Night at The Museum
“Have you seen my hotel?”
I’m back at Heritage Arts, southern India’s most extensive antiques store for the third time in a week, to take some pictures of designer Gunjan Gupta’s show Kissa Kursi Ka (coming up on LOVER) when I run into Majnu, the owner, once again. I’ve gotten so used to the word hotel being used interchangeably for restaurant in India that I nod yes, “Of course, I’ve eaten there.”
“No, my hotel,” he insists and beckons me to follow him. We weave through room after room of antiques, each one bursting to the seams with sculptures, bookcases and four-poster beds, until one door leads to desk with a sign above it. The Museum Hotel.
A few days later I check in. My boyfriend is joining me in Cochin and I’ve moved from what is believed to be Vasco da Gama’s house - a charming but modest high ceilinged, 16th century home without air conditioning to what is undeniably its most luxurious property.
It has eight rooms including one suite, and the toughest decision is picking which one to sleep in. None of the rooms are exactly alike, and everything is up for sale. Fancy the sink with the bronze carving? It’s yours. Want a new 19th century roof? Dial your architect. Need a cupboard as big as a bedroom? Sign on the dotted line. All the furnishings have a tiny sticker on them.
It’s a fascinating way to showcase Majnu’s best pieces. “You are living in a museum”, he reminds us. Where the objects came from can be guesswork, but he welcomes our queries. He is after all the architect and his knowledge of every piece is on par with his ability to acquire them.
Before you check into your room, drop your bags at the reception and walk around Heritage Arts. To fully enjoy your stay here, context is important. Get lost in the maze of rooms or ask for a tour. There is a colossal century-old snake boat rescued from incineration at a temple, teak pillars from Chettinad homes, balconies from Karaikudi, an entire ceiling from a colonial French home that will soon be reinstated in Majnu’s Versailles-inspired restaurant.
I ask him how he keeps track of inventory and he shrugs, “A guy like me should have washed out.” But spend fifteen minutes in the man’s presence and the reason he hasn’t becomes as clear as day. He works hard, has a loyal team and his faith is unwavering.
When Majnu started out three decades ago, he was given a modest 300 square feet by his father for his business. Today this former tourist guide owns 30000 square feet of waterfront in Jew Town, the heart of Mattancherry, nearly the entire block and then some more including the house of one of the last remaining Jewish families, that he plans on turning into a Jewish museum.
We stay in the royal suite on our first night, a room 'fit for the Maharaja of Travancore' with two gold-plated sinks in the bathroom and a bed that is a beast. Vasco da Gama may have had all the best 16th century furniture, but he certainly didn’t sleep on a mattress like this.
For all its period furnishings, Museum Hotel’s amenities are the exact opposite: my toilet seat cover rises when I walk towards it, I have not previously experienced such a high thread count, the towels are extra fluffy and the locally sourced toiletries come in ceramic bottles and biodegradable packaging. A non-alcoholic minibar (Kochi is weird about booze) stocked with soft drinks and salted nuts is free. “I’m not going to charge people separately for almonds”, Majnu says seriously.
The suite is palatial in size and feels very extravagant but the pool is upstairs, so we move for the rest of our stay to one of the rooms above it. Some rooms are over the top and opulent with chandeliers and gilded ceilings, while others are pared back with pastel walls and four poster beds with not too many other flourishes. Each bathroom tops the last.
Ours is called the honeymoon suite, Syama the lovely manager tells us coyly, because “there are mirrors on the ceiling”. The ceiling is gorgeous but the view across the water is even more so. There is an infinity pool right outside our door for late night swims and a grassy terrace with lounge chairs to stargaze from once we’ve slathered ourselves in citronella.
Museum Hotel occupies an erstwhile ginger warehouse, and shares its entrance with a waterfront restaurant whose name pays homage - Ginger House. Each morning we make it downstairs for breakfast early, highly recommended so you can make the most of the hours before noon. The breakfasts we’re served are local and easy, just the way we like them. Puttu (steamed rice cylinders) with kadala (chickpeas). Eggs prepared however we want them. Freshly squeezed orange juice and a pot of coffee.
Ginger House is worth dropping into for a meal even if you’re not staying. Prices are more big city than Kochi and the menu can be hit-and-miss but stick to the selection of ginger-themed items and it’s hard to go wrong. Wash the ginger prawns and appams down with a glass of ginger lime soda and end with the ginger ice cream. It may sound like overload, but the offerings are beautifully balanced.
The afternoon sun in Kochi year round is really only suited for snoozing. Our itineraries post lunch include luxuriating in bed, reading on the deck, ogling antiques, taking cold dips, rinsing, repeating. This is not the kind of accommodation you book just to sleep in.
This little known boutique property is unique in that is at once ephemeral in nature and filled with history. Depending on who stays here next, it may never look the same again. The Museum Hotel may not be suited to everybody’s bank balance but it’s the perfect place for serious antique collectors, honeymooners, house doer-uppers or anybody visiting Kerala to celebrate a very special occasion.