A royal retreat in the middle of a lake situated deep inside a forest, Lake Palace offers guests a truly unique experience. The trip to the hotel, which once a tourist bungalow of the Travancore royal family, starts from the boat landing centre at Thekkady.
Boats take visitors across the lake which is surrounded by the greenery of the forest and the deep blue of the sky above. The mobile phones soon stop working and guests are totally cut off from civilization.
Palaces in the forest
Apart from Lake Palace which can be reached only by a 30-minute boat trip, there are two other hotels under the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) inside the Periyar wildlife sanctuary. They are, Aranya Nivas and Periyar House. All three were built by the Travancore royals.
Guests now can stay at the same locations where the noble class once enjoyed their leisure, sleep, and bath, along with experiencing the wild.
A tale related to the Lake Palace has Chithira Thirunal, the last Maharaja of Travancore, as the protagonist. While the Maharaja was conducting a boat trip along the Periyarriver, he heard a gunshot from the forest. On enquiry, it was learnt that the son of the forest ranger, an Englishman, had felled a tusker.
Chithira Thirunal, who loved wild animals, immediately decided to build a palace there. The spot selected was known as Edpappalayam and was known to be rich in wildlife. The palace was meant to serve as a place of leisure as well as a hunting camp. Later, it was converted into the Lake Palace hotel.
Even now, it is in the lake near Lake Palace that the most number of wild animals from Thekkady forest come to drink water. Lake Palace has been classified as one among the limited number of royal forest lodges in India.
Aranya Nivas, another KTDC hotel in the wildlife sanctuary, is located near the boat landing at Thekkady. It used to host the senior officials who accompanied the Maharaja. It has been converted into a 30-key heritage hotel.
The third KTDC hotel Periyar House can be reached on the way to the exit from the boat landing. It was once the resting place of the soldiers and is now a 44-room hotel.
These days, vehicles are not allowed into the wildlife sanctuary. Visitors have to park their vehicles outside and take the cycles, walk, or hop on to the vehicles of the Forest Department to reach the lakeside.
The boat trip
The boat takes guests along the lake, which is the reservoir of the Mullapperiyar dam, cautiously. There are stumps of trees protruding at many places. They are the remnants of the trees that existed at the spot before building the dam around the year 1895. Numerous migratory birds roost on the stumps and the sight has been the signature image of Thekkady for long. Sambar deer, wild boars, and wild bison can be seen taking a sip from the lake.
After getting down at the boat landing of Lake Palace, visitors have to climb a steep flight of steps to the hotel. The moment a traveller steps on the shore, they are transported to another world. There is a moat, big gate and fence to prevent the entry of wild animals. Beyond it is the well-maintained lawn, a pathway laid with artificial stones and the platform where the sacred basil grows. After passing these spots, guests can reach the sit-out of the palace which is built of rock.
Saji, a native of Muvattupuzha, who is the host, housekeeper, and guide, welcomes visitors in a spotless white shirt, a tie, and a broad smile. Many guests wonder whether government employees could be so dedicated, but their doubts vanish after meeting the other staff of the hotel, from manager to the gardener. All of them behave as if they are the staff of a royal retreat.
Guests to Lake Palace are welcomed most often with pineapple juice. They can then order items for lunch from the menu, which includes pork, chicken, beef, jackfruit, and dishes made of the vegetables grown in the kitchen garden of the Palace. A team of ten employees are engaged in growing organic, pesticide-free vegetables on the premises.
Architectural beauty in solid rock
The Lake Palace is built with solid rock and has six rooms, each surrounded with broad verandas. Three rooms are arranged on each side, with drawing room and dining area in the middle. Rooms facing each other are mirror images of the other. The rooms at the end have bigger verandas than the others.
Construction of the royal retreat started in 1927 on an island on the opposite side. But some inauspicious aspects were noticed according to 'vastu' and the Palace was built at the present spot. Now, the hotel is located in a peninsula, with the lake on three sides and thick forest on the remaining side.
The rooms at Lake Palace sport furniture with a classic look. There are two double cots, each of different design and a wooden ceiling. Even without air-conditioning, the place is cool. This is enabled by the construction method used in royal buildings of that time which ensured that there were three levels for a roof. At the top are tiles, below which is a layer of copper sheets and wooden ceiling underneath. The copper sheets were meant to retain the cool air and improve the health of the occupants.
Although the interiors have an ancient look, modern facilities like washrooms and mini fridge have been added, giving the rooms the feel of a suite. The rooms now adhere to international standards.
