Laid back people, feni, coconut palms, shacks, siesta and endless stretches of beach. This just about describes Goa! Its no wonder that this tiny union territory has been receiving so many visitors for more than 4 decades.
Goa has been infamously known for its topless beaches & hippie havens. All that is in the past, however full moon parties and casino cruise ships continue to attract the young, reckless and rich
Small enough to explore with relative ease, Goa is rich in culture and tradition as is reflected in the Portuguese inspired food & architecture, this can best be enjoyed by exploring the Latin quarters of Panjim known as” Fontainhas”. Driving past sleepy villages where residents still observe the siesta( NOTE: most shops and offices remain closed between 1.30-3.30pm everyday) and whitewashed 16th-18th century churches, one almost gets a feeling of stepping back in time. For beach bums- there is no dearth for powdery sand and blue waters. Foodies are spoiled for choice with a almost every cuisine served up in a plethora of beach shacks, restaurants and upscale bistros. Yoga is now synonymous with Goa, the village of Assagao in North Goa is fast becoming a major hub for yoga shalas and retreats.
So here’s my guide to Goa. I’m excluding the usual tourist traps which have been covered by many travel magazines- the overrated beaches of Baga and Calangute, the crowded casinos on Mandovi River & the grungy hippie havens of Anjuna/Vagator.
BEACH BUM PARADISE- SOUTH GOA
South Goa is known for long stretches of white sands and gentle blue waters. The beaches here are relatively devoid of annoying vendors & beach shacks, so its perfect for people looking at getting away from it all. South Goa in the recent years has become a haven for luxury 5 star hotels such as the Park Hyatt or Leela and apart from the Taxi-mafia, this part is of Goa is perfect for beach bums looking to soak in all the sun and sand
Agonda Beach- I’m starting with this beach, because you should visit it now before it gets commercially exploited. Devoid of beach shacks & annoying vendors, this beach remains uncrowded for most part of the day. Surrounded by palms this 3km long crescent shaped beach makes for a perfect day trip getaway
HOW TO GET HERE- Agonda is at the southernmost part of Goa, about 75 kms away from Panjim BUT only 10-15 minutes away from Palolem beach
STAY- there aren’t too many comfortable options here, given that its relatively unexploited( READ:basic) Fern Gardenia resort is equidistant to both Agonda and Palolem beaches and offers eco logwood cabins set in a beautiful location on a quiet road with a hill as the backdrop
Palolem Beach– undoubtedly the best and most popular of all South Goa beaches, this crescent shape beach is surrounded by pretty palms; so gentle are the waters that you’ll feel like you’re swimming in a pool! There has been a huge inflow of visitors to the beach and there are signs of exploitation everywhere (crammed beach shacks and vendors) but the gentle waters make it worth the visit. I recommend following it up with having a meal or tipple at CIARAN’S just off the beach
HOW TO GET HERE: Palolem is approximately 80 kms away from Panjim and around 2 hours away from the Dabolim airport.
STAY- There are many options for accommodation in Palolem, prices range from basic to mid-range. Ciaran’s offers the best in terms of value- stylized wood log cabins with most creature comforts. Another option a few kilometers away from the beach is the Fern Gardenia Resort which has eco log cabins and landscaped gardens with the stunning backdrop of a hill
Varca Beach- is best known for its pristine white sands, this relatively large beach spans 7 kms making it amongst the longest of South Goa beaches. Varca is very long and considered a private beach (there are many 5 star hotels that have private entrances from their immaculately pruned gardens)so it remains devoid of large crowds, I found the swimming in the waters fun, with occasional playful waves tipping you over!! Sunset walks on the beach were sublime as the beach seemed to stretch forever. There aren’t too many beach shacks on Varca and food served here is mediocre- so I would recommend sticking to a beer. For dining I recommend Joecons Garden Restaurant in the nearby Benaulim- their fresh seafood selection is vast and live band churning out 80’s hits makes for a great dinner spot.
HOW TO GET HERE: Varca is approximately a 1 hour drive away from Dabolim Airport
STAY– there are plenty of five star luxury resorts along the beach such as Zuri White Sands, we stayed at the Club Mahindra which was right on the beach
Majorda beach- we stumbled into this beach in January and fell in love almost immediately!! Lined with just the right number of beach shacks, Majorda beach’s clear waters and clean golden sands are a hit with travelers visiting from all corners of the world. As you enter the beach from the main parking lot, there’s a shallow stream through which you walk across to get to the beach.
