Goa’s alluring hotel newcomers

Beyond the chaotic beach towns and trance parties of India’s smallest state shine bastions of quiet beauty and elegantly preserved history. And, as Maria Shollenbarger finds in a first look, one new escape earns its advance buzz

Sunrise and Sunset Villas at Ahilya by the Sea
Sunrise and Sunset Villas at Ahilya by the Sea

There is a place in India known as Elsewhere.

To be more specific, it is in Goa, the 1,430sq mile coastal state – India’s smallest – tucked into a declination in southwestern Maharashtra, where it meets the border with Karnataka. A scattering of Portuguese-colonial villas and chic canvas tents on a long, thin finger of sand on Ashvem beach, Elsewhere is bracketed by a fast-flowing creek on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, and reached only by a private wooden footbridge. It’s frequented by affluent Bombayites, their au fait correlates from New York, London and the Continent and, reportedly, a certain Hollywood power couple whom Elsewhere’s owner (an Indian fashion photographer) refuses to officially name but whose collective moniker rhymes with “tangelina”. The coordinates are kept a firm secret, divulged only to guests after they’ve booked. It is a paean to all that Goa once was – ocean, beach, palms and casuarinas, a heady multiculti marriage of unadulterated Lusitanian charm and timeless subcontinental allure.

Morjim beach, Goa
Morjim beach, Goa | Image: Getty Images/PhotosIndia

What has given Elsewhere the cachet it has is not just the zealous diligence with which its owner protects it. As India over the past 15 years has moved on its high-horsepower trajectory into the world’s eye, so of course have its beautiful places. The resulting investment and development – sometimes indiscriminate, even rampant – has led to many of the Elsewhere-like places of this country, and of Goa especially, being subsumed.

But it’s easy, still, to understand Goa’s allure. Just over five centuries ago, the prolific Portuguese flag-planter Vasco da Gama made landfall south of here, at Calicut, and pointed his fellow colonists upcountry, importuning them to settle across Goa’s viridescent hills and plains, and to amass spices and converts to Catholicism in equal abundance. The missionaries erected tall, whitewashed churches (almost all now designated Unesco heritage sites) and dense villages of brightly painted houses up and down its coast and along the slow-moving rivers that cross it, winding westward to the Indian Ocean.

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By the 1960s and 70s this temperate, tolerant, still largely inviolate Eden had drawn hippies and escapees from modern existence to its shores. But the impact force of consecutive waves of British, European and Russian package tourists over the past four decades has inevitably dulled some of north Goa’s once virginal appeal; nowadays it’s frequently cast as teeming with all the wrong sort of visitors. There remains, though, a knowing contingent of Goa adherents who ply its heritage villages and pop-up bars, and revel on a handful of still-beautiful beaches, most popular among them Morjim and Ashvem. In the interior, east of the ruinously overbuilt road linking the coastal towns of Calangute and Candolim and Baga, a handful of villages – Siolim, Assagao, those clustered in Aldona – are well‑preserved, lined with centuries-old, sensitively restored merchants’ and traders’ mansions, some of which have had happy second lives as chic guesthouses.

And this year, a few miles down the coast from Elsewhere, there is a notable new Somewhere. Just north of the Fort of Reis Magos, set right at the ocean’s edge, is an elegant, self-contained little domain in which to be enveloped in the gentle hiss and sigh of waves, a supremely tasteful aesthetic, and the kind of privacy and quietude rarely found here.

