Altaf Chapri, a Kashmiri, has built a luxury houseboat in North Kerala, apart from an exclusive beach resort called the Neeleshwar Hermitage
Photo by A. Sanesh
Photo by A. Sanesh
By Shevlin Sebastian
It is 8.30 a.m., on a sunny day in March. Altaf Chapri has dots of perspiration on his forehead, as he sits on a wooden armchair, with red and purple cushions, in his houseboat, the Lotus, in Neeleshwar, in north Kerala. The fan is whirring above him, but it makes no difference. “It may not be that hot but you can't blame me,” he says. “I grew up in Srinagar where the weather is always cool and there is no humidity.”
He taps the space bar on his laptop, placed on a low wooden table, in front of him, and says, “I am in the lap of nature, in Kerala, and yet, at the same time, I am connected to the world.”
The boat moves off from the bank as a gentle breeze starts blowing. The six-member crew is solicitous. Breakfast is a glass of watermelon juice, slices of brown bread, and omelettes, bowls of jam and honey to dip into, and a cup of thick coffee. Interestingly, the owner of the Lotus is a Kashmiri.
So what has been the reaction of the local people when they come to know that Altaf is a Kashmiri? “Initially, they get surprised,” he says. “But I never ever felt, not even once, that they don't like me. The acceptance has been immediate and complete.”
One reason why Altaf came to Neeleshwar was because there are more than a thousand houseboats in Alleppey, the Venice of the East. “I was looking for an area where there were a few houseboats and realised that Neeleshwar would be an ideal place,” he says. The Lotus, all gleaming wood and coir matting, and 104 feet long, took ten months to build.
But hiring the Lotus is not cheap. It costs Rs 23,500 per room per night. And there are only two bedrooms, for a total of four people. “We are looking at the high-end travellers,” he says.
They are also welcome at his Neeleshwar Hermitage, 16 cottages, with thatched roofs, by the side of the Arabian Sea, with a pristine beach, set amidst 10 acres of coconut trees and plants and grass. And the big attraction is the open-air infinity pool. Everything is natural: there are no televisions, phones or plastic bottles. The bathrooms have coconut trees at one side and when you look up you can see the blue sky.
“The guests are looking for a break from the hectic pace of their lives,” says Altaf. Among the visitors who came recently, there was Lord Heseltine, the former British Deputy Prime Minister, singer Natalie Imbruglia, and the travel writer Mark Shand.
It has been a difficult task for Altaf to make people aware of Neeleshwar Hermitage, since it is far away from well-known tourist destinations like Munnar, Kovalam Thekkady, and Fort Kochi.
But Altaf went to London and persuaded writers and photographers from reputed magazines like the ‘Tatler’ and the ‘National Geographic’ to come for a visit. The ensuing media coverage gave his resort a big boost.
Today, the Neeleshwar Hermitage is listed in the prestigious 'Relais & Chataeux', a directory which lists the top 400 hotels in the world. It has also been voted as one of the Top Ten Eco Hotels by Vogue Magazine, as well as being the 'Best Health Resort in India' by CNBC TV. In short, Altaf has put Neeleshwar on the world tourist map. And he already has plans to start a backwater resort in the same area. This is not surprising, since tourism is in his blood.
Altaf's father, Yousuf, is a doyen of the travel industry in Srinagar, while his grandfather, Gaffar, would accompany British explorers on mountain treks.
In 1989, when the troubles broke out in Kashmir, Altaf, who was studying History in Amar Singh College in Srinagar, on the advice of his father, moved to Delhi. His younger brother, Bilal, was already studying there.
“We worked as travel guides for many companies,” he says. Then, in 1995, the duo started ‘Discovery Journeys’, catering mainly to Western tourists, and it was a success from the start. Today, the company has offices in Kochi, Ladakh, Manali, Udaipur, and Srinagar. Since they had regularly sent many Westerners to leading hotels and resorts in Kerala, one day, they got the idea of starting a hotel there. An extensive search resulted in the beach resort coming up in Neeleshwar.
But Altaf has not forgotten his home state. He has just set up a new houseboat called 'Sukoon' on the Dal Lake and has plans to start small hotels throughout Kashmir. “I have been incredibly lucky and, now, I want to help my friends and relatives by offering employment,” he says. “Many families lost everything. One day they had property and businesses and the next day they were paupers. So I feel pained about what has happened. But, at the same time, it is important that I offer my support.”
(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)