Dark clouds, heavy with rain, grumble. Softly at first and then building to a crescendo, followed by flashes of lightning that bathe everything in electrifying clarity. When I look at my watch, it reads only 3 p.m. The wind has picked up and the waters of the Chapora River are choppy, slapping away at the two-person kayak I am in with my guide Navin.
“Do you guys generally go out in this kind of weather?” I ask Navin nervously, as we inch our way towards the middle of the river, the banks on either side now too obscured by the thick drops of rain pelting down.
“Don’t worry, these things almost never topple,” says Navin, with a reassuring smile, or so I imagine is the expression on his face, as I can’t see it from my perch at the rear of the kayak. I keep paddling, the salt of the backwaters now in my eyes, as the waves get higher. In a decade of visiting Goa, never have I had this kind of an experience.
For most mainstream travellers, their experience in the sunshine state has been limited to disembarking at Goa’s railway stations and then haggling with cabbies until they’re whisked away to the popular but narrow and rather crowded stretches on the coast. Lately though, there has been more interest in local getaways, which offer immersion rather than a fly-by. Consequently, the options in Goa today, especially inland, have expanded significantly, as I found out on a three-day visit to Aldona, a village in northern Goa’s Bardez taluka.
My destination was The Glass Villa, a property with names such as fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani and architect Sameep Padora behind it. Its new proprietor, Aditya Gupta, whose enterprise Rug Republic acquired the property in 2021, understands the value of immersion only too well. And it’s evident in almost every little bit of the villa—from the artwork hanging on the walls to the furniture and various bric-a-bracs—reflecting the rich history and culture of the place. Importantly, Aditya also stresses on the importance of sustainability when it comes to immersion.
“As important as aesthetics are in interiors, true immersion comes from authenticity that is sustainable,” he says. I catch a glimpse of exactly how he goes about marrying the two concepts on an early morning drive, as he makes a detour to see his furniture supplier. We land up at a yard that is crowded with what seems mostly like junk—doorframes, benches, easy chairs, garden gnomes, and many other bits-of-homes, in various states of dilapidation. Sourced locally, these pieces are restored and refurbished to new buyers’ specifications—a brilliant way to recycle and retain local flavour when it comes to decor.
Of course, ambience and appearance are far from the only immersive aspects of The Glass Villa. For those who want a bit of adventure and local interaction, there are a number of experiences that the management will be happy to point guests towards. Cycling Zens, a local outfit, offer up a host of activities that range from kayaking in the neighbouring mangroves to cycling tours of villages nearby.
I start my steeping in local culture with a cycling tour of the villages of Salvador de Mundo, Chorao and Divar and Pomburpa. We use electric bicycles, so it’s a fairly easy ride that allows me to take in the surrounds at leisure rather than be astonished at how unfit I really am. We pass by the Salvador de Mundo wetlands, a stretch that is usually thick with migratory birds in season, as I’m told by Jyoty from Cycling Zens. Winding lanes through the vaddos (villages) reveals local life as I’ve hardly ever seen in Goa. Bicycles are perhaps among the most inconspicuous modes of transport and doesn’t raise any eyebrows, even with the shyest of residents.
We pass churches, decades if not centuries-old homes built in Indo-Portuguese style, and I find out about unique customs that even my local friends have seldom heard of. For instance, one of the reasons the boundary walls of all houses in certain villages are built low is to allow easy access to the “guardian spirit” of the village. People believe a spirit roams the village streets after nightfall and so as to not impede his progress, all boundary walls are only about waist-high.
Breakfast is courtesy of The Glass Villa staff, who have thoughtfully packed in sandwiches, scrambled eggs and fruit. Riding around, electric power notwithstanding, is tiring stuff and we inhale the simple but filling morning fare under the shade of an old Banyan.
To enter Chorao and Divar Islands, we take a ferry across the Mapusa, and I find out that locals had insisted on not having a bridge replace this time-tested if a bit slow means of crossing over; unfettered access to the islands would be accompanied by the risk of over-tourism. Pedalling through the streets that snake across the islands, listening to calls of birds, I am grateful for the villagers’ sensible choice.
A break at Meenal Bar for a glass of chilled Urrak, the results of the first distillation of cashew liquor, takes us to a tiny terrace on the first floor of the establishment. The walls brim with artwork reflecting local life and shelves along the parapet have mason jars of all sizes, used back in the day to store grain, wine and other perishables. The proprietor joins us for a friendly chat, and fashions delicious cocktails of Urrak, lemonade, salt and a chilli split down the middle. “Urrak goes down very easy, so it’s often very difficult to keep track of how much you’ve had to drink. The chilli, while adding flavour, also keeps you aware with its sharp sting, especially when you’re draining the dregs,” he volunteers.
