It was over bowls of ice-cold watermelon fragrant with mint that I sat chatting with SiddharthDhanvant Shanghvi, an award-winning Mumbai novelist who had recently relocated to Goa. We were onthe veranda of his 100-year-old villa in the hamlet of Moira where, from our elevated perch, I could just glimpse a cruelly tempting lap pool, beyond which rice fields glowed electric green.
Just a few years ago, this unspoiled Goan village was best known for an unusually large variety of banana. The state’s beaches—arranged along a lush, 64-mile stretch of India’s palm-laced western shore—were most commonly associated with low-end, backpacker tourism. Now, certain beaches and inland villages are becoming seriously fashionable. Such is Goa’s newfound status as a locus of Indian cool that hamlets like Moira fall in and out of fashion at the speed of Manhattan neighborhoods. Today, fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani is building whitewashed duplexes in Moira that, when finished, will each sell for upwards of a million dollars.
If further proof were needed of Moira’s status as village du jour, it is the presence of Shanghvi, whose newly restored house, with its sloping roof of red Mangalore tile, has played holiday home to such style-conscious travelers as the Missoni family. The place is littered with contemporary art that any gallery-hopping Mumbai resident would recognize. Out on the veranda, Shanghvi told me about his role as a curatorial advisor to Sunaparanta, a local center for the arts that was about to hold its annual festival, themed this year on love. The lineup was impressive, and included some of India’s most important galleries.
Shanghvi explained that as well as becoming increasingly chic, Goa is enjoying a new sense of creative identity, one that has largely been shaped by economics. The cost of living in major Indian cities, such as Mumbai and New Delhi, has exploded in recent years (Mumbai rose 66 places in one 2015 survey of 207 world cities). “What Goa has done is give artists and writers room to not have to negotiate the mercenary forces of big-city life,” he said. Here among the banana trees, Shanghvi is clearly freed from such shackles—if he has meetings, they are held on Morjim Beach, where he goes for his daily swim. “It takes away the power equation,” he said. “If you’re on the beach and talking about work then it’s as equals. And it’s certainly more fun.” (Indeed, the day before our meeting, I’d seen him saunter through a restaurant on Ashwem Beach, talking on his cell phone en route to the beach.)
Shanghvi hurried off to meet Nikhil Chopra, an avant-garde performance artist and fellow city escapee who was doing something for the festival. The last time I saw Chopra, he was dressedin a sequined bodysuit and banging on a set of drums in a darkened Mumbai gallery. I had heard that he’d moved from Berlin to the Goan village of Siolim a couple of years ago, just another of the creative types to make this no-brainer shift. Indians—in particular those at the liberal end of the political spectrum—attribute a growing mood of religious and cultural intolerance to right-wing prime minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014. So multiethnic Goa, where come-as-you-are diversity has always been celebrated, is becoming even more of a safe haven for artists, actors, dancers, and designers.
I caught up with Chopra at Vinayak, a small family-run restaurant in the picturesque village of Assagao. He had come with an entourage of multiple nationalities: a Slovenian artist who had been living in Goa for 15 years; a visiting French composer; an Indian classical dancer who had come in search of space, both real and metaphorical; and a Bangladeshi artist in residence working at Chopra’s studio in Siolim. Bottles of locally brewed King’s Beer appeared, followed by clams clad in fiery masala tempered with bowls of kokum, a ruby-hued broth made from wild mangosteen, said to aid digestion. Between mouthfuls, the group exchanged information about their upcoming projects. “I used to come to Goa for holiday. Now I come for work,” said the Slovenian, a tad mournfully.
Like much of India, Goa is often thought of as a land defined by colonizers. Most famous were the Portuguese, who, after their conquest in 1510,imported chiles, cashews, and Catholicism to this idyllic postage stamp of a state (at less than 1,500 square miles, it is India’s smallest). They ruled until 1961, and in the intervening 450 years enhanced the Goan people’s already languid pace of life, as well as a taste for spicy food and potent, home-brewed liquor.
Then, in the late 1960s, the hippies arrived. Lured by Goa’s relaxed reputation, as well as its endless beaches, a generation of Western flower children, nudists, and pseudo-spiritualists claimed the state as their own. In the 1980s and 90s, it developed a reputation as India’s Ibiza, a raffish party-state beloved by backpackers, bongo players, and lovers of a forgettable genre of dance music known as Goa trance.
