Travel report: Kayal Island Retreat embodies simplicity of lives along Kerala’s unexplored water trails

The term kayal refers to the vast backwaters. Kayal Island Retreat at Kakkathuruthu embodies the simplicity and serenity of lives along Kerala’s unexplored water trails

author_img Likhitha Prasanna Published :  23rd October 2021 12:04 PM   |   Published :   |  23rd October 2021 12:04 PM

Kayal Island Retreat, a beautiful resort on Kakkathuruthu Island along Kaithapuzha, a tributary of Vembanad kayal

KOCHI: Kodupuram Toddy shop was my landmark. As I got down from the cab near the jetty, Sreekanth, my boatman, was waiting with a country boat and smile wider than the roads I took to get there. For a few kilometres now, I hadn’t seen many vehicles — a few bicycles and autorickshaws may be. We were headed to Kayal Island Retreat, a beautiful resort on Kakkathuruthu Island along Kaithapuzha, a tributary of Vembanad kayal. The lake had a certain beauty that was hard to miss — purple blooms on floating water hyacinths covering its expanse. 

Once I sat down, Sreekanth started the engine and the boat started moving. Swiftly, I drifted into a beautiful frame, surrounded by blue water, purple flowers and sturdy coconut trees. It was my first time away from the city in a long time due to the pandemic; a much-needed respite. The metred life spent shuttling between office and apartment had reached its saturation point. The view from the balcony and endless social media scrolling were getting redundant. And so, to be under the open sky cruising the backwaters was liberating and endearing in equal measure.

Kayal’s off-white boundary wall was visible from afar. As the boat approached, Saiju, the property manager, was waiting for me. It was lunchtime, and being a seasoned pescatarian, I caught a whiff of the fresh seer fish that our cook Vijayalakshmi was frying in the kitchen as soon as I stepped foot on the island.

I was familiar with Kayal Island Retreat and its founder Maneesha Panicker, who left her job in New York to start the retreat on Kakkathuruthu — the tiny islet that literally means island of crows in Malayalam — out of sheer love for the simplicity of its life. The four km-long, one km-wide island has just over 600 inhabitants, mostly fisherfolk and farmers. Kayal is placed at its edge, surrounded by transient tides, resonating their faint ripples. Occasionally, you see country boats ferrying islanders across the water. 

In 2016, the sunset on this quaint little island found a place on National Geographic Traveller’s ‘Best 24 Hours on Earth’. The retreat was Maneesha’s debut attempt at structural design. When she found the space, it was a run-down, abandoned artist residency, with plastic doors and a fallen roof. The stream that runs to its left was filled with plastic. “I started by cleaning it and then building bedrooms and open bath gardens. Most of the furniture here is from my father’s house. I love nature, and I have built the retreat to blend with the island,” she says. 

The property has four rooms, with traditional wooden doors, windows, and open showers that go perfectly with its aesthetic. Maneesha has carefully handpicked every piece of the retreat’s unique identity - like artworks by Latheesh Lakshman and the copper buckets and pots that replace dustbins. 
Around 4.30pm, Sreekanth took me for another cruise around Kaithapuzha.

“It’s so good without the sound of traffic,” I told him, and he laughed. He probably hears every townie visitor say this. I spent most of the trip lost in the sound of birds and oars jostling the water, and the faint rustle of hydrophyte leaves rubbing against the wooden boat as it passed. “We call it African paayal. Came here from elsewhere. They make it hard to run boats during monsoon,” said Sreekanth, when I enquired about the beautiful purple flowers on them.

Kaithappuzha has saline water during summer and freshwater during the monsoon. Fishing is a major source of income and lifestyle for the families around Kayal. They bring the fresh catch to the retreat’s kitchen on most days, like the tiger prawns that landed on my lunch plate for lunch alongside avial, beetroot pachadi and thoran. “Not many scampis this year. We get them every year usually. It is probably due to some change in the water,” he said.

Maneesha Panicker with fishermen from the island
Maneesha Panicker with fishermen from the island

As we turned around to head back to Kakkathuruthu, he asked: “Do you hear that?”. The oar was rattling against something in the water. Turns out, those were clamshells. “There are plenty of them around this area, even in front of the retreat,” he said, and I remembered Latheesh’s artwork hung in my room. “Even 70-year-old women fetch clams around here,” said Sreekanth. 

Back on the property, I sat down on the sun lounger, reading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the shore, facing the backwaters with some tea and pazhampori. Until nightfall, I was perched there in peace, keeping an eye out for the crows on the tree branches staking out my snacks. It is hard to articulate the sort of restful bliss you feel when everything aligns right like that — nature, art, adventure and comfort.

Subtle mornings
Mornings start slow at Kayal. You wake up to the sound of birds and crickets, and a well-made cup of tea. The staff takes you on a village walk, exploring the lush woods and muddy roads of the island. Cows and people exchange friendly glances as you pass by. Kakkathuruthu only has an Ayurveda hospital. The closest English doctor is over 20 kilometres away. “During the first wave of Covid, we had zero cases on the island. We have a healthy lifestyle here - everything is calm and organic. Maybe that helps,” quips property manager Saiju.

For mind and body
Indira, the resident masseuse, sat me on a comfortable chair and started massaging my head. The room smelled of camphor and herbs, and like every other inch of Kayal, had a rustic serenity to it. She immaculately performed Abhyanga on me - the warm oil massage that Ayurveda recommends to enhance your blood flow and relieve the body of any pain. “There are even massages to relieve chronic pain and get rid of lumps that form on your body. We find out what our guests need and then work accordingly,” she says. The massage was followed by a cathartic hot water shower. Nature for the spirit and massage for the body.

Dinner on waves
An unbelievable experience offered by Kayal Island Retreat is the dinner on a country boat. The soup is served while the boat is docked near the property. For the main course, the staff arranges a silent cruise for you around the backwaters. To me, this was the best part of my solo journey — gliding through the calm water, eating under a star-lit sky, alone with my thoughts and low-fi music. My healthy plate, with chapatis, cauliflower and coconut thoran, whole fried tilapias, vegetable salad and creamy daal curry couldn’t have been savoured in a better setting! If you wish to dine as a group, the staff ties two boats together to make room.

The term kayal refers to the vast backwaters. Kayal Island Retreat at Kakkathuruthu — a quaint island along Kaithapuzha lake — embodies the simplicity and serenity of lives along Kerala’s unexplored water trails

(The author was on invite at Kayal Island Retreat)

From Rs 7,000 per room per night (includes breakfast, cruise, village walk)  20km from Ernakulam city Call: 7736000989