On the day we arrived in Panjim, I was having lunch in a Portuguese restaurant when I met a couple from Cambridge in the UK. They had been in Goa for several weeks and I asked them if they could recommend any good places to stay. They talked enthusiastically about a place they’d been to recently called Olaulim Backyards. It was a homestay, located inland they said, away from the more crowded coastal fringe. They described it as a quiet retreat and a natural haven where they were able to relax and feel like they’d really gotten away from it all.
The next day we made our way to Olaulim Backyards in a taxi. It was situated in the Goan backwaters near the small village of Olaulim, 14 kilometres north east of Panjim. On the way, we got to appreciate a little more of the Goan countryside. Rural Goa is made up of waterways, open grassy spaces, rice paddies, small quiet villages and groves of the ubiquitous coconut palm. The region is a sanctuary for bird life and the waterways are popular spots for fishing. The tropical climate means it’s hot and muggy throughout the day but generally warm and pleasant at night.
Olaulim Backyards is owned and run by Savio, a native of Goa, and his wife Pirkko, who is originally from Finland. They have lived on the property for many years with their two children and numerous pets and in 2010 decided to turn their property into a homestay. They began by building three guest cottages, and have since added another two. When we arrived, Savio and Pirkko were there to greet us. We enjoyed a welcome drink and a chat while a local lad who works for them delivered our bags to our cottage.
It was immediately clear that Savio and Pirkko were laid-back and relaxed, in keeping with the style of the accommodation and the overall experience their homestay was designed to induce. They clearly enjoyed interacting with guests yet in no way felt imposing. Being Goan, Savio is a wealth of information on local culture while Pirkko is a nature lover, quickly able to identify local birds or provide details about walks through the backwaters and surrounding villages.
The five guest cottages on the property were each unique, each one named after a variety of local bird and all built from local materials like coconut wood, rammed earth, palm leaves and bamboo. Some, like our cottage, were even built around natural outcrops of rock that act as decorative features inside the rooms. Each cottage has been constructed with an eco-conscious approach using reclaimed and environmentally-friendly materials, and solar panels have been used for heating the water. None of the cottages have TVs or WiFi, as a way of encouraging guests to connect more meaningfully with their surroundings. Being a warm climate, each cottage has been designed to make the most of the natural airflow with large screened openings below the roof at opposite ends of each building. The thought and consideration so obvious in the design of the cottages has achieved that special balance of allowing guests to feel connected with the nature around them while still providing a generous level of comfort.
Our cottage was, on our reckoning, the best of the lot. It was called Golden Oriole Cottage and was elevated above the rest of the grounds with a large balcony where we could sit and feel as if we were immersed in tropical jungle. The bed was incredibly comfortable and using the downstairs shower, with its open-air views of the landscape and abundant hot water, was a real delight.
The cottages were well spaced from each other and made private by the ample vegetation. From any cottage, it was only a short walk to the curvaceous and beautifully constructed swimming pool that we made use of several times each day. Next to the pool were two additional structures, an open-air bar and dining area, each designed for the tropics. Breakfast and sometimes lunch were provided each day and always consisted of delicious food prepared by local cooks. Mealtimes were a chance for guests to interact and Savio and Pirkko did a good job of encouraging interaction in a manner that was relaxed and unassuming.
The family has an odd collection of pets that roam around the property: a horse, a donkey called Mantra, several dogs of different sizes, a goat and some cats. Some of them had been rescued from the local region by Savio and Pirkko and given a new home. Although I wasn’t so sure about them when I arrived, I realised the animals really added to the overall feel of the place. Their free roaming yet welcome presence seemed to encourage relaxation and each of them, particularly the stubborn and mischievous Mantra, had a unique personality.
On one side of the property was a lagoon formed by overflow from the nearby Mandovi river. It was a natural sanctuary for a range of bird life as well as a rarely-sighted family of otters that we were lucky enough to see playing in the water one afternoon. Canoes and kayaks were available for exploring the lagoon or one could simply sit in the lounge chairs and experience the peace and tranquility of the tropical vista in front of them. In the evenings, it was common to see several local fisherman wade out into the lagoon, dragging long nets across its entire length to catch fish for their evening meal.
The extensive grounds were well shaded with lots of coconut palms as well as cashew nut and mango trees and various other species. One morning a man known for his skills in harvesting coconuts came to the property at Savio’s request. With nothing more than a band of rope around his ankles he shimmied high up each tree, unscrewed the coconuts from their stems and let them fall to the ground where another man collected them in a wheelbarrow. Some were used as a source of ingredients in the kitchen but most were sold or distributed locally.
On another day we saw cashew fruits being picked from a tree near the dining area. Each reddish-yellow fruit, sometimes called a cashew apple, contains a single cashew nut, attached to the outside of the fruit inside its own shell. It is a rather odd looking arrangement, but the nut is essentially the fruit’s seed. The large cashew tree seemed only sparsely populated with fruits and like all cashews, they had to be picked manually. The nuts are removed, dried and later roasted, a time-consuming process that is essential for making them edible. As was demonstrated one afternoon by another local man, the dried nuts can simply be thrown onto a fire for roasting. After ten minutes, the ashes are cleared so the nuts can be retrieved. Once their burnt shell is removed they are ready to eat.
