Sunday, July 3, 2016

Into the Woods - Wild Woods Spa & Resort

It’s now the hot summer months when all you feel like doing is getting away. Truth be told, Goa offers exemplary hospitality, but all of it comes at a higher price when compared to other parts of the country. It’s the pinch that comes with being a top tourist destination. So how about going a bit further and discovering a real hideaway? Wild Woods Spa and Resort in Karnataka is the perfect spot.
This is what a nature resort truly looks like – none of your small herb gardens and tiny tree clusters scattered on parched lawns. Wild Woods Spa and Resort is almost a jungle hideaway. Guests are so tied in with nature that it feels almost like it’s just you and the Earth, yet with most luxuries thrown in – down to your private plunge pool.
There is something very down-to-earth and passionate about K P Shetty, the owner of Wild Woods Spa and Resort. Closely involved with everything that happens on site, he makes the 500km drive from where he lives in Bangalore to the hotel as nonchalantly as we would from Panaji to Margao. It is his immense love for nature – both flora and fauna – that is apparent throughout.
The villa

A narrow, tree-covered road awaits you as you leave the dust of Baindur town on the highway and head towards Toodalli village. The foliage is thick and almost impenetrable. It’s an excellent preview of the Wild Woods Spa and Resort.
The resort itself is hidden by a wooded blanket of dozens of varieties of trees, shrubs and plants that are home to an astounding variety of insects, birds and animals. The 20-odd acre property spills across the tiny village road, one side constructed earlier than the other. A recent flood did considerable damage to the older property, but Shetty has resurrected it to excellent condition with no tell-tale signs of damage whatsoever.

The Accommodation
In the old property, eight Bamboo and Stone Cottages are the two categories available for guests. From the outside, both are very reminiscent of Balinese architecture, built of mud, stone and local bamboo.
The former incorporate bamboo rafters, mud plaster and matted cane ceilings with adjoining flower gardens and individual riverside decks. The Stone Cottages too face the river and offer majestic views of the green village fields nearby and the hills in the distance.
The new property is more regal, featuring 15 luxury villas, including one sprawling four-bedroom residence. All are connected to a common walkway shaded from the weather by a carpet of Mysore trumpet vines, a dazzling red and yellow creeper flower that exudes sweet nectar each morning. Each features a backyard with a sturdy jhola overlooking a private plunge pool along with flowering plants and trees to create a luxurious home during the span of your stay.
To ensure you don’t leave behind the luxury of the city, there is hot and cold water, rain showers, LCD television with satellite network and four-poster beds that are almost impossible to get out of.

As nature resorts go, Wild Woods Spa and Resort takes its role of providing natural, wholesome meals quite seriously. With the price of food incorporated into the room rate, it’s a real steal. Baindur will offer the town’s specialties and spin-off versions of Continental food might be a rare find in the town, but living at Wild Woods will ensure you step no further than its Aroma Restaurant for all things delectable.
It specialises in the local and that’s the best way to enjoy your stay. The chefs are well-connected with the roots of local tradition, and harvest the best on offer from the village nearby and indeed, from the farm itself.
The variety of food is both tantalising and eye-opening to those unfamiliar with it. There’s everything from the usual chicken ghee roast, Mangalore fish curry and neer dosa, to jackfruit idli and dosa, wild mushroom curry, bamboo shoot curry and more. Meals include breakfast, lunch and dinner with tea and snacks in the evening. There’s not much more you can ask for.

Even though it seems hidden away from civilisation, there’s so much to do at Wild Woods Spa and Resort. For those not inclined to much physical activity, the resort arranges short trips to nearby beaches, each one with a more spectacular view than the one before.
There’s Malpe near Udupi, Someshwara, Maravanthe, Apsarakonda and the more popular Gokarna beach not too far off. A short distance away is also Murudeshwar beach with its giant statue of a meditative Shiva seated at the edge of the sea.
Bicycles are available for short runs through the serene villages nearby. The staff is also happy to provide you with fishing poles, should you wish to spend some time on the banks of the Kosalli river that encircles the resort. However, fishing is only permitted in certain zones to maintain the river’s ecological balance.
Soon after the monsoons, the river is an excellent place to hone your kayaking skills while enjoying the freshness of the air. A common pool gives you the option of wallowing in man-made luxury should you prefer that over the chill of the fresh river water. And the ever-willing staff will never tire of finding it in them to take you on nature walks or treks to the nearby waterfall.
Tranquility at a nearby beach

