“Now you may wonder if Geo Brunton’s spirit was still lurking around benignly somewhere in his boatyard by the expansive harbour. But then if that was indeed the case, Minnie and I surely would have bumped into him somewhere along the long, narrow, diffusely lit, deserted, silent, arcaded colonial corridors and passages; or found him suddenly stepping out of some dark secluded nook or niche, in the course of our numerous forays into different parts of the property, in the uncertain and uncanny hours of twilight”.
“Where ever Geo is, I have no doubt he will be very happy with what they have made out of his colonial Shipbuilding yard in Fort Kochi and to know that his legacy carries on to this day; glorious as his Boatyard was in its heyday…..”
In a few previous posts, I wrote about our trip to Mattancherry area of Kochi. We were on a 15 day trip to God’s Own Country – Kerala, with Compass India Inc. In this post, I shall write about Brunton Boatyard, an amazing ‘Botique’ hotel that we (my wife Nina, our 10 year old daughter Minnie and I) stayed at for two nights, in Fort Kochi.
The first thing that is to be said about Brunton Boatyard is its location. Fort Kochi, as I have mentioned in another post, is an amazing palimpsest in history, with successive architectural influences, starting from traditional Kerala architecture to colonial Portuguese, Dutch and English, as well as Arabic and Jewish. There also seems to be an element of Chinese influence, particularly if the picturesque ‘Chinese fishing nets’ are truly of Chinese origin.
For centuries, if not for millennia, the Malabar Coast, with its older port Muziris in Mahodayapuram (probably in present day Pattanam in Kodungallur, about 29 km north of Kochi), was one of the most important trading hubs in the fabled spice route. The Malabar Coast had its abundant supplies of ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and most importantly – the highly prized pepper, nicknamed as ‘Malabar Gold’. The coast was well known to the Greeks and Romans from the ancient times, and later to the Jews and the Arabs as well. The Malabar Coast was in fact host to a group of Jew settlers form the 11th century CE onwards, and even before the advent of European imperial powers in the 16th century and trade with Europe, there was a thriving trade between the Malabar Coast and the Middle East.
And then in 1341 there was a massive flooding of the Periyar River which destroyed the Muziris port of Kodungallur (earlier know as Cranganore). The same flood created a deep estuary around 29 km south at the edge of Kochi (earlier called Cochin) where River Periyar meets the Laccadive Sea, giving Kochi its natural harbor. Thus in subsequent centuries, with its commanding location at the mouth of the Periyar River, the area what is today known as Fort Kochi rose to prominence as the trading center.
Brunton Boatyard is located in picturesque Fort Kochi, right at the harbor front on the estuary.The area adjoining the Brunton Boatyard we later found out, is full of secrets, surprises and delights; sights, sounds and smells waiting to be discovered by the curious and discerning visitor. Quant old narrow lanes lined by curio shops; colonial buildings of different architectural influences and character; churches of different persuasions of the Christian faith, mosques and even a synagogue; medieval warehouses and shops redolent with the fragrance of spices, herbs, scents and oils; art galleries; cafes, restaurants and fish stalls (where you can buy your fish fresh and get it cooked in the nearby road side restaurants); enigmatic ‘Chinese’ fishing nets on the sea front and grand old bungalows – all these elements combine with a laid back unhurried atmosphere and collectively lend Fort Kochi a magical feel, almost as if it were in a time warp.
In its earlier incarnation, Hotel Brunton Boatyard used to be an old Victorian Shipbuilding yard called ‘Geo Brunton and Sons’, (image on the left) which, with the passage of time and later in its life, fell into bad days. A little over a decade back, the old defunct, dilapidated shipbuilding yard was cleverly and painstakingly renovated and converted into a beautiful hotel by its present owners – the CHG Earth Group. As the hotel’s web site states, the Burnton Boatyard hotel has recreated “the world of 19th century Malabar, using the precise building materials of the time – brick, lime, wood and terracotta”.
Representing the 19th century architectural history of Fort Kochi, the property reflects a beautiful synthesis of Portuguese, Dutch and English architectural and design influences, along with the traditional aesthetic sensibility of Kerala. It is said that Salman Rushdie admired this place so much that he based the first chapters of his book The Moor’s Last Sigh here.
Entering the Hotel through the cobbled forecourt and the front garden, we were received in the traditional Indian style – with fragrant little garlands and were offered our welcome drink. The staff at the front office set the perfect tone for our stay, striking all the right notes with their professionalism, subtle warmth and congeniality.
