There are leopards in the jungle five feet from my door at Coco Shambhala, and whales in the ocean under my bedroom balcony. During my stay, the manager has a python crawling on his porch. I spot bright blue kingfishers taking a shortcut via my living room, black-faced langurs watch me from the trees, and a non-lethal snake slithers off the road as I walk in the adjacent village.
This south Maharashtra resort is located in Bhogave—a jungle settlement with a minuscule post office (code: 416523), a school and an anganwadi, a couple of stalls selling sundry items and a population of about a thousand. Its main attraction is a beach with half a dozen benches for viewing the sunset. A friendly villager who works at the hotel (the management’s social agenda includes employing as many locals as possible) leads me along narrow paths to meet his relatives and show me the sights—old wells that ensure the village never faces drought and a mysterious pond from within which a submerged Shivalingam used to lend out jewellery to poor villagers at the time of weddings. We immediately discuss a possible village heritage walk. It’s an occupational hazard. One thinks of everything in terms of tourism opportunities.
I tell myself to focus on just enjoying the paradisiacal Sindhudurg district. Best known for its historical forts, especially the Sindhudurg Fort—a massive island citadel built in the 1660s for the warrior king Shivaji—the district is a lot like neighbouring Goa; similar beaches, same sunny weather, fresh seafood cooked in the local Malwani style. But unlike Goa, the government here doesn’t want boozy beach shacks, and prefers the low-impact, high-quality sustainable tourism embodied by Coco Shambhala, which consists of a well-manicured hillside garden with red laterite stepped paths that connect four fancy villas.
A splendid design detail is the terrace-like semi-outdoorsy living pavilions, furnished with sofas, a classy bar, and a dining corner where gigantic ferns are daringly allowed space to grow (bringing the jungle virtually indoors). These open onto large private pools—with a 180-degree panoramic view of the ocean. The low villas appear to have grown out of the jungly hillside, but are—despite feeling solid to the touch—not permanent structures. They aren’t even set up with landline phones; each guest is handed a mobile pre-programmed with staff contacts so one can stay in touch with the hotel while down on the beach. When I stand there on Bhogave Beach with my feet in the spray, barely 200 metres away, I can just about spot the Mangalore-style red-tiled roofs of the resort among the palm trees.
The construction itself is a feat of imagination. British backpacker turned hotelier Giles Knapton fell in love with India and decided to move here 10 years ago to create a chain of optimum glamour hotels, of which this is the second. The first was in Goa and the next is coming up in Rajasthan. His approach to building is intuitive, he tells me, as he describes how he would hike in the jungles until he found this hill. Here, he would sit, listen to the ocean and observe nature until his mind conjured up these airy villas where the smallest of details—including the rustic wooden table coasters—were handcrafted locally. A keen interest in tropical architecture probably helped, so did the dedication of his team, which included 130 local labourers who built it. The staffers, from managers to chefs, are more like a joint family.
They treat guests like family too. Though extremely polite, they engage in easygoing chats about everything from sacred forests to dilapidated forts worth seeing nearby, besides sharing their own life stories. Within two minutes of arriving, I feel at home, taken well care of by mindful hosts and a pitcher of complimentary sangria.
Coco Shambhala seems to straddle ultra-luxury accommodation and unobtrusive village life—for example, local fishermen can offload their catch here at the hotel rather than travelling to a distant market. During the non-beachy monsoon season (when I visited), local string puppet artists are invited to entertain guests with their performances.
After a foot massage in the small spa—travel writers’ feet need to be treated well, I justify—I walk the three kilometres down the beach, past surreal rock formations, to explore the rather unknown 17th or 18th century Nivti fort. It stands on a steep headland like a magical mystery location out of The Lord of the Rings.
The beach offers few grub options apart from vada pao and masala omelettes at a stall, but the in-house dining experience features a carefully curated selection of Asian and Continental by a chef who’s worked at some of the finest Maldivian resorts. The breakfasts (included in the room rate) are virtual feasts with their abundance of handmade Goan pork sausages, Mumbai-style bhurji scrambles as well as wholesome sprouted salads and seasonal fruit platters.
Main courses have Mediterranean touches such as hummus, babaganouj, gazpacho, feta or couscous salads; samplings of Indian cuisines including Malabari and Bengali; as well as comfort food like daal chawal. I serendipitously discover that the kitchen staff is eager to explore off-menu local flavours too. They get a lady from the village to cook sumptuous Malwani meals for me each day. Spicy rawa-coated prawns, snapper curry laced with kokum, coconutty daal, roasted eggplants, tisre sukke—amazingly lightly fried clams, dry mutton, and rice rotis, served along with sol kadi (a kokum beverage). The Goan offerings are equally sublime with moelho, cafreal and the works. In some respects, Malwani cuisine resembles Goan cuisine but is a bit spicier, richer and more robust.
Each room also has its own wine cooler with Moet & Chandon champagnes, Maharashtrian wines, Indian craft beers, and a selection of single malts such as Laphroaig (all free if you book the all-inclusive package). As I digest my meals and snap open another chilled Bira, I quietly listen to the waves break and watch the clouds turn into purple candyfloss, and then slide into the infinity pool for an evening swim.
Location: Bhogave Beach, Near Parole village, Sindhudurg, Maharashtra.
Accommodation: There are four luxury villas on offer, each with a living area and two large bedrooms facing the sea, a bar, and an infinity pool.
Tariff: B&B packages start from ₹ 42,000 per day. All-inclusive rates with meals and free bar go up to ₹ 95,000 in high season.
Contact: +91-9372267182, +91-8550985232; cocoshambhala.com