Now, 29 years after officially gaining statehood, Goa is asserting its cultural independence. It isn’t only artists who’ve made their mark. Homegrown entrepreneurs have injected the region’s hotel, restaurant, and shopping scene with a much-needed dose of sophistication. At the same time, many foreign-run establishments have gone seriously upmarket. Between them, they’ve made Goa one of India’s most stylish places to unwind—the perfect antidote to, say, a hectic week amid the heat and crowds of the Golden Triangle.
The change is exemplified by the return of native Goans like Sacha Mendes. A former fashion stylist who lived and worked in Mumbai for many years, Mendes came back to Goa to become a part of its reawakening. “There is a whole generation of us who want to do amazing things here,” she told me.She opened Sacha’s Shop, a boutique in the state capital, Panjim, in a corner room of her family’s ancestral home. There, between walls painted the color of the setting Goan sun (a faded yellow called Portuguese Iberian) she sells all manner of curious and beautifulthings: voluminous silk shifts in rainbow tones, ceramic teapots, sorbet-hued shawls fringed with tiny pom-poms, and jumpsuits by the cult Goan designer Savio Jon.
Goa’s old hands point out that the current wave of entrepreneurship has its roots in the backpacker movement, when trails of young, freethinking foreigners imported their lifestyle, their design sensibilities, and, perhaps most significantly, their food culture to these sandy shores. Goan cuisine has always been heavily informed by its Christian forefathers—the region remains one of the few in India where pork and beef are openly served—but in the past two decades or so, its food has become infused with a truly global diversity; Goa is now thought of as having the country’s most vibrant and adventurous dining scene.
Morgan Rainforth was one of the pioneers. He’s the French co-owner of La Plage, a restaurant under the palm trees on Ashwem Beach that, since it opened in 2002, has gone from being an insider secret to an international hit. “When we started, we used to have a lot of tourists,” he said. “Now we get everyone from Kate Moss to [Bollywood star] Amitabh Bachchan. We see locals, jet-setters, families, and backpackers who come and spend all their cash with us.” The success of La Plage and businesses like it was emboldening—both for international entrepreneurs and for people flying in from other parts of India.
Many who came in their late teens or twenties returned to set up their own culinary experiments years later. That’s the story behind Matsya Freestyle Kitchen, in up-and-coming Arambol, where tattooed Israeli chef Gome Galily presides over what’s rapidly becoming one of the hottest restaurants in the country. It is in many ways typical of the kind of dining venture that Goa was knownfor in the past—expat-run, only open during tourist season, and casually, almost carelessly, doneup, a few tables scattered under a canopy of tamarind and mango trees where insects frequently dive-bomb into drinks and the light comes courtesy of candles.
But that’s where Matsya’s similarity with the average backpacker beach restaurant ends. To an orchestra of chirping crickets, I was treated to the full artillery of Galily’s talents, honed during stints at European restaurants like Noma and on unusual gigs such as cooking on the yacht of an unnamed Russian billionaire. The breadth of Galily’s experience showed in every mouthful. He delivered gleaming crab claws coated in olive oil and white wine, ceviche of caught-that-day red snapper, crispy-rice-coated calamari nestled in a bed of pale green papaya salad, and just-sweet-enough coconut pancakes piled with prawns, portobello mushrooms, and purple basil.
Galily first set foot on the subcontinent 10 years ago, as a backpacker who ended up cooking in exchange for a bed, food, and a motorbike. It was around this time that Goa’s frontrunners were beginning to tinker with pretty plating and gastronomic innovation. In addition to La Plage, there was Bomras, in Candolim, where chef Bawmra Jap introduced a style of delicate, daring Burmese fusion cooking to the subcontinent and quickly came to be seen as one of Goa’s flag bearers. But it was Sublime, run by another tattooed chef and serving the kind of modern European cuisine rarely seen in India at that time, that was Galily’s biggest inspiration. Sublime’s Mumbai-born chef-owner, Christopher Saleem Agha Bee, was among the first to prove Indians did have an appetite for ceviche, crudo, and confit. “It’s because of Chris that we can do this,” Galily said.
