Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Far Away Travel: India — Just Back from Goa and Exciting New Discoveries

I traveled to India recently, and after conducting research and interviews in Delhi and Jaipur and Chettinad and working on architecture/design photo shoots, I decided to take a few days break.

I had not been to Goa for some time, so I jumped on an IndiGo flight and headed to Panjim and the chic new private hotel, Ahilya-by-the-Sea. Perched at the exotic edge of the Arabian Sea on the west coast of India, Ahilya-by-the-Sea is a fascinating hotel discovery in an ultra-private beach location. The hotel, surrounded by lush frangipani-scented gardens, is a private residence with a rich and cosmopolitan back-story.

This week I’m taking you for a private visit to Ahilya-by-the-Sea. And to walk through two super-chic eighteenth-century Portuguese mansions/ private residences. Beautiful exclusive photos. Come with me. 

Ahilya-by-the-Sea is two residences and a fantastic treehouse.

Situated in central Goa, it’s perfectly placed to offer a privileged glimpse of Goa’s Portuguese palaces, and the vibrant culture.

Ahilya-by-the-Sea is directed by a friend of mine, Prince Richard Holkar, a cosmopolitan member of the Indore royal family, and a former Stanford grad. Richard is the legendary owner/director of Ahilya Fort, his chic hotel at his family’s fifteen-century fort and temple complex in Maheshwar, in central India.

On the palm-fringed southwest coast of Goa, lush green jungle stretches as far as the eye can see.

Goa is India’s smallest state, located south of Mumbai and a favorite winter escape for chic French and English travelers.

Goa is known for its tropical climate, rich, centuries-old Portuguese heritage (it was a Portuguese colony until 1961) and for miles of legendary beaches.

Ahilya-by-the-Sea stands high above Coco Beach, where dolphins frolic in early morning waves. The hotel is a series of three stone villas with quirky architectural details and a free-spirited air. 

Each room has sea views, and windows open to catch fresh breezes.

In Sunrise villa, a handsome nineteenth-century carved teak dining table is topped with a collection of Moroccan hand-painted turquoise pottery bowls. Goa’s rich trade-route history is recalled with blue and white Chinese export vases and large-scale Portuguese brass urns. In Sunset villa, a traditional teak chaise longue is covered in pillows with Turkish ikat silk and faded Balinese batiks. 

Bedroom suites are each individually decorated. One upstairs bedroom with a balcony overlooking an ancient Banyan tree is adorned with a grand pair of antique Venetian mirrors. In another, tall Chinese ceramic deities and Burmese lacquer trays animate a teak cabinet, while shelves of art books in the music suite invite guests to rest, ponder, and immerse in these museum-worthy collections.

Ahilya-by-the-Sea is owned by the legendary Leela Ellis, a New York resident whose family has lived in Goa for many generations. She was an Olympic sprinter representing India who traveled to New York to study. Her grandfather, Antonio Trindade, was Goa’s most famous painter, and known as the Rembrandt of Goa.

Now, fortunate guests can escape there, thanks to the inspiration of Ellis’s handsome son, Ari. New York-based, he is married to Sabrina Holkar, the daughter of Richard Holkar, a Stanford graduate (Class of 1967) and a member of a princely Indian family. 

Holkar, whose mother was American and whose father was the last Maharajah of Indore, grew up in Northern California. His unique French-infused cosmopolitan hospitality at Ahilya Fort has drawn praise from publications and guests around the world. Holkar’s fine-tuned sensibility is evident in the decision to keep the Goa hotel very residential.

“My vision of luxury is a calm, tranquil atmosphere, and a feeling of being at home, everything beautiful,” said Holkar.

Guests dine in the garden; bask in the sun beside two infinity pools. Discreet staffs offer fresh lime soda drinks or chilled Indian beer.

The architecture, with walls of terra cotta-colored hand-hewn local red laterite rock, is charmingly eccentric. 

For Private Family Gatherings or Friend Get-Togethers

Leela Ellis’s style at Ahilya is informed by her many years of travel in remote corners of Morocco, Bali, Mexico, and her life in Goa. In 2002, she inherited the landmark property, full of fragrance and promise. With just a handful of rooms and a very residential feeling, it’s perfect for a family group, a business retreat, a wedding party, or friends planning an adventure. Note that only guests are allowed on the property, so it’s truly private and secluded.

Ellis and her architect artfully achieved a centuries-old look using handcrafted Indo-Portuguese architectural details salvaged from deserted mansions and palaces. Guests love the bohemian chic of iron balcony railings, hand-carved Balinese doorways, teakwood stair banisters, vivid stained-glass archways, and old stone paved floors.

There’s a talented chef onsite, and dinners in the garden, lunch beside the pool, sunset drinks, and sunrise breakfast are timed for guests.

Portuguese antiques, Ivory Coast baskets, handwoven Indian cottons, and fascinating carvings of the region add texture. Noted Mumbai designer Loulou van Damme consulted on guest room décor.

With its relaxed air, the hotel is ideal for an anniversary celebration, a get-together for an extended family or a group of friends who want to spend time together. Staff is vigilant about privacy. Entry gates at the end of the long driveway are locked, and no visitors may enter.

Guests swim laps in the pools, read on shaded terraces, and linger over lunch of Indian dishes or grilled fish from the day’s catch.

To explore the region's beachside boutiques or craft and jewelry shops, the hotel offers expert drivers and specialist guides. Antique shopping, jewelry boutiques, lunch at Ashvem beach, a tour of the new Museum of Goa’s conceptual art are tempting. Or maybe not. Ahilya’s serenity and sea air and its perfect peace and tranquility are the real treasure.