The sun is almost at the horizon, the dying light bathes everything in an ephemeral sepia tone. I float, weightless, across the pool and look out beyond the back wall of the property. The backwaters of Nachinola are speckled with the white of the few, early migrant birds and the neon pink of a temple spire. As I turn around, I find the scene I had been staring at reflected with crystal clear clarity on the glass façade of the villa. Apt name, then.
I’d spent the day lounging about The Glass Villa’s tastefully done ground floor. The living room has a sunken area perfect to entertain in or relax at with family or friends, while the reading room makes for a cosy nook where you can get lost in literature, ensconced by a wide variety of books stacked in shelves lining the walls. And if you so wish, the wood and glass partitions between the rooms can be drawn back to make for an enormous living space, good enough to host a small convention. Wherever you choose to indulge your appetite for indolence though, the view of the Moira River snaking past is a constant. I didn’t dare venture upstairs, where four luxuriously appointed bedrooms can lull you into delicious drowsiness within moments. I saved that delightful experience for later.
It’s exceedingly easy to give into sloth at The Glass Villa. I don’t have to do much save raise a finger or even just look around, for a member of the staff to magically appear. I don’t even realise when I’ve drifted off but when I wake up, my half-consumed drink has been refreshed, the book that had slipped out of my hand and fallen on the floor, carefully placed back. Even the music has been changed to soft, dulcet melodies.
Back to trying out local experiences, I venture out to the neighbouring village with local historian Amreen. As we make our way into little panchayat squares, past graveyards and churches, she explains the significance of many elements of village life, many of which are as informative as they are fascinating. From local legends to quirky customs and even long-standing agricultural practices, I learn more about Goa than a decade of visiting its sunny shores has taught me.
Dinner, I am informed once back at the villa, is scheduled at a pizzeria nearby. As I make my way to the backyard of what seems like just another Goan heritage property, I notice the oven. My hosts, Bruce Mascarenhas and his wife Scovia, welcome me with a table full of snacks. 500 Degrees is a recent addition to Aldona, having opened up during the pandemic years. The most unique thing about the dining experience is the fact that there’s only one table. My hosts chat with me, even as they go about prepping for the meal. Jazz wafts in through an open window, and the couple’s dogs and children, peek out from time to time, curious but too shy to say hello. Bruce and Scovia run the entire operation by themselves out of their home kitchen. The results, I realise once the pizzas arrive, are a far cry from what one would expect of a home setup. The dough is crisp and flaky, the cheese still bubbling and seasonal toppings make every bite a delight. Bruce likes to experiment, and even though I am apprehensive when I see pieces of local mango on a couple of slices (I respectfully disagree with those that claim to enjoy pineapple on pizza), once I dig in, the flavours are a revelation. Under the Konkan sky, in the backyard of a warm family home, it’s a dining experience unlike any other.
My final morning starts early, Aditya has invited me for a cruise by the Aldona mangroves. A couple of his friends from Goa join us for the ride. We speak about how things have changed in the state over the years and how, slowly but surely, the numbers of visitors inland have been going up. A sentiment everyone shares is the necessity of local involvement in this burgeoning tourism economy and ensuring sustainability. The vessel’s captain suddenly turns off the engine and we drift towards a seemingly nondescript bit of the mangroves. It’s when we’re a little closer that I realise the reason for the halt. A ‘marsh muggar’, a species of crocodile that has adapted to the salt water, is on the bank in full stretch, trying to soak up as much of the weak monsoon sun as possible. But we seemed to have disturbed the ancient predator, as it slinks into the water in a swift, smooth motion. Yet another experience that I didn’t quite expect in sunny Goa and a great way to wind up this little sojourn. The Glass Villa then, is an ideal getaway for pretty much every kind of traveller. Whether you want to spend days suspended in luxurious langour, soak up some local lore and culture, interact with friendly locals or go on adventures, it’s all served up on a platter. All you have to do is raise a finger.
Only the entire property, with four bedrooms, is available for booking, glassvillagoa.com
Samarpan Bhowmik is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Ever on the lookout for novel experiences, he believes the best way to travel is to do it slow. He hopes to hitchhike the length of South America one day.