Hot spots: Sukoon, Dal Lake
Kashmir houseboats I've seen. How is Sukoon different? Sukoon has raised the houseboat experience on Dal Lake, in Srinagar, the capital of India's Kashmir region, to a higher level of style and comfort. It's the first luxury houseboat in Kashmir, the first with air conditioning and the first with a bio-tank that treats waste instead of pumping it raw into the lake. Its other great feature is the wooden sundeck (above far right). Some other houseboats have a small space on top, with a few plastic chairs scattered around, but Sukoon's wooden deck is an altogether superior affair, and perfect for dining, sunbathing or just lazing around on with a pot of golden kahwa, Kashmiri tea made from saffron and cardamom, while enjoying a 360 degree view of the lake. Colourful shikaras (gondolas) glide past under blue skies and, in the distance, woodland climbs towards the great Zabarwan hills, which surround Dal Lake.
What's it like on the inside? Kashmiri houseboats are usually done up with chintzy furnishings and old-fashioned furniture. The bathrooms are often shabby. Sukoon looks like a boutique hotel; its four rooms and one suite are luxuriously furnished and come with pine flooring and modern bathrooms. The owner, Altaf Chapri, has retained features that showcase local craftsmanship; the carved cedar panelling on the walls and ceilings is exquisite. The common living room (above right) is furnished with plush sofas, a flat-screen television, a crystal chandelier and handwoven Kashmiri carpets. The bright colours of the cushions contrast with the wood panelling to lend a contemporary feel. The front veranda is another cosy spot with views of the lake.
And what might you see from that veranda? Life as it's lived on the water: children going to school in shikaras; housewives paddling canoes to visit relatives; office workers returning home; students paddling with one oar while adjusting their iPod; groceries being delivered.
Are Kashmir and Srinagar all they're cracked up to be? India's Mughal emperors loved the mountains and cool breezes of Kashmir, and they knew a thing or two about beauty. One of them, Jehangir, pronounced famously of Kashmir: "If there is paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here." He would have approved of the boat's name; sukoon is a Sufi term denoting a state of mind that combines peace, wisdom and contentment. Moreover, Srinagar is relatively safe. Tourists, including foreigners, have begun to return after the recent troubles.
What's the food onboard like? Hmm, it's so-so. The chef has been brought in from the owner's other resort, Kerala's Neeleshwar Hermitage. His Keralan dishes are no doubt very good but it seems he hasn't quite mastered Kashmiri cuisine yet. Not that the dishes are bad, but they're certainly not up to the standard of famous Srinagar restaurants Ahdoos and Broadway. Other regional Indian cuisine and continental food is served. Another small grouse: the portions are not huge - fortunately so, perhaps, for that bio-tank.
Can you see more of the lake? Certainly. Shikaras are designed in such a way that you recline until you are almost horizontal. Then a magical ride on the serene lake begins, through floating vegetable gardens, vast expanses of lotus flowers and tall grasses full of birds. On the main part of the lake, men are likely to glide up in shikaras and open large tin chests full of local craftwork. If you are not interested in buying, say so and they will paddle away. Could there be a more pleasant way to shop?
We've relaxed on the deck and taken a shikara ride. What's next? One visits Kashmir to enjoy the landscape and unwind, not run around sightseeing or nightclubbing. That said, visitors do walk or trek in the hills; visit the Jama Masjid (the main mosque), in the Old City, and Hindu temples; buy saffron and other spices in Lal Chowk market; shop for handicrafts (Kashmir's are probably the best in India); visit the romantic gardens created by the Mughals; and take taxis up to the ancient Mughal terraced Pari Mahal ("palace of fairies"), which offers fantastic views of the valley.
What's the bottom line? Sukoon is reasonably priced, at US$130 a night for double occupancy, US$118 for single occupancy and US$165 for the suite. That includes breakfast, dinner, afternoon tea and the 10-minute lake crossing in a shikara from the shore to the houseboat.
For more details, go to www.sukoonkashmir.com