Calm On The Lake – The Best Houseboat in Srinagar, Kashmir

We get into a holiday mood even before our arrival at Sukoon (roughlyΒ meaning ‘tranquility’ in Urdu/Persian).

A slow transfer by boat across the picturesque mountain ringed Dal, its waters sparkling in the afternoon light, soothes away any stray anxieties we might be harbouring about travel to Kashmir.

Then the warm welcome on the aptly named houseboat moored on a secluded stretch of the popular lake, makes us feel instantly comfortable.

Transfer boat moored at timber dock on Sukoon

Sukoon Houseboat signboard with lotus emblem.

View of Sukoon Houseboat from transfer boat.

Approaching Sukoon Houseboat via transfer boat.

Unlike their Kerala counterparts, Kashmiri houseboats are permanently anchored. According to one story, it was a Kashmiri Pandit trader, Narain Das, who first converted his doonga boat into a makeshift shop when his property was destroyed by floods. His ingenious idea was adopted by colonial vacationers from the Indian plains looking for loopholes in a Kashmiri law that banned foreigners from owning real estate. Overnight, the dispossessed trader turned into boatbuilder ‘Naav’ Narain.

One Mr. M. T. Kennard is credited with improving upon the basic design to create luxuriously appointed wooden vacation homes on the water and transforming the original boats into gondola like Shikaras to ferry visitors to and from the houseboats. Celebrity guests in the ensuing decades added to the romance of these floating hotels, turning them into one of the most recognisable symbols of Kashmiri culture.

Over 3500 houseboats sat cheek by jowl along the banks of the Dal and Nageen lakes by the time of partition (in 1947) when Kashmir acceded to the Indian republic. The escalation of conflict in 1989 and the resultant petering out of tourism has whittled their numbers to an estimated 800. They are all veritable museums of Kashmiri craft: made of cedar wood planks and panelled and furnished with densely carved or filigreed walnut and upholstered with richly embroidered fabric. Most are family owned where proprietors reside on the boats and rent spare rooms to visitors.

A sunlit corner on the front 'porch' of Sukoon Houseboat, Srinagar

The beautiful lounge area with the intricately fretworked screen.

Dining room behind the fretworked screen on Sukoon Houseboat, Srinagar

Carved walnut linesone side of the passage leading to rooms.

Ornate wooden twin beds in the bedroom.

The well appointed ensuite bathroom.

View of passage leading to rooms with window wall visible on the left.

At the elegant Sukoon, the woodwork and colours are relatively toned down. Airy blinds replace fussy embroidered drapes and heavy carving is restricted to a fretworked walnut screen separating living and dining areas. The ceiling boasts superb khatambandh panelling throughout.

Four rooms, each named after one of the famed Mughul gardens of Srinagar, are surprisingly large with comfortable king beds, a desk and chair, and some walnut chests that double as luggage racks. Our en-suite bath runs the length of the room and sports a tub and a powerful standalone shower. The fifth room at the end of a long corridor – Shalimar Bagh – is a spacious family suite that accommodates four.

The best feature of Sukoon is the sun deck one floor above. A marvellous perch from which to contemplate the panorama of the Zabarwan mountains and the languorous charms of the lake. We have sumptuous breakfasts here on warmer mornings and return late afternoons to soak up the sun and sip steaming cups of kahwa (Kashmiri saffron tea) accompanied by birdsong and the quiet splash of heart-paddles.

Lake view from the sundeck focused on a small shikara (paddle boat) in the distance.

Wide view of seating on sundeck of Sukoon Houseboat

Old boatman with paddle in a yellow painted shikara with matching canopy.Sukoon Houseboat, Srinagar

View from the sundeck: Boatman on shikara (paddle boat) with a green heart shaped paddle.

View of a little red shikara and the misty Zabarwan mountains in the background.

In a first for (Kashmiri) houseboats, all interior spaces have heating as well as air-conditioning. Elements of sustainability are another first for accommodation on and around the lake. Plastic is banned on board, sewage is treated in imported bio-tanks and water purified via a reverse osmosis system and served in copper jugs and glass bottles.

