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Royal Palace Houseboat, Srinagar

Royal Palace houseboat © Craig FastArriving at the Royal Palace houseboat after the arduous two-day drive from Leh to Srinagar was balm to mine and Craig’s cracked and dusty souls.

Our jeep pulled up at one of Dal Lake’s shikara ghats and we wearily unloaded ourselves into a gondola-like shikara, our watery taxi service to and from the houseboat. A state of torpid relaxation settled upon us almost instantly as we reclined on the shikara’s cushions and were paddled through patches of lotus flowers slowly closing up for the night.

We passed an assortment of houseboats along the way, largely rickety affairs names such as Highland Queen, White Horse and Young Dream House. The cheapest houseboats are located close to Boulevard Road but we cruised away from the noise of the traffic to the ornate Royal Palace, one of a set of three luxury houseboats in the Royal Palace Houseboat Group.

Houseboats of this kind are unique to Kashmir. Established by the British Raj after the maharajh refused them the privilege of owning land in the nineteenth century, Srinigar’s houseboats have developed from narrow, plain vessels to floating exercises in opulence.

Royal Palace Houseboat interior © Craig FastThe 22-year-old Royal Palace houseboat is made from cedar wood and furnished with beautifully carved walnut-wood furniture – a Kashmiri speciality. In fact, all of the curtains, carpets, linen and ornaments are Kashmiri made, something to boast loudly about when you realise that Kashmiri craftsmen have been exporting their highly sought after furniture, papier mache products, weavings and carpets to a demanding world for centuries. The four large, wood-panelled bedrooms each contain a double and single bed, en suite and dressing area, while the shared areas are works of art in their own right. Spacious and very easy on the eye, the dining room with its large, glass-covered, hand-carved table and chairs, comfortable lounge with equally impressive furnishings, and sumptuous veranda were where we happily spent most of our time.

The outdated bathrooms and hard mattresses and pillows are more than made up for by the friendly, attentive staff, exquisite attention to detail in the décor and incredible views. In fact the views from the houseboat’s veranda alone are reason enough to stay here; the sun sets behind the fort on Hari Parbat Hill to the west of lotus-strewn Dal Lake, while mountains rise from the edge of Srinagar to the east. In winter the mountains are peaked in snow and the air is crystal clear.

During the colder months, Royal Palace is snugly heated, making this a year-round destination. Skiing in Gulmarg is the number one activity then, but trekking, trout fishing, shikara cruises, visits to Srinagar’s famous Mughal gardens, mosques and old town, day trips to Sonomarg and Pahalgam, pony trekking and, of course, shopping are just as appealing options for the rest of the year.

Shopping is something of an unavoidable pastime in Srinagar. Tradesmen ply the lake imploring tourists in shikaras to take a look at their wares: “Looking is free!” they insist. They are also inclined to board houseboats uninvited and hassle guests with products that are not always of the highest quality, something Gulam Hassan Karnai, owner of the Royal Palace Group, feels strongly about: “I don’t allow hawkers, only quality salesmen. If anyone has any complaints I will get their money back, with interest!” During our time on the Royal Palace, we saw vast and impressive displays of gems, hand-stitched shawls, silk carpets, papier mache ornaments, saffron and tailor-made clothing, all laid out before us with a flourish. We also visited AR Chaku & Sons’ award-winning wood-carving factory where we saw the work in progress and purchased a number of items. Visits to a papier mache factory and honey producer can also be arranged. If you do want to buy, it’s important to remember that haggling is all part of the fun.

Something else Gulam feels strongly about is offering a customised experience: “A houseboat is a novelty unique to Kashmir. It should be like your house: private. I give a personal service. The environment aboard my houseboats is that of a family, not a hotel.” All meals are included and the food served is whatever you want, when you want it. Providing the ingredients are available in Srinagar, Mr Rasool, the boat’s captain, will do his very best to prepare dishes to your requirements. Likewise, tours can be tailored to your specifications and onward travel booked at your request. The atmosphere on board is convivial with guests spending time together on the veranda, perusing the salesmen’s good and eating together if they wish. On the other hand, if you want complete and utter privacy, it’s not unheard of for one person to hire the entire boat, or for a tour group to take it over. Either way, every effort is made to cater for guests’ every need.

We stayed at the Royal Palace courtesy of Indus Tours. A number of packages are available through Royal Palace Group of Houseboats. Two people on the four day, three night Highlights of Kashmir package can expect to pay US$150 per night per person, including all meals, airport and shikara transfers and activities.

 


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Overland Traveller copyright © Emma Field 2010