HOW TO GET HERE: Majorda is approximately 18kms away from Dabolim airport or half an hour’s drive away
STAY- Vivenda Dos Palhacos in Utorda( 10 minutes drive away) is a lovingly restored Portuguese mansion centered around the beautiful pool. Owners Charlotte and Simon Hayward(brother-sister) have done a great job in adding a touch of warmth to the service and interiors
Hidden find- not too far from the Palolem and Agonda beaches is the derelict fort of Cabo De Rama. Not much remains inside the fort but the stunning vistas of the surrounding beaches is worth the drive
SLICE OF PORTUGUESE HISTORY- PANJIM and OLD GOA
Nestled between the Mandovi and Zuari river is the tiny lovable capital of Goa- Panaji or Panjim! The impressive river promenade is lined with elegantly restored Portuguese historical buildings on the left. The Mandovi river on right has a festive air- lined with casino cruise ships and river facing food pavilions. Step into the heart of Panjim- the Latin quarters or “Fontainhas” to find it lined with Portuguese mansions housing galleries and art spaces. My favourite part of Panjim was driving up to the posh Altinho quarters( the Chief Minister’s official residence and former Archbishops home are on this hill) to Sunaparanta( meaning “Golden Goa” in Konkani) Housed in a beautifully restored palacial Portuguese home,this place has become a center for promoting upcoming artists in Goa. I recommend visiting their café Bodega overlooking a pretty courtyard
A half an hour’s drive away from Panjim city will take you to the religious capital of Goa. It is said that there were more churches in Goa than in any other city in the world and hence was dubbed the ‘Vatican of the East’. There are churches dating as far back to the 16th and 17th centuries, the most notable being the churches of Saint Francis Assisi, Basilica of Bom Jesus and ruins of the monastery of Augustine(which evokes the lines of Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias of Egypt”)
STAY- Panjim Inn & Panjim Pousada are the best for soaking in the rich culture and heritage of this part of Goa. Panjim Inn retains the air of an Old Portuguese home and Panjim Pousada was formerly a Saraswat Brahmin home. Rooms are moderately priced, the owner Ajit Sukhija and his son Jack are passionate about sharing the history of Panjim and Goa with residents. They also operate the Gallery Gitanjali located just across the Inn.
SHOP- Velha Goa( beside Panjim Inn) is the place to visit for old “Azulejos” Goa tiles and traditional Portuguese ceramic pottery. The Gallery also has a small collection of Mario Miranda prints and wall hangings. Gallery Attic( Alfran Plaza, Panjim) has a good selection of restored antiques and furniture
EAT- one can never go hungry in Panjim! There are many restaurants serving up traditional Goan food( think: Vindaloo, Xacuti, Xec Xec, Balchao) Mum’s Kitchen is an award winning restaurant just next to Miramar beach serving up the best Goan food.
A relatively new restaurant creating ripples in Panjim’s food scene is- Black Sheep Bistro(BSB)( Swami Vivekanada Road, Panjim) a hip new place housed in an old building, BSB offers a modern twist to old Goan classics- I particularly liked the Goan sausage( chorizo) on pau with shavings of dark chocolate, young owner Prahlad Sukhtankar is passionate about wine, hence an interesting and affordable wine list!
Ritz Classic is an institution- frequented by locals, Ritz serves up the freshest of seafood drawing influence from the Konkan coast, their fish curry thali is very popular and be prepared to queue up for a table at this popular eatery
VIBRANT NIGHTLIFE- CANDOLIM
As you head north of Panjim you reach the tourist hub of Candolim. Candolim was relatively sleepy up until early 2000 which saw an explosion in construction along the beach. Beach shacks, restaurants, guest houses, hostels and a few 4 star hotels jostle for space along the beach- Candolim has come a long way. The Beach isn’t much to write about and over the past few years, I find the presence of vendors and beach sports( jet skis & banana boats) rather annoying. However, the endless restaurants and bars add to the vibrant and lively air and thus it is best for a night or two.
Bomras ( Taj Fort Aguada Road) is the toast of the town. The garden setting offers a relaxed dining option with Burmese chef Bomra Jap rustling up modern twists to Burmese food. I particularly liked the Char grilled catch of the day, wash it down with the interesting Lemongrass & Ginger mojito.
Soumyens( Opposite the Candolim Jambaleshwar temple) you wouldn’t think much of the place when you enter the rather unimaginative outdoor seating area, but the food will blow you away- Chef Soumyen’s steaks are a must try as are his desserts- the Chocolate soufflé and Cointreau infused dark chocolate mousse are a must try! Bob’s Inn( beside Novotel Hotel Candolim) – is the place to visit for an affordable tipple, be sure to try the local Feni and be warned that it can mae you very tipsy!
YOGASHALAS AND WELLNESS HAVEN- ASSAGAO
20 minutes away from the bustling and noisy tourist traps of Baga and Calangute, takes you to the village of Assagao. Known for its wealthy residents living in beautifully restored Portuguese bungalows, Assagao is fast emerging as a wellness destination. The notable yoga schools such as Purple Valley and Swan Retreat offer 14 day teacher training programs drawing in people from all over the world. Sushumna Yoga Studio( one of the oldest studios in Goa) recently relocated here and offers interesting classes in Vinyasa Flow. Assagao has slowly developed into a posh village with upscale galleries and restaurants.
