September 01, 2007

Deckchairs of the Kings

Two-and-a-half kilometres of beach all to myself. A waiter from the restaurant trudges across the sand, bearing provender. I’m in one of those long pool-chairs, under a thatch umbrella. The waves gambol in a few feet away. A fairly determined sort of breeze comes in from the west. A chap could get used to this.

I’m at the The Beach at Mandvi Palace. It sits in the middle of the 450 acres of mildly domesticated jungle that make up the backyard of Vijay Vilas, the summer retreat of the former rulers of Mandvi. Rajesh Singh, the manager, tells me that it in bygone years, when the family and guests came out for hunts and suchlike, tent camps would come up around the palace. Right now, it is the only privately owned beach in India, with the property extending right up to the waterline. I hear that the family has refused offers from various hospitality chains to take over and run the palace as a hotel.

The current head of the family, Pragmulji III, doesn’t live here—he divides his time between Bhuj and Bombay—but he has entrusted the running of this venture to his nephew, Paranjayaditya Parmar. And what the younger man has wrought is a pretty nifty get-away-from-it-all kind of place.

I didn’t get to meet him either, because he was off campaigning for the elections way over on the other side of Gujarat, but when we spoke, his enthusiasm for the place was evident. Seeing the tent resorts in touristy places, he decided that tents made better sense to start up with, rather built up structures, which require lots of paperwork. But he was determined to do it his way. Instead of using the available block-printed Rajasthani tents, he and his wife designed their own versions and got them made locally. The furniture and other modifications came from a similar ad hoc process.

There is accommodation for ten pairs of guests at the moment, so it works out to a comfortable 200 metres of beach per couple at peak occupancy, a ratio that I have only seen in one beach in Goa and one other nearer home. (And no, I’m not telling you where either of them are.) Well, I exaggerate; the place also takes in day trippers, charging them a fee for access to the beach, so it may not be as desert-islandish for you as it was for me. But since it’s an eight kilometre drive to Mandvi, which in turn is many miles away from the rest of the world, you’re not going to get Anjuna levels of madding crowd any time soon.

As of this writing, the camp consists of ten tents in a clearing, each sleeping two, a sand dune and a line of scrub and trees separating them from the beach and protecting them from the worst of the weather. Each one is set on its own concrete plinth, a little sit-out in the front, with a couple of dinky camel-leather deck chairs. The styling is reminiscent of royal expedition tents of yore; scalloped edges, carved finials atop the tent poles, awning over the entrance. One looks around automatically for men on horseback returning from the shikaar or from a battle.
A quibble: considering the vast acreage available, they’re set rather too close to each other, with the support ropes of neighbouring tents overlapping. Given canvas walls, it might get noisy when the place is fully booked.

The tents are triple-layered, a candy-striped inner tent, over that a thicker outer, and over it all, a waterproof roof. It keeps the rain out very well, and the lack of natural ventilation is more than compensated for with a high power air-conditioner.
Inside, a coir-carpeted floor, twin beds, bedside tables with a small storage space, carved wood chairs, and a writing table. The chairs are nice-looking, but, alas, not comfy for lazing around in. So I wound up spending most of my time indoors in bed. Lighting is a couple of lamps beside the beds. At the back, behind the flap, is a largish tiled, walled bathroom, its roof an extension of your tent. Electricity and water are on 24 hours.

Meals are delivered to your tent, or you can amble over to the thatched roof restaurant that looks out on to the beach. Speaking of the fodder, nothing to write home about. The restaurant claims to serve Indian, Continental and Chinese, and local specialities. I tried all of them, and was, well, unimpressed. Perhaps it was just me, all grouchy about the Gujarati preference for tea, which meant getting instant swill instead of real coffee. On the plus side, I must add: outside of a 5-star hotel, this is the only place where I’ve had decent scrambled eggs. The manager tells me they do a good barbeque. I decided not to test this—as the only guest, it seemed a bit selfish to get them to rig it all up just for me—but he also tells me that they happily customise the menu to suit guest preferences.

Overall, the place does itself a disservice with its branding: it calls itself a luxury beach camp, which raises expectations way too much. It is, no doubt, very comfortable (ACs and proper plumbing in the tent!, Woohoo!) and gives fair value for your rupee, but I have seen and paid for—or rather, this magazine paid for—luxury, and this falls short. Dismiss that claim and take the place for what it is, and you have a pretty unique getaway.

The service is excellent; polite, attentive, eager to cater to personal preferences, quick to acknowledge, and compensate for, shortcomings. And the location the location! Ah, my friend, the calm beauty of the place, the exclusivity, more than make up for any complaints a sour journalist can think up.

Item: A waiter making the long walk from the restaurant with a tray of tea and toast, waving out to you as you wallow in the blood-warm tide pool you have discovered, waiting patiently for you to get back and get dry to offer to pour a cuppa for you.

Item: A semi-tame nilgai (the staff fed it when it was injured, and it has stayed around ever since) attempting to snuffle the mosambi slice off your glass of fruit juice. And an almost-feral cat prowling around the restaurant periphery, not begging, just implying by her manner that she would perhaps, maybe, when she feels like it, find the time to help you get rid of some of that pesky food on your plate. You throw her a bone, she pounces on with alacrity, and carries it off to the undergrowth where she can eat undisturbed by commoners and dogs.