Tucked away in a shady coconut grove on fashionable Ashwem Beach, Anahata Retreat is another emblem of the new Goa. A laid-back cluster of thatched-roof huts and Portuguese cottages, the resort is run collectively by New Delhi transplants Rishal Sawhney, his Spanish-Swiss wife, Angela, and their friend Bawa Mohit Singh. Their mix of Indian and international sensibilities is reflected in the menu at L’Atelier, the buzzy restaurant on the property: a traditional vinegar-spiked seafood mix called balchao is topped with crème fraîche and spread on a pizza, while cocktails are made with elderflower liqueur and thyme-infused gin. Anahata is barefoot living, to be sure, but its guest rooms still have showerheads the size of large saucers and beds clad in bright white linen.
A little further up the scale is the quietly luxurious Ahilya by the Sea, a new boutique property managed by the half-American Richard Holkar, son of the late maharajah of Indore. If Anahata is where you might go to get coated in sticky sea air, Ahilya is where you come to wash it off—in an infinity pool overlooking a dolphin-filled cove dotted with puttering fishing boats. It’s one of those hotels that immediately feels like a home, for good reason. The property, which overlooks the spot where the Arabian Sea meets the mouth of the Mandovi River, used to be the vacation home of Holkar’s son-in-law’s mother, Leela Ellis. Ellis, granddaughter of prominent Goan painter Antonio Xavier Trindade, did such a meticulous job decorating the nine rooms with treasures brought back from her many travels that when Holkar and his partners took over, practically all they had to do was replace the bed linen.
Wandering from my room in the Sunset Villa, with its views of the glistening bay, I walked through a garden thick with banana and papaya trees and two stately banyans. Settling in a deck chair by the pool, I watched fishermen tug in their nets as opportunistic kites made off with wriggling fish.
There is a menu at Ahilya, of course, but most guests prefer to leave dinner decisions to Ahilya’s affable onsite managers, Mathieu Chanard and Bambi Mathur. They did not disappoint: Succorine, the hotel cook, made me a superb seafood thali. As I sat under a night sky fragrant with frangipani and picked fried fish off the bone like a cat, it struck me that this state, which has long been an anomaly, will probably always remain one.
Some people attribute Goa’s otherness to the fertile soil that gives it its emerald fields and forests, while some put it down to a lack of the caste-based hierarchies that straitjacket other parts of the country. Others simply say there’s something in the air. As Shanghvi had put it earlier, Goa can’t really be compared with Mumbai or Delhi: “I would not think of it as a competitive voice to Bombay or Delhi. It’s something peerless.”
The Details: What to Do in Today's Goa
Flights from the United States typically connect through Mumbai and New Delhi. Local transportation is best arranged through your hotel.
Ahilya by the Sea: This art- and artifact-filled converted family home has sweeping views of the Arabian Sea. Nerul; ahilyabythesea.com
Anahata Retreat: Sixteen rooms on Ashwem Beach amid a grove of palm trees. Mandrem; anahataretreat.com; doubles from $100.
Paros by Amarya: The secluded property offers eight luxury tents and a three-bedroom Portuguese villa on the sands of Turtle Beach. Morjim; amaryagroup.com; tents from $90.
W Retreat & Spa Goa: W’s first property in India is scheduled to open on North Goa’s Vagator Beach in June. whotels.com; rates unavailable at press time.
Restaurants & Bars
Gunpowder: An old Portuguese villa sets the scene for homey seafood and pork dishes from across the South Indian peninsula. Assagao; facebook.com/gunpowdergoa; entrées $3–$7.
La Plage: The French owners’ Gallic influence is evident in terrines, pâtés, and soufflés. Mandrem; 91-98-2212-1712; entrées $6–$12.
L’Atelier: The casual beachside locale belies the cosmopolitan dishes. Mandrem; anahataretreat.com; entrées $5–$8.
Matsya Freestyle Kitchen: Remotely situated, with a farm-to-table, no-menu philosophy shaped entirely by its celebrated Israeli chef. Arambol; samatagoa.com; prix fixe $30.
Sublime: Chris Bee’s take on modern European fare is exceptional. Morjim; facebook.com/sublime morjim; entrées $7–$8.
Vinayak Family Restaurant & Bar: A frills-free joint known for its filling fish thali. Assagao; 91-90-4938-0518; entrées $5–$7.
Sacha’s Shop: Former fashion stylist Sacha Mendes stocks a hodgepodge of beautiful clothing and accessories. sachas-shop.com.
The Shop by Nana Ki: A boho, Goa-by-way-of-Paris sensibility finds its way into the wildly colorful cover-ups, embroidered bags, and chunky accessories sold here. nanaki.fr.