The first thing that struck me was the reception area and the open space lobby (a part of which also serves as a Tea Parlour), with its high wooden ceiling and the exceedingly charming, hand pulled fans (Punkhas) from yesteryears. These Punkhas are basically simple suspended mechanical contraptions made of long, horizontal polished wooden panels and pleats of thick fabric attached to the lower end of the wooden panels. Suspended from the ceiling, these panels are attached to thick chords, which when pulled by someone appointed for the said purpose, transform the wooden panels (with the attached fabric pleats) into gigantic but gently swaying fans. Of course these days there are electrical fans and these Punkhas are no longer in regular use. You can nevertheless see a demonstration of how it works and even try it out yourself. These old-world Punkhas immediately take us back in time by a century.
The property is unostentatious but extremely distinguished and elegant. It has simple, immaculately maintained whitewashed masonry walls and the floor is paved with polished deep ochre terracotta tiles, which add an element of colonial elegance and dignified restraint to the decor. The walls bear photographs and prints of old maritime maps and of the old boatyard. There is also a series of somber portraits of dignitaries from yesteryears placed in a long row one the wall. I found these portraits to be rather boring, but nevertheless they added to the character of the property.
All along the main front wall of the lobby, there are big and deep arched windows (of Portuguese influence) and the opposite side has wide arches that open into a lush green inner garden. The layout, with its openness, enables a flow and interplay of natural light and air. In addition to the quant wood and wicker furniture that is set out harmoniously within the tea lounge, there are a few artefacts, which along with warm lighting, conjure an ambiance of a period long past. I thought the hotelier had done an incredibly good job with the restoration of the place.
My ten year old daughter Minnie (Madhura) and I share a sense of child-like curiosity, excitement and wonder. So before we were led to our room, we decided to quickly explore the place.
From the long lobby past the tea lounge, as we proceeded through a narrow passage, we found ourselves in an open space – with a swimming pool lined with deck chairs to the left and the expansive harbor in the front. Overlooking the swimming pool, we found a stone sculpture of a pair of dolphins, which Minnie and I thought were cute. There was a nice little garden – a beautiful tropical lawn fringed by bougainvillea and other flowering shrubs and a line of palm trees, running parallel to the waterfront. The cobbled path along the waterfront had charming old-world wrought-iron benches along its way, overlooking the harbor. The hotel has its own little private jetty and guests have the option of checking into the hotel from the harbor, coming from mainland Enrakulam in the hotel’s private little launch. Since we had come from the Airport, we had taken the land route.
Getting back quickly to the reception, we were led along the inner garden to our left, up through the lift to our room on the upper floor, overlooking the harbor. I was informed that all 22 guest rooms, over three floors, face the harbor.
Our room was spacious and beautifully done, with meticulous attention to details. The ceiling was very high, with intricate and well finished wood work. The first thing I checked out was the tea bar and to my delight I found as many as six different kinds of teas, including my favorite Darjeeling second flush. And these were not tea bags that you often find in many good hotels; they were tea leaves in little air-tight jars. I was impressed. And there was a nice little balcony with wicker chairs and a broad wood top banister, which I thought would serve as the perfect space for us to have our morning and evening tea. The room was furnished with heavy and stately teak and rosewood furniture.
The highlight of our room however was the massive antique four-poster, heavy teakwood bed. It was so high that they had placed a wooden step to climb on to it! Since back home we lead a rather simple lifestyle, we did feel a bit strange climbing on (rather up) to the grand bed. Needless to say, housekeeping was impeccable, the linen was great, the bed was very comfortable and we slept like logs in the two nights we spent there.
While the suite had a wonderful quaint character, the bathroom was totally modern and chic. In addition to a shower cubicle, it had a bath tub next to the large windows that opened into the balcony. So if one wanted to indulge, one could have a luxurious bath in the tub, with a wonderful view of the harbor.
Toiletries provided in the bathroom were herbal; most of the packaging was of recycled paper. Shampoo, conditioner and body-wash were provided in reusable little ceramic pots -there was minimal use of plastic, which I thought was great.
We spent a wonderful time at this property. Early in the mornings, while Nina was still fast asleep or just wouldn’t simply get out of bed, Minnie and I made ourselves some tea and had it on the balcony, along with some delicious Scottish shortbread I had carried to India on my way from West Africa, through London. We watched the harbor gradually coming to life in the morning as we enjoyed our early morning tea and shortbread.
Below our balcony to the left, next to an old sprawling tree, we could see the public ferry which transported people and vehicles between Fort Kochi other Islands on the estuary and to the mainland of Ernakulam. From our balcony, we enjoyed the early morning balmy sea breeze along with the sights and sounds of the ferry, passenger motorboats, smaller boats and the occasional large vessel cruising along the harbor. Some might find it a bit noisy during the day, but we loved it and found the earplugs that the hotel had thoughtfully provided, unnecessary.
