The Pursuit of Hippie-ness in Goa
In the western Indian state of Goa discover peace, simple luxury and yoga
We decided, on the drive from the airport to our hotel, to play a game of “count the hippie”. There had been just one on our short flight from Mumbai to Goa, among the elegant pensioners and 20-somethings who looked as if they had just walked off the set of Made in Chelsea. Even he had a freshly scrubbed look about him, and a pair of designer shorts.
It would be five days until we spotted a proper hippie, a man with a tan as deep as his beard was white, who sat at the side of the road manning a shack selling soft drinks. After that, our only encounter was on a beachside walk past a topless Westerner playing bongos and chanting, which might have made a few men feel spiritual but was sadly lost on me.
There had been a large amount of eye-rolling when I told friends I was going to Goa, a place synonymous with society dropouts and backpackers who want to spend their days getting high on glorious beaches while listening to Goan trance.
“The best way to find your inner self,” said one man who had visited the former Portuguese colony, “is to eat an undercooked chicken korma. Then it will all be laid out in front of you.” How we tittered.
But Goa has long been a staple of the hippie trail. It became India’s 25th state in 1961, the last place on the subcontinent to shake off outside rule, yet the vibe has remained steadfastly European. Not that long ago, Bob Geldof recalled at a festival in Goa that, when he was a teenager, he saw the place as “a land of drugs, beaches and women who would shag you”. The Goan tourist authority got very cross, and insisted that much had changed since Geldof was a boy.
And I had heard about a new Goa, a chic Goa, one that involved culture and luxury instead of beach shacks and bongos, one that Hollywood A-listers such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had travelled to, and all the new rich Russians loved thanks to its warmth and its relative proximity to Moscow. My friend Holly and I were far more determined to find that Goa than we were our inner selves.
Still, at the dusty airport, delirious after almost 24 hours with no sleep and a six-hour wait in the dead of night in Mumbai’s dreary domestic terminal, I struggled to see how we would discover either.
Arriving at our hotel, shepherded through the airport-style security that has been a feature of Indian tourism since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, I wondered if we had got our destination wrong. Then I saw the pool, a vast infinity number that seemingly merged into a paddy field, and all worries evaporated.
It is the selling point of the Alila Diwa, one of the many plush resorts that have popped up in southern Goa, away from the hippies who are said to stalk the north of the state.
Actually, it was one of the many selling points of the Alila Diwa, but let me catch my breath. The other ones were: it’s as swish as it is reasonably priced; the giant beds and baths; the four restaurants; the fact that it was really quite big and yet felt ridiculously intimate.
I liked the staff, most of whom are from the local village of Majorda, because they weren’t too fawning or overattentive — such as the in-house yoga teacher, who told me that I needed to “pull” my “weight down”. He was no-nonsense and fun and I saw him every day we were there. A week with him was about the price of a two-hour yoga class at home, and a whole lot better. Ditto the treatments in the spa, where they used fresh, natural, local ingredients to exfoliate and pummel. Holly took advantage of the option to accompany the senior chef, Eida, to the market, where they bought fish and cooked it together for our dinner.
While I spent my days reading and being massaged, Holly continued to look for adventures, all of which were organised by the smiling Alila staff. She went to a spice plantation and came back stinking of cardamom and nutmeg and cinnamon, and raving about the smell of split-in-half vanilla pods. She gallivanted off to Old Goa, returning with tales of Catholic churches and Hindu temples and a city abandoned in the 16th century due to outbreaks of plague and cholera. It sounded terribly romantic, but I had another massage appointment to get to.
It was time to move on. We were going — gasp! — north, to where the hippies supposedly were. Would we find any?
Our destination was a place called Elsewhere. Somewhere on Mandrem beach, apparently, but precious little other information was given to us when we called to book one of its beach houses for a few days.
Owned by fashion photographer Denzil Sequeira, who hails from Mumbai, Elsewhere has been in his family since 1886, when his great-grandfather, Anjelo Zeferino Sequeira, bought 80,000 sq m of land on a beach wedged between a creek and the Arabian Sea. Since then, four magnificent Portuguese beach houses have been built, and Denzil has added three luxurious tents.
Elsewhere is now an idyllic escape for those in the know, never advertised and no address given.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are said to have stayed here, attracted by its remoteness and discretion. Barbara, a former Pan Am air hostess who now runs the joint with Denzil, told us where to take a taxi to. On a dirty coastal road, we were met by a young man bearing a sign that read “Take Me Elsewhere”.
We walked to the edge of the creek, where we crossed a rickety bamboo bridge. On the other side there were coconut trees and there was beach — oodles of it. Barbara took us to the “dining shack” — a giant canvas awning, where we sat on antique furniture and pushed our toes around in the sand. She ordered us freshly made omelettes and we listened to her tales of turtles hatching on the beach.
The omelettes were fluffy and worth the wait (as was all the food — made from scratch with only local ingredients). The five-minute walk to the house took us past pine trees and the bones of a whale that had washed up on the beach a few years previously. Once we got to the Bakery — you can also stay in the Piggery or the Priest’s House — we almost cried. It was basic but beautiful, all whitewashed walls and guidebooks detailing the local wildlife. We sat on our porch drinking local beer and watching a kingfisher flutter around a hammock before the sun went down.
In the distance, we could just about make out the thump of trance music from a bar. There were hippies nearby, we were sure of it, but they could have been on a different planet for all we cared.
— The Sunday Telegraph
• For more details about Alila Diwa Goa and Elsewhere.