Exploring Goa’s History and Heritage

From Ahilya, it’s just a two-hour drive north up the coast to Tiracol Fort on the border of Maharashtra state, stopping at Ashvem beach to see Jade Jagger’s beach shack and jewels.

And Panjim, with centuries-old Portuguese churches, is half-an-hour’s drive.

I headed south to Loutulim and Chandor (near Quepem) to visit two dramatic centuries-old villas, still owned by the original families. Built when Portuguese power and wealth were at their height, they feature quirky Goa-crafted furniture, Chinese export porcelains, murals, and a vivid sense of times past. Atmospheric.

The Discovery of Portuguese Heritage in Goa

I drove through the most charming hidden villages and towns in Northern and Southern Goa to seek out the jewels of Goan history. The house below, for example, a beauty I discovered by chance, is one of many hidden in along inland by-ways, far from beaches and the buzzy coast.

A beautifully restored private house I glimpsed in Assagao on my search for historic Portuguese-style residences in the region.

Goa is a treasury of handsome Portuguese-era architecture, and the town of Assagao and nearby villages are wonderfully sited to find surprises while also discovering jewelry studios, bakeries, cafés and fine art galleries.

Villa de Figueiredo
The Old Heritage Inn
Phone 082-277-7028. 
By appointment only.

The Braganza House
It’s in two parts. I recommend only the Menezes Braganza wing, which has theatrical ballrooms, shown here.

Phone 0832-278-4201
By appointment only.

I was fortunate to have private tours with the current owners of the historic Portuguese villas—which are in remote towns. If there’s a tour group present, wait until they go their way—and visit alone, experiencing the atmosphere, the air of desuetude. The Figueiredo villa is superbly maintained, and if you are extremely fortunate, the vibrant octogenarian owner, Maria Lourdes Figueiredo de Albuquerque will speak of her family, her bold life, and the collections.

Essential Guide to Stylish Goa

Fiona Caulfield’s updated and highly informative ‘Love Goa A Handbook for the Luxury Vagabond’ is the best and most up-to-date guide for hotels, villas to rent, restaurants, beaches, adventures, family activities, and spas and shopping.

In particular, Fiona’s Goa guidebook (I also recommend her ‘Love Jaipur’ and ‘Love Delhi’ handbooks) directs readers to the best beaches, private hideaways, cultural highlights, and insider events, fashion boutiques with unique made-in-Goa jewelry and beachwear, and philanthropic groups to contact.

Fiona Caulfield also lists the traditional Mapusa market, the festive Anjuna Flea Market, the colorful Saturday Night Market in Arpora (hand-crafted jewelry is a highlight) and where to buy books, Goa-made hammocks, and bakeries and tailors, cultural centers, yoga studios and even where to find Jade Jagger’s charming beach-side jewelry/fashion hut.

Order ‘Love Goa’ through your local bookshop or via Amazon.

Goa is a tiny green state, with about 67 miles of beaches, and rice paddies and palm jungles that shimmer with an emerald glow. The cuisine-Indian, French, Goan—is both modern and very traditional and authentic.

Best times to visit:
High season is Christmas/New Year, when British and French families take villas and invite all their friends. Weather is best from September—March. April –July is intensely hot and humid, and drenching tropic storms sweep through in July/August. Some hotels close from April-August. Check in advance.

Images of the two Portuguese residences by Diane Dorrans Saeks, exclusively published here.

Primary images of Ahilya-by-the-Sea, including interiors and vignettes are by Diane Dorrans Saeks.  Additional images provided by Ahilya-by-the-Sea.


columnist said...

Looks quite splendid. Can you recommend a tour/programme/travel company in India for Rajasthan (+Agra and including Udaipur)? There are many to choose from on the net, but first hand experience is always most welcome. We plan to visit in November.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


It is lovely to hear from you--you have been my dear reader for seven years, since I first launched this blog.

TOUR GUIDES: I have been traveling in India since I was a student, and travel in India now is so much improved. I discovered the great INDIGO airline, new, and it is so chic and superbly managed, lovely crew, always on time, very professional. If you can request INDIGO flights…that would make you happy.
1. Check with a travel company based in Delhi called Banyan Tree. TOURS AND TRAVEL…they are in 8 cities in India and I have met some of the top execs and specialists. I'm most impressed and I know many of the top hotels work with them…
Contact Us

Banyan has its own offices in Delhi, Jaipur, Bombay, Cochin, Goa, Calcutta and Chennai - as well as international office in Thimpu (Bhutan).

For information or enquiries, please email info@banyantours.com.

Full office details:

New Delhi (Gurgaon) - Head Office
Banyan Tours & Travels Pvt Ltd, 903-904,
Vatika City Point, Sector 25, MG Road,
Gurgaon - 122002, India.
Main Telephone line: +91-124-4563800
Fax: +91-124-4563801

Speak to one of the top execs and by all means tell them that I proposed you speak to them. October is a very nice time in India…would be lovely in Goa…keep me posted on what you discover and what you decide and perhaps I can help you tweak it…you will love India…it is entrancing and fantastic and so exciting…people are delightful and lovely. happy travels and discoveries. keep me posted--DIANE

columnist said...

Dear Diane
Thank you so much. I will contact them and let you know how I get on, and perhaps have resumed my blogging by then! C

Annie Morhauser said...

Thank you Diane for this delicious view of Goa