So yes, Sukoon is beautiful, eco friendly and on par with any modern boutique hotel, but it takes people to make a hotel feel special. Operations director Muslim Naqash and his seven delightfully polite and dedicated staff members from the ever smiling Bashir at the front desk, Rashid who mans the boat, the lovely Panang and Bela in charge of housekeeping and the dining room to the chefs Anand and Amir (Chacha) ensure we look forward to returning to this haven every afternoon.

The included dinner is a la carte, ordered ahead every morning from a simple menu that we run through in our six days here. Highlights are the stir fried Nadru (lotus stem) and the delicious Kashmiri curries. We get Rashid to buy us some mountain trout at the government fisheries outlet one morning and the chefs cook it for us two different ways: pan grilled to perfection and a delicately spiced curry with saffron rice and buttered vegetables. Dessert is a weak point, but I enjoy ending each day with excellent French press coffee in the cosy lounge.

Our excursions, including a dawn boat ride to a floating vegetable market, are executed with enthusiasm. Plans to spend a night in their tented camp in Aru Valley do not materialise, however, due to a miscommunication by the head office. Snow fall has been unprecedented this year and camps are not yet being set up. I am disappointed initially and regret not having coordinated with the boat directly and rescheduled my dates.

We consider shifting to Pahalgam for a couple of nights but are loathe to make the effort to pack and check into another hotel. We meet a few other ‘normal’ visitors at dinner time some nights who stay a night, two at most. We are here for a break from the pressures of the past few months and are happy not ‘doing everything’. Happy with day-trips. Happy to de-stress in the comfort of Sukoon.

Β 

Many thanks to A B Chapri Retreats for hosting part of our stay.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

69 thoughts on “Calm On The Lake – The Best Houseboat in Srinagar, Kashmir

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  2. Aawww, Sukoon is simply beautiful! I will be returning to India at the end of October for a 3-week trip, am hoping to travel to Kashmir. I know it will be cold but fingers crossed, I get to travel there, and perhaps experience a houseboat stay at the lake πŸ™‚

  3. This is absolutely a virtual dream, dear Madhu. Beyond gorgeous. I’m glad your choice of houseboat was just the right one. Now I’ll pop over to Helen Rimmel and her portraits. x

  4. There is nothing close to anything like this in Canada, the craftsmanship I see in the pictures is absolutely amazing. So absolutely amazing!

    1. Isn’t it? Sadly there is serious threat of all that craft dying out if the conflict isn’t resolved.

  5. For some strange reason, perhaps a past life connection, I liked this story of yours and it’s accompanying pictures the best of all, Madhu. Just so beautiful – filled me with sukoon and a yearning to revisit Kashmir, which I haven’t since my college days.

    Friends and I did stay on a poor man’s houseboat but the experience was rich!

    1. Glad you enjoyed this Ashu. I was the only one of us sisters who hadn’t visited Kashmir in all these years πŸ™‚ Mridula went from college too, and Malika spent her honeymoon there oh so many years ago.

  6. Fascinating views! Looks like a fairytale! Thanks for sharing such amazing photos!
    Great article!

  7. Oh Madhu what a wonderful retreat you must have had. Your words and photos made me immediately wish to go there. What a beautiful place!
    Alison

    1. Thanks Alison. This was just the break we needed after all the tensions of the past few months.

  8. Beautifully described , amazing pictures ; on just seeing these, the urge to visit & explore arouses more. πŸ™‚

    1. I haven’t been to any hill stations in the North Ian. Hope to get to a few in the next couple of years.

  9. Yippee! Yahoo! Dancing a happy dance πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ Why am I so happy- I’m not there! But I should be. πŸ™‚ It’s absolutely glorious, Madhu. Even though you can’t ‘put to sea’ in it. I might be able to cure the restlessness there. πŸ™‚

    1. Haha, was thinking of you Jo, I know boats and water do that to you, even stationary ones πŸ™‚ Not so sure your restlessness can be cured that easy though πŸ™‚

  10. A beautiful post. It offers all the ingredients for relaxation – water, mountains, boats, food, interior delights, deckchairs, pleasant people, and maybe most importantly “digital detox”! It sounds as if it was good for health too.

