In the year 1997, Vanilla County, a home in the hills of Kottayam, Kerala saw its first visitor, a guest from Japan.
He marvelled at the plantations that stretched for miles around, took a walk around the village, and even had his hair cut by the local barber. With a cartload of memories and praise for the kind of hospitality he was met with, the young man returned to his home country.
However, the couple who hosted him wasn’t quite ready to forget this experience just yet.
Baby Mathew and his wife Rani Vallikappen had just accomplished what they had often just spoken about as a distant plan — hosting their very first guest at their homestay.
“Why not expand the number of rooms and start welcoming more people?” thought the couple.
This idea came at a very strategic time. The couple had been worrying about the falling prices of vanilla — the spice after which the home had been christened, and so, starting a homestay would help them tide over the crunch.
The homestay is now managed by the third generation in the same family — Baby Mathew’s son, Mathew Vallikappen and his wife Silu Joseph.
Today, Vanilla County welcomes many such tourists and travellers from across the world — from South India to the United Kingdom and even Canada.
A place that predates independence
The colonial-style bungalow was built by Mathew Vallikappen’s grandfather V J Mathew Vallikappen, a planter-cum-banker. The era was pre-independence and VJ Mathew would often have his British friends over at the property for a cup of tea. Whilst the construction of the home began in 1947, through the three years that followed, these friends would frequent the site.
With time, these interactions profoundly influenced the British and Dutch-style interiors that one sees in the home today.
“The walls are made of lime and rocks with no cement whatsoever,” explains Baby Mathew adding that all the furniture is made of teak and rosewood from the family estate which is still intact.
When Mathew Vallikappen and Silu Joseph took charge of the reins of the homestay, they ensured that the heritage of the property was preserved, whilst introducing modern amenities for guests.
Mathew adds that the family always wanted to create a homely vibe in Vanilla County, and that’s what they have worked towards.
“Any guest who visits our home in Vagamon is treated like family,” emphasises Silu. “The place has a great nature quotient with its sprawling tea plantations and vanilla beans. Guests love hiking through these.”
In fact, it’s not just the hike that is the highlight, but also the guide. The couple’s friendly pet labrador Koffi is more than willing to lead the way around the property.
Following a day of hiking and long walks through the green landscape, resplendent with plantations of pepper, turmeric, clove, and pineapples, Silu ensures there’s a table full of Kerala delicacies awaiting the guests.
“The meal includes food cooked using local women’s special recipes, and the masalas are cooked on a wooden fire,” she adds.
Every night, the table at Vanilla County creaks under the weight of chicken stew made with coconut milk, kalappam (a dish where yeast is substituted with alcohol for fermentation), Kerala fish curry, spice buns made of African coriander grown at the homestay, and more.
But, the highlight among these is the paani, which takes around eight hours to prepare.
“We boil the palm toddy for eight hours and finally get a product which is sweet, similar to the consistency of honey, but even better,” says Silu. She encourages her guests to have this as a side with puttu (logs of rice flour steamed with coconut) or palappam (rice pancakes).
While dinners and lunches are a heavy affair, the couple ensures they stick to the adage ‘Breakfast like a King’.
The meal is incomplete without Silu’s homemade jams prepared from bananas, pineapples and other fruits at the farm. She adds that 85 per cent of the produce used in their dishes comes from the kitchen garden they have, which guests can observe during the spice tour.
‘Home in the hills’ experience
Every guest who enters the portals of the homestay wishes they had signed up for a few more days. As Mathew explains, this is because there is so much to do here.
“They are so curious to know about the culture, the traditions that exist around marriage, the history of Vagamon and how simple everyday activities that are expensive abroad are so economical here,” he says. “The haircuts by local barbers top this list, as does the visit to the local toddy shop.”
In the midst of the maze of activities at Vanilla County, the couple says they don’t want to lose sight of their initial dream, which was to create as homely an experience as possible.
“We don’t offer room service like traditional hotels, and we encourage our guests to indulge in slow travel. We build a connection with the guests through their stay,” adds Silu.
So last month when famed stand-up comedian Kenny Sebastian booked his stay at Vanilla County, Silu and Mathew were both excited and nervous about introducing him to this new way of holidaying.
Kenny did enjoy himself as his vlog posted later suggested! He can be quoted saying, “The place is beautiful and warm, mainly because of Silu and Mathew who run the place. We had good food, very good food.”
But whilst Vanilla County prides itself on the slow way of life, there is also adventure at every corner.
“If you’d like to learn about beekeeping, procuring honey from the combs, diving into a natural rock pool abundant in spring water and minerals, or even learning how to prepare a three-course Kerala meal from scratch for Rs 2,500, all of these activities are available here,” says Silu.
Guests can also witness the journey of rubber right from the plantation to its final state. “After extracting the rubber sap from the plant, the rubber milk is made. Then sheets are made using this milk, following which the rubber sets into a pudding form,” she adds.
The couple says that guests can choose between the heritage bungalow that has four rooms, the garden view bungalow that has two rooms, and the mountain view bungalow that has two rooms.
“In the heritage bungalow, guests can view a mirror imported from Belgium, which has been there since 1977. The furniture too is 75 years old and the architecture dates back 100 years,” says Mathew.
A room is priced at Rs 6,000 per night and the couple says they welcome around 300 guests in peak season spanning November through February.
Today, as the couple surveys this creation that they have sustained, they feel overwhelmed, simply because this wasn’t the way they expected things to work out.
Mathew, who was working as a baker in New Zealand for five years wished to settle down there. But, it was the COVID pandemic that provoked the couple to think about the bigger picture — a heritage home in India that needed looking after.
As Mathew recounts, “Leaving New Zealand wasn’t an easy decision to make. But today, I think it was the best decision.”
He adds a simple message for guests who come here — “We’ll provide the setting and the required level of service. It’s up to you to make the memories.”
To book a room at this heritage stay, visit here.
Edited by Pranita Bhat
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