By Supriya

It had been a journey of trial and error for Maneesha Panicker, till her luxury experiential travel company Silk Route Escapes picked up well back home in Kochi, Kerala. Soon she left her full-time corporate job in New York and came back to concentrate on her company. 

“With a system of having experts everywhere, who do the trick. We offer a different kind of experience in the sense that, when everyone in Kerala takes you to Munnar, Thekkady, Kumarakom and so on, we look for offbeat mountains,” Maneesha sums up the basic mode of operation of her business. 

Maneesha Panicker, Founder of Kayal Island Retreat

When the backwaters of Kerala were becoming a mainstream tourist destination, this seasoned travel entrepreneur was looking for a quiet place to set up an office for her company. Quiet, because the apartment out of which she operated was becoming too noisy. “I was working from my house in Panampilly Nagar (Kochi) and the apartment upstairs was drilling their floors,” she recalls. Maneesha ended up finding a hidden escape at Kakkathuruthu – which literally means ‘The Island of Crows’  in Alappuzha, a little island only accessible by boat.

But instead of just transforming the piece of land into just an office space, the ex-corporate employee sensed the calm an exhausted traveller may feel if they got to visit the place. The privacy and serenity that nature herself provided on that small island itself were rejuvenating. 

“When I saw this place, I felt like this was always going to be a quiet space. I spoke to a bunch of architects, and one of them suggested establishing a bed and breakfast here. We started with just two rooms at first and ran it for about four months. And then we opened the other two rooms,” narrates Maneesha looking back at how her 4-room boutique resort, the Kayal Island Retreat was built, hidden away from the crowd and noise of the city. 

The initial advertising for the resort was done on social media, and in fact it is thanks to that, Maneesha says that she got her first guests. The resort shot to fame when it was mentioned in international media a few years ago. And then there was no looking back… till the whole world got engulfed by the pandemic last year. The tourism industry like many others was hit exceptionally hard.  

“As a travel entrepreneur, I have never experienced a pandemic like this. We have experienced the Kerala floods, and that was at that time really terrible,” Maneesha says. Like most of us, it took her some time to acknowledge that things were going to go bad pretty soon. She continued to take bookings for April and May last year. When the government announced strict quarantine and travel regulations, she had clients from France visiting. 

There was a lack of awareness around the virus, and the people in Kakkathuruthu who were always loving and welcoming towards Maneesha, turned hostile fearing their safety. “The village was coming up with protests against us, to shut us down. Because in the beginning, they thought that the foreigners were bringing covid,” she tells us. 

But Maneesha knows that they respect each other mutually. To safeguard her staff and guests, she solved the issue by having a dialogue with the people. Keeping with the Government’s travel restrictions, she ensured her guests got back to their home countries safely. Due to the Covid-19 related lockdowns, she did not have guests for the next several months.

For something that Maneesha had given shape to with her own hands. The pandemic was devastating. “You build all this; you have a really good team; you start working like a well-oiled machine and then a disruption in the market happens. Then you have to start from scratch again,” she points out. 

In the meantime, Maneesha had the resort revived with fresh paint and renovated boats. She had a boat maker come in to help with the boats, and actually learnt the art of boat making herself as well. 

“One day I worked on the boat for a whole day, and I noticed that my anxiety was just going away. So, when you are working on a boat you are working with your hands. I realised I don’t have control over covid. I don’t have control over not having travellers. But this little thing I have control over. I could fix my boat, and I could be ready for travellers coming again. It made me feel like it was okay, and I kept one foot in front of the other,” says Maneesha revealing her insights. She hopes to make learning boatmaking a regular feature her guests can enjoy while on the island. 

Over the years Maneesha has seen her guests make beautiful memories while on her island, it is something she cherishes and is grateful for. Specialising in experiential tourism, Maneesha makes sure each of her guests gets the best and personalised experience. A boat ride in the beautiful Vembanad Lake is a must when visiting Kayal. 

The best feature of the resort is the environment, and Maneesha has made sure not to disturb it too much. “The architecture and the design is very simple. Sort of like minimal Kerala. I don’t want it to become commercial, it’s still very personal,” she explains. The resort is resplendent with artwork inspired by the island, which is a special feature of Kayal. Maneesha invites a contemporary artist every year to create such unique art work.

Artwork by Latheesh Lakshman in one of the rooms at Kayal Island Retreat
Artwork by Latheesh Lakshman

She also used to arrange walks and tuk-tuk rides to the village of Kakkathuruthu before the pandemic hit. “For me, the local experiences are quite important. No two guests can go on the same boat ride. Every guest will have their own evening boat ride. I wouldn’t like this to be something commercial, where everyone is herded onto one boat,” she insists.  

It’s been an interesting journey for this calm and composed travel entrepreneur. Her little venture may be small in size when compared to the biggest 5 stars across the country, but that hasn’t stopped her hard work from being recognised internationally. Maneesha now hopes to see more domestic travellers discover the hidden gems like Kayal within their reach.

To know more about Kayal or email

By Supriya

Supriya began her journey as a published writer with an internship with a leading newspaper in the country. From there, she has been a dedicated writer for various publications over the years. A trained Odissi dancer, she holds a deep passion for art forms and heritage.