Church of Our Lady in Panjim
Church of Our Lady in Panjim | Image: Getty Images

I spent a few idyllic days at Ahilya by the Sea, as this place is known, in late September, just as the hotel was opening and the monsoon was juddering out of existence, roiling slate clouds surrendering to insistent milky-blue skies and pearlescent sunlight, which each morning revealed the perfection of my location – on a grassy promontory between two small, tranquil beaches, patrolled only by fishermen who sang as they put out in their tiny pink, green and turquoise boats. The hotel’s three villas were commissioned 15 years ago by Leela Ellis, a descendant of Antonio Xavier Trindade, the late-19th-century Goan portrait artist sometimes called the Rembrandt of India. Ellis’s son is married to the daughter of Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar of Indore – or Richard Holkar, as he is better known, the patrician half-American owner of (and sometime host at) Ahilya Fort, his 250-year-old ancestral home above the ghats of Maheshwar, on the holy Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. Almost two decades ago, Holkar restored 15 rooms in the fort’s palace, which he has parlayed into a famously chic hotel whose revenues partially underwrite a small but vibrant philanthropic concern dedicated to preserving traditional Maheshwari weaving techniques. The two families’ merger by marriage has resulted in this happy byproduct on the Goan coast, which sees the Ahilya name lending hospitality bona fides to the Trindades’ beautiful blue-chip property.

The villas were constructed on stone plinths that had already been in place for hundreds of years – said to have been the site of the customs houses erected by the Portuguese government to guard the river entrance leading to Panjim, Goa’s capital, easily visible across the grey-green water. The decor manifests a souk-like mix of Balinese teak loungers and 18th-century Chinese porcelain, oceanic artefacts and Uzbek suzanis. There are shelves of novels with well-exercised spines lined up next to framed woven silks and 1930s club chairs in the small lounge-cum-music room. In my suite, one of three in the Sunrise Villa, are burnished wood busts, probably west African, pale brown and blue-black and arranged on shelves next to a low Chinese bench, its lacquer faded to pale persimmon; just outside the door on the landing is a reading nook facing a picture window overlooking the sea. This eminently comfortable permutation of chic is the joint effort of the owner, Leela Ellis, and LouLou Van Damme, a Belgian expat and stylist who famously restored Panchavatti, a guesthouse about 40 minutes’ drive northeast, on the Mapusa River, and for years ran it as one of the best in the state, until she sold it in 2012.

The Bakery beach house at Elsewhere hotel
The Bakery beach house at Elsewhere hotel | Image: Denzil Sequeira

But Ahilya’s charms extend beyond its looks. My breakfast is brought to me on a teak terrace facing the sea – a Goan take on the famous masala scramble laced with green chilli and lime and served with half a dozen house-made breads. The infinity pool’s edge spills right down the old fortified sea wall, over which you can hook your elbows and on top of which you can rest your drink while you admire the candyfloss hues of a typical Goan sunset. Dinner is served on the lawn in front of the music room after gentle rains have been chased away by an offshore breeze – succulent grilled prawns laced with coriander and coconut, or delicate grilled pomfret, hooked earlier that afternoon right offshore.

Ahilya by the Sea is a small and self-contained paradise – exceptional on its own, given the surroundings, which, while technically rural are, after all, in India (what passes for countryside here still achieves a population density to make an Australian or Norwegian claustrophobic). Though in truth Goa is not entirely of India: it only achieved independence from 450 years of Portuguese rule in 1961 – 14 years after the rest of the country gained its own from Britain. Its population is still 25 per cent Catholic (the rest is mostly comprised of 66 per cent Hindu and 6 per cent Muslim). Whether the tolerance that characterises life here – in the face of sparsely clad women, substance-fuelled trance parties and the generally unbecoming comportment that attends certain Brits, Europeans and Russians in a holiday frame of mind – is more to do with being inured than being open-minded is a matter of some contention. But tolerant they are, mostly: while the recent national ban on serving beef, the “moral police” newly buzzing around Maharashtra cities, and the abrupt reinstitution of dry‑state rules in Kerala elicited frowns of concern elsewhere, the Goans I met usually just shrugged and smiled. Not us, not our problems, the easy, insouciant lift of their shoulders seemed to say.

