Say Srinagar, and houseboats come to mind. There are a little over a thousand water dwellings buoying on the Dal Lake, jostling for attention, with names such as Venezia, Manhattan and Windsor.
Far from this aspiring crowd, Butt’s Clermont Houseboats on the northern bank offers a tranquil alternative to enjoy both the lake and nature.
Four houseboats with ornamental carvings are anchored at one end of Naseem Bagh, one of the earliest gardens built by the Mughals in Kashmir. It is a woodsy patch full of chirping birds. Under its canopy of chinar trees, George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar strummed sitar together in 1966.
“Spend the morning by the lake and evenings in the ‘Garden of Evening Breeze’,” goes the popular advice, followed by both ordinary travellers and dignitaries, such as US vice-president Nelson Rockefeller and violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
The boats are spacious and the décor pleasantly old-fashioned. The wooden furniture, doors, ceiling, roof and walls are richly carved and bedspreads, sofas, chairs and dressing room seats are covered with loopy flowery creepers in the crewel stitch native to Kashmir.
All meals are served hot by pleasant staff who are institutions in themselves for having been around for decades. Picnic lunches are packed in willow baskets on request and hot-water bottles are wrapped under quilts at night. At Rs3,500 a night (twin-sharing), inclusive of meals, it’s a good deal.
When the lake freezes in winter, the houseboats close down for repair. The carpets are removed and the floors are ripped apart to check for leakages, and the cracks filled with a mixture of jute and weeds.
Even during the worst period of the armed struggle, Clermont kept its doors open for wandering visitors, mostly journalists covering the region.
In 1993, when the army and militants were locked in a pitched battle at the nearby Hazratbal shrine, soldiers swamped the garden for 21 days. “A curfew was on and I could not meet my own staff. A journalist arrived to stay and I did not have even a potato in the kitchen,” owner Ghulam N. Butt remembers.
But he prefers to look towards the future and plans to refurbish one of the older “English style” boats into living condition again. Lifted from the waters recently at a cost of Rs1 lakh, it would cost another Rs15 lakh for the interiors to be redone.
Depending on how business looks up this year, Butt also proposes to haul up his oldest boat where George Harrison once stayed, now lying in a crumbled state in a garden corner. “We will take a decision in November. Let us see how this season goes,” he says.
Telephone: 0194-242-0325, 242-4567, (residence) 242-3678