We get into a holiday mood even before our arrival at Sukoon (roughly 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.
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.
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.
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.
Many thanks to A B Chapri Retreats for hosting part of our stay.