Life among the wild
Power sources of Lake Palace are three noiseless generators which work round the clock. Earlier, power lines brought electricity but the Forest Department snapped the lines after four elephants were electrocuted 15 years ago.
Lake Palace property is owned by the Forest Department and KTDC has taken it on lease. Strict rules have to be followed by guests as the hotel is situated in the middle of dense forest. The main rule is to avoid disturbing the wild animals in any manner. Guests may remember that they are intruding into the habitat of the animals and not vice versa. Dumping of plastic has to be avoided at all costs.
Saji would inform travellers that a black ape was once found dead near the hotel, leading to a major enquiry. Post-mortem, questioning of staff and guests and plenty of official paperwork followed.
But Adivasis are allowed to fish in the lake and collect wild honey. However, hunting is banned. Mannakudi, a tribal hamlet, is quite near the lake.
On the walls of the drawing area and dining space, a number of beautiful photographs are displayed. Most of them were clicked by Uthradam Thirunal Marthandavarma himself. Some pictures show labourers bringing rock, wood, and other construction materials in country boats or bullock carts.
The most prized photo in the collection is the one showing Regent Maharani, Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer, an unknown revnue official and Robinson, an Englishman who was the wildlife warden. The team members, including the Maharani, are wearing khaki shorts extending to the knee and bush shirts and are engaged in a trek through the forest. They also are holding a stick each.
In two showcases at the hotel, crystal and china ware costing lakhs of rupees are kept. Other items of interest include an old water purifier made in England, a radio, and a clock. A pair of binoculars presented by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his visit to the hotel is also on display.
Authentic local cuisine
Dinner at Lake Palace includes beef curry, pork curry, chicken Malabari masala, rice, chapatti, aviyal, fish curry, dal, sambar, tapioca and idichakka thoran. Guests can enjoy real Kerala dishes thanks to the culinary prowess of the chefs.
From the veranda of Lake Palace, guests can enjoy the sight of a multitude of wild animals taking a sip. Wild boar, bison and sambar deer can be commonly sighted. Herds of elephants also make occasional appearances.
The Periyar wildlife sanctuary is a tiger reserve, but Saji has not sighted a single tiger during the seven years he has spent in Lake Palace. However, he has been lucky to see the pug marks of the carnivore. The only sighting of a tiger at the hotel was by a Lebanese guest who did not identify the animal.
The incident took place three years ago. The Lebanese traveller could not sleep at night due to a bad stomach and went to the sit-out outside his room. While sitting there, he saw some movement among the trees near the hotel building. The Lebanese man looked in that direction and saw an animal scurrying away into the forest. He never imagined that it was the tiger.
The next morning, when Saji went to the guest's room with bed coffee and biscuits, he learnt about the strange animal's appearance. Saji rushed to the spot indicated by the guest and saw the pug marks. He informed forest officials about the development and they confirmed the pug marks to be that of a tiger.
The premises of Lake Palace are favourite spots of tigers, deer, and sambar. At night, when all human beings sleep, sambar make merry on the compound of the hotel. While searching for food, they often destroy the garden plants and flower pots. The moat and fence prove no deterrent to these animals. Many guests at Lake Palace have reported sightings of leopard also.
Elephants, too, are adept at crossing the moat and entering the premises, especially during the jackfruit season.
Visitors can experience such sights during the guided trekking and boat trips which are part of the package. However, no wild animal is known to have hurt any human being in the area so far. Still, visitors should obey the instructions of the hotel staff and never attempt to enter the forest by themselves.
The peacock and the cat
Two inmates of the hotel are considered to be the guards of the place. They are a peacock and a half-blind cat. The peacock strolls on the premises proudly, while the cat goes wherever it wants on the property. Both of them keep snakes and other reptiles away from Lake Palace.
At night, guests can savour the cool air from the verandas listening to the strange sounds of the forest, including the chirping of birds, the cry of the crickets, and the howls of foxes. Sleeps comes slowly in such an environment.
As the sun rises, visitors can observe sambar having a royal bath in the lake. The animals swim from one island to another in the lake. The wild bison would be nearby, along with the wild boar and elephants.
Guests interested in forest trekking can seek help of guides and watch numerous other species of animals, a variety of birds, and rare plants and trees.
The forest area of the sanctuary spreads to around 1,000 sq km in Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts. The area of the lake is 26 sq km. The mean temperature hovers between 15-35 °C. The peak season is from August to May.
Travellers must stay at one of the three palaces in the forest at least once in their lifetime to feel the magic of the wild. Off-season tariff at Periyar House starts at Rs 1,500, Aranya Nivas at Rs 3,250, and Lake Palace at Rs 10,000.
For booking, call 9400008588