Your search for mindfulness need not stop with meditation. At this island resort, work with your hands, reconnect with yourself, and get a souvenir like no other
It is a cool evening on the Vembanad Lake. I’m in a blue wooden dinghy with Maneesha Panicker, the breeze in my hair, as the boatman guides us to Kayal, the boutique resort on the island of Kakkathuruthu (45 minutes from Fort Kochi) that the travel entrepreneur runs. The sky is darkening, a palette of oranges and reds. “The sunset is one of the best moments here,” Panicker tells me. “[Before Covid-19] we would set out when the flaming sun went down, a scarlet ball behind dark palm fronds. As the night took over, candles were lit and the boatman rowed under the starry sky, encouraged by an easterly wind,” she adds, describing one of her most popular offerings, the candlelight dinner boat excursion. In 2016, this painterly experience was listed on National Geographic Traveller’s ‘Best 24 Hours on Earth’, and catapulted them to international fame.
But the past few months have been tough for the 41-year-old. Where once they sold out months in advance (with guests coming from Europe, Japan and the like) and had a year-long waiting list, now the rooms lie empty. Panicker’s been living quietly on the island with her mother, trying to manage nine months of lost revenue, maintenance costs, and staff salaries. As our conversation shifts to resilience and creative thinking in the wake of the health crisis, she points to the well-oiled boards of the boat. She helped repair it, she says, explaining how she teamed up with Antony, a 70-year-old boat maker from Ezapunnah. It also sparked an idea, for when Kayal reopens.
Your 2020 souvenir?
“I couldn’t control Covid, the lockdown, and the lack of guests. The only thing I could control was getting Kayal guest-ready. So I joined my painters, carpenters, and boat makers,” says Panicker. Over the next few weeks, she immersed herself in the process: drilling holes in planks of punna (sirpoon), stitching them together with coir ropes, dousing the boat in fish oil to waterproof it, stripping old barnacle-covered aluminium sheets and nailing down new ones, and finally joining the men to push the boat into the backwaters. The work centred her. “I was exhausted but satisfied. I felt a sense of calm. Working with my hands was therapeutic. Suddenly I felt more in control, and also happy that I’d learned a new skill,” she says.
So why not offer the same opportunity to her guests, she wondered? After all, a tactile approach to mindfulness is encouraging people the world over to reconnect with nature and take up hobbies such as pottery and sculpting. Boat making can be just as rewarding. “I knew anyone who deals with rush-hour traffic, unending meetings, and excessive screen time would find this break useful,” she says, adding that Antony, one of the last people in the area to practise the craft, is on board — excited with her idea to offer workshops to her guests and bring the focus back to boat making. Panicker will also ship the finished boats anywhere her guests want her to.
Whites, blues and browns
Meanwhile, we have been in the shimmering waters for an hour when our masked boatman, Srikanth, interrupts with, “Look, there’s a snake weaving through the water’’. I am thrilled to see the serpent’s raised head at a distance, as it gently glides leaving a trail of rippling water. We are almost at Kayal.
As we alight to a traditional greeting from Panicker’s staff, her mother joins us with tea and hot, crisp banana fritters. An engineer by training, Panicker relocated to Kerala from the US (where she had worked with a leading cosmetic brand) 10 years ago. In 2015, she started the resort with experiential offerings for the foreign traveller — think tuk-tuk rides through the village, participating in fish auctions — that made the quiet island a favoured destination.
The four-room property, painted white, with inviting gardens and an open verandah, is charming. It belies the trauma of the pandemic. But with foreign guests staying away, Panicker is now looking at welcoming more domestic travellers. “It is almost like I am starting from scratch, trying to pitch Kayal again,” she laughs, adding that social media is one of her biggest tools.
She is considering short and long stays for guests who want to learn how to build a boat. I anticipate the solitude will soon be interrupted by the sounds of hammers and maybe a boat song or two. As I rejoin Srikanth on the dinghy to return to the mainland, the gleaming wood catches my eye. And I know I’ll be back for that workshop too.
A two-night stay with a boat making workshop starts at ₹18,000, and a 14-day stay, where you can make a two-seater canoe (approx 3×1 metre) from scratch, starts at ₹1,95,000. Shipping costs (the boats can be dismantled and boxed) are extra. Details: kayalislandretreat.com