    1. Thank you Meg. The digital detox was the best of all. We heard many guests complain about the absence of TVs and there were some who even checked out early because of it! πŸ™‚

      1. My daughter is front of house for a caravan park and documents imbecilities. The latest this: 4.15 pm: Guest who is coming 2000 kms to attend a major festival with friends they haven’t seen for twenty years has melt-down about the possibility that the tv signal will be a little patchy.

  11. Oh, so glad to know you were able to relax like this, Madhu! The deck is my favorite, and the little balcony. But I could almost feel the warmth and welcome of the staff. So lovely. Thank you! πŸ™‚

    1. The service in this instance was a step about the facilities Riba. Most warm and gracious. Thank you for reading πŸ™‚

  12. You weren’t joking when you wrote about heart paddles! Madhu, I must echo Bama’s comment about the woodwork; I have nothing but admiration for the artistry in the paneled ceiling, the chairs, and especially that jaw-dropping walnut screen between the living and dining rooms. Sukoon looks (and sounds) sublime. It seems a waste to stay for only one or two nights!

    I would love to try some of that Kashmiri cuisine. My favorite dish at the guesthouse in Hampi was supposedly a Kashmir-style pulao with some chopped fruits thrown in. Did you find the food generally sweeter, milder, and more dairy-centric than in the south?

    1. Ha no! I was captivated by them James, and kept grabbing my camera every time I heard the splash of a paddle πŸ™‚ Yes the food is certainly milder. Not all are sweeter though, just the pulao, of the dishes we tasted. Raisins are a part of pulao in certain cuisines in Kerala as well. Did you get to taste Syrian Christian food when you were there?

      1. I did, Madhu – the Syrian Christian fare was one of the highlights of Kerala in my opinion!

  13. Stunning location, marvellous images, and what sounds to have been a relaxing, restorative break

    1. Thank you Sue. It was also a digital detox with the absence of TVs and we deliberately kept off newspapers. Ravi is even attributing his latest improved blood report to this short break πŸ™‚

      1. Excellent! Digital detox is no bad thing, and when away on hols I do exactly that!

  14. I rarely get enthusiastic about hotel reviews, but this one is different. Sukoon seems and sounds like a real gem. Those marvelous wood carvings (and those were toned down, as you said), tranquil setting, peaceful water, polite staff members, decent food, what else could one possibly have asked for more? One of my ex-bosses who has been to Kashmir said that it was a really beautiful, special place. This post further reaffirms that.

    1. It was truly special Bama. It was luxurious in an intimate, simple sort of way, and although that is such an oxymoron, it is exactly the kind of place we enjoy πŸ™‚ Glad you enjoyed this.

  15. What a calm and special spot Madhu – you’ve spot lighted the quiet lake scenes beautifully, as well as showcasing the magnificent wood carvings in the architecture. Wonderful post.

    1. This was indeed a surprisingly tranquil part of the lake Mary, without too many other boats on the horizon to mar the view. Glad you enjoyed this, many thanks πŸ™‚

  16. It all sounds so very lovely Madhu, I’m ready to start planning a trip!
    Beautiful photos, story, and time well spent relaxing. Just what most
    people need these days. Bet autumn would be just gorgeous!
    Thanks for your great reminisce

    1. Haha, thank you Eddie, you should plan a trip. Be sure to let me know when you do πŸ™‚ Yes, autumn would be amazing, although there might not be any snow left even in the higher reaches.

  17. Omg, exquisite photographs! I don’t really have words to describe the beauty here. The interiors of the houseboat look immaculate. I stayed in one houseboat like this when I went with my parents almost 15 years ago. In 2015, my backpacking ways meant I found one for less than thousand rupees! He he. Have to go and experience this magic again. Maybe winter shall be a grand time to go now; or maybe I shall try my luck in autumn.

    1. Thanks Shubham. I imagine the lake is a shimmering spectacle in winter, with the mountains all covered in snow. Not sure I can handle the cold though. Plus many areas are closed. We didn’t expect Sinthan pass to be closed in May, or even the glacier in Sonamarg. I am tempted to return in autumn too.

  18. Beautiful pictures and lovely travel account, Madhu. I’m happy that your houseboat experience was great. My experience was otherwise! The first picture is superb and that deck is a great place to sit and relax!

    1. Thank you Arv. I guess it can go both ways. I was wary of the houseboat experience before we went, but Sukoon exceeded all expectations.

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