Deborah Moggach’s novel The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the story of a group of British pensioners travelling to India in the hope of finding a cheap, caring and medically sophisticated place to grow old. It clearly struck a chord: it not only inspired hit films of the same name – starring Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench and Bill Nighy – but also the BBC’s acclaimed ‘senior celebrity’ reality series, The Real Marigold Hotel. The second series has just been screened, and followed well-known personalities, including Lionel Blair, Amanda Barrie, Bill Oddie and Miriam Stoppard, as they discovered the lush beauty and cultural riches of Kochi (Cochin), the historic port city in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Vorkala beach, Kerala
One traveller who won’t have been the least bit surprised by Kerala’s warmth and wealth of attractions is Daphne Richards. Earlier this year the 85-year-old British woman made her 23rd visit to Kerala, and her 25th trip to India – all with Cox & Kings.
As a child I was interested in stories about India. My first Indian friend was Margery, a girl my brother met when he was in India during the second world war. Some years later, she came to college in England and spent her holidays at our family home. By then I was about 18 years old. We remained good friends and kept in touch by letter until she died in the 1990s.
After I was widowed I decided to visit India, choosing Cox & Kings because they had been in India for 200 plus years. My first experience was in 2001. I went on a big tour starting in Nepal, where we flew over Everest in a small plane. We then flew on to India, to Varanasi where we saw the dawn rise from a small boat on the Ganges. Other places apart from the Golden Triangle were Jhansi, Orchha, Khajuraho, Bharatpur and Udaipur.
As it was such a big tour, I went back to the north in 2002 to spend more time in Delhi, Agra (I have now seen the Taj Mahal three times!), Jaipur and Udaipur. At the end of the tour, when the group flew back to England, I stayed on and flew south to Kochi in Kerala. I wanted to see what it was like travelling by myself, and found it was easy. After that I did lots of tours of India. I travelled north as far as Dharamsala, the winter capital of Himachal Pradesh, which sits on the edge of the Himalaya. It was here that I saw the Dalai Lama. My Indian friend Margery’s home had been in Chandigarh. She died before I started going to India, but when I went to Shimla and Dharamsala, the train stopped at Chandigarh. I got out and stood on the platform for a couple of minutes. It was quite an emotional feeling as I was very fond of her. We had a lot of fun when she stayed with us in England, dressing me up in her beautiful saris and telling me about life in India.
The cast of The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel, series 2
I also travelled south as far as Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) in the state of Tamil Nadu. Set in the Cardamom Hills, it is India’s southernmost tip. I went to many places in between too, but each time came back to Kerala. At the end of a holiday in 2004, four or five of us went to stay at Marari Beach Resort at Mararikkulam near Alleppey for four days. It is a tranquil fishing village set on a beautiful, unspoilt stretch of beach about 60km south of Kochi. It was so peaceful, and perfect for exploring Kerala’s backwater canals. After that I couldn’t keep away: I have been going back ever since, staying twice a year for three weeks at a time. I like to stay at the Marari Beach Resort, a five star resort with 62 villas set within 12 hectares of land.
My first impression of Kerala was that it was different from other parts of India. It is much more relaxing and the people are so friendly and do everything with a smile. I enjoy the weather and the food, the sounds of the birds. I especially enjoy walking through the waves along the beach in the early morning, then in the evening watching the sunset. I am interested in Ayurvedic medicine and have had many massages and treatments over the years. I have made so many lasting friendships among the staff as well as the other guests who, like me, come back every year.
On one occasion, I was privileged to be the only hotel guest to attend the wedding of a member of staff, travelling with the rest of the staff in a mini coach to the event. On another occasion, a different member of staff invited me to a Hindu ceremony – a choroon – when his three-month-old son was taken to the temple.
Another highlight was last September when Juby Mathew Kattampally, Cox & Kings’ manager in Kochi, invited me to attend a travel industry event in Kochi, where I was interviewed by many tour leaders and newspaper reporters. Although some of the reports weren’t entirely accurate, my details and photograph appeared in all the newspapers, after which everyone knew I was 84 years old!
Daphne and her friend, Juby
On my most recent visit, I was asked to plant a mango tree in Marari, which was a great honour as I thought it was only diplomats and ambassadors who are usually asked to do this. On my last evening, Juby Mathew Kattampally, his wife and children came to dinner and he brought a framed copy of the newspapers I had been featured in. I was asked to hang it on the wall near the restaurant. It was a very exciting evening.
Juby, his family and I have been good friends for many years now. On my most recent visit, he took me to Kochi to attend the Biennale, a spectacular art festival set around Kochi fort. We were lunchtime guests at the magnificent Brunton Boatyard hotel, a restored Victorian shipyard on the waterfront.
Kerala is somewhere a woman of my age can travel on her own and always be treated with respect and friendship. When I arrive back at the Marari Beach Resort, every time I feel I have come home and many of the staff are waiting to give me a hug. I just feel I belong in Kerala.
I have seen the Marigold Hotel film many times and always enjoy it for the scenery and atmosphere. When the BBC was filming the new series of The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel, I was staying in Marari. One of the people working on the series was staying at my resort and we chatted.
I wouldn’t say I am particularly adventurous although I have always travelled, and if I want to do something, nothing will put me off. As I am still very fit, I hope to keep coming back for many years to be with all my Indian friends. I have already booked for August.
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