Houseboats – Farooq Wangnoo has more white in her beard compared to the last time I saw him – mainly because which was a 26 years back, and Farooq did not own a beard then. He is leaner but there‘s a similar glimmering smile, the soft-spoken humour, and also the fanatic gleam when talk turns to fishing – because it inevitably must having a houseboat owner of his pedigree.
Farooq is that the owner from the Marco Polo number of houseboats – 3 boats of varying size that occupy a blissfully quiet and picturesque corner of Nagin Lake.
Unlike Dal, Nagin is quiet, free from the bustle of shikaras and floating shops and constant activity. Here you do not keep an eye out in the direction of the boulevard, but over the lake to some palpably longer type of houseboats on the other shore, kept in line from the hunch shouldered bulk from the Mughal fort upon the Hari Parbat Hill.
The closest houseboat to Marco Polo is well beyond earshot and masked using a type of drooping willows. It‘s a serene, tranquil spot. Just like most other houseboats that struggled with the interminable many years of the troubles, the Marco Polo boats are actually in need of major renovation and modernisation.
In keeping using the houseboat fashions in an earlier era, the décor is all florid chintz and bright plastic flowers. But change is afoot. Actually, perhaps one of the reasons I‘m not spending the night here is Farooq is inside the midst of major repairs, restoration, and upgrade.
Having a twinkle in her eye he tells me about his fancy new bathrooms, in which the high-tech shower unit includes a built in music player ! I am besides myself with laughter. But Farooq, surrounded by photographs of British generals and nobility, is determined that Marco Polo will once again function as the houseboats of preference to the cream from the tourist market. There isn‘t any doubt that he is going to succeed, but he is well known regarding his his work cut out, for across town is really a boat which has set the bench-mark for future years.
On Dal Lake a 50-year old houseboat is transformed. This really is ‘Sukoon’ (meaning Bliss ), and indeed It‘s. To attain it requires a brief boat ride in the corporate motor-boat or perhaps a 15 minute paddle inside a shikara. I like the shikara. The houseboat itself is really a haven of elegant calm and superbly combines the standard hand-crafted houseboat with a classy, modern Indo-European aesthetic. The colour scheme of pink and turquoise mirrors the colours upon the sister houseboat ‘Lotus’, far towards the south in Kerala in which the owners of Sukoon – the Chapri family – own the hugely successful and really lovely Neeleshwar Hermitage.
There will be 5 bedrooms in Sukoon, and they could merely be described as sumptuous with superb furniture, deep mattresses, luxurious linen, electric blankets but NO TV. This really is definitely harking to the old houseboats and the concept that you arrived at blissful Kashmir to the simpler pleasures from the pre-modern age. I adore it ! That night I dined on the princely mixture of Wazwan dishes : rishta, kebab, yakhni, and fragrant Kashmiri rice.
Subsequent morning, lingering over a delicious cup of Kahwa and luxuriating inside the bright morning sunshine coming from the beautifully furnished rooftop terrace, I watch the already busy scene from the shikaras peddling fresh flowers or tourist tat from houseboat to houseboat.
Black kites wheel above me and occasionally swoop right all the way down to water level to research some interesting titbit. The slightly nervous young waiter asks me about breakfast but last night’s dinner still sits well above the Plimsoll line. I settle for freshly baked Kashmiri bread and delicious local honey.
As Kashmir opens up once again, discerning travellers may have two brilliant choices of houseboat – Sukoon using its elegant, modern comfort on busy but picturesque Dal Lake, and Marco Polo on serene and tranquil Nagin Lake using its more traditional luxuries and also the inimitable personal type of Farooq Wangnoo.
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