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The Goan dream of hermits and hermitage

The Taj created the destination but Goa is now a bigger phenomenon than anyone imagined

brunch Updated: Dec 18, 2017 18:33 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
vir sanghvi,goa,rude food
The chief selling point of the Taj Fort Aguada Resort & Spa in Goa is its location

I still remember when I first came to Goa: as a teenager in 1976. A girlfriend and I splashed out on a room at the Fort Aguada Beach Resort, then the only good hotel in the state and marvelled at how much of an adventure it seemed. There was only one Indian Airlines flight from Bombay to Goa. The airport was a shack and the drive to the hotel involved getting on to a ferry to cross a river and part of the route consisted of untarred kachcha roads.

The Aguada was then seen as a great folly. It had opened in 1974 (I think) as the first Taj resort. The then boss of the Taj group, Ajit Kerkar, was a Goan who had bumped into the Chief Minister of Goa on a plane. The Chief Minister had urged him to open a hotel in his state, saying that he believed that Goa had huge potential for tourism.

Kerkar agreed to visit Goa and spent several days driving around the state looking for a suitable location. Eventually he settled on a site next to a medieval fort (the Fort Aguada) which was near a prison (Aguada jail – it still exists). The Tatas would not invest in a faraway hotel located in a part of India that nobody visited so Kerkar set up a new company (Indian Resort Hotels), found other investors to join the Taj as co-owners and built the hotel anyway.

The restoration of the villas at The Aguada has preserved their 1980s air of comfort

It is fashionable now to say that it was an instant success but, in reality, it took the Aguada a full decade to turn a profit. Room rates were relatively low (which is how my girlfriend and I could afford it though we were both still at university) and airline connectivity was pathetic.

But the Taj stuck with its Goa dream. In 1980, with the Aguada still to turn a profit, it opened a second hotel, the Taj Holiday Village, next door. This was less fancy than the Aguada – the original plans called for no air-conditioning and no room service – and even cheaper.

Slowly, bit by bit, Goa began to turn around. The other hotel chains arrived: ITC managed Cidade de Goa and the Oberois managed the Bogmalo Resort. Flights increased. Bridges were built, eliminating the need for a ferry. Foreign tourists discovered the state.

By 1982, Goa’s fame had spread, and when India was due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decreed that the Commonwealth Prime Ministers would go for a retreat to Goa. Except that there was no hotel secure enough or good enough to host heads of governments. So the Taj was given a year to build a hotel-within-a-hotel.

The Taj chose to build several self-contained villas on the cliff overlooking the main property and the complex – called The Hermitage – was finally ready only a week before the Prime Ministers arrived. Mrs. Gandhi declared herself satisfied. So did Margaret Thatcher. And India’s honour was saved.

The Taj then opened the property to the public, making the Aguada the only hotel complex in India to have an all-villa option. Inevitably, the Hermitage became the preferred choice of millionaires over the New Year, when the Godrejs, the Pillais (among the original investors in Indian Resort Hotels), the Ambanis, the Mallyas and even Captain Satish Sharma, would each take over a Hermitage villa for the Christmas-Goa fortnight.

Lobster masala at the Taj Fort Aguada

The late 1980s and the 1990s were the heyday of the Aguada complex. Goa was glamorous and the Taj, having lost money on its resorts for years, suddenly began to rake it in. After all, it had created Goa as a tourist destination.

I went to Goa for New Year nearly every year for much of that period (though I could only afford the cheaper Holiday Village). There was something magical and special about the celebrations that spread out to the beaches; about the food cooked by such great chefs as Urbano Rego and Cyrus Todiwala; about the drives to shacks on the beaches; and the parties at pop-up restaurants where the likes of Remo Fernandes would perform.

Eventually, of course, other hotels opened, the jet-set moved away (i.e. more and more Indians began travelling abroad) and Goa went from being a glamorous destination to becoming the sort of place that appeared to exist only to service tourists. My guess is that the turning point was the decision of the then Civil Aviation minister, Madhavrao Scindia, in 1992/1993 to allow charter flights full of foreign tourists to land at Goa airport.

As tourists flooded into Goa, new hotels came up, entire villages were colonised to cater to Russian visitors (one estimate is that over a thousand charter flights full of Russians land in Goa every year). The streets around the hotels began to resemble such down-market Thai resort towns as Pattaya, filled with shops selling trinkets, T-shirts and tourist tat. The restaurants stopped serving real Goan food and offered pizzas and Paneer Makhani. And the slightly Portuguese ambience that had once made Goa seem different from the rest of India slowly vanished. But Goa (and India) benefitted from the huge foreign exchange earnings.

