Exploring Goa's Glamour
Published: July 2012
By Alexandra Marshall
<p>On India’s west coast, travelers can find rugged beaches, Portuguese-inspired architecture, and a handful of impeccable hideaways.</p>
“Oh, isn’t it wonnnnnnderful! I think he’s going to make a speech!” exclaimed Loulou Van Damme, a spry, sixtysomething hotelier and interior designer of Belgian descent, done up like Auntie Mame-Sahib in a flowing kurta and knuckle-dusting rings. We were enraptured by a beige, golf ball–size frog poised regally on the showerhead in one of the vast en suite bathrooms at Panchavatti, Van Damme’s guesthouse on North Goa’s Mapusa River. Though not even a ribbit was forthcoming, the frog’s demeanor fit in nicely with the black-and-white maharajah portraits that decorated the room. Uninvited wildlife would send most proprietors into an embarrassed pique, but on this night in late October, the atmosphere at the four-suite inn was like a swinging slumber party. Van Damme is particular about her guests, as socializing is the thing here: the common areas include a soaring open kitchen; a broad living room filled with teakwood Indian antiques, groupings of club chairs, and stacks of art books; an infinity pool ringed with shaggy greenery; and a wide veranda, where we were sitting after dinner, drinking enthusiastic amounts of Grover Vineyards La Réserve Cabernet-Shiraz (bottled outside Bangalore). In addition to the other guests—a graphic designer, an editor from Vogue India, and a couple in the foreign service—joining Danelle, my high school friend, and me were Van Damme’s four rangy dogs, hundreds of crickets, and clusters of enormous striped moths, like one big interspecies family. Van Damme’s approach to hospitality isn’t radically juxtaposed with Goa’s let-it-all-hang-out reputation—one that has attracted Indian and foreign tourists alike, especially since the 1970’s and 80’s. But there is a crucial difference: all else around us that night—the 24 acres of Panchavatti’s grounds, the jungly river, and the imposing nearby Western Ghat mountain chain—was at perfect, pitch-black repose. Even in India, whose countryside is some of the most densely populated on the planet, we felt as if we were the only people around for miles.
Could such luxurious stillness really be Goa? Most of what I knew about India’s smallest state before I got there was that it was the unruliest vacation spot this side of Amsterdam, overrun with raver dreadlocks and aggressively drugged-out mountainside trance parties. It turns out that picture is almost as aged as Van Damme’s maharajah portraits. Indian and English tabloids still love to treat the state like a patchouli-scented den of iniquity, and you can certainly still find a trance party if you’d like, but Goa has become the place to be for young Indian urbanites looking to escape the rest of the country’s social conservatism, for glamorous Indian designers (Malini Ramani and Wendell Rodricks), Hollywood stars chilling out with their families (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), arty amateurs of the good life (Jay McInerney), and crowned heads (the U.K.’s Princess Eugenie on her gap year); and for not-so-famous Europeans in search of a profoundly slow-paced taste of India, a country that can overwhelm the uninitiated with noise and pollution.
For two solid years, friends—from an Indian-American accessories designer and a Texan socialite to the Indian wife of a real estate mogul and several girlfriends working in the French fashion industry—had encouraged me to go. The Goa they knew and loved was all about seclusion, gentility, and grown-up relaxation, and that’s exactly what I found at Panchavatti and a handful of other tranquil boutique manor houses on inland rivers away from the beach, mostly in the northern part of the state, and at one low-key shoreline villa. The important thing about planning a trip here is to pick wisely where you go, and when.
As to the where, my friend Binith Shah, of the boutique accessory company Rickard Shah, instructed, “The best stuff is all up on the rivers.” But it’s the 65-mile beach running the length of Goa’s western shore that’s most famous, and where Goa most closely conforms to its unsavory reputation, especially during its high season in December and January, when charter flights deposit hordes of package tourists from Sweden and Russia. The main road that connects the better-known northern towns of Candolim, Calangute, and Baga is lined with cheap mini mall–style architecture, thanks to the local government’s policy in the early 1990’s to open the coastline to whomever wanted to develop it. That and the uptick in the Indian economy has made Goa a hot spot for speculators. Anjuna, once a hippie HQ just north of Candolim, is now as built-up as its neighbors.
