake-caught crab and fish. Like The Malabar House, Purity showcases an eclectic mix of modern and antique Indian art throughout its common areas and 14 rooms, all with lake views and some with en suite spa facilities.
While the hotel can arrange outings to nearby points of interest, such as the Mararikulam Mahadeva Temple or a local coir factory (one of Kerala’s top industries), a day (at a minimum) boating through Kerala’s fabled backwaters—the palm-lined inland network of lagoons, lakes, rivers, and canals that parallel the Kerala coast from Kochi 86 miles south to Kollam—aboard the Malabar Escapes Discovery houseboat is a must-do.
A converted rice barge outfitted with a roomy suite that sleeps four on cruises that range from one to three nights, Discovery will chauffeur you through this labyrinth of lush waterways lined with modest villages and flotillas of kettuvallams, Kerala’s traditional thatched-roof houseboats. The eager waves of swimming children and grizzled fishermen in wooden canoes in this distinct water-world—where deadly floodwaters surged for weeks less than a year ago—will remind you of the meaning of resilience.
Enduring and Inimitable Artistry
Home to one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Kerala’s neighbor to the east, boasts a richly textured history dating back 4,000 years. Often called “the Land of Temples”—its borders encompass some 33,000 of them—its illustrious artistic heritage owes largely to an array of disparate rulers—notably the Chola dynasty, one of the wealthiest in southern India, whose reign spanned from 850–1279 AD. The Cholas’ avid patronage of pursuits including painting, sculpture, bronze casting, and architecture—which later conflated with the subsequent Vijayanagara and Maratha dynasties’ own artistic leanings—left an indelible aesthetic imprint that resonates most distinctly in the eastern town of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital.
There’s no better base for exploring Thanjavur’s bounty of treasures than Svatma, an exquisite boutique hotel (and fellow Relais & Chateaux member) and the city’s preeminent address for discerning visitors. A decade in the works before its 2015 debut, the 38-room hideaway is the passion project of Indian architect and designer Krithika Subrahmanian, who created it partially in response to Tamil Nadu’s dearth of luxury accommodations. A trained Bharatanatyam dancer—a classical style that originated in Tamil Nadu’s Hindu temples—she painstakingly restored the 150-year-old, colonial-style building—once home to a British trader—to reflect both her own exacting standards of hospitality and Thanjavur’s formidable artistic legacy.
Teeming with locally sourced antiques and furnishings, Svatma has the rarefied air of an unusually inviting museum crossed with a luxe heritage home, replete with galleries that beautifully showcase enduring aspects of Tamil history like the vina, an ancient Indian string instrument whose dulcet strains are said to soothe both body and mind. (Some 15 families still make vinas in Thanjavur. Svatma can arrange a visit to their sawdust-strewn workshops, where barefoot artisans methodically craft the musical masterpieces from jackfruit wood, adorning them with intricate carvings of peacocks and Hindu deities.) Serving only Tamil Nadu’s tasty vegetarian cuisine in its two restaurants—don’t miss the delicious and colorful thali, a traditional Indian lunch—the hotel boasts a deftly designed pool painted with trompe l’oeil imagery and a rooftop cocktail bar overlooking bustling streets lined with ornate, pastel-hued temples, many crosshatched by telephone wires and sandwiched between cinder-block buildings in a startling mélange of old and new.
While you’re there, pay a visit to Brihadisvara Temple—Thanjavur’s prodigious centerpiece and the jewel in the crown of the Unesco-inscribed Great Living Chola Temples triumvirate—is a requisite first stop. Built by the legendary Chola ruler Rajaraja I (“king of kings”) to commemorate his triumphant tenure and completed in 1010 AD, it’s a literal marvel of engineering and aesthetic achievement: carved entirely in interlocking granite and dedicated to Shiva, one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, its vimana (tower) soars over 200 feet skyward, while legend says its 80-ton cupola was set in place by elephants. At dusk, the temple’s honey-hued stone seems to glow the warm shades of sunset, a shifting palette of pink and orange ablaze against the violet sky.
