On my first trip to India seven years ago, I followed the first-timer's tourist trail, wandering through temples, meandering in markets, and sneaking samosas at every corner stall. Soon I discovered that the riches weren't just in the sights, but in the stores: mirrored embroideries, plush pashminas, colonial cane chaises, darling stone deities, and Hindu handicrafts. Unfortunately, take-home trinkets were banned from my backpack, which didn't allow for anything bulkier than a Bollywood CD.
Five years later, forsaking my earthly possessions (it seemed like a good idea at the time), I moved to southern India to study yoga. After months spent sans makeup and Manolos, I found myself dreaming of saris and silks, of sleeping beneath lavish bedspreads, and of wrapping myself in candy-colored wools. And so I decided to avoid the predictable (and polluted) big cities, and instead followed the buzz of stylish friends from London and New York who raved about Goa, Pondicherry, and Cochin, where the posh like to play and local crafts are as plentiful as curry. Shop-hopping in these exotic seaside retreats, I discovered many addresses worth every rupee.
This former hippie hub has fast become a glamorous getaway, and a welcome crop of fashion and lifestyle shops now dot the coast. Anjuna's famous flea market on Wednesdays and the newer Saturday Night Market in Arpora are still great for hunting and gathering Indian goodies at rock-bottom prices.
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WENDELL RODRICKS You can find this fashion guru's spare casual wear scattered in stores all over his home state. At his new shop, open this month, you'll have access to Rodricks's finest. Monochromatic bias-cut evening gowns (Issey Miyake meets the subcontinent) and gauzy tunics float from suspended cable wire to lure a design-savvy set. House No. 158, opposite Francesco Luis Gomes garden, Campal, Panjim; 91-832/223-8177.
SANGOLDA Claudia and Hari Ajwani, who run the chic hotel Nilaya in nearby Arpora, sell truly stunning interior pieces. Choose from Ladakhi pashminas, Rajasthani mirrored-and-embroidered cushion covers, rosewood cupboards from Gujarat, and secondhand Sindhi quilts. E-26 Chogm Rd., opposite Mac de Deus Chapel, Sangolda; 91-832/240-9309.
CAMELOT This style sanctuary—filled with a hip, Indo-international mix of furniture and clothing—has all the flair of a shelter-magazine spread. The country furniture, kitschy southern Indian prints, and wool and linen throws are handpicked by architect Arjun Mangaldas. One-of-a-kind scarves and saucy swimwear, from Abraham & Thakore and Indian-born New York designer Alpana Bawa, practically fly out of the store. 139 Fondvem, Ribandar; 91-832/313-0072.
JANOTA Shoe designer Edwin Pinto peddles his fairy tale- worthy footwear—slippers with turned-up toes, mules in silk or jute, gladiator-style and leaf- or snake-design sandals—from a shop next to the Saturday Night Market, as well as from his bare-bones workshop, where four artisans hand-carve his quirky, geometric-shaped soles. Aldeia Aurino, near Damian de Goa, Porvorim; 91-832/241-2129.
CASA GOA Cezar Pinto's charming blue-and-white house in wild Calangute, a beach town north of Panjim, is decked with homey details from every inch of the state. The displays include an array of Goan treasures from mid-19th-century rosewood chests and cane chaises to precious porcelain dishes and painted terra-cotta tiles, all with an Indo-Portuguese bent. Cobravado, Calangute, Bardez; 91-832/228-1048.
MALINI RAMANI Delhi fashion darling Malini Ramani made Goa her second home a few years back. Her seaside flagship is splashed with shades of Miami Beach and stocked with her"rock-star-meets-Bollywood-babe"line. Ramani's camouflage-print tube tops emblazoned with paisleys, embroidered backless jumpsuits, and sequined dresses are de rigueur for the rich and risqué. Opposite St. Anthony's Chapel, Calangute; 91-832/227-5305.
MANTHAN The 15 rooms at this turn-of-the-century manor in South Goa are fully outfitted with clay vessels in the kitchen, colorful cotton and silk shams in the bedroom, carpets and semi-precious stone deities in the living areas. Tiny souvenirs include shell-studded vases, paintings from local artists, and handmade paper. Near Holy Trinity Church, Benaulim; 91-832/277-1659.
SOSA'S This jewel box of a shop, on the banks of the Mandovi River in Panjim's Latin Quarter, is jammed with jute handbags printed with the images of Hindu goddesses and limited-edition ensembles from established designers such as Sanskar by Sonam Dubal and fresh faces like men's wear designer Sandip Mahajan. E-245 Rua de Ourem, Panjim; 91-832/228-063.
'Malini Ramani's shop is the Fred Segal of Goa. I find the most wonderful glittery kurtas in fluorescent chiffons there'
Sarah Giles, British accessories designer
Motor two hours south of Chennai to discover southern India's antique-furniture haven. While low prices are sure to tempt, costs do add up. Most outlets can arrange to send your purchases home, but buying enough to fill a small container will help to defray shipping expenses.
VIA PONDICHERRY Dancer Vasanty Manet brings her funky savoir faire, fortified while living in Paris, to her so-called"heritage boutique,"which highlights the country's oldest prizes: elaborate ceremonial textiles, stone deities, locally crafted porcelain plates, cotton dance saris, and dresses created from antique fabrics. 22 Rue Romain Rolland, Pondicherry; 91-413/233-4677.
