Blue skies, bendy palms, plenty of sandy beaches from which to choose, a cornucopia of accommodation options and the kind of food scene that could send poets into rapture.
The small coastal state of Goa offers all this, as well as lesser-visited interiors of lush jungle, charming villages and verdant paddy fields. And there are yet other aspects as compelling available to the traveller prepared to seek them out. In no small measure, these varying faces of Goa have to do with the fact that it has long been the product of diverse influences. Maritime trade over centuries, and the direct impact of 451 years of Portuguese rule, have left their significant handprint.
Capital city Panjim illustrates this influence. The oldest district here – Fontainhas (infinitely walkable) is peppered with yellow ochre, pistachio green and sky-blue neoclassical homes – a legacy of Portuguese times. A 20-minute ride away, the Unesco-listed, world heritage Churches of Old Goa have other stories to tell.
But whether it’s ancient architecture you’re in pursuit of or a morning of birding on a river cruise, what’s grand about Goa is the ability of the state to hold the contradictions of varied activities and flavours, people and sub-cultures, influences and experiences, in its warm and accepting embrace.
A comfortable bed
The south of Goa is just that little farther off the map of the travelling hordes. The Leela – located in Cavelossim, Salcette and spread across 75 acres of land, lets you return from a day on the town to quiet exclusivity. Located as if on an ornamental placemat of private beach, lagoon and tropical garden, you return from a day’s adventure to a stylish cocoon. The suites and rooms come accompanied with all the details that those who travel without carrying very much require. And if money is no object, you can have your own private pool area. Driving one farther off the straight and narrow are the Ayurvedic spa, a litany of restaurants and a 12-hole golf course (www.theleela.com; doubles from 20,000 Indian rupees; Dh1,135 per night including taxes).
If you want to recreate what it was like to live as Portuguese nobility, Siolim House satisfies. While being strident with modern amenities, it retains old-world charm. Think large rooms with high ceilings, old-world furnishing, spacious bathrooms and a central courtyard. You’ll appreciate the characteristically distinctive pillars, terracotta tiles and tasteful antiques that dot the place (www.siolimhouse.com; doubles from 12,000 rupees; Dh686 per night including taxes).
Find your feet
It is essential to have a car at your disposal to truly explore this little state. No matter where you base yourself, nothing is more than a few hours’ drive away. For the lover of splendid architecture, it’s instructive to wander around the Churches and Cathedrals of Old Goa that were built during Portuguese rule. Then take the 30-minute drive from here to the Reis Magos Fort. Besides the fact that it now acts as a proficient cultural centre, it also offers superlative views of the Mandovi river.
Meet the locals
The shacks on Goa’s beaches are practically institutionalised. Locals have their favourites and can be found at a similar table frequently. Curlies on Anjuna Beach is a perfect case in point, with fresh seafood dished out. The stylish La Plage on Ashvem Beach, and Thalassa, overlooking Vagator Beach from a vantage clifftop point, are other popular dining hangouts with the swish local set. The stellar food matches the magnificent views.
Book a table
If you’d like to try authentic Goan family-style food, Mum’s Kitchen has people voting with their feet. Comfort for many clearly lies in a traditionally prepared, mildly spiced bowl of tisryanche sukhem (or shellfish) – a long-standing Goan favourite. Mackerel stuffed with green masala, lemon fish coated with semolina and perch fried with rice flour only begin the litany of fresh seafood on offer. The menu is extensive and, in the restaurant’s own words, “compiled using traditional recipes from mothers around Goa”.
Pushing the boundaries on the culinary scene – the locally-owned-and-run restaurant Black Sheep Bistro is creativity personified. Here you’ll find quail eggs juxtaposed with sun-dried shrimp, spring onions and kismoore butter, or ‘not’ bouillabaisse – a blend of seafood, vegetables, penne and lobster broth. That the “globally inspired” fare on offer is created using local and seasonal ingredients and the focus is farm-to-table dining, adds heart to this very popular gourmet path.
The Saturday night market at Arpora is more niche and infinitely cooler than the also-popular Wednesday flea market in Anjuna. It features all manner of offerings from around India and the world, in no small part owing to the creative community that has long flocked to Goa and called it home. Expect to find a triumph of the small scale in everything – from funky designer wear to pashmina shawls, hammocks to mirrored boxes, uniquely-crafted shoes to handmade jewellery. Food stalls and a pulsing concert stage add energy to the retail experience.
Open daily, but especially alive on Fridays, Mapusa Market is another city institution. For the local community, it’s a one-stop shop for everything - from fresh fish to fruit to coir mats; but for the travelling masses, it’s a good place to pick up spices, cashew nuts and scout for Goan sweets. Don’t leave without picking up or at least sampling bebinca – a layered pudding made essentially from egg yolk, flour, ghee, sugar and coconut milk.
For the journey-over-destination traveller, there’s little to beat a boat cruise aboard the M L Solita. You cruise the Mandovi River at a speed of 9 knots per hour aboard the 42-foot motor yacht with a view to appreciate the unique flora, fauna and bird life that characterises the interiors of the land – an array of kingfishers, egrets and, when in season, dolphins. There are a variety of cruising itineraries from which to pick. Whatever you’re doing, here’s the chance to savour life slowly, the way it’s done in Goa.
What to avoid
Beware of randomly hailed taxis or rickshaws. It is best to pre-book a driver/guide, with fixed rates, from a reliable source. Your hotel is likely to have a trusted recommendation.
Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Goa cost from Dh1,135 on Jet Airways including taxes.
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