Item: A symphony putting you to sleep at night. The wind soughing through the trees and the murmur of waves layered over with a chorus of frogs singing bass serenades, crickets chirruping the high notes.

Item: A cloudless night. I sit alone on the beach. The faint glow of Mandvi off to the East, the moon sinking below the horizon to the West, and overhead, a dazzling array of stars, with the haze of the galactic disc cutting a broad swathe through it all.

Item: Dammit, I could go on and on. Let’s just say that the place is so relaxing that in the course of about 48 hours, despite around eight hours in the water, and sleeping in late, I unwound enough to write, sketch, finish two books and sip from a volume of poetry. I didn’t miss the internet—I’m a certifiable web junkie—and it never occurred to me to try the camel rides or horseback jungle walks on offer, or even to go visit the palace. And I’m an absolute sucker for old piles. I’m still kicking myself for that one; from the photographs I’ve seen, the palace is in excellent condition, and well worth a visit.

Parmar tells me, in one of our chats, that he is checking out the possibility of bringing in a few kayaks and other unpowered craft. And that there were changes afoot. he plans to build a spa resort in the property; 20 cottages, a pool, a bar.
Yes, you heard that right, a proper bar in dry Gujarat. Apparently the government has declared that of the state’s 1666-kilometre coastline, the 15km stretch around Mandvi is now a Special Entertainment Zone (which makes SEZ a far cheerier acronym, no?) and liquor licenses and the like are in the process of being applied for and allotted. Good news for the Gujarati tippler, who now can get sloshed in-state rather than having to choose between patronising a bootlegger, importuning visiting friends to sneak a bottle or two in, or strolling across the border for a piss up. Alas, it probably means that this stretch will shortly be overloaded drastically, as the holiday-makers converge.

But as long as the Mandvi Maharao and his family use their property as sensibly as they have thus far, I’m inclined to think that their little slice of paradise will stay pristine.


Information

Getting there.
Bhuj, a little over 60 km away, is the nearest airport and railhead. There is at least one flight in and out every day, mainly to Bombay. Two trains connect with Bombay and other parts of Gujarat. From Bhuj, you can take a local bus (roughly half-hour frequencies), to Mandvi, and then take a taxi or a rickshaw to the Beach Camp. Or you could haggle for a taxi; fares are extortionate, higher even than Goa, so you could wind up paying as high as Rs 1000 for the trip.
Other possible connecting points: Gandhidham, 90km, Rajkot, 250 km; Ahmedabad, 450 km.

Things to see and do
The Palace is open for guided tours during the day. You can also take walks, or camel or horse rides, on the beach or within the woodland around the camp, effectively a private sanctuary, with plenty of birds—flamingo in the right season, partridge, peacocks—and if you’re lucky, nilgai, chinkara and jackals.
The management will make arrangements for you if you want to make day trips from the camp. The Lala Bustard Sanctuary is 74 km north, where you can see the Indian Bustard, an endangered species, and the rare Lesser Florican. You may also see gazelles, foxes, jackals, wolves, and of course a wealth of bird life. For the devout, the 72-Jinalaya Jain complex at Badreshwar, the Jain temples at Naliya and Tera, the Hindu shore temples of Koteshwar and Narayan Sarovar, and the Lakpath gurudwara are within striking distance. The Bhuj-Mandvi area is good for shopping for Kutchi handicrafts. Mandvi is a big boat-building centre, and on your way in, you cross a creek where you can see massive wooden boats being built from the ground up. See the day trips section on the website (URL below) for more details on ll of these.
At the camp, your options are limited to what you bring with you and who you come with. No TV, but there’s satellite radio in the restaurant.
Cellphone connectivity is excellent on the beach, but can disappear in parts of the grounds. No internet access closer than Mandvi town. No alcohol served, since Gujarat is a dry state. Wait for the SEZ!

Best time to visit
Gujarat gets some pretty extreme doses of the monsoon, so, while the place is breathtakingly beautiful and pleasant in the rains, you could wind up stranded if transport succumbs to the weather. And, though the water deepens very gradually, the current is strong, and the water is choppy and brown. Summer gets extreme too: over 40°C in the day time. Peak “season” is December to March, when the westerners come in search of sunbathing. The water is calm and blue then—so management says, and the photographs I’ve seen agree—and it’s cool. In fact night temperatures in December can go as low as 7°C, so take thick pajamas!

Tariffs:
Rs 5500 per night (12 noon check-in/check-out) for two people, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Packages available: 3 days / 2 nights, with meals, Rs 10,999 on weekends, public holidays and the Chritsmas / New Year week, Rs 8,999 on all other Mondays to Thursdays. These rates are for Indian citizens and foreign residents of India (who will have to produce proof of residence). Foreign tourists pay more: US$125 per day with breakfast, or US$150 per day with breakfast, lunch or dinner. (Taxes extra on all tariffs.)

Reservations
Tel: + 91 2834 295725 / 9879013118. Email: reservations@mandvibeach.com Web: http://www.mandvibeach.com/

Published in Outlook Traveller, September 2007.

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