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.