“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.