Granted, the coastal area isn’t all sad. I got over my crowd aversion at the Anjuna flea market—a riot of jewelry, spices, wandering cows, Gujarati tribeswomen, and, yes, tourists—because the shopping was so good. And one brilliant exception to the beachside-hotel rule is Elsewhere, a protected island owned by Goan fashion photographer Denzil Sequeira, in still-quiet Asvem at the northern edge of the state. But its 13 rooms (including three tents) are booked months in advance. And not everyone who can get a room can find it. The hotel obliges by sending an envoy to meet you at the airport. Meanwhile, down in the south, below the Zuari River, the prettier white-sand beaches have been almost entirely colonized by luxury mega-resorts.
There is hope for change. Overdevelopment has caused controversy and a push for preservation from environmental groups with campaigns such as Save Goa. Last year the local government began to institute environmental measures to slow down the development of the interior as well. And the Indian government, aided by the Asian Development Bank, is now spearheading a reef-and dune-building initiative to be implemented up and down the state’s beaches by 2010.
Staying off the beach is, in fact, a far better way to get a taste of traditional Goan hospitality—albeit of an upscale kind. Casa Palacio Siolim House, which Kate Moss, Sadie Frost, and their entourage took over for two weeks a few years ago, is on an outlet of the Chapora about 10 minutes inland. One of the original indie establishments that have set a microtrend for heritage hotels, it’s a study in lazy manor living. The hotel was recognized by unesco in 2001 for owner Varun Sood’s letter-perfect restoration of the 17th-century governor’s mansion. With old Portuguese tiles, formal sitting rooms, and an enormous pool, it feels more like a villa than a hotel. For someone like me, used to European luxuries, the thin mattresses and towels were a little jarring surrounded by all that stately grandeur. But within a day of floating in the sunlit pool, drinking fresh lime and soda, and eating a home-cooked fish thali, we gave ourselves over to it. The lack of a television was just what we needed, with the music of the frogs to keep us entertained at night. The vibe was similar at Casa Britona, an old riverside warehouse in the inland village of Britona that in 2003 turned into a 10-room property with brightly painted walls and lovely antiques. We were the only guests, owing to our arrival early in the season, and we were doted on with warm familiarity by the staff. Some of these historic hotels (also Panjim Inn, in the capital Panjim, also known as Panaji, and the lovely Vivenda dos Palhaços, in the south) would have made great Merchant Ivory film sets. “Goa retains a great simplicity,” said interior designer Jivi Sethi, a Delhi native whose house in the mountain village of Assagao has graced the pages of Vogue India.
Inland is where Goa relaxes best and most alluringly. When Vasco da Gama first arrived just to the south of the state in 1498 “seeking Christians and spices,” there was already a bustling trade in livestock (and, yes, spices) in the Muslim-controlled city of Gove, on the Mandovi River. Further Portuguese conquest established the towns of Panjim and Old Goa, a few miles in from the coast, as administrative and religious capitals, and the Portuguese influence is everywhere in the architecture and the religion. (Da Gama didn’t find any Christians, but he and his compatriots made plenty—Goa is 30 percent Catholic.) All of Goa’s churches, most built between the 16th and 17th centuries, are now unesco World Heritage sites. And along any winding back road, hidden behind the banana and coconut trees, are colonial mansions and villas, painted in vivid primary colors, with bright-red tiled roofs and lacy wooden trim. The designer Jean-Paul Gaultier has found inspiration for whole collections in that latticework, unique to this part of the country. The Portuguese would fight the Protestant British over Goa until the 19th century, but the Portuguese continued to win out until 1961, when the Goans achieved independence 14 years after the rest of India kicked out the Brits. Goa didn’t become an official Indian state until 1987, almost 40 years after greater India coalesced, which helps to explain Goan cultural exceptionalism. Most Goans refer to themselves and their traditions as “Goan,” and people from the rest of the country as “Indian.” Perhaps most tellingly, only in Goa do teenagers shun cricket, the national Indian pastime, in favor of soccer.
