Goa it alone: Away from the crowds in India's party state
Escaping Goa's busy tourist resorts is easy - if you know how. Sophie Lam heads off the beaten track in search of solitude, and finds restored heritage homes and wild, deserted beaches
Saturday 10 March 2007
The directions to Elsewhere read, "our location is a bit of a secret. Look for the temple by the creek, then ask for the house of Juse Calisto - he will show you where we are."
When my boyfriend and I eventually found Juse Calisto's, enquiring where we might find "Elsewhere" seemed to verge on the ridiculous. A shrug of the shoulders from a couple of men loading a van hardly buoyed our confidence. Finally a man sitting on his veranda, idly watching a brood of pecking hens, pointed towards a gap between his house and the next. From here emerged an emerald green creek, sandwiched between thick tropical foliage and bridged by a bamboo walkway.
The afternoon sunlight glinted sharply on the water, which slipped out to the roar and hiss of the Arabian Sea. Thankful that we had decided against bringing a suitcase, we made our way across the rickety footbridge to Elsewhere - not a state of limbo, but a seaside hideaway in Pernem, Goa's northernmost region and perhaps its last bastion of untouched coastline.
I had come in search of the unspoilt pockets of India's most diminutive state. In a country more than 10 times larger than Britain, Goa is barely bigger than Cornwall. For most of the past two millennia, Goa has been repeatedly invaded. The longest uninvited guests were the Portuguese who colonised the area in the 16th century and stayed until Goa belatedly joined the rest of independent India in 1961. Within a decade, another invasion was under way: freaks and flower children descended from Kathmandu.
Each coloniser has left its mark, from the profusion of pretty whitewashed Roman Catholic churches (and less auspiciously, the destruction of old Hindu temples), colonial mansions and Iberian-infused cuisine, to the perpetual stream of tie-dye and neon- adorned ravers. More recently, the sun-seeking package tourist has arrived. Most of the half-million European visitors each year congregate in the main resorts of Baga and Calangute. But as I arrived at Elsewhere, only 40 minutes' drive north of Baga, I stumbled on an entirely different picture.
Waiting for us on the other side of the creek was Elvis, part of Elsewhere's small, familial team. Shaded from the beating sun by a welcome canopy of trees, we were whisked through the thicket to our room. The only other sign of life was a tethered buffalo who eyed us quizzically whilst licking his thick pink lips. Our room turned out to be the recently restored piggery on owner and photographer Denzil Sequeira's century-old family estate.
Quite unlike any pig pen I had ever seen, the gorgeous terracotta coloured colonial-style beach house was fronted by a colonnaded veranda with antique wood and rattan chairs, baby-blue shutters and a direct view of the huge sweep of deserted beach. Inside there was a simple arrangement of two whitewashed bedrooms and two Mexican-style cobalt blue bathrooms. The furniture comprised muslin-draped wooden four poster beds, an antique writing table and dresser - and a cabinet containing a small crucifixion figurine.
Following the path from our door, through casuarina pines and gangly palm trees heavy with ripe green coconuts, we emerged at the beach, a wild expanse of fawn sand backed by small dunes, coconut groves and low hills. Elsewhere is cut off almost entirely by the creek and a small river. It's as if the domino effect of the development coming up from Calangute and Baga fell face first into the creek.
Small dug-out fishing boats were hauled up on the sand, the occasional hawker sauntered along, baskets of peppery sweet mangoes, stubby bananas and pineapples balanced on their head, and tiny crabs zig-zagged along the beach.
Passed down through three generations, Denzil's land is, for the moment, safe from developers. The only threat is the far-off promise of an international airport not far away at Mopa. The owner says "The mindset of Goans has to change in order to preserve what we have. At least now there is awareness: the value of old Goan houses has gone up and people are learning that they need to be protected rather than destroyed."
The Elsewhere story begins in 1886 when Denzil's great grandfather, Angelo Zeferino Sequeira, bought the mile-long spit of land for the equivalent of £20.
He later divided the land between his two sons: Dr Francisco Joseph Sequeira, a gynaecologist; and Luis Gonzaga de Santana, a priest. The latter settled here and would canoe across the creek to give Mass in the next village at Mandrem church.
The following day we met Denzil for lunch at a long trestle table. It stood beneath a sprawling banyan tree, its aerial roots plunging into the earth like a Tim Burton film set.
I discovered that we weren't the only ones staying at Elsewhere, as more guests emerged. Some were in the three other beach houses, hidden in the coconut grove, and others in three diminutive circus-style tents, pitched side by side in different colours along the bank of the creek.
Sitting opposite us was a Bollywood actor, who retreats to the same tent whenever he gets a break from filming; this was his fourth visit. He looked visibly disappointed when Denzil announced that his flight back to Mumbai was due to leave on * * time that afternoon. Another couple had booked their return visit when they had stayed just three months earlier.
Ice-cold beer and bottles of Indian wine were promptly fetched, followed by a feast of spicy Goan prawn curry tempered by sweet coconut milk, rich vegetable curry, fresh tandoori king fish, mounds of spicy potatoes and rice.
After an uncharacteristically British pudding of banoffee pie and brownies, the soporific effect of the food, beer and sun took effect and everyone gradually dispersed for a snooze or a swim. But we were heading on to another property doing its best to preserve Goa's environment.
The drive took us south through bucolic pastures of cinnamon-coloured earth, a scene that could easily have passed for England. However, the odd Hindu shrine, paddy and chilli fields and at one point, a family of four balanced precariously on a single scooter - toddler up front and mother riding side saddle at the back - betrayed our location. Half an hour later, we pulled up a sandy drive to the ominously named Yogamagic on the outskirts of Anjuna.
