The Autumn of 2008 was hardly the most auspicious moment to open a hotel in a remote part of India. The world was slowly coming to terms with the enormity of the global financial crash and the front pages were full of the atrocity of the Mumbai terrorist attacks and its international ramifications. Launching a business hotel in Delhi or its sprawling suburb Gurgaon, a gold-rush conglomeration of IT start-ups, call-centres and Westernised shopping malls, might just have made commercial sense, but to open a small, bespoke property in Malabar, northern Kerala, seemed nothing short of madness.
Where on earth was Malabar, anyway? Suspended somewhere between Goa to the far north and Kovalam Beach to the south, and completely off the tourist radar. There was a small local airstrip across the Karnataka border at Mangalore, but no Westerners used it, apart from the odd Christian missionary and the occasional doctor coming to teach in the medical schools for which the city has long been famous. On the tourist scene, Goa and the Kovalam area were beginning to pay the price for their popularity. Decades of poorly supervised development were turning much of Goa’s coastline into a ramshackle budget destination loathed by many locals, while the lakes and backwaters close to Kovalam were already becoming overcrowded, an ecological disaster waiting to happen. To those who could hear, these two once-lovely destinations were sounding a warning of what tourism without conscientious foresight can do. On the other hand, waiting here patiently amidst the palm groves that fringe the coast of Malabar, was a sleepy little village of toddy-tappers and fishing folk. A few miles West from the small town of Neeleshwar, it was called Ozhingavalappu, ‘The Empty Place’…
It was not only the location of The Hermitage that broke the mould, it was the concept. We wanted to redefine the idea of luxury and move it on from the tired cliché of deep pile carpets, multi-channel wide-screen tv’s and acres of cold, impersonal marble. The word luxury comes from the Latin lux, meaning ‘light’, and we reasoned that true luxury is something that serves to lighten your life, dispel the dullness of fatigue and maybe even bring a little enlightenment into the bargain. In a world full of clutter, then, luxury means space; in a life full of noise, luxury is the balm of silence; in the age of interruption, luxury brings calm and a lack of endless distraction, so that you can appreciate the beauty of the moment that is right here in front of you. In effect, we were interested in providing a modern hermitage, a beautiful and stylish retreat for our guests to rejuvenate mind, body and spirit and get back in touch with themselves.‘Oh no’ said the marketing experts ‘the word retreat is far too religious’. The travel industry scratched its head, perplexed. We smiled, nodded and persevered.
We were also very conscious that we were operating in an area that had known no outside influence, and we had no interest in creating a well-to-do ghetto that bore no relation to the people living and working outside its walls. So, from the start our policy was to employ and train local people, rather than ship in staff who had learned their trade in far-off city hotels. This was a tremendous undertaking, involving linguistic, cultural and technical training, but the way our recruits rose to the challenge was amazing. The result was the creation of a quietly efficient and nourishing family atmosphere, with staff working smoothly as a whole. Their unobtrusive attention creates the subtly nourishing feeling - ‘mother is at home’ - which those who stay with us really value. The smiles at the Hermitage are genuine, and some of our guests are moved to tears when they leave us. For their part, our people remember well those who have been before and look forward to their return.
From our side, we have worked hard to become accepted and valued in the local community, and this is something we have taken seriously from the start, as in the end we are all guests of the local people. In fact, many local people and businesses have benefitted hugely from our being here. We are also guests of the local environment, and one of our aims has been to operate in such a way as to fit in with it as harmoniously as possible. From day one we have been a strictly no-plastic establishment. Our use of safe and filtered drinking water on site has by itself saved us from adding perhaps five hundred plastic bottles a week to Kerala’s festering dumps. Ten years after we initiated this policy, it is gratifying to note the current concern over plastic pollution. In the UK, for example, following the example set by several prestigious institutions – the Selfridges retail group, London Zoo, the Natural History Museum, the National Trust – 40 large companies have recently announced plans to reduce all plastic. Further government legislation is in the pipeline as the dire plight of oceanic pollution has been in the world’s headlines these last few weeks. Here at the Hermitage, we are proud that in our own small way, we were way ahead of the curve on this one. We hope the large hotel chains are watching.
Looking back over these first ten years, it seems our pioneering intuition was sound. People love what we are offering, and many of them return for a longer second, third or fourth stay with us. We have won several prestigious awards from the travel industry. Local communications are rapidly improving as the whole area is coming onstream, due in no small part to our initial confidence in its potential. One spin-off from this is that as of this summer, thanks to the new airport at Kannur, it will be much easier to reach us. Of course, we take great trouble to maintain our high standards of service and subtly upgrade our facilities (no small feat in a monsoon climate!) but what we offer remains essentially what it has been from the start:
a unique style that blends traditional idiom with modern comfort, a policy of nurturing and rejuvenation and delicious fresh food amidst beautiful surroundings which become more luxuriant each year. For those who want it, an expert introduction to the culture, countryside and lifestyle wisdom of Kerala is also on hand.
Ten years on, the world may still be an unpredictable place, but here at The Hermitage we are all determined you will be able to count on enjoying our very special atmosphere for many decades to come. Thank you for supporting our vision, you are very much part of it.