We had timed our visit for the tail end of monsoon season, in mid-to late October, which brings with it dramatic rainstorms and a sultry landscape, so as to avoid the tourist onslaught of high season. It so happened that our visit coincided with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which takes place during the new moon that falls between late October and early November. A celebration of the evil demon Ravana’s defeat at the hands of the heroic Lord Rama, with its tales of hand-to-hand combat between shirtless heroes and damsel-snatching villains, Diwali is a macho holiday and a teenage pyromaniac’s dream. Villages erect elaborate papier-mâché demons (some equipped with moving heads and tape-looped guttural roars), parade them through town, and light them on fire. (“Oooh, that’s a good one!” Danelle and I would shout as we meandered along back road after back road, admiring the handiwork of neighborhood kids.) During Diwali, doorways are strung with even more Christmas-tree lights and marigold garlands than usual, and firecrackers go off everywhere after dark.
We decided to spend Diwali night in the inland town of Mapusa, the biggest modern city in Goa, where we had heard the best effigy-burnings would be. There we checked out an endless array of local boys, each commandeering a demon more aggressive than the last. (One was done up in a black vest and a giant belt buckle that said rock on!) A talent show taking place in a vast parking lot by the bus depot featured 10-year-old girls lip-synching and gyrating to Hindi pop like cast members of Grade School Musical. Families were everywhere, with their babies out way past their bedtime, and they were as enchanted by the lights and the noise as we were. The firecrackers and singing and parading and torching went on till dawn.
One of the most visually striking areas in Goa, where the local and colonial aesthetics are most keenly felt, is in Panjim. Anyone who has spent time in conquest towns in Brazil or Mexico will find the winding, narrow lanes of the old Fontainhas neighborhood, which is Panjim’s atmospheric draw, deeply familiar. Wood-framed row houses in saturated hues and neat little shops predominate, but the 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is the jewel in the neighborhood’s Latin-style crown, planted atop a hill where the sun kicks off its blinding whitewashed exterior like a faithful torch. Panjim is tidy and sedate compared with other Indian cities, and spending a few afternoons there was like a vacation-within-a-vacation. Panjim is where Danelle and I shopped (no haggling!) for elaborate Indian gold jewelry, where we meandered aimlessly without interference or questions, and where we ate one of our best Goan meals, at Mums Kitchen.
As much an archive of home recipes as a popular lunch spot serving up crab fritters and prawns caldin (a green-chile-and-coconut stew), Mums is another proud preserver of Goan tradition that takes a stand against the encroachment of fusionism that is seen at so many other restaurants in the state. Where Western taste is indulged in loungey cocktail bars and Euro-flavored beach restaurants like La Plage and Sublime, the food at Mums, Siolim House, Elsewhere, and chef Urbano de Rego’s Beach House restaurant at the Taj Holiday Village is much more authentic. Goan food is southern Indian (think coconut milk, fish, fresh herbs, and tamarind), but it’s uniquely Portuguese-influenced, as Chef Rego, as he is called, explained during a discussion of piri-piri, a base for many Goan sauces made of toddy vinegar and chile peppers. Chef Rego was the first to bring Goan food to the world’s attention, having cooked for the elder President Bush and at the World Economic Forum. “Our food takes time,” he said. “Time to marinate, time to simmer.” We tasted his pork piri-piri at the Taj, and then four other varieties at O’Papagaio, which serves regional, though technically illegal, wild game. (Locating the restaurant was a monumental challenge for able concierges and two Goan drivers. Be sure to have your hotel call ahead, give thorough directions to a driver, and bring along the restaurant’s phone number, just in case.) On the menu that night were porcupine, venison, wild boar, and frog’s legs—sadly, no monitor lizard—and all were boiled, then curried, to surprisingly subtle effect. Since we were the only guests in what is basically the large front room of a house, we popped back into the kitchen, watched the owner add endless pinches of dozens of spice powders, tasted some of the venison before he curried it, and were given the quills of one of the beasts we’d soon be eating. It was a fitting tribute. The porcupine was delicious, like unusually delicate lamb fed on lavender flowers. As development eats away at the remaining stretches of forest, hunting is becoming more challenging, so the porcupine’s days as a blue plate special could be numbered. At least we already knew the same would never be true for still-legal and plentiful frog, which translates from the local Konkani language as “jumping chicken.”