The private dining area of Ahilya by the Sea’s Sunrise Villa
The private dining area of Ahilya by the Sea’s Sunrise Villa

Perhaps it is the surroundings in which Goans live – colourful, redolent and still insistently beautiful – that leaven the collective mood. The beaches are long, composed of powdery-fine biscuit-coloured sand and lapped by a docile, swimmable Indian Ocean. In the high season – December and January – they’re thronged, humming with pop-up fish shacks, cocktail bars, nightclubs and small crafts and clothes bazaars. (A better time of year to go is right about now – November, through to mid-December.) Rambling north along Morjim beach to Ashvem beach will take you past venue after venue for feet-in-sand, fresh-food loafing: La Plage for seafood risotto and paper-thin pizzas; Sublime for continental-Asian fusion; and The Pagan Café at Babu Huts for fresh, unshowy vegetarian and Indian. Jade Jagger has her beach shop on Ashvem; and there was a pop-up “souk” here last year showcasing some of India’s best accessories and fashion designers.

Paros is the tented camp resort operated by the French-owned Amarya group, whose co-founder, Mathieu Chanard, happens to also oversee operations for Ahilya by the Sea; a meeting with Richard Holkar last year convinced him of the promise of the Ellis site, and he’s there several days a week, a dapper figure with a megawatt smile in a custom-made linen shirt. Chanard has been based in India for over a decade and in Goa for the past five years, and is versed in where the small but stylish enclaves that continue to flourish here are to be found.

The Macassar superior suite at Siolim House
The Macassar superior suite at Siolim House

And to be sure, beautiful and tasteful boltholes remain, and are even quietly proliferating. There is Siolim House, a splendid 300-year old mansion converted almost 20 years ago to a hotel, one of Goa’s stalwarts and still going strong; its owners now also manage a stunning private villa nearby, called Frangipani. Frangipani’s common areas – lounge, high-ceilinged dining room and chef’s kitchen – are all housed in the eponymous one-storey late-18th-century villa, beautifully remade with whitewashed walls and poured concrete floors. The bedrooms are spread across two slick new annexes, with slate stones underfoot and platform beds. The long, narrow pool has a massage pavilion at one end, and the smooth teak floors of the yoga “treehouse” apparently see as many late-night dancing sessions as they do asanas.

There is also Aashyana Lakhanpal, set far enough out of Candolim town, off the bustling Baga Road and close enough to a quiet section of Candolim Beach, to feel almost like a secret. The fully staffed five-bedroom villa is largely open to ocean breezes, and its idiosyncratic collections of art – much of it also 20th century – are a pleasant departure from the Goan norm. Aashyana, too, has one-bedroom cottages, to join the handful of one- and two-bedroom traditional casinhas that surround the big house. They are quite fabulous – a mix of rough wainscoting and groovy midcentury lighting.

The pool verandah at Frangipani private villa
The pool verandah at Frangipani private villa

The previous afternoon, Chanard and I had ridden scooters from Ashvem up the road to Querim, in the far north of the state, dipping between rice paddies and skirting clusters of placidly strolling cows as the villages and traffic both gradually thinned. After almost an hour, followed by an achingly slow crossing of the Terekhol river on an old ferry, we buzzed up a steep, shaded hill and arrived in the mossy courtyard of Fort Tiracol.

Tiracol, within striking distance of the Maharashtra border, is surrounded by little in the way of civilisation – it is one of the last bastions of genuine, off-the-beaten-track Goa. The Fort was a favourite with regulars for its unassuming, charmingly shambolic design, and for its seven rooms named after the days of the week. Last winter it underwent a comprehensive renovation – conceived, it’s evident, to elevate it to a new level of luxury. But while the bathrooms are now clean-lined and the shining chrome showerheads generous, the beds now swathed in tasteful florals with matching throw pillows on the sofas, one senses there is some modicum of soul that has departed as well. We sit on Tiracol’s restaurant terrace – which is utterly enchanting, its ornate iron chairs painted turquoise and its bamboo and palm awning rustling gently in the wind – and feast on kingfish, prawns and calamari swimming in various vibrant and delicious curries, while we soak up the view from on high. Tiracol’s European managers are apparently floating the idea of a five-star resort (albeit a sustainably built and operated one) on the Fort’s 14-odd hectares. But I’m told that’s a way off. For now, the plan is to perhaps buy a speedboat, to ferry guests across the Terekhol to Kevi beach, whose bright-white sands wink in the sunlight at us – a beautiful and, for the moment, anyway, still gloriously deserted bit of elsewhere.

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