Chittoor Kottaram, Kerala
What is it? Chittoor Kottaram was once a home of the raja of Cochin, but don't think marble, chandeliers and rococo glitz when you hear the word 'palace'. The kings of Kerala, the state Cochin lies in, were different to the maharajahs in the north; they inclined more towards austerity than opulence and cultivated a style of understated elegance. The rajas of Cochin kept their crowns on their lap during formal occasions as a mark of humility.
How is it not just another hotel? This mansion has just three bedrooms and is located in a small hamlet called Cheranelloor. The raja built it more than a century ago as a sort of pied-?-terre to use when visiting the local Lord Krishna temple. It is the only working palace still owned by a member of the royal family; the others in Kerala have been turned into museums. The original details of this leased building, with its teak panelling and pillars and traditional furniture, have been burnished, and the amenities are modern and air-conditioned. All meals are served in the dining room but the staff will serve tea and refreshments in the rooms.
Furthermore, you'll have the entire palace to yourself because it's available only for single bookings - for a maximum of six people. The manager, Milton, ceremoniously hands over the keys on your arrival and tells you it's yours. The courtyard, colonnaded verandah, balconies, lawns, private jetty and boat are all included - and my goodness it feels good! All is green and lush; all is quiet save for the birds and the occasional temple bell. Even the cook, Annie, seems to be able to work soundlessly.
And what does Annie cook? A local woman who has mastered the food traditionally served at Kerala Brahmin wedding feasts, she produces no less than 10 dishes served on banana leaves for lunch and on silver thalis (trays) for dinner. Indian wine is served with the meals, which are strictly vegetarian - and by that I mean no meat, fish or eggs.
What's the area around the hotel like? The location is magical, right on the backwaters, the chain of lagoons and lakes Kerala is famous for. Walk down to the end of the garden, climb onto the boat and start exploring. Gliding past the exuberant landscape, you'll see fishing nets resembling gigantic spiders, quaint churches and temples, women washing clothes, old men dozing in their garden chairs and delivery men in boats dropping off groceries. For the sunset cruise, the boatman will take you to where the waters broaden into the Arabian Sea.
Anything to do if the pastoral idyll isn't enough? Milton can arrange to take you to Fort Cochin for lunch - and meat, if that's what you're craving. Fort Cochin is a blend of cultures: the British, Dutch and Portuguese all fought for control of this port and its lucrative spice trade and all left their mark. The spice market is fascinating. Everywhere you turn there is cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, cloves and nutmeg. Spices such as ginger and turmeric are often laid out, in vast open courtyards, to dry before being packed and shipped around the world.
You can also visit the Krishna temple in the village, where, during evening prayers, bare-chested priests play the drums and blow conch shells. At the palace in the evening, Hindu priests sing in Sanskrit. If that's not your kind of thing, at least it's short. The countryside around the palace makes for superb drives and there is always the option of an ayurvedic massage.
What's the bottom line? It costs US$1,000 to book the mansion for two nights, which includes meals and boat rides.
Chittoor Kottaram is in Cheranelloor, Cochin, Kerala, India, tel: 91 484 3011 711; www.cghearth.com.