Gokarna: Secret Stories by the Sea
After almost a year of being confined to Bengaluru’s city limits, the idea of a seaside sojourn felt life-changing. But this wasn’t going to be just any beach holiday. A few hours from Goa’s madding crowd is the coastal town of Gokarna in Karnataka. Gokarna has two very different identities. One, as an important destination for religious pilgrimage, courtesy the centuries-old Mahabaleshwar temple and the sacred Kotiteertha water tank. But no less significantly the temple town’s beautiful beaches have been attracting a steady stream of international as well as domestic tourists in the recent years.
It was against a pristine backdrop that we made our way from Goa airport to Gokarna, driving down the winding roads of the Western Ghats, past a naval base in Karwar, crossing the river Gangavalli and even a colourful village market enroute. Our destination was Kahani Paradise—a luxury boutique villa perched atop a cliff overlooking the milky-white Paradise beach, a hug and a cuddle away from the raging Arabian Sea. Three hours into our drive, the car went off road onto a stretch of dirt track that eventually led to a wooden gate flanked by domed kiosks. As we waited for the gates to be opened, our driver dramatically declared, “Sir, Madam…welcome to Kahani Paradise!” Already, a sense of adventure had set in.
On either side of the stoned pathway were beautiful gardens with a dizzying array of flowers, shrubs and trees—from banana to betel nut and coconut to cashew—a labour of love by UK-based landscape designer Sarah Syborn, as we learnt later. As we drove up to the main entrance, a cream-coloured building with a tiled roof came into view. Stepping over the threshold of a heavy antique wooden door, we were greeted with fresh coconut water and a panoramic view of the surrounding hills, the Aghanashini river and the Arabian sea holding hands in the distance. This mesmerising view took a moment to sink in. A reclaimed Nagamese spice mixing table caught our attention as we took note of the various objets d’art and antique pieces casually strewn across the open sitting room. A sea-green infinity pool one level down has been cleverly positioned to afford one a view of the sea and greenery around.
Flanking this building are a set of villas on one side and the dining area and kitchen on the other. With only six suites, each done in a different style but with the same sense of understated luxury, there’s a definite air of exclusivity to the place. London-based businessman Anthony Bellm, whose parents stumbled upon this slice of paradise while vacationing in India over a decade ago, narrated the story of Kahani Paradise over champagne and hors d’oeuvres later the same evening. Thirteen years in the making, the history of Kahani unfolded when his parents found a beautiful antique wooden door. “They wanted to build a house around that door,” says Bellm. Incidentally, the door didn’t end up gracing the entrance as intended originally; it now hinges on an under-construction building in the property that’ll house a spa, gym and screening room.
This 20-acre property had not much on or around it when the Bellms started constructing in 2005. From roads to electricity, everything was built from scratch. “It was intended to be a holiday home for the family, but we knew we couldn’t let it remain vacant for large parts of the year in this humid climate,” says Bellm, who ditched university in Paris to spend three years in Gokarna overseeing the work. In 2018, when they opened their doors to public, not surprisingly, majority of their guests were international tourists. It was only post the pandemic that domestic travellers began to discover Kahani. The Bellms’ love for nature and indigenous art and craft forms the foundation of Kahani. Bespoke textiles designed by Delhi-based designer Saloni Sharma of Design Isle and antique pieces sourced by Christine Rai of Indian Inc adorn every corner of the house. The entrance to each suite—even the bathrooms—is framed by antique doors sourced from Gujarat and Rajasthan. The rooms, albeit contemporary in feel, have been cleverly juxtaposed with period pieces sourced from India, Myanmar, Thailand, and Columbia. And it’s this attention to detail that stays with us. In the Panoramic suite, for instance, we stumble across an ancient trishul-shaped door latch (sourced from Kerala) on a nook in the wall. In the dining hall, a pair of almost life-size stallions stand guard in one corner. In the Peacock suite, where we had put up, propellers have been repurposed into a ceiling fan.
There’s enough to do on the property itself—from walking in the gardens where we spied strutting peacocks, to getting a massage while listening to birdsong. There’s also a tennis court and cricket pitch on the premises. On one of our meandering walks, we came across an open tank in the garden where the staff had recently organised a romantic dinner for a couple with a thousand candles arranged around the tank’s stepwell. For the more intrepid traveller, Kahani offers myriad experiences outside the property as well. A walk to the lighthouse and viewpoint from where one can see both Paradise and Half Moon beach is worth waking up early for. Enroute is the Belekan beach where we caught a ride on a local fishing boat to some of the other well-known beaches in the area—Om, Kudle, and Nirvana. If you choose to hop off at one of these beaches, there are shacks where one can get a meal, or if you are up for it, you can also trek from one beach to another along the cliffs. While we didn’t spot any dolphins during our rather choppy boatride, a fleet of flying fish did keep pace with us for a bit.
In accordance with social distancing norms, the efficient staff members form a WhatsApp group with each guest where one can communicate and place orders for meals. All meals are served on a communal dining table set in an open hall overlooking the hills and diverse flora. In our line of vision were few cashew trees that are known to attract packs of playful langurs. There’s a limited menu offering a mix of Indian and Western fare with chicken and seafood as the only non-vegetarian options. They are, however, open to winging it. Do ask for the homemade bread topped with avocado and cherry tomatoes or wild mushrooms). After tasting the excellent local-style fish and chicken curries, we opted for a quick cooking lesson where a local chef demonstrated a few easy recipes revealing secrets such as the citrusy-peppery teppal (Sichuan peppers) used in the coastal fish curry.
The best part of the property, however, has to be the Sunset Ridge. This hidden nook—a short walk or buggy ride from the villas—is set on the edge of a cliff directly overlooking Paradise beach. A plunge pool, a few deck chairs and a quaint little open hut lined with Tibetan prayer flags (sourced from one of Bellm’s trips to Ladakh) completes the space. On our last evening, we whiled away time watching the sun set on the Arabian Sea while sipping gin & tonic topped with fresh orange juice. Just when we thought it couldn’t get better, the sun set and the stars came out. Spying a shooting star, we made a quick wish for a return to Gokarna’s paradisiacal blues, in this gorgeous land of secret stories.
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