CALICO Manet, who also runs Via Pondicherry around the corner, moonlights as an interior design consultant. Her two-year-old pink emporium is filled with inventive furnishings such as Technicolor square wool cushions, satin floral quilts, and a collection of bags embellished with delicate sequins. 2 Rue Labourdonnais, Pondicherry; 91-413/233-4677.
AURORACHANA COCO & CLEMENS Antique furniture aficionados can find British and French colonial teak and rosewood four-poster beds, armoires, cupboards, and dowry chests here. Hundreds of beautifully restored relics collected from run-down south Indian palaces fill the makeshift sheds and workshops on the premises. Stuff your suitcase with little brass gods, prayer pieces, and filigreed metal vessels. Hope, Auroville; 91-413/262-2175.
MIRA BOUTIQUE Italian antiques dealer Marco Feira travels around India in search of rare and traditional gold and silver jewelry: Gujarati tribal earrings, marriage necklaces, devotional rings with precious stones. You'll also see his finds on sale in the lobby of Pondicherry's Hotel de L'Orient. Feira's wife, Liliana, designs Punjabi-inspired cotton ensembles under the Miniature label. Visitor Centre, Auroville; 91-413/262-3389 and Hotel de L'Orient, 17 Rue Romain Rolland, Pondicherry; 91-413/234-3067.
CURIO CENTRE Third-generation owner Rajiv Asokan spe- cializes in centuries-old southern Indian hand-carved doors, beds, pillars, vanities, and chests. Have time on your hands?Request a visit to Asokan's enormous warehouse—150 miles away—which feels like you've stepped into Aladdin's cave. 40 Rue Romain Rolland, Pondicherry; 91-413/222-5676.
This onetime spice center is still seasoned with the smell of dried ginger and turmeric, but it's in the charming maze of Jew Town, home to a 16th-century synagogue and a remaining handful of Indian Jews, that visitors will find colossal antiques emporiums and dilapidated Portuguese-style houses that brim with Indian gems.
INDIAN ARTS AND CURIOS When the owners of this 250-year-old Portuguese-style villa next to the ancient tem- ple moved to Israel, the doors of Jew Town's first furniture shop swung open. A keen eye for unique Christian relics, historic canvases salvaged from local churches, smaller sculptures, and even reproduction furniture keeps this spot humming with collectors. Synagogue Lane, Jew Town; 91-484/222-8049.
CINNAMON Sure, it's not hard to find delicate beaded picture frames, old deity-prints, and semi-precious jewelry in India, but no one puts it all together like Cinnamon. The sleek shop whips up a mix of home accessories, coffee-table tomes, handworked shawls, and fusion fashion that serves a chic and arty clientele from around the globe. Stuber Hall, 1/658 Ridsdale Rd., Parade Ground, Fort Cochin; 91-484/221-8124.
CRAFTERS Antiques fans across India are well acquainted with Sunny and Johny L. Malayil, the affable brothers who preside over a 12,000-square-foot former spice warehouse crammed with vintage and new furnishings. The Keralan duo, with five additional shops and more than 100,000 pieces in Jew Town, keep dealers and drop-ins satiated with sandstone deities, bronze cooking vessels, Gujarati dowry chests, architectural remnants, and Burmese lacquer boxes. VI/141 Jew Town; 91-484/222-3346.
MADONNA EXPORTS The three brothers Thaliath run the Madonna monopoly in Jew Town, a five-shop enterprise focusing on religious icons, especially all things old and Catholic. Their family has been selling antiques here for 25 years, stuffing their musty pink-walled palaces with panels, saints, dolls, and wooden boxes from China, Burma, and India. Be sure to ask for a tour upstairs, where massive furniture pieces are housed.VI/182 Synagogue Lane, Jew Town; 91-484/222-4006.
SPR FRAGRANCE In this no-frills shop a rickshaw ride from Jew Town, select from the Eden of essences that include flower, leaf, and wood oils from all over the country. Brothers Nazeer Pasha and Abdul Rasheed specialize in the rare and unexpected (think snakeflower, hemp seed, and oudh wood) for medicinal, aromatherapy, or perfume purposes. CC-VI/508 Bazar Road, Mattancherry; 91-484/222-2661.
'I love the beautiful south Indian glass painting of baby Krishna I bought in Cochin's Jew Town. It now hangs in my apartment in Bombay'
Ismail Merchant, director and producer
HEIDI LENDER has written for Vogue, Elle Décor, and Town & Country.
These hotels can arrange a driver for shopping excursions.
GOA Nilaya Hermitage
This boutique property has a blue-cushioned lounge with a dreamy star-speckled ceiling.
DOUBLES FROM $280
ARPORA BHATI; 91-832/227-6793; www.nilayahermitage.com
PONDICHERRY Hotel de L'Orient
The 14 spacious rooms at this mansion two blocks from the water have been restored with stately antiques and four-poster beds.
DOUBLES FROM $50
17 RUE ROMAIN ROLLAND; 91-413/234-3067; www.neemranahotels.com
COCHIN Malabar House Fort Cochin A 17-room colonial manor with a sunken courtyard, perfect for cooling down with a Kingfisher on a hot Indian night.
DOUBLES FROM $183
1/269 PARADE RD.; 91-484/221-6666