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Alibaug is the new WFH destination

By Ranjita Ganesan
November 07, 2020 12:41 IST
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As ferry services increase and remote working becomes the norm, the rural beach town has turned into a sought-after refuge for city slickers from Mumbai and Pune, reports Ranjita Ganesan.

IMAGE: Goa-based lifestyle writer and consultant Jade works out of a resort in Alibaug, Maharashtra. Photograph: Kind courtesy Jade/ThatGoanGirl

Restaurateur Gauri Devidayal's villa in Alibaug has metamorphosed from a weekend home to her preferred headquarters in the last few pandemic months.

Instead of being cooped up, her family has been able to run in wide open spaces and luxuriate in a swimming pool.

She and her husband, Jay Yousuf, are now managing their food businesses out of the coconut tree-lined beach town, taking the hour-long ferry to Mumbai whenever needed.

To their surprise, services in Alibaug have improved so they don't miss any urban trappings -- fibre-optic internet, direct-to-home television, AC repairs and doorstep deliveries at hand.

Currently back in the big city to reopen her fine dining restaurant, The Table, Devidayal plans to return to the coastal getaway if her 7-year-old daughter's school stays online until the end of this year.

"Alibaug feels like a suburb of Mumbai now," she says.

For more than a decade, Alibaug had been to Mumbai what the Cotswolds are to London, or the Hamptons to New York: A nearby destination where the rich and famous can unwind.

The state government has been attempting to develop the Konkan countryside into an extension of Mumbai that can relieve the strain on the city's mainland.

What has made that seem viable is the new introduction of a 'Ro-Ro' ferry, which allows passengers to roll onboard in their cars at Mazgaon's bhaucha dhakka (ferry wharf in south central Mumbai) and roll off, only 60 minutes later, at the new breakwater in Mandwa.

People can stay in their cars the whole time or get on the vessel's open-air deck that is modelled on a mini cruise ship, says Aashim Mongia, proprietor of M2M Ferries, which runs the service.

While taking a flight anywhere still feels dangerous, this open-air experience pitches itself as a relatively safe and convenient travel option.

"A lot of people are beating themselves up for not investing there earlier," says Devidayal, who built her property around 2010.

Her ventures, Iktara and Magazine Street Kitchen, have been ferrying gourmet food from Mumbai to privileged patrons who were either stuck in their Alibaug villas or have elected to isolate themselves there.

Orders are up "500 per cent" since she started in August.

IMAGE: 'Ro-Ro' ferry connects Mumbai to Mandwa. Photograph: Kind courtesy M2M Ferries/Facebook

Since it began on August 20, the Ro-Ro ferry, which has a capacity for 900 people but takes in no more than 500, has increased trips from one a day to two on weekdays, and three on weekends.

Tickets range from Rs 300 to Rs 1,200, and daily occupancy is at an average of 40 per cent.

As soon as the lockdown eased, people began arriving in flashy cars with Mumbai and Pune number plates.

Some among these new 'residents' of Alibaug -- who are more than weekend travellers -- have formed WhatsApp groups to help each other find technicians, doctors, and even hiking buddies quickly.

More staycation-ers are expected to flock to the sandy Konkan coastline, known for its fresh seafood and historic forts, in the festive months of November and December.

Dominic David, a photographer who lives in Goregaon, north west Mumbai, bought an apartment in Kihim near Alibaug last year and plans to shift base there for the holiday season.

He was inspired by his friend, 49-year-old Prasanna Patil who left the financial capital's traffic snarls in 2012 to live with nature in his ancestral town, going to the city a few times each week to tend to his printing press.

The hour-long ride by sea to reach Mumbai was not much longer and relatively more relaxed than the commute from his Santa Cruz, north west Mumbai, apartment to other parts of the city.

In Mandwa, where Patil built a bungalow for the family, his twin daughters study in less crowded classrooms, identifying different birds, and watching flowers transform into fruits.

"During lockdown, most of my friends were confined to their houses," he says. "Here we had open spaces to enjoy."

Locals say some holidayers, recognisable in their Panama hats, boat shoes and sunglasses, also drive around looking at plots they could invest in.

It is possible to get a one or two-bed apartment for Rs 35 lakh to Rs 45 lakh in these areas where the likes of Hiranandani are building gated communities.

Potential demand encouraged real estate developer Vaibhav Jatia to launch 'Rhythm Oasis', which he calls a 'resitel' (resorts that individuals can own as a vacation home and which are rented out on their behalf).

He has sold 75 per cent of the property that is slated to begin operations next June.

The state government recently approved a beach shack policy for eight beaches along Maharashtra's coast, which is expected to boost tourism in the future.

Sensing demand from a clientele that is willing to pay premiums, SaffronStays has two 'X-Series', or uber-luxury cottages, in the region.

Rather than just weekends, recent bookings have spanned months and the hospitality company, which prided itself on helping people 'disconnect', has had to embrace Wi-Fi because clients are working from their homestays.

However, not everyone is uniformly convinced of Alibaug's prospects just yet.

Sonal Holland, India's lone Master of Wine, prefers a second home in Goa, which currently affords a better social life than the rather quiet Alibaug.

A number of Mumbai restaurants deliver food or offer catering at private stays, but none has set up a kitchen or dining space in Alibaug so far.

"I still find the restaurant and food culture underdeveloped. There is no small bar or charming restaurant to go to," says Holland.

"It is more about being indoors or visiting each other's houses." Moreover, power cuts are still a problem in Alibaug, and people often have to rely on electricity generators.

For M2M Ferries' Mongia, whose company is working in partnership with the state government to enhance the region, the aim is to encourage movement both ways.

"Right now, Mumbai is going to Alibaug. For them, it is a lifestyle thing," he says. "When Alibaug can also come to Mumbai, and people from all walks of life travel daily, that would be true success."

Full-time Alibaug residents like Patil, however, would not mind if urbanisation took its time coming.

"We hope it doesn't happen too fast and not to the extent that nature is lost."

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Ranjita Ganesan
Source: source