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Kashmir cribs: The houseboats on Dal Lake
In "Paradise on Earth," the good life is found on a floating, ornate houseboat hotel -- we search for the best ones
Forget hotels -- houseboats are the key accommodation when visiting the India-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The conflict-fraught region is making a tourism comeback, with the number of tourists doubling to 2 million in the past year.
Many of these tourists flock to scenic Dal Lake and the adjoining Nagin Lake in the summer capital, Srinagar.
On the water are more than 1,200 anchored wooden boats. Some of these are floating hotels, decked out to the max to attract tourists.
Looking like life-sized dollhouses, these boat hotels have an early 20th century British motif mixed with lots of Indian chintz.
The British colonialists were the first people to use the houseboats in Kashmir as hotels after foreigners were prohibited from purchasing land to build resorts.
A loophole allowed the Brits to reside only on the lakes, sparking a boom in houseboat-building among Kashmiris.
"I heard stories about British colonialists using this houseboat to have a casino, gambling on this houseboat," says proprietor Feroz Baktoo, pointing to Houseboat Royal Sovereign which he estimates is "around 70 years old."
Then in 1966, Ravi Shankar taught George Harrison to play the sitar on one of Butt's Clermont Houseboats on Dal Lake and legions of fans have helped spread the houseboat fame.
Today, vacationing on one of these houseboats in Kashmir is a serene, romantic and rustic good time.
Finding the perfect one, however, requires patience, bargaining, a sense of humor and sometimes a tolerance for stretching the truth.
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Some tourists choose their houseboats in Kashmir from a website or at the government's tourism office.
That means paying full fare, according to the government's official rate card which lists prices for "deluxe class," "A class," "B class," "C class" and "D class" houseboats.
The Houseboat Royal Sovereign mentioned earlier is classified as deluxe and displays elegant antiques as part of its furnishings.
Feroz Baktoo has decided that his own boat, Houseboat Shabnam, exceeds these categories and self-describes it as "super deluxe," even though it is priced the same as "deluxe" boats.
"This houseboat's location is more convenient because it is near the road," says Baktoo. "If people come in the middle of the night, it is easy to get here. Other faraway locations are not so easy.
"This houseboat has parking facilities on the road and there is a restaurant there too. Many people want these conveniences."
But a nearby traffic-clogged road is a drawback for some tourists.
The more adventurous will arrive in Srinagar and, at the airport or bus station, allow themselves to be seized by an aggressive, fast-talking tout.
The tout will paddle the visitor in his shikara to several houseboats, possibly singing Islamic devotional ghazals to convince the customer of his tenderness and piety.
Expect the babbling of a desperate, emotional, hard-sell spiel tinged with Shakespearean drama about rival houseboat owners who will cheat you if you follow their unscrupulous touts.
He may or may not be right.
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One of the most important things when deciding on houseboats in Kashmir is the personality of the owner.
He can be eccentric, charming, oily, creepy, exuberant, flirtatious, moody, detached, confused or adorable. He is responsible for your food and other arrangements and may also attempt to be a comedian while embracing you into his domestic life.
The best houseboats cook delicious meals for guests. Breakfast usually includes eggs, oatmeal, coffee or tea and thick naan bread.
Many guests opt to eat lunch elsewhere because during the day they might be rowing around the lake or shopping in Srinagar.
Dinners can be feasts of Kashmiri home-cooked chicken or lamb plus a stew of spiced vegetables with rice.
But the higher-ranking houseboats in Kashmir do not guarantee better food.
"On this houseboat, only the food is a problem," says Kirti Luthra, 30, an Indian housewife visiting from New Delhi with her businessman husband.
"There is not enough spice," she says, relaxing on her pricey "super deluxe" Houseboat De-Laila which displays a relatively opulent interior.
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Nearby, the Houseboat Chicago boasts a historic past.
In 1975, when Kashmir-born Indira Gandhi was prime minister of India, she and several relatives visited the Chicago for a few hours.
Mrs. Gandhi's son Sanjay signed the guest book: "Service satisfactory. Boat well maintained".
That faded page is framed and mounted on the houseboat's living room wall.
Elsewhere, for Rs 2,000 (US$36) a night per couple, the "super deluxe" Houseboat New Sherin offers four double-bedrooms with attached bathrooms, plus big breakfasts and delicious all-you-can-eat dinners aboard its elegantly furnished, Wi-Fi-linked houseboat.
"The New Sherin served great meals," says Ron Feemster, 57, an American journalist on holiday there after teaching for two years at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore.
"I also found the boat larger and much more comfortable than I expected. Luxury and antique furnishings were not among the things I anticipated."
Feemster says he enjoyed chatting with other guests and swapping travel information in the evenings when staying on houseboats in Kashmir.
"Young chaps from the boatman's family were coming to watch TV in our living room," says Zbigniew Piotrowicz, a London-based architect from Poland who stayed nearby on the "deluxe" Houseboat New Kashmir.
For a total price of Rs 2,000 a night, Piotrowicz and two friends enjoyed the "privacy" and "huge space" of their own houseboat, plus a "very basic" breakfast.
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Popular houseboats in Kashmir can become fully booked months in advanced, so call early:
Houseboat Shabnam, Dal Lake, Srinagar; +91 941 900 3801, +91 985 890 0614; email@example.com; from Rs 3,720 per night (double room, no meals); www.traveltraveller.com
Houseboat De-Laila, Dal Lake, Srinagar; +91 990 663 2300, +91 194 248 5656; from Rs 3,000 per night (single room, no meals); firstname.lastname@example.org; delailahouseboatskashmir.com
Houseboat Chicago, Dal Lake, Srinagar; +91 194 247 7489, +91 941 906 1430; email@example.com; from Rs 900 per night (single room, no meals); www.chicagohouseboats.com
Houseboat New Sherin, Dal Lake, Srinagar; +91 979 702 9841, +91 959 6359 603; firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com; from Rs. 2,000 per night (double room, breakfast and dinner)
Butt's Clermont Houseboats Naseem Bagh, Hazratbal Srinagar; +91 194 242 0325, +91 194 242 7220; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.buttsclermonthouseboat.com