It’s a sunny day here in the Land of Coconut Palms, the South Indian humidity languid, the traffic moving along slowly but steadily and I’m riding in style – grinning in the back of a loud little tuk-tuk steered by a man named Nazeer. Having disembarked my ship at the city’s simple, functional port – really just a plain pier lined with local pop-up stands in temporary tents, selling all sorts of saris and textiles and trinkets – I was met with a small mob of drivers. Nazeer emerged from the crowd, extended his hand, and smiled. Soon enough – a fair price negotiated – we were on our way.
He promises a full morning, filled with fish markets and spices and temples. “Up ahead, we will see the old colonial area – where the Dutch settled and then the Portuguese. Now everyone, rich, poor, everyone, lives there together,” Nazeer says, over his shoulder, calmly, as we pass through an intersection where six streets come together, mopeds and little trucks and other tuk-tuks somehow manoeuvring around one another without the aid of a traffic light. We ride onto a bridge crossing one of the many slow-moving backwaters that have made this region famous. Turning to my left, I see, rising on the horizon, the floating white eminence of the luxurious ship that carried me to this fascinating place.
I’m in Kochi (sometimes known as Cochin) because I am sailing down the west coast of India on the Silver Spirit, calling at ports that see only a relative handful of cruise ships every year compared with the Caribbean or the Mediterranean (or almost anywhere else). On our 18-day itinerary – boarding in Mumbai, finishing in Singapore – we navigate the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca, visiting six countries along the way. It’s a trip filled with experiences – and challenges – that go above and beyond any typical cruise itinerary.
Docked for two full days in Kochi, in southwestern India, I have time for two completely different tours, including the tuk-tuk trip (which I devised myself). But I also sign up for a few of the official shore excursions offered through the cruise line, a varied list that goes way beyond usual such activities. It includes a train trip to a tea plantation in Sri Lanka, multiday overland trips to storied destinations such as Bagan and Mandalay, and rides on motorboats through sapphire waters and limestone karsts to visit floating villages.
And cooking classes, too. Descending from the Silver Spirit and boarding a coach, we soon arrive at a large, prosperous (and air-conditioned) seaside house. “Here, the food is light and soft and mild, and we are a gentle people,” says Nimmy Paul, as she stirs over a stovetop, framed articles from The New York Times and the Weekend Australian behind, declaring her the Mistress of Spices. “Truthfully, the cuisine reflects the place and the climate.” And, true to its 6th-century history as a port city, Kochi is a melting pot of religions, countries and cultures – and most of those pots include coconut. Kerala, the state where it sits, means, literally, “the land of coconut trees.”
“Here, it’s coconut cream, coconut oil, grated coconut,” Paul says in her comfortable kitchen. “It’s all coconut.”
She creates a series of delicious dishes – pumpkin soup with coconut milk, local kingfish bathed in spices – passing around individual ingredients such as curry leaves and fenugreek, telling her story as she cooks. As we begin to dig in, the food steaming on our plates, she shares that she taught cooking in a finishing school during the 1990s and then, more than two decades ago, opened up her kitchen to international guests. “We only had two that first year,” she says, noting that those numbers have increased by quite a lot in the intervening 22 years. But the passage of time hasn’t taken away from her enthusiasm. “This is a dream come true, to share my passion,” she says.
Our voyage also takes us to the white-sand beaches of Goa, once a Portuguese colony and now one of the best places in India to soak up the sun. Accordingly, I do little more that day than swim in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and hang out on a lounger. In Colombo, Sri Lanka’s bustling capital, I join a shore excursion for a city tour that finishes with high tea al fresco on a broad balcony at the famed Galle Face Hotel, the late-afternoon light flashing across the sea.
In each place, people were far from jaded, unaccustomed to having hundreds of passengers flood their towns and cities. In fact, they seemed excited to have the ship there, asking about life on board, where we’ve come from, where we’re headed next. But getting to, and from, the ship – when not on a shore excursion – was occasionally an adventure; the Silver Spirit often docked in vast, sometimes industrial ports.
In Colombo, for example, I decide to take a solo shopping trip, managing, with some difficulty, a couple phone calls, texts on WhatsApp and much persistence on his part, to connect with a friendly Uber driver named Uranius Fernando, finally meeting him at one of the many gates to the port area. But the struggle was worth it. During the 20 minutes or so we’re together, with me riding in the front passenger seat, we talk about life here, local politics, his tourism company and religious dynamics in this cosmopolitan city. Getting out, I’ve not only made a personal connection (we still occasionally trade texts), but learned a lot.
As I did, back in Kochi, where Nazeer gave me a grand tour. We visit an open-air laundry where hardworking men and women wash clothes in little, soapy stalls and I try my hand with an old-school, coal-fired flatiron. He stops at the Church of St. Francis, built back in 1503, often known locally as the Vasco da Gama Church, because the famed Portuguese explorer was originally interred here and his gravestone still stands. We visit a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, three centuries old. And Nazeer drops me at a fish market, where I browse small stands selling fresh-out-of-the-water kingfish, prawn and snapper.
Taking me back to the Silver Spirit, he points to a small soccer stadium, noting that his son plays there (“it is his home ground!”), showing me a team photo, holding it up on his phone, with one hand, while he weaves through the increasingly heavy traffic. “Maybe he will play for England – or Canada! You can come see him play, no ticket, free!,” Nazeer tells me.
Maybe, or maybe not. Either way, I return to board with a new friend, a good story and the warmth of this corner of the world, so unknown to many cruisers.
The writer travelled as a guest of Silversea Cruises. It did not review or approve this article.
Completely refurbished less than two years ago, Silversea’s Silver Spirit offers true luxury in far-flung corners of the globe. Guests are treated to personal butler service and all-inclusive dining and drinks, with eight separate restaurant experiences on board. Most suites feature broad balconies, perfect to sit on, a glass of wine in hand and watch the approaching ports. Prices vary by duration and destination, but rates for a Verandah Suite for a 15-day journey from, for example, Singapore to Mumbai start at US$8,700, based on double occupancy. silversea.com
In Mumbai, stay at the Four Seasons, tucked away from the busyness of the city – but not far from the port – in a leafy patch of the Worli neighbourhood. Cool down with a drink at the pool, then head up to AER, their rooftop bar, when the night starts to heat up. Rooms from $250. fourseasons.com/mumbai
In Singapore, check into the Sofitel City Centre, a glassy, luxurious tower in the heart of the central business district within close walking distance of Chinatown, the famed Maxwell Hawker Centre, and other signature attractions. Rooms from $250. sofitel-singapore-citycentre.com
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