Despite Goa’s pride in its unique cultural identity, there’s worry about cultural dilution. (The dramatic tagline at Mums Kitchen is “A Move to Save Goan Cuisine.”) The state’s Hindu and Muslim populations are growing because of immigration from the neighboring state of Maharashtra, and native Goans often leave to seek their fortunes in the Gulf states or Canada. There are strong non-Goan elements in the evolving cultural mix: the frenetic hustler’s pace of the Delhi and Mumbai natives who have set up shop here; the squajillionaires like Kingfisher chairman Vijay Mallya, who throws the party of the year in his enormous Sinquerim beach house each December; the Europeans in their Speedos, in search of a tan; the just-furloughed Israeli soldiers looking for the party. The Indian government is enthusiastically bureaucratic, and protecting one of the country’s most distinct regional cultures is not its highest priority. For the moment, that’s left up to the Goans themselves, whose live-and-let-live shrug is not the best weapon with which to battle the onslaught. Pitted against the forces of rampant capitalism, it’s not clear who will come out ahead.
Alexandra Marshall is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.
The optimal time to visit Goa is in early October, just as monsoon season ends and before the crowds arrive. December and January are the busiest months. Avoid May, when travelers must endure searing heat and high humidity. Air India and Continental fly from major U.S. cities to Dabolim Airport, in South Goa, via Mumbai.
Prebooking hotels with a credit card can sometimes be a problem in India, and local airlines don’t always accept foreign charges, so using a travel agent can be a huge help.
Roads in Goa are unmarked and traffic is kamikaze-style. As taxis are surprisingly expensive, the best option is to book a driver through your hotel. Avoid beaches after nightfall, when the crowds can get a little unsavory.
Lazy Days in Goa A British-run rental agency with numerous houses in North Goa. Ask for a condo at Coco Shambhala, decorated by Panchavatti’s Loulou Van Damme; the author Frank Simoes’s quirky former home Rockheart; or Kiranpani, in Mandrem, the backdrop for many a fashion shoot. 44-1202/484-257; lazydays.co.uk; rentals from $2,090 per week.
Eat and Drink
Beach House at Taj Holiday Village The open-air, waterside setting at chef Urbano de Rego’s traditional Goan restaurant is not to be missed. Sinquerim; 91-832/664-5858; dinner for two $60.
La Plage This beach-shack restaurant is perfect for sunset drinks. On the beach just south of Asvem; 91-982/212-1712; drinks for two $10.
Lila Café The place for brunch or coffee. Near the Baga River, Arpora-Baga; 91-832/227-9843; brunch for two $10.
Mums Kitchen Martins Building, DB Marg, Miramar, Panjim; 91-932/610-0873; dinner for two $25.
O’Papagaio Across from St. Anthony’s Church, Siodem, Siolim; 91-832/227-2310; dinner for two $30.
Thalassa Ordering lettuce is not always advisable in India, but it’s safe to try Greek salads and juicy souvlaki here. On the cliff above Little Vagator Beach, down the road from Nine Bar; 91-985/003-3537; lunch for two $20.
Zeebop Opposite Kenilworth Beach Resort, Utorda Beach, just north of Majorda; 91-832/275-5333; dinner for two $40.
Anjuna Flea Market Anjuna Beach; open Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to sundown, from October to April.
Barefoot Sophisticated housewares and clothing. 1/26 31 January Rd., Panjim; 91-832/243-6815.
Bombay Bazar A swap-meet-style market for spices and people-watching. 18 June Rd., Panjim; 91-832/223-2044.
Sainath Jewellers Filigreed Indian gold and gemstones at great prices. No haggling required. Shop 2, Rizvi Chamber, Panjim; 91-832/242-2293.
Nine Bar If you want to check out the Goa music scene, this dusty, open-air disco is a reliable spot. The cliffs above Little Vagator Beach.
Shiro Beach The posh dance club of the moment for Indian urbanites. Marquis Beach Resort, Candolim; 91-832/665-3366; drinks for two $10.
Utorda Beach A white-sand beach with clear, warm water that hasn’t been overrun. North of Majorda.