Last year, the Taj decided that the Aguada was due for a refurbishment. The fancy new hotels had made the original pioneer look tired. The group took a special interest in the Hermitage Villas, which had lost their air of exclusivity.

And so after a decade or more, I finally went back to the Aguada complex, scene of my teenage romances and my one-time regular haunt, lured by the idea of a revived Hermitage. The first thing I noticed was that the Fort Aguada now looks better than the Holiday Village – for years, the opposite was true. The rustic charms of the Village have faded and a hideous new building for the Caravela restaurant has altered the Village’s character.

The Aguada, however, has been spruced up, the food is good and service is excellent. The Hermitage Villas have not been greatly transformed. The Taj has chosen not to make them look like fancy 21st Century villas and the restoration has preserved their 1980s air of comfort.

Their chief selling point remains location. Perched on a cliff, they offer stunning views of the sea, the beach and acres and acres of forest. All of them have large gardens and it is hard to beat the experience of sitting in the gazebo at one of the villa gardens, eating Goan sausages for breakfast and looking out at what may well be the best view of any hotel in India. Hermitage guests need never go to the main Aguada building. The Taj will bring every service you may require to your villa: spa treatments, hair styling, garden barbecues, etc. The service is exemplary, attentive without being intrusive.

The view from Thalassa, Goa’s most famous stand-alone restaurant

It has become fashionable to regard Goa as a gourmet paradise, full of wonderful little restaurants. Some of those I went to were good enough, though many were not little. At Thalassa, Goa’s most famous stand-alone restaurant, at least 150 (if not more) guests sat down for Sunday lunch and many took selfies against the view of the sea, thrilled that they were at a destination restaurant. The owner, a charming lady from Corfu called Mariketty (with a name like that, you expect her to be from Cochin not Corfu), seemed unfazed by the crowd and played the welcoming hostess.

Ceviche, a popular seafood dish, is served at Antares

Next door, at Antares (also 150 covers!) the Australian chef Sarah Todd (you may have seen her on TV; she shot to fame on Masterchef Australia) served surprisingly ambitious food (ceviche, mushroom rillettes on papad, beef skewers etc.) to an admiring audience while Pankaj Gandhi, (who I remember from Delhi’s China Garden) managed the room with an eye for detail.

Chef Sarah Todd of Masterchef Australia fame serves surprisingly ambitious food at Antares, Goa

Totally different from these vast restaurants was Bomras, a small South East Asian place down the road from Aguada complex, run by a very nice Burmese expat called Bowmra Jap. The food here was the best I had in Goa: pork curry with tamarind, smoked tea leaf salad, astonishingly good suckling pig and a tomato salad that is so famous that it even appears on Ritu Dalma’s Delhi menu as “Bomras Tomato Salad”.

Was this the Goa I remembered? No, not really.

Today’s Goa is a full-on tourist destination, high on crowds, low on charm. But then I guess you could say that about every single holiday spot in India where unregulated development has wreaked havoc.

But the spirit of Goa – laidback, semi-inept and unhurried – is intact. The day I arrived, the journey from the airport to the hotel took nearly two hours, just as it had in the days of the ferry. They were building a new elevated road near Panjim and the jams were phenomenal. The next day, I gathered, the same journey took three to four hours and at least 200 people missed their flights, stuck in jams on their way to the airport. The following day, a crane being used for the construction collapsed and the main road had to be shut. More jams, more delays etc.

Street markets in Goa that sell trinkets, T-shirts and tourist tat (Shutterstock)

On the day I left the Chief Minister announced that construction of the elevated road would be halted till the end of the tourist season. They simply couldn’t figure out how to build a road and manage traffic at the same time.

Sadly nobody is doing anything about the airport, an overcrowded hellhole, badly designed and shamefully managed by two central government bodies, the Airport Authority and the CISF, with no concern for passengers’ comfort, time or convenience.

Goa may boom but the last memory visitors will have is of the Black Hole of Dabolim as the airport should be renamed. In its own way, it is a metaphor for tourism in India. The private sector created Goa as a destination. And the government and the public sector are doing their bit to damage it.

From HT Brunch, December 17, 2017

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First Published: Dec 16, 2017 21:05 IST