Spa & Sports
Wild Woods Spa & Resort is made for everyone who enjoys a connect with health and nature. It currently houses a cosy spa offering a variety of therapies, but is also working on a sprawling wellness centre that will help propel the property into a health resort as well.
Well-trained masseurs offer ancient ayurvedic treatment therapies that work wonders on the body and mind, enhanced by the tranquillity of the resort. Other than the abhyangam and shirodhara therapies, there are a host of other ayurvedic offerings. There’s the option of trying out the Thai treatments such as shiatsu and the Thai foot massage.
The day spa also offers Balinese body massages, aroma therapy, head massages, mud baths, hot stone therapies and a variety of salon treatments including manicures, pedicures and facials.
For those who’d like an invigorating start to their day, the club house – located on the floor above the reception – has a host of board and indoor games including darts, carom and chess, and even indoor archery.
Owner Shetty has extensive plans of adding a well-stocked library, audio-visual room for movies, gym and sauna to the works. The new spa centre is his latest focus, from hand-picking antique doors, columns and furniture to ensuring everything is as a guest would want it to be.
Natural fish spa!

The Experience
It started from the outset – the hospitality and warmth was brimming over. Owner K P Shetty was on hand throughout to offer an interesting story, point out a striking plant or bird and offer a bit of trivia. In fact, he is part of the experience of staying at Wild Woods Spa and Resort.
We arrived in the heat of the afternoon, to be welcomed by two revitalising glasses of delicious cucumber juice and sesame seed juice. Off-beat though they may seem, they set the tone for everything to follow at the resort – different but refreshingly enjoyable.
We were ushered to Villa 6, an expansive one-bedroom accommodation with separate living and dining area. A large four poster bed was filled with a very enticing mattress and pillows. The front and back porches and bedroom veranda offered cosy nooks from where to enjoy a book or simply soak in the sounds of nature.
Throughout the stay, food was unending and sumptuous. The preparations were local and completely devoid of city slick. Organic meat and veggies from the nearby village, herbs and fruit from the garden formed the dishes we ate every day. Shetty was on hand at every meal, explaining the ingredients and the stories behind the traditions. There was multi-vitamin chutney and green idlis steamed in rare hibiscus leaves grown on the property, juices from local plants and fruit, and a mind-boggling variety of goodness on every plate.
There were walks through the sprawling property, seeking out the hundreds of varieties of plants and trees he has brought in from around the world. An old yoga centre, lying covered in the tendrils of Mysore trumpet vines, seemed right out of a movie and the variety in the orchid and cactus gardens was a sight to behold.
To work off the delicious food, we went kayaking down the river and played a few games of badminton on the shady outdoor court. Day trips took us to see the beautiful beaches in the vicinity and marvel at the confluence of the Arabian Sea and Netravati river at Someshwara.

As the sun set, our feet took pleasure in the delightful nibbles of riverine fauna with the free-for-all fish pedicure, made picture perfect with a park bench in the clear shallow water as the forest accosted the river bank on the other side. And as if by magic, a pair of Malabar giant squirrels scampered noisily across the tree tops as if to entice us back once more. 

First published in VIVA GOA magazine in April 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Up the creek with a paddle: Kayaking in Goa

It was 7am and the clear sky only bore the wisps of a few clouds. The sea was a rippling sheet of turbid saltiness, eight kayaks waiting on the shore to cleave through. 

We set off from Bambolim beach, not without a fairly wet start. A little rocking sends the kayak toppling over and it’s a fair feat for an eight-year-old to jump back in when his feet can’t touch the ocean floor.

Kayaking on flat(ish) water is easy enough when you get the strokes right and set yourself into a rhythm. The shore slowly begins receding and not long after comes the exciting but terrifying reality that the seabed is far below you and any number of marine creatures swim in between.

We headed inland, up the yawning mouth of the Zuari river. Ashwin Tombat, of Adventure Breaks, paddled alongside like it was a walk in the park, alternately whizzing up ahead to spot rocks and dropping behind to chat up the ones with kids in tow. Here and there, a dozen fishermen sat quietly in single manned canoes, dropping lines beneath the murky surface. There would be fresh fish for lunch in Bambolim village.

At what we imagined was a decent pace, we approached Siridao beach. The rocky outcrop with a dome-shaped chapel jutted into the river like a thorn in its side, the odd man-made plastering of the laterite hill-face a sore reminder of how far we have gone to deface Goa’s beauty.

A lone coconut tree stood sentinel at the edge of the outcrop. We sneaked past some rather dangerous-looking rocks with a few small eddys to emerge onto calmer water on the other side. Slowly, crevices formed by falling boulders made themselves visible along the shoreline. It was early and not a human was in sight – other than us of course.

The water appeared calm on the surface, but surely enough the tide was pulling us along. Trees and shrubs of all sorts hugged the rocky banks. All too often, tiny fish fled the looming shadows of our kayaks, skipping as high up above the water as they could to stay ‘out of sight’ of what they probably assumed was a very large fish.

