The sunshine state

The sunshine state

Goa may conjure up images of half-naked hippies, but there is more to this tiny Indian enclave than golden beaches, tie-dyed flower children, and sun-worshipping hedonists. By Keith Bain

Touchdown in paradise

‘Sossegade!’ say the locals. ‘Take it easy!’ It’s a mantra Goans live by, a kind of guiding principle that’s magically seeped into the ether. Along with the bright sunlight and tropical heat, comes an immediate sense that you’re in a place made for letting down your hair. Although no longer the epicentre of global hippie culture it was in the ’70s, there is still enough bohemian fervour to give this warm-hearted paradise a distinctive pulse.

It starts with the near-idyllic beauty of the place. From the tiny airport, your taxi will weave through villages of faded pastel haciendas, whitewashed churches amid shimmering green fields, and roadside jungles dotted with kitsch Catholic shrines adorned by marigold garlands. Everything, everywhere is shrouded in tangles of dense vegetation, lagoons and beaches lined by groves of coconut palms, curious-faced water buffalo wallowing in rice paddies and cows sauntering along the shore. And while there may be droves of pleasure seekers out to steal a glimpse of India’s most rocking party scene, there are plenty of quaint, quiet hamlets lost somewhere in time, and patches of solitude from which to witness some of the world’s most memorable sunsets.

Golden sands

Goa’s beach scene is legendary: Not only are its shores lush and picturesque, but in places it bristles with activity. The busier beaches are lined with palm-topped shacks. A mainstay of Goan identity, these simple structures with tables and chairs, or sunbeds and hammocks, are where you’ll find bars serving cold Kingfishers, refreshing cocktails, and decent food, with lounge music that sometimes gets ramped up into a full-blown party after dark. Goa is traditionally divided into the North and the South, with the state capital, Panjim (or Panaji), the headquarters of the North Goa district. North is the busier, more developed beach stretch, in some parts (notably from Calangute to Baga) ringed by resorts bang on the seashore, resulting in tanning lots packed with bright-red tourists floating on sunbeds. Between the sunbathers and cows and colourful fishing boats, are the trinket peddlers selling everything from handmade jewellery to henna tattoos.

During the peak mid-winter Christmas-New Year season, the strip can be crowded beyond capacity – calmer beaches include Vagator and Ozran, or Arambol, Goa’s most northerly ‘discovered’ beach. Immediately south of it is Mandrem, a secluded fishing village, which is still quite peaceful.

Less commercial is the picturesque southernmost coast where there’s Palolem, a gorgeous sandy crescent cove lined with coconut palms and evidence of a sizable neo-hippie community. Nearby, Agonda is a bit more isolated and peaceful, while to the south, Galgibaga is another remote haven with eucalyptuses, empty stretches of sand, and an Olive Ridley turtle breeding area.

Cultural capital

Goa wasn’t always the carefree paradise it is today. In fact, Goans endured brutal times under the Portuguese who only relinquished the state to India in 1961. Before Panjim became the seat of local government, the colonial capital was further inland, at a place now known as Old Goa. In its heyday it was nicknamed ‘Rome of the East,’ and was reputedly larger than London, purportedly the wealthiest city in Asia during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Today, its World Heritage-protected Catholic monuments belie the fact that the erstwhile city was where inestimable religious persecution took place. Once upon a time the ringing of its Golden Bell in the tower of the Se Cathedral – purportedly larger than any church in Portugal – signalled the start of brutal public spectacles during which suspected heretics were tortured and burnt at the stake. And, in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the withered remains of Francis Xavier, Goa’s patron saint, lie in a silver casket. His body is publically exhibited every 10 years, luring massive crowds – the next showing happens on 3 December this year.

A half-hour auto-rickshaw ride from Old Goa, Panjim itself is worth exploring. In the historic Portuguese neighborhoods of Fontainhas and São Tomé, atmospheric cobbled streets are lined with old mansions and churches dating from the mid-1700s. Wandering around Panjim on foot shouldn’t take more than a few hours, but do visit the Municipal Market – the smell outside will let you know when you’re near the fish sellers, while inside, the orderly layout of vendors pushing the mountains of fