The concept of our houseboats is quite simple. Start with beautiful floating accommodation. Take the most picturesque route in the backwaters. Most important, several men from the local villages are trained to pilot that boat through those waters at a leisurely pace, stopping for meals along the way, and sharing their local knowledge about the locale. The backwaters communities are only accessible by boat, and having members of those communities as your guides ensures an authentic local experience—but in the comfort of a state of the art houseboat.
There are some canals within the backwaters that cannot be accessed by boats as large as ours. And yet, there are communities to visit in those canals. So each day a friend of ours brings his canoe to the same location where we arrive after lunch, and for those interested he paddles through the smaller canals. He is from this stretch of backwaters so there is a friendly interplay with the folks living in those waters—Malayalam language jokes flying back and forth as he paddles along.
The daily rituals of life on the backwaters, including on our houseboats, include many share responsibilities due to the special considerations of living surrounded by water. Among the favorite scenes of our guests tend to be the “school bus” for children, which is in the form of a long motorized boat; or the grocery store, which is a converted barge that floats from one community to the next selling the same typical items that other Keralites can find in their local market.
To make these provisions for the special conditions of life on the water, planning and teamwork are required. This is not new. It goes back at least centuries, and this is what made possible one of the only places on earth where agricultural production occurs below sea level. An ingenious set of man-made bunds and canals allowed some lands to be drained and re-filled with water all using the natural flows of the Western Ghats monsoon rains
About those houseboats. They are designed along the lines of traditional rice barges, or kettuvallam in local language. The hulls are made in the ancient traditional manner from jackfruit tree wood, with no nails—all the wood is stitched together and sealed with a natural waterproofing method made from fish oil. Within the hull, under the main deck is all the equipment that makes our boats ecologically responsible, including efficient engines, fresh water holding tanks, and other specialty fittings that we will be happy to show you if you are interested.
Atop the hull, the bedrooms are the one set of interiors that are air conditioned, and otherwise all spaces including dining room, living room and viewing decks are open to the fre sh airs of the backwaters. The canopy of the houseboat is what gives it the distinctive historic look—the all natural thatch roofing and siding materials have been woven in this manner for centuries, and we are doing our part to keep the tradition alive and well supported (these materials are replaced annually for each of our 10 boats, employing dozens of local craftsmen throughout the year).
Of the four men who crew the boat, they share responsibilities as a team. But besides the captain, one of the others is a specialist. He is responsible for preparing “mama’s home cooking.” The authentic flavors of these waters include a mix of various shellfish as well as the local favorite fresh water whitefish called caramine (pearl spot in English). The variety of rice used in traditional Kerala cuisine is grown exactly in the location where our houseboat ply the waters, so of course we serve that with each meal, as we do fruit and vegetable produce from the various plots of land that our neighbors tend to throughout these waters. Our objective with the food program on the houseboats, as with each of the activities we support in the backwaters, is to support the local traditions and customs, including the foodways, to be able to share this heritage with the next generation.
The menu at the all-day restaurant, 51, based on the coast’s position as a trade magnet throughtout history is a blend - what we fondly call Malabar Soul Food - that brings together Indian and Mediterranean ingredients and food ways, slow cooked for our guests to enjoy.
Most significantly we developed a program with OED [link], one of the most important art gallery/dealers in Kerala and a neighbor of ours not far from us down Bazar Road, to showcase art pieces from their collection of local artists on our most visible walls. In our reception area and in our restaurant, we have several paintings and prints that might otherwise be in museums or on collectors’ walls; but we offer the artists a different format for showing their work, which also happens to fit perfectly with our aesthetic. We have also commissioned a local artist to complete a series of 15 framed pieces for our next most important wall, the long hall of our lodging building’s first floor. It would be impossible to describe the perfection of the artist’s fulfillment of the commission, in terms of fit with Xandari Harbour. It is the finest example of collaboration within our local community. Come see it.
Our mission in this location, with regard to conservation, includes both internal and external commitments. We have carried out a big portion of the internal, starting when the property that is now Xandari Harbour was purchased. One of the two major buildings was a ruin, and the other was in need of massive renovation in order to be useful in the 21st century and beyond. The orienting statement given to the architects at the outset was exactly this: we want to be respectful of the history of these two buildings (both of which qualify for heritage status under India’s laws) while also reflecting that India is a modern, innovative and forward looking culture. This was our translation of entrepreneurial conservation for this particular location: let’s look backward with awe, but let’s be equally in awe of the future, and let these buildings serve both history by bringing them into the modern era.