Soon, we came upon the laterite ruins of some centuries-old pier. Was it possible that we were upon the site of the prosperous ancient Kadamba port of Govapuri? Suddenly, the scene changes. A bustling port emerges, with large wooden ships alongside, fishermen and soldiers knocking elbows in haste, children screaming as the chase each other barefoot.

The scene changes once more. Thunderous clouds gather in the sky. There is a clash of swords and shouts of commands as the Adilshahs of Bijapur take over the port now under the control of the Vijayanagara empire. The pier buckles and sinks to the sea floor, taking with it my day dream.

We are now five kilometres away from where we started, and beach our kayaks on a sandy stretch only accessible by water. It’s a short walk to the bend, around which lies the river heading up further inland towards civilisation. There is talk about rampant construction, birds, and fresh water crocodiles.

It’s time to turn back. It is harder to paddle now, against the tide, arms and shoulders straining against the river. As we turn around the bend at Siridao, I nearly fall off my kayak in excitement. There’s a puffing sound and the wash of disturbed water, the distinct signs of marine mammals nearby. A pod of dolphins is barely metres away! We sit in silence, pointing vigorously each time one of us spots them break the surface as they feed.

As the dolphins move on, so do we. Eight kayaks with eight hungry people head back to shore for a delicious brunch of omelettes and chouri├žo.

First published in The Navhind Times on February 06:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The South Indian Adventures of Sweet Brown

We had no plan, just a goal to reach Kodaikanal and spend a few days there. Early one Monday morning, a black VW Polo with two and a boot full of randomness set a south-bound course. Destination 1 – Manipal.
The seven-hour drive was hot, flat and as it turned out fairly boring compared to what was to come. Over the next two days, the service apartment witnessed grilled cheese sandwiches, Pictionary and Taboo battles and a decent bit of lazing around. It was humid around Manipal Lake but quiet and relaxing. The Museum of Anatomy and Physiology (MAP) was quite the eye opener with its embalmed human body, baby Cyclops and strange but true disfigurations.
Over the next eight days, we picked our way across a small section of south India to places we never imagined we’d go. Each time we planted ourselves somewhere, we’d find a host of things to do that we mostly never ended up doing, but had fun anyway. The drive, however, was fantastic! 
Manipal to Kudremukh kicked off routes through forested area and miles upon miles of breath-taking views. We passed through Kudremukh National Park which is home to a number of species of wild animals, a horse-shaped mountain which gives the place its name, trekking routes and waterfalls.
Delicious pork and a campfire marked the night at Silent Valley Resort, and a trek uphill the following morning. We then drove just over a couple of hours to Chikmagalur. This time, the car wound its way through the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, part of Project Tiger, and the site of the sacred Baba Budan Giri Hill. There was no one else at Winter Green Resorts, so we got the pick of cabins at a discount and the largest bonfire we could manage.
The next morning, the Polo decided it was suffering from PMS – lights began blinking on the dashboard, and the music system involuntarily sent the volume rocketing to maximum. A trip to the town’s chaotic garage ended in a decision to switch the route from Coorg to Mysore, where there was a Volkswagen service centre.
It was a week before the famous Mysore Dussehra, which pulls in enormous crowds for the parade. The Royal Orchid was renovating its rooms and bumped us up from a standard to a deluxe, complete with bathtub, minibar and snacks. While Sweet Brown was getting her insides checked, we stole a trip to the Mysore Zoo, which houses a wonderful array of animals, birds, and reptiles over 157 acres.
Since the technicians said there was nothing they could do with Sweet Brown just then, we made our way through the Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks to Kotagiri, driving along the Nilgiri Ghat Roads with 36 hairpin bends with a whole lot of ‘oohs’ at the view. It was meant to be a single night’s stay, but with a room looking across tea plantations, it was impossible not to change our minds. So stay on we did, taking morning walks through waist-high bushes of fragrant tea and breathing in lungfulls of fresh mountain air.
Then, a week after we’d left home, we hit the road to Kodaikanal. We stayed outside the commercially over run town in Vattakanal. Our cottage was a hike up muddy pathways on a steep hill with the most magnificent view we’d seen so far. Bisons often graze in the darkness, adding an element of thrill, the danger only slightly muted by the presence of the guest house’s friendly dogs.
We made a night visit to City View to see the twinkling lights of Kodaikanal, paused at the deplorably touristic Coakers’ Walk and stood on the edge of the cliff at Echo Point. There were beef momos, carrot cake, pear jam and muffins in town; sweet corn on the cob, Maggi noodles, baby carrots and boiled eggs in our cottage on the hill. The views made the trip more than worth it.

On the way home, we stopped in Bangalore for a few days, and took a short trip to the hill station of Yelagiri. Sweet Brown made it back home after two weeks on the trot with two happy faces and a boot still full of randomness. 

First published in The Navhind Times on November 21, 2015