We also spent some relaxing hours in the inner garden, with its little rain water harvesting pits and lush vegetation; walking over the damp grass barefoot, sitting on the bench under the beautiful Frangipani tree and under the sprawling canopy of the big old Rain-tree with its spread out and gently swaying moss laden branches. Checking out on the little rain water harvesting pits in the garden, I was impressed at the efforts Brunton Boatyard had made in terms of trying to leave behind a strong eco-friendly footprint. Rain water is regularly harvested through blue pipes running along the roof and is collected in a tank, where it is filtered through a natural filtration process using sand filters and then treated with alum. This water is then supplied to the guest rooms and other facilities in the property.
Another incredible feature of this hotel was its amazing food. With three restaurants – Armoury Café in the ground floor, the History Restaurant on the second floor and the Terrace Restaurant and Grill (next to the History Restaurant), the hotel does set a benchmark or sorts on fine dining. From breakfast to lunch and dinner menus, the hotel seemed to be doggedly committed to offering nothing but the best.
Breakfast, which was included in the tariff, was a sumptuous a la carte affair. And we had the choice of having it either inside at the Armory Café or outside at the patio, overlooking the harbor. Apart from fresh cut seasonal fruit and fruit juices and a platter of freshly baked breads, cakes and muffins, butter, organic jams and preserves, you could order a full English breakfast or a full Kerala breakfast – vegetarian or non vegetarian. While I went for the traditional Kerala vegetarian breakfast (of delicious soft Idli, Vadai, Dosai along with an assortment of Chutneys and Saambar), Minnie had her choice of eggs and her chocolate drink and Nina had Kerala non-vegetarian breakfast. Nina raved about the ‘meatballs and rice dumplings in gravy’, which if I am not mistaken, is a dish made originally by Muslims of the Vaippin Island.
What we liked most about the breakfast was that they did not serve a typical breakfast buffet spread. Instead every dish was prepared fresh after we placed the order. The choice was not vast, but what we got was made specifically for us and we got the best.
Before I go on to describe a bit more on the food that is available in the restaurants, some culinary history would be in order. Just as the architecture in Fort Kochi, multiple colonial, ethnic and cultural influences can be seen on its cuisine as well. The Syrian Christians of Fort Kochi had their special meat dishes that are supposed to go very well with traditional Kerala rice dumplings and pan cakes called Appams. The Portuguese had introduced the roast pork and subsequently the Dutch who came to Fort Kochi, enriched their desserts with a dash of fragrant Kerala spices such as cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg. Also the Jews of Kochi, how barely a handful, gifted Fort Kochi their own cuisine which blended middle-eastern influences with that of Kerala’s. Needless to say, Muslims brought the Biriyani and the Kababs. On top of this, you always had the traditional Kerala vegetarian cuisine.
The Red Chili, which is so ubiquitous in Indian cuisine is said to have been introduced into Indian cuisine by the Portuguese and for the first time – in Kochi!
The main ‘History’ Restaurant where lunch and dinner is served, offers a large number of fusion dishes that is an outcome of the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Jewish, Arabic influences on local culinary tradition – dishes painstakingly researched and recreated by the chief chef.
Because of my interest in food, I checked out the menus in the Armoury and the History restaurants. The menu was limited, but unique and rather intriguing. Some unusual dishes I found were the ‘First Class Railway Mutton Curry’, the ‘Mrs’s Fish’, ‘Malabar Omelet’, ‘Beef Cutlets’, ‘Syrian Roast Duck’, ‘Portuguese Roast Pork’, Chuttulli Meen (a fish preparation of Jewish origin using fillets of Indian salmon) and ‘Bristow Camp Potatoes’. And then you had what is called the ‘Stake Fernandez’ (image above left). It is a succulent meat dish coated with a crust of Malabar Gold – crushed black pepper if you like.
Now you may ask what the ‘First Class Railway Mutton Curry’ is all about and hence some explanation will be in order. According to Brunton Boatyard, this dish “has a very romantic history dating back to the old steam engines. In the British era, the first class compartments on trains were reserved for the English and their families. The mutton curry that the ‘Khansamers’ (or Muslim cooks) made for the Indian passengers were too spicy for the ‘Sahibs’, but apparently once an Englishman tasted it and quite took to it. So, a toned down version with coconut milk was made for the first class passengers, and became a staple on the old-era trains”.
