Travel: Warm welcomes and good food in India
After a 2009 court ruling decriminalising homosexuality, Sam Feller finds that India has plenty to offer gay travellers, including great food and welcoming people.
Mumbai is a vast, over-populated metropolis with a bustling shopping scene, a diverse array of restaurants and street food and some of the world’s most interesting religious buildings. Colaba, the city’s cultural and economic epicentre, is relatively easily navigated on foot, but taxis are so affordable you’d be best hiring a driver to navigate around town for you. But be careful: get a recommendation if you can, as few speak English and many are inclined to rip off the unseasoned traveller.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (previously Victoria Terminus), perhaps the best example of Gothic architecture in the city, is worth a visit. Frequently mistaken for a grand palace or stately home from the outside, it serves as Mumbai’s biggest railway station and headquarters of the Central Railways. The hanging gardens on top of Malabar Hill, the city’s ‘upmarket’ neighbourhood, are a pleasant escape from the city with numerous hedges carved into the shapes of animals and good views over the Arabian Sea. Don’t bother with the Gateway of India: this monument was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay in 1911 and is a crowded tourist trap, with little to marvel at. The nearby Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is far more interesting and glamorous, with exceptional service and a lovely, colonial sort of ambience; it’s a tourist attraction in its own right and serves as a great spot for afternoon tea if you get the chance.
If you wish to sample the gay scene during your honeymoon, think again. Voodoo Bar, one of the very few venues to advertise a ‘mixed’ night on Saturdays, is a dark, dingy, cramped, trashy little venue with high entrance and drinks prices. The venue is only subtly gay-friendly with numerous (straight) hookers and, although the music is fabulously camptastic, is definitely worth a miss.
Kerala in South India is the county’s most literate province, and when we arrived, it almost felt like we were in a different country. After a 1.5-hour drive south, we arrived at the Marari Beach resort, a vast, romantic retreat nestled on one of South Kerala’s most divine stretches of white sandy beach. The resort itself is around 13 years old, spaciously laid out with a private beach and three restaurants. The resort is proud of its eco-friendly approach to the environment: it hosts a butterfly garden with over 20 species of butterflies, a vegetable patch, a waste recycling facility and runs partly on recycled energy sources. It houses a yoga centre, with daily yoga and meditation practices, a grill restaurant specialising in local produce, a reading room, a gigantic, warm swimming pool surrounded by sun loungers and dozens of hammocks dotted amongst palm trees just a stone’s throw away from the beach.
Kerala was really the perfect destination for what we were after: relaxing, welcoming, friendly and without an inch of judgment over our sexuality. In fact, I wondered whether there are in fact many more homosexuals in India than people let on. India is a very religious county, with over 80 per cent of citizens belonging to the Hindu faith. Although Hinduism does not approve of homosexuality, it is a somewhat controversial topic of great debate amongst religious circles namely because religious texts do not explicitly mention homosexuality. Among some of the bigger towns and cities, grown men were seen holding hands and, although I was reassured that this was a local nuance, it certainly made me feel less self-conscious about holding my partner’s hand in public.
Disappointingly, swimming at the hotel was not recommended, particularly when the sea was rough as it was during our stay. The food however was good, with a wide selection of local cuisine (think Indian curries, dosas, roti, naan, relishes, soups and rice) every night and a varying international cuisine with fresh fish including red snapper, Indian salmon, sea bass, prawns, lobster and mackerel. There is a garden restaurant featuring a ‘chef’s table’, where the in-house chef picks vegetables from the hotel’s garden and cooks them before your eyes, engaging with the hotel’s guests and making the evening all the more welcoming.
The staff were extremely helpful and friendly. Not once did we encounter any issue of two gay men sharing their holiday experience together. It was romantic and peaceful, and very relaxing.
The only drawback of Kerala is that outside the hotel, there is a limited amount of things to do. Other than renting a houseboat and touring Kerala’s famous inland waterways, the nearest towns are not worth seeing and the nearest cities which are worth seeing are over 1.5 hour’s drive away along a noisy, polluted dual carriageway with heavy traffic.
The Kumarakom Lake Resort, situated on the banks of Lake Vembanad, was a beautiful romantic retreat with an ayurvedic centre, infinity pool and jacuzzi, fitness centre and a host of other facilities.
Rather than renting a houseboat by the hour, we took a 2-hour speedboat ride through the inland waterways to sample the local way of life. Some of the waterways were clogged up with weeds and our speedboat managed to navigate its way through the narrow opening when the houseboats would not be able to. The local community use the waterways for bathing, washing, fishing and travelling, and we saw numerous rice paddies, schools and temples surrounded by lush vegetation. This India is very different to the heavily polluted, congested Mumbai.
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The food in Kumarakom was excellent, with a huge selection of Indian cuisine and an outstanding fish restaurant. Again, finding things to do outside the hotel was again difficult: we visited Kottayam one day, which was stuffy, polluted and dirty, although we did manage to pick up some ornate souvenirs for loved ones back home and an array of locally grown spices including cardamom seeds, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and the ubiquitous black pepper.
Although homosexuality has only recently been decriminalised in India, it was clear that the vast majority of the Indian people were largely accepting of us and were more concerned about giving us a high level of service than what we chose to do behind closed doors. So next time you’re dreaming of a holiday with someone special, make sure that India is firmly on your ideas list.
Kumarakom Lake Resort. Presidential Villa £865 per night, otherwise rooms from £235 – £335
Marari Beach Resort. Prices for a garden villa vary depending on seasonal availability, from £100 per night to £220 per night.
Flights: British Airways operates a direct flight from Heathrow to Mumbai twice daily.
The lead-in (non-sale) fare is from £557.33 return including taxes/fees/charges.
To book visit www.ba.com/Mumbai or call 0844 4930787