Savio processes the juice from the cashew apples himself to make a sweet and rather astringent fruit drink which we could sample during breakfast each morning. He was also known to distill it into a traditional Goan alcoholic spirit known as Feni.
In total, we spent four nights at Olaulim Backyards. During that time Clare and I each took kayaks out on the lagoon and paddled the serene backwaters. We could go a considerable distance and barely see any signs of human habitation. Clare also went for long swims in the lagoon each day. It was probably no more than a metre deep but its waters were fresh and its bottom consisted of a silky mud that was known for its healing and restorative properties for the skin. We also swam in the pool, read our books, lazed in the sun and enjoyed a long walk around the lagoon and through the quiet streets of the surrounding villages. On most days we would borrow a scooter on the property and ride to a nearby village for lunch at a restaurant renowned for its excellent Western and Goan influenced menu.
Olaulim Backyards was definitely the accommodation highlight of our time in India. It gave us the opportunity to experience a quieter, more traditional Goa, away from the cities and beaches and immersed in a wonderful and unique natural environment.
Being so close to the sea, however, we couldn’t avoid spending at least a few days on the beach.
Benaulim Beach, South Goa
From Olaulim Backyards, it was over an hour by taxi to Benaulim Beach in south Goa where we would spend our final two nights. A place called Blue Corner had been recommended to us by Savio. It was a collection of beach huts and a restaurant located right on the sand only metres from the beach. According to Savio it was basic but relatively peaceful and quiet, at least when he and his family had last visited.
The taxi driver dropped us as close to the beach huts as possible, but it still meant walking a few hundred metres over hot sand to reach them. The huts were simple structures, built for the tropics, with bamboo walls and a roof lined with mats made of woven palm fronds. Each hut included a partitioned ensuite with toilet and shower and a double bed completely enclosed by a mosquito net.
A series of twelve or so huts, shaded by coconut palms, formed a horseshoe around an open courtyard of sand with a paved pathway leading past the restaurant to the beach. The restaurant itself served food and drinks all day and along with the site in general had a laid-back and somewhat disinterested style of service that would have benefited from some more professional stimulus. The food was average, but the seating area with its view of the water was a pleasant enough space to sit and write or watch the comings and goings of people swimming or taking walks.
There was a mix of other guests at Blue Corner, but most of them were European and the majority were middle aged or older. I was amazed by how long some of them would lie in the sun each day, stretched out on the sun lounges baking in the heat, usually with a beer at hand and seemingly oblivious to how sunburnt they were. Many of them came to these places for weeks or even months at a time.
The beach had an extensive covering of fine white sand that stretched as far as the eye could see in each direction. It was generally clean although the odd plastic water bottle or an empty crisps packet floating in the water reminded us that we were in a place frequented by tourists not always conscious about where they leave their rubbish.
The sea itself was incredibly warm, in fact I can’t recall ever swimming in waters quite so tropical. When submerged, there was no apparent difference in temperature between my neck and my toes. It was all the same and virtually identical to the temperature of the surrounding air. Yet still the breaking waves made it refreshing. Both of us would feel tiny stings on our bodies afterwards and Clare, who spent much longer in the water than me, developed a rash that took at least a week to disappear. We never found out exactly what had caused it and never saw anything in the water, although we suspect it was some kind of jellyfish.
Occasionally I would see someone parasailing, their small body barely visible in the air high over the sea, suspended in a harness beneath a parachute and being towed along by a speed boat. There were also several jet skis in the area, with their engines emitting a mosquito-like background drone that was hard to ignore.
On our first evening the intrusion on the peace and quiet of the beach became almost intolerably pronounced. A few hundred metres south of Blue Corner was a bar called The Southern Deck, that looked like it could have been designed for somewhere in rural Texas. Apparently it was a fairly new addition to Benaulim Beach and due to the lack of adequate policing along the beach fronts, the establishment had managed to stamp its brand of noisy late night bar culture onto what used to be a peaceful and natural environment. After sunset, the sound of a very loud cover band playing an obnoxious blend of American-style southern rock could be heard for miles around. Without consideration for its neighbours, the band played all evening until just before midnight, before being replaced by a DJ who continued until 3am.
The music blared through the thin walls of our beach hut and forced us to get up, get dressed and walk several hundred metres along the beach and into The Southern Deck to make a complaint to the manager. To our surprise the place was full not of white Western tourists, but Indians, although seemingly very Westernised Indians. People at Blue Corner said they were Goans, probably people who ran similar kinds of places on the northern beaches. Blue Corner had made numerous complaints in the past but, like our own complaint, they were acknowledged but went more or less unanswered.
For all these reasons, I didn’t much enjoy our stay on the beaches of Goa. They were certainly lovely beaches and swimming in the sea was a real joy, but the place’s charm had been spoilt by the intrusion of a one-dimensional party scene and the frivolous crowd of joy seekers that accompany it. In Goa, I can say with certainty that I preferred the backyards to the beaches.