Meanwhile, the nearby Thanjavur Royal Palace Museum houses a priceless (and peerless) collection of bronze statues spanning the ninth to 19th centuries AD. Just outside the palace lies the Saraswati Mahal Library, arguably the most acclaimed in India, stuffed with tens of thousands of books and documents. One of the few medieval manuscript libraries in the world, its rarest holdings can be viewed by appointment.
Architectural showstoppers aside, a Svatma-arranged tour of the local studios that continue to nurture Thanjavur’s age-old artistic traditions provides a memorable glimpse into the Tamil people’s prolific creative gifts. In the humblest thatch-roofed homes tucked away on quiet dirt lanes, you’ll observe the disciplined creation of Thanjavur paintings—one of southern India’s most iconic art forms since the 16th century—wherein gold leaf, glass beads, and semiprecious stones are used to accent colorful portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. A trip to one of Thanjavur’s local bronze-casting factories reveals the singular process—from the sculpting of the initial wax model to the final polishing—of transforming molten metal into exuberantly detailed depictions of deities that mirror those of bygone centuries.
For textile aficionados, Sri Sagunthalai Silks produces some of the most stunning saris in the country through the disappearing art of korvai weaving. This prized southern Indian technique—whereby the border and pallu, the loose end that drapes over the shoulder, are hand-woven separately first and later seamlessly into the garment’s body—was practiced in Thanjavur by the owners’ forefathers more than 400 years ago.
Back at the hotel, a range of inspiring on-site activities—including chamber music concerts, Vedic chanting classes, and Bharatanatyam dance performances—further immerse visitors in Thanjavur’s cultural potpourri, while a sound therapy session at the hotel’s pristine spa—where a therapist performs an “acoustic massage” using a massage table underpinned by 50 strummable strings and instruments like rattles and gongs to compose a “full-body listening experience”—may compel you to extend your stay.
A Hotel Worth the Trip
Arguably no journey to southern India would be complete without a visit to Goa, the tiny western state bordering Karnataka and a favorite festive resort destination of both Indians and foreigners. Thanks to the 450-year reign of the Portuguese—which ended only in 1961, 14 years after the anniversary of the rest of India’s independence—the country’s influence is everywhere, from the colonial buildings painted electric hues of blue, yellow, and green in Fontainhas, the old Latin quarter of Goa’s capital city of Panjim, to the 17th-century Basilica of Bom Jesus, famous throughout the Roman Catholic world for housing the tomb of St. Francis Xavier, the so-called Apostle of the Indies, immortalized for his legendary missionary voyages throughout the East.
Portuguese influence—along with Chinese, Balinese, and African ones, among others—converge to utterly enchanting affect at Ahilya by the Sea, an exquisite nine-room jewel box that opened in 2015 on the shores of Dolphin Bay in Nerul, a sleepy fishermen’s village at the southern tip of North Goa. Owned by the granddaughter of Antonio Xavier Trindade, the late 19th-century Goan portrait artist nicknamed the “Rembrandt of the East,” and the sister property of the celebrated Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, it’s a self-contained paradise with innumerable charms, from the astonishing array of worldly treasures artfully spread throughout its three sumptuous Balinese-Portuguese-style villas, to its peerless service and spectacular cuisine. (Besides world-class Indian dishes, the hotel’s pastas are as good as any you’ll find in Italy.)
At breakfast, you’ll feast on freshly composed fruit salad sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, eggs scrambled with green chilies, and warm house-baked local breads on a breezy terrace facing the sea toward Panjim—the hotel is built on the former site of the customhouses that guarded its entrance—while in the evening, the lovingly manicured grounds surrounding the infinity pool become an impossibly atmospheric, candlelit alfresco dining room, where you won’t sit in the same spot twice.
The unfailingly charming staff will happily coordinate day trips to the North Goan beaches of Morjim, Ashvem, and Mandrem, a visit to Old Goa’s renowned churches, or a tour of Goa’s chicest boutiques, including Sacha’s Shop in Panaji and Panjim’s Tarini, an Indian-textile wonderland. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself counting the minutes until you return to this incomparable Eden.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—These sea creatures are another big reason to go to the Maldives
— Puglia is Italy’s new hotspot for luxury and wellness retreats
—The wine country tasting room is dead. But long live wine country
—This Australian paradise combines everything you love about Sonoma and the Hamptons
—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.