At Brunton Boatyard, it is said that the chef follows this old Indo-British or Anglo-Indian recipe faithfully, including preparing the dish in brass vessel as it used to be done in the past. The mutton, I am told, is cooked on a slow flame for as long as ten hours – rendering the meat tender and succulent, exploding with exotic flavors.
Well truth to tell, Minnie and I did not try any of these exotic dishes because we don’t eat meat of any kind. Moreover with the exception of deserts, I am a modest eater. Nina on the other hand loves her fish and meat and if the quality is very good, she loves these in rather good quantities. So she did try some of these dishes and swore by them. Now I take her word on non vegetarian food as the last word and so may you.
As for me, the Appams and Stu (made with coconut milk, herbs, spices and fish) I had here were the best during our entire trip in Kerala. We also had the delicious ‘Parippu Payasam’ – a traditional Kerala dessert made of yellow moong lentil fried lightly in ghee (clarified butter), slow cooked in light coconut milk, topped up with thick coconut cream, sweetened with molasses and finally seasoned to perfection with roasted coconut bits and cashew nuts, crushed cardamom and a hint of dry ginger.In the evenings, the hotel also arranges brief cooking demonstrations on the Grill at the Terrace Restaurant, where you can get to see the preparation of some of the celebrated fusion dishes. Unfortunately, since we did not have time, as much as we wanted to, we could not attend the demo.
On the ground floor, there is also an interesting, colonial looking bar, called the Armory Bar, next to the Armory café. Being a teetotaler, I didn’t try the Bar. But I am told it serves very good cocktails in addition to a good selection of alcohol, including wines.
The property also has a little Ayurvedic center where traditional synchronized Kerala Herbal massages are provided by a pair of expert masseurs, who work in tandem symmetrically on your body. Unfortunately, again because we didn’t have enough time, we could not try it out.
Another distinguishing feature of this property was its staff. Friendly, and courteous, we found that every staff went much beyond their call of duty to make us feel special. And they did this in the subtlest possible ways, without being intrusive – they lent great warmth to our stay, unlike in many opulent but often impersonal five star hotels.
As mentioned earlier, Brunton Boatyard also has a strategic advantage in terms of its proximity to the various attractions of Fort Kochi like the St Francis Church, Santa Cruz Basilica, the Dutch Cemetery and numerous other old historical buildings. The picture postcard like ‘Chinese’ fishing nets are barely a few minutes walking distance and so are the markets and restaurants. However it is always hot in Kerala, even in the so called ‘cooler’ season. So other than early mornings and late evenings, we chose not to walk.
On our second evening, we went on a cruise along the harbor and the tail end of the estuary. While cruising slowly along the harbor, we went past Fort Kochi and Mattancherry and through many beautiful Islands (Vallarpadom with its new port, Vaippin, Gundu, Boulghatty, Willingdon etc). We saw fishermen at the close of work as we went past fishing harbors, fish processing units, ice factories and the old spice warehouses along the banks. Our cruise ended as the sun slowly set on the shimmering waters, with the enigmatic and picturesque ‘Chinese’ fishing nets on the foreground.
I am really grateful to our friend Anuj Mukherjee for recommending this awesome property for our first two days in Kochi. Highly nuanced, the property combines traditional Indian hospitality and warmth, with subtly imbibed multiple colonial influences. Comfortable (bordering on the luxurious), elegant and brimming with character and vibe, Brunton Boatyard is indeed a ‘Boutique’ Hotel of choice for a modern, discerning gourmet traveler, with an interest in history, culture and local cuisine.
According to the hotel’s official web site, “Geo Brunton and Sons was once among the most respected ship builders in Kochi”. At the end of our incredible stay at the Brunton Boatyard, I was therefore left wondering where Geo Brunton was buried. Did he have any descendents and if so, what happened to them? If some are still living, do they know about Brunton Boatyard, the hotel?
Now you will please forgive me for striking a rather spooky note as I conclude my post … but you may wonder if Geo Brunton’s spirit was still lurking around benignly somewhere in his beloved beautiful property by the harbour. But then if that was indeed the case, Minnie and I surely would have bumped into him somewhere along the long, narrow, diffusely lit, deserted, silent, arcaded colonial corridors and passages; or found him suddenly stepping out of some dark secluded nook or niche – in the course of our forays into different parts of the property in the uncertain and uncanny hours of the twilight.
Where ever Geo is, I have no doubt he will be very happy about what they have made out of his Boatyard in Fort Kochi and to know that his legacy carries on to this day; glorious as his Boatyard was in its heyday….