Most travellers on the Mumbai-Nashik highway don’t give more than a passing glance to the unmarked exit that connects to a crumbly road leading to Sakhroli village. Even while driving through, there doesn’t seem to be much beyond a few open fields, billboards advertising resorts several kilometres away, shops, and the occasional tree. However, a couple of kilometres along the winding road, a gate with conspicuous foliage catches the eye. A closer look reveals a small mud tablet with three barely-legible words inscribed. The sound of a stream can be heard as it swishes quietly under a little bridge ahead. What lies beyond is an oasis of leaves and branches that, a few minutes ago, seemed impossible to find in the barren landscape. Hidden Village is true to its name. Owner Tony D’Souza’s pet project, to create, in his words, “a place to forget about the city and just chill”, started in 2004 when he bought a patch of barren land and set about turning it into a forested retreat. Eleven years on, tall, leafy trees overlook little cottages and tents, and routes charted by bamboo fences. Ducks, geese, and chickens with a license to roam free strut about in organised lines; the hens shepherd the chicks as they search for treasures in the mud. Marathi songs softly play from a radio inside a thatched-roof kitchen and dining area. The rural illusion is compelling. Only a few oddly-placed electrical appliances betray the fact that this is a hotel.
Further inside, the sounds of laughter and splashes emerge from a large, unconventional swimming pool (it’s actually a cement-bottomed water tank) that is fed by fresh water from a perennial stream. It’s a colourful world far removed from the highway traffic that is just a few hundred metres away. There’s little distraction apart from a couple of quiet walks and a carom board. Rest and relaxation are rather unavoidable.
A stay at Hidden Village brings the bustle of city life to a grinding halt. The quiet four-acre property is cooled, even in the summer, by the abundant foliage. Most visitors will find comfort in relaxing on the front porch of their cottages drinking tea from earthen cups. The swimming pool, fed by fresh water, is well maintained. Fallen leaves may mislead some into thinking the pool isn’t clean, but that isn’t the case. A little away from the swimming pool is another small water body inhabited by tiny fish that conduct impromptu pedicures on feet dipped inside it. The games room has a carom board, billiards, table-tennis, and a fussball table. There’s a separate play area for children with swings, slides and merry-go-rounds. A large animal pen near the entrance has rabbits and goats that can be petted and fed, as well as scores of chicken, geese, and ducks.
Hidden Village is just off the Mumbai-Nashik highway, so there isn’t too much to see or do. Visitors can take an evening walk along a dirt trail to a nearby lake, to sit on rocks, and watch the sun set. The hotel organises a local guide to take visitors for a trek to the Mahuli fort nearby. Most visitors usually don’t trek for longer than a couple of hours to get a glimpse of Tansa Lake, but enthusiasts can venture out further into the rocky terrain for a longer outing.
Visitors to the Hidden Village can choose between a quick day trip or longer stay. The accommodation options are the same for both (97020 55792/98671 55792; www.hiddenvillage.in).
Those on a budget can forgo the luxury of a bed to stay in crawl-in tents for two. They are reasonably spacious, with clean mattresses on the floor, a small table fan and reading light. Larger groups can book the entire ‘camp house’, a set of four tents packed together, that look like a strangely modern Native American campsite. The tents surround a large, sheltered sitting area, which is secluded from the rest of the property, and seems like a place where a large family could have a lot of fun. It has a hygienic shared bathroom (Camp House accommodates 8-12 people; Rs 1,7833 per head for overnight stay; Rs 900 for day trip).
There are nine kinds of cottages spread across Hidden Village, each with its own design. The Crest, Hill, and Patil Houses are spacious, and designed with little sit-outs and interconnected rooms for larger groups (doubles Rs 3,8570-4,025). There are three honeymoon suites, Fern House, Forest House and Exotic House, that are strictly for couples (no kids allowed). These have a private entrance to the swimming pool and are fitted with ambient lights and hot tubs (doubles Rs 5,313). Cupid House, Cabin House and Venus House are larger and can accommodate more than one couple(doubles ₹5500-6300; ₹3000-3500 for day trip).
All prices include accommodation, meals, and all activities, except payment for the trekking guide, which is at the visitors’ discretion. No charge for children below 4. Half price for children aged 4-12.
Food at the Hidden Village is a simple affair. It is cooked by local villagers, and is an understated buffet of vegetables, dals, rice, and one non-vegetarian dish (chicken, and occasionally fish). The spread is served in large metal pots and laid out in a sheltered dining area where visitors can help themselves. Meal timings are strict, and latecomers make do with a cold meal. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the dining area, while tea and an evening snack are served to guests at their tents or cottages. Special requests for food can be made, but are subject to ingredients being available and the cooks knowing how to make it. Barbecue equipment is also available on request.
In addition to providing a quiet escape for city dwellers, Hidden Village is a platform to restore the bruised environment and provide employment for local villagers. The area used to be a forest, filled with trees and interesting animal and birdlife, before being ravaged by hunting and deforestation. The locals, often strapped for cash, resorted to selling firewood to traders to make ends meet. With the Hidden Village as a starting point, owner Tony D’Souza hopes to restore the local ecosystem to the way it once was, by slowly rebuilding the forest, improving the locals’ quality of life, and educating them about environmental conservation.
The Hidden Village is outside Mumbai’s city limits, off the Mumbai-Nashik highway, around 80 km from Panvel.
Rail Atgaon station is the closest railhead to the Hidden Village, and is around 3 km away. It is on the northeast section of Mumbai’s Central railway line, between Asangaon and Khardi. Trains originating from Kalyan, going towards Kasara halt at Atagon. From the station, visitors can either walk to the property (around 20-25 minutes) or take a rickshaw (prices vary widely).
Road The Hidden Village is around 80-100 km (around 2 hours) from Mumbai, depending on which part you leave from, along the Mumbai-Nashik highway. Take the exit towards Tansa Dam (or Atgaon) 6 km ahead of Shahapur. There are no signboards leading to the property. Follow the road past Atgaon towards Sakhroli village for around 10 minutes, while keeping an eye out for an entrance with parked cars, bamboo fences, and foliage on your left. It is around 2 km before Sakhroli.
Being on Mumbai’s outskirts, the weather at the Hidden Village is almost identical to the city, with hot summers, heavy rains during the monsoon, and pleasant winters. Once inside, the temperature drops by a few degrees thanks to the abundant greenery.
The closest general store is around 3 km away near Atgaon station. Stock up on snacks and supplies if needed. The Hidden Village is usually fully booked weeks in advance, so it’s a good idea to make reservations at least a month ahead for an overnight stay, especially for the cottages.
Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Hidden Village”.