x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Goa hotel where the Raj era resonates

The Vivenda dos Palhacos hotel, and the family of "Britishers" behind it, draw a quirky crowd to the Goan residence.

The Haywards' tuk tuk is one of the few features of the modern, frenetic world that is modern Goa to be represented at their establishment. Courtesy Vivenda dos Palhacos
The Haywards' tuk tuk is one of the few features of the modern, frenetic world that is modern Goa to be represented at their establishment. Courtesy Vivenda dos Palhacos

India has changed much since independence in 1947, but there is still one pocket of Goa that can lay claim to continue the wonderfully vivid and genial life enjoyed by British colonials in the heady days of the Raj.

Indeed, the Vivenda dos Palhaços tends to draw a quirky, slightly boisterous crowd of eccentrics and bon viveurs to the seven rooms of this traditionally styled Goan villa. Doing so, of course, is no coincidence when you meet Simon Hayward, the hotel's owner and one of the few "Britishers" who have "stayed on" in India, the country of his birth.

Simon is from the third generation to have carried the Hayward name across India, a tradition that began before the turn of the last century. It has been worn by a succession of notable businessmen, each of whom having maintained a true love for the subcontinent.

"My grandfather arrived first and lived in Calcutta, where my sister and I were born," says Hayward. "Dad spent many years there and we all had a roaring time. But those days are gone now, and there are only a few of us left - British who were born and brought up here. Most Westerners only stay for a couple of years, but for me, India remains my home."

This post-colonial upbringing had a lasting effect on the young Hayward and his siblings. They would spend their spring holidays fishing and golfing in Ooty - a Tamil hill station - watching their father's horses race in Calcutta, and would embark on hunting trips into the mountains and forests of Bengal.

"It was an extraordinary way to grow up, and I was very fortunate to be part of this lifestyle. And it helped to develop in me a true love of India. It felt extremely special each time I had to fly 5,000 miles or so back from England to India for the school holidays. And I always felt like I was going home," he says.

These memories resonate in the rooms and trinkets of the Vivenda. Occupying a comfortable patch in the central Goan village of Majorda, just a kilometre or so from the sea, the refined, traditional old compound comprises a larger Portuguese-style manor house and a smaller, Hindu property alongside.

The master bedroom, Konnagar, takes its name from the Hayward family's Calcutta residence on the banks of the Hooghli River. It also hosts an old four-poster bed and a balcony overlooking the front lawn. The large bathroom boasts a cast-iron bath tub saved from the Royal Bombay Yacht Club.

Alipore and Ballygunge are named after two of Calcutta's well-heeled suburbs, where the family also lived for some time. The former room looks out over a coconut plantation, while the latter is part of the Hindu annexe that was merged into the main property when the Haywards restored it eight years ago.

Other rooms are Ooty, which is self-contained at the heart of the villa and has its own courtyard and sitting room while Madras is an atmospheric twin room that has been decorated in a traditional style, with an outdoor bathroom.

However, for those looking for an especially memorable experience, Chanpara and The Chummery stand out.

Chanpara, named after the family's Bengal hunting lodge, is a huge, sturdy, air-conditioned tent in a garden of its own inside the coconut plantation. While especially comfortable and homely, the interior feels like a preserved museum exhibit that dates back from the Raj, with its four-poster bed, a thunder box - an early iteration of the mini-bar - and a beautiful, porcelain bathroom suite. A teak bureau, hefty drawers and period wardrobes add to its recreation of colonial country life.

Named after lodgings shared by like-minded bachelors, who would board together in the summer months while their wives and children were back at home, The Chummery is a self-contained cottage with its own terrace and small bathroom. Like all of Vivenda's rooms, it is furnished with a mixture of local materials and decorations, as well as those picked up by the family over the generations.

While the rooms are lavish and evocatively styled, it is the atmosphere crafted by Hayward and his sister Charlotte that makes staying at the Vivenda memorable.

"We don't advertise the property. Instead, we rely on word of mouth. And this really does seem to draw in some real characters to stay with us," explains Charlotte.

While we are there, a noted Bostonian architect accompanied by his Tibetan ward are in residence. "I sponsored Tensing, who grew up in a refugee camp in Assam, when he was a young boy," says Charles Spada, who is also on a mission to visit every one of the abundant local furniture and craft shops. "We are here for a month to celebrate him graduating from teaching college."

Also present are a middle-aged English couple celebrating new-found romance, an Irish filmmaker, and a Scottish couple relaxing for a week after spending a month scouring every state in India. Koo Stark, once the girlfriend of the UK's Prince Andrew, was in residence with her retinue and was en route to meet the Dalai Lama in Bangalore.

Dinners are taken "en famille" at a sizeable courtyard table decorated with candles and accompanied by the snuffles and chirps of nearby wildlife. Alongside is a wonderfully fresh, ozone-cleansed pool under what feels like jungle canopy. Some diners choose to enjoy this between courses as something of an amuse-bouche.

The food, which is prepared by local Goan chefs, is delicious. Breakfasts can be as hearty as you like, with thick, chocolatey south Indian coffee specially prepared for the hotel; local fruits, home-made jams and eggs cooked by Simon himself.

At breakfast, guests are asked to opt in for dinner later in the day, so a suitable amount of meat and produce can be bought from market. Set menus can include steaks and local seafood, and the food is made to look as good as it tastes.

For those who prefer solitude and privacy, the Vivenda's communal bonhomie can be quite daunting, but its pleasant vibe and the genial nature of the guests quickly draw out the sociable side of even the most icy character. Charlotte and her brother are both natural raconteurs and radiate geniality as they tell stories of their unconventional upbringing.

Before supper, guests tend to gather at the bar, where the centrepiece is the brightly painted tailgate of a lorry that used to ferry bottles of the brew that bears the family's name to bars and restaurants across the country.

The Haywards brewery and distillery is now operated by an international conglomerate, but it was once owned by the family as part of its Indian business interests.

It was for his commercial nous that the late Sir Anthony Hayward was knighted. He also had the rights to import and distribute opium across the country, until the practice was outlawed in the 1950s.

His son Simon never expected to return to India, having left to pursue a career in advertising in Hong Kong and New Zealand; but now he has chosen Goa, he feels he will never leave.

Although very different in character to the India of his upbringing, Hayward and his sister have become an integral part of the local community, and have a thorough knowledge of its characters and "fixers".

This acceptance might well have come as a result of the honorary "person of Indian origin" status conferred on the pair by the government last year, in light of the family's services to its adopted country. Equally, it comes from the love and respect the family has given the local community of traders and workers who are well-supported by the hotel.

Modern India is checked in at the hotel's iron gates. At the Vivenda, a quieter, more traditional life is guaranteed, although the only thing missing is a fan-waving punkawallah - perhaps a sign of the times.

To see more of Vivenda Dos Palhaços, visit www.vivendagoa.com