On the south-west tip of India, lapped by the shores of the Arabian Sea and fringed with palm trees lies Goa. After the colourful chaos and assault on the senses which the rest of the country delivers at full force, arriving at this relaxed enclave with kilometres of golden sand beaches is a beloved escape. Goa has a distinct feel from the rest of India and, despite 70 years of liberation from Portuguese rule, its colonial legacy is evident in its baroque architecture — whitewashed churches, crumbling forts, stunning cathedrals — and in its cuisine, which is quite different to the rest of the subcontinent. Goa is a beautiful culmination of its past influences. It has a gentler pace, which comes with the nearness of the sea, and a dizzying array of people, religions and cultures, which somehow all manage to co-exist happily. Be sure, there is no escaping India’s riches here — artisans and craftspeople plying their trades, oppressive heat, sacred traditions, a strong sense of spirituality, humanity in every form, and everywhere, the colours and smells of the exotic.
Play. In the north, Anjuna’s Wedneday night flea markets and Saturday night markets are popular weekly cultural experiences and, though touristy, they cannot be beaten for shopping and a bit of bartering. There are seemingly endless rows of colourful stalls and vendors selling everything from spices and textiles to jewellery and flowers. The sweet smell of patchouli spliced with cow dung is an olfactory experience unlike anywhere else in the world! Panaji, the state capital, is also great for shopping and wandering. The narrow streets of its 19th century neighbourhoods will enchant you with their unique Portuguese-Indian architectural heritage.
Dudhsagar Waterfall is one of the highest in the country at over 1000 feet, and forms much of the border between Goa and the neighbouring state of Karnataka. The falls are located in the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, and in the monsoon season, they erupt with force. While Goa is revered for its idyllic beaches, heading inland, even if it’s just for a day trip, will reward you with a different kind of beauty. Seeing things like jungle-like spice plantations, men on tuk-tuks balancing cages of chickens, ladies in yellow, pink and blue saris cutting cauliflowers as they chat in the fields, lime green rice paddies and ancient Hindu temples all add to India’s beguiling mystique.
Eat. There are more than 600 million vegetarians in India. Hindus, who make up a large portion of the population have an aversion to eating meat, and the number of vegetable dishes are both mind-boggling and delicious. If seafood is your thing, though, Goa is plentiful in its offerings. There is a frantic energy every morning as fishing boats are pulled up to shore and the catch is unloaded. Watching the sun set over the Arabian sea as you sip an icy-cold beer and devour a fresh prawn curry at an unassuming beachside restaurant is a food experience hard to beat, and the incredible street food found on every corner will also linger in your memory.
Everywhere in Goa, day or night, someone is always cooking outside. The breads alone — naans, pakoras, rotis, idlis — are joyously addictive. The smells of fenugreek, garam masala, sizzling curry leaves and Masala chai become familiar and the incredible enthusiasm that street vendors have for their food make you quickly realize that you could spend the rest of your life eating this cuisine and be very, very happy.
Stay. Hotels and resorts in Goa are exceptionally well-priced, so be decadent and spend at least some of your time lapping up the warm hospitality and gorgeous surroundings that many of them offer.
Ahilya By The Sea is a boutique hotel with rooms and entire villas to rent right on the edge of beautiful Dolphin Bay in North Goa. The hotel, which feels more like a sprawling Indo-Colonial style home and garden, oozes old-world Goan charm.
Nilaya Hermitage is another great place to stay, although it offers quite a different experience. Nestled amongst the green hills and lush foliage inland, the atmosphere at this beautiful resort is noticeably removed from the bustle of the beach. Instead, you immediately feel shrouded in the tranquility of nature and there is a sense of wellness and zen about the place.
Goa echoes India’s beguiling charms — its rich colours and tastes, ancient buildings, kind people, and sacred traditions and religion, but its own unique cultural landscape is very much intact, and it will captivate your mind and fill you with a longing to return.
Photography—Pablo Baglez | Words—Caroline Waldegrave