India // Jammu and Kashmir //

The lullaby of lapping lakes


Few experiences are as romantic as lounging on an exquisitely carved houseboat, watching kingfishers diving for their dinner between the floating lilies or gazing at the moon reflected on the darkened waters. These floating hotels of one to four rooms have existed for generations and many originated at the peak of the British Raj, when Victorian families would spend the entire hot season here. They originally chose boats to get round laws that forbade them from owning land.

Srinagar has no fewer than 1200 houseboats lining the shores of the two main lakes, Dal and Nageen, and the banks of the Jhelum River. And that’s just the official ones. Consequently, it can seem like a bewildering business to know where to start looking. The golden rule is to fend off touts in town (or further afield) who try to get you to commit yourself with all sorts of promises. Some establishments are also infamous for poor service and rip-offs – anybody connected with the name Baktoo, in particular, should be given a wide berth.

One approach is to organise your stay through the Houseboat Owners Association (t0194/245 0326, w, whose office is opposite the Tourist Reception Centre on Residency Road. They produce a clear price list of the different categories of boat from Deluxe Class (Rs4500 for a double with full board) down to D Class (Rs1100 for the same). They will also help you negotiate moderate discounts on these prices at slack times such as late summer and off-season.

Undoubtedly the best way to find a houseboat, however, is to hole up in a town hotel for the first night and then hire a shikara, a colourful flat-bottomed water taxi that is steered with a heart-shaped paddle, to embark on a scouting mission. This way you can stop and look at a number of boats to compare prices, amenities and location. Once you’ve chosen your vessel, be sure to agree exactly what is included in the price, such as the number of meals, drinks or whether a daily shikara ride to the shore is part of the deal. It is also wise to make it clear if you do not want to be pestered by floating salesmen and that there should be no deterioration in service if you do turn them away. Note that some houseboats on the far side of Dal Gate and most on Nageen are accessible by road or footpath. Those on Nageen are generally a little cheaper. It is also worth noting that there is a potential threat to the very existence of houseboats after a 2009 government mandate that they should install expensive sewage treatment units in order to prevent further water pollution.

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