EAT- Villa Blanche( Badem Church Road, Socolwaddo) run by Yogini is the toast of town, her Sunday brunch is a must. Set admist a shaded pretty garden, the buffet table is laid out in a homely style- on a dining table. There are many treats on offer- Quiches, Seafood Paella, Savoury Pumpkin mousse, Sweet potato fritters with horse radish, cous cous, hummus, and German potato salad and the desserts are a must try!
Gunpowder( 6 Saunto Vaddo, next to People’s tree) is another must go to, serving up South Indian fare, this place has become a hit with tourists and locals alike. Its outdoor setting in atop a small hill gives it an outdoorsy feel
Ciao Bella( Assagao Badem Road) serves up Italian food, much has been said of their fresh pasta and ravioli and their picturesque restaurant is well visited
STAY- accommodation is mainly limited to newly renovated/ restored Portuguese mansions with luxurious trappings. The Villa Goa is a great choice-note villas are booked on a weekly basis and suitable for a family of 4-6 persons. Another great choice is Villa Sunbeam– owned by the flamboyant Delhi socialite Jivi Sethi, the landscaping and pool gives a super plush feeling to this place
SHOP- Cheshire Cat Gallery- run by Karen Peace and Van Andlen, this jewellery store has a unique collection of jewellery set on sterling silver and 22k gold with semi precious stones. Drawing influences from India, England( Victorian era) & South East Asia, each piece is different and beautiful. They also have a clothing section which stocks Aurobelle and other independent designers.
People Tree– this well known Delhi studio for cool clothing has set up shop in Assagao. Housed in an old bungalow, this is a must visit
THE VILLAGE LIFE- SIOLIM
Its difficult to miss the beautiful Siolim church as one drives in from Assagao. Siolim is recommended for people looking to experience the quiet village life. Not too far from Siolim is the Chapora River and Fort( around 4-5 kms) which makes for a delightful stop for sunset.
STAY- Nothing more majestic and historic than the Siolim House, started by Varun Sood and his French wife, this beautifully restored Portuguese mansion is for those looking into to soak a bit of history! A litte further into the lane is Neemrana’s Ishavilas, part of the Neemrana Noble homes- this whimsical and over the top villa is crammed with baroque Thai and Rajasthani pieces- you may love it or hate it. One things for sure- the two Villa Caretakers from Himachal and manager Anthony are fantastic. On an advance notice of 4-5 hours a special Goan fast can be arranged for Rs 750/ person- their chef will rustle up a delicious home style Goan feast, finger licking good!!
DRINK– Teso Waterfront is undoubtably the place to head to for a sundowner. This uber chic outdoor venue offers sweeping views of the Chapora River. Do be warned that food is average.
BEST BEACH NORTH GOA- ASHVEM/MANDREM
Undoubtedly my favourite beach! We only discovered this beach in January this year and came back in March. What great about Ashvem and Mandrem beaches are that they are relatively flat and therefore its relatively easy for long strolls, the grayish sands are dotted with rocks and the gentle waters are a delight to swim in, there are plenty of upscale restaurants and bars which make this beach delightful. Its not odd to spot small groups of people practicing yoga on the beach.
STAY- Aquatica Goa offers relatively reasonable cottages in lush landscaped gardens, its located just across the road from La Plage restaurant, so the beach is no more than 5 minutes away.
La Cabana Resort is also another moderately priced situated on the beach- the accommodation is in comfortable wooden log cabins and their bar Palasha offers great views of the beach. Another interesting choice is Ashiyana Yoga Retreat and Spa is a great choice for people looking at getting a mix of yoga and the beach. The entire resort is designed in an eco friendly way embracing the elements of the earth, their yogashala has a fantastic line up of respected visiting teachers from all across the globe
EAT/ DRINK- La Plage is undoubtedly the place to head to for food. Just off the beach, this upscale beach bistro is creating ripples in the Goa food scene. The Grilled sardines and Tuna tartar with wasabi are a must try. Service is notoriously laidback and sometimes downright rude- service staff couldn’t be bothered with you, but the food more than makes up for it, so sit tight! Bardo is the newest uber trendy beach venue to head to for sundowners- they have a good line up of international deejays, so put on those branded sunglasses and head their way to shake a leg.
If you can’t afford to stay at Sur La Mer– I recommend you head there for a romantic dinner. The beautiful hotel and restaurant is centered around the long swimming pool- their Blue Cheese stuffed naan and grilled catch of the day is a must!
HOW TO GET HERE- Ashvem and Madrem beaches are around 2 hours drive away from Dabolim airport, the nearest village is Siolim which is around 15-20 minutes away
I’m leaving you with a few images of food and places to visit