Inside Alibaug, Mumbai’s coastal retreat

A beach lines by palm trees.

Writer Aatish Nath considers what the future of the town that has long been a favoured escape for city dwellers could look like post pandemic

By Aatish Nath   Above image by Kamil Kalbarczy    Saturday 3 October, 2020    Short read

There’s nothing Mumbaikars like playing up more than comparisons to New York, and so it’s no surprise that Alibaug – a coastal retreat that’s a 40-minute speedboat ride away – is often referred to as the city’s answer to The Hamptons. What they both offer space-starved city dwellers is that much-desired space, with a lucky few able to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean – but that’s where the similarities end.

Alibaug is altogether more insular and without the social life that typifies summers spent away from big cities elsewhere in the world. After all, it’s a collection of rural towns that has been transformed by money into many private gated getaways. Over the years, it’s seen successive waves of business professionals’ industrialists and even Bollywood stars buy acres of land on which they’ve built tropical villas – each coinciding with growth spurts in India’s economy and stock market. 

This year, though, the newest wave of change has been brought on by COVID-19. First, for those that have homes in Alibaug, there’s been the rush to move into their second houses for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, according to villa rental companies like Lohono Stays (cofounded by Soho House member Dhimaan Shah) and Vista Rooms, people who have the means are looking to rent villas and make it their base, with both companies’ founders saying that villa rentals are running at almost full occupancy. For those that can’t find a home, there’s always the chance to book a room at the town’s only luxury hotel.
A covered terrace area with pillars next to an outdoor pool.
Looking down onto an outdoor pool with a beach and palm trees behind it.
An outdoor swimming pool next to a covered area with lounge seating.
The question is whether this exodus will lead to the launch of new businesses, stores and restaurants to cater to those who choose to move full time to Alibaug. The much-delayed launch last month of a roll-on, roll-off ferry that connects the city to Mandwa jetty makes it much easier for people who want to split their time. Speaking to those that are living out of there, it’s clear that social gatherings are limited. And while there is a sense of community fostered by the ‘Alibagers’ WhatsApp group, it has yet to fully develop. 

Pre-pandemic, there were some green shoots to give hope to those seeking a fulfilling weekend away. On the jetty, two restaurants – Boardwalk by Flamboyante and Kiki’s Café and Deli – used to cater to day-trippers who wanted to visit without having to bring fresh produce and cook. Both are doing brisk business now that people have moved to their second homes permanently. 

Moshe Shek, a former chef and restaurateur who sold his eponymous Mumbai-based mini-chain, has set up a farm and cooking studio called A World Away in Awas, where he conducts classes. Similarly, restaurateur Gauri Devidayal was one of the first people to recognise the potential of her family’s home there. Converting it into a farm, the produce is sent over to their Colaba restaurant, The Table, and there are regular Table Farm workshops held for anyone who wants to get their hands dirty.
A green forest landscape.
Courtesy of Lohona Stays
Alibaug’s efforts to be as sustainable were also in full swing before the virus, as exemplified by the profusion of woodwork and carpentry workshops that have made a name for themselves, as moneyed buyers seek tropical villas that draw on indigenous skills. For a time, it was also where Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai had his workshop – and that led to the symbiotic development of skilled craftsmanship and site-sensitive design. 

This engagement with local crafts and skills – as well as a belated understanding of the traditional knowledge that resides among those that have grown up in the area – was only just being acknowledged before the pandemic upended things. For those seeking something different, there were also homestays, which taught the kind of basic recipes and skills that a younger generation disconnected from the land had begun to seek. 

In the next few years, it remains to be seen how those who can work remotely are able to impact the ecosystem that’s developed over the years. What’s clear is that more and more people are seeing the advantages of spending time away from the city, yet being less than an hour or two away. For those looking to join them, there’s always the opportunity to snap up a holiday home from the likes of Isprava – the company selling luxury houses has also done brisk business, closing multiple sales in the past six weeks.
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