My boyfriend and I had never set foot on a yoga mat (I'm about as supple as Star Wars' C-3P0), so we were slightly nervous as we removed our shoes and entered the cool, dark pavilion serving as the retreat's reception. We were staying in one of seven hand printed Rajasthani-style hunting tents, complete with coir carpets, a double bed, dressing room - and joy of joys, my first experience of a squat toilet. Thankfully, our ablutions were going to good use; to fertilise the banana trees and degrade into compost.
Built four years ago by former music producer Phil Dane as potential accommodation for the renowned Purple Valley yoga centre up the road, the site has evolved into an ecologically sensitive retreat, with its own yoga pavilion, tropical garden, fruit and vegetable patches and lagoon-like pool.
The panorama from our tent was of palm-fringed fields grazed by buffalo, white egrets perched cheekily on their backs. Working with, rather than against, nature much of the site's structure - from flowerbeds to the dining pavilion - is constructed from a dung compound, which washes away in the monsoon and is rebuilt when it ends. This wasn't the only example of good practice.
Solar panels in the open-air bathrooms provide electricity for the tents and our shower was a traditional Indian-style urn and jug. A quick splash down later we sat down at the cushion-strewn dinner pavilion. My boyfriend, an unwavering carnivore, balked at the announcement that meals were strictly vegetarian.
Presenting him with a plate of veg would be about as popular as dangling some alfalfa sprouts in front of a shark. But once the feast of roast caramelised pumpkin, mushroom curry, carrot with fenugreek and pineapple pickle was presented by Phil's partner Juliet, he went back for seconds. And thirds. And by the time steamed chocolate puddings and ice cream came round, he could barely finish it.
The following day would bring a full moon, meaning complete rest. Ashtanga followers don't practise yoga during a full moon on account of unbalanced energies. The full explanation was a bit New Age-heavy, but the prospect of a lie-in was good enough for me. That night as I lay in bed, the faint thud of trance music was soon superseded by singing from a local temple and the competitive barking of dogs.
Talking to Phil the next day, I was relieved to find that he isn't evangelical about yoga, and it is not obligatory to take part. Many guests are content to lie around the pool and read or go off and explore. Using the full moon as my excuse to relax, I went to visit resident Ayurvedic masseur Vishnu. Entering his thatched hut he promptly told me to strip off down to my knickers and lie face down on the wooden table.
This was to be no prissy spa treatment. After evoking Shiva, he poured warm herbal oil over my back and started with a gentle kneading, which rapidly turned into vigorous pummelling. To a soothing soundtrack of "om shantis", my non-yogic limbs were stretched and contorted to angles that defied common sense and had me biting my lip. At one point I heard and felt a crack in my toes, which I thought he had broken.
It was part torture rack and part uplifting, but I left feeling like I was made of marshmallow and utterly serene. As I emerged, Phil was touring the site with his gardeners, discussing future plans.
An ancient organic farming method - known as deshpande - has been introduced; it is said to bring life back to the soil. They were already reaping the rewards, with a productive tropical garden of pineapples, limes, cashews and vegetables. When I asked why he had decided on taking the "eco" route, he told me that it just felt like the right thing to do. And he hopes the site will become sustainable, with jatropha plants producing bio diesel for electricity and a self-maintaining garden.
I left feeling rather virtuous, but also curious to contrast what I had experienced with resorts such as Baga and Calangute. However, as we drove south, the pull to explore Old Goa with its World Heritage Basilica of Bom Jesus (which houses the relics of St Francis Xavier) proved stronger.
Along the way we passed through lush fields and villages dotted with colourful villas and casas. As we pulled into our final destination, Palolem - a half-moon of emerald green sea-lapped beach crammed with beach huts and restaurants - I thought I might have found my contrast. But a ban on loud music and parties and frequent powercuts meant that the ambience has stayed low key.
As the sun abandoned us for the night, the beach was consumed by teenage boys playing furiously contested games of cricket, herds of dozing cows and gangs of dogs. Pods of dolphins broke through the waves in the middle distance and fishermen hauled their catch up on to the sand. An unspoilt picture of everyday life in a place that has seduced generations of people. However, just how unspoilt it stays could well depend on people like Denzil and Phil.
The easiest approach to Goa is by charter flight. The writer flew with Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com), which operates from Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham from £299 return. Charters such as Monarch (08700 405040; www.flymonarch.com) and MyTravel (0870 156 4564; www.mytravellite.com) also fly to Goa. Jet Airways (020-8970 1500; www.jetairways.com) flies from Heathrow via Mumbai.
Elsewhere Beach Houses and Otter Creek Tents, Asvem (00 91 932 602 0701; www.aseascape.com). Beach houses from Rs3,400 (£40); tents from Rs2,262 (£26), both room only. Tents close May-October, beach houses June-October.
Yogamagic Canvas EcoTel, Anjuna (00 91 832 562 3796; www.yogamagic.net). Tents from Rs5,500 (£64), with breakfast. Closed April-November.
Ciaran's, Palolem (00 91 832 264 3477; www.ciarans.com). Beach huts from Rs2,000 (£23), with breakfast. Closed June-October.
British passport-holders require a visa, available from India's High Commission (0906 844 4544, calls 60p per minute; www.hcilondon.net).
In the past few months, several cases of Plasmodium falciparum malaria have been reported in European travellers who have travelled to north Goa. Consult your GP about prophylaxis.
Goa Tourism: 00 91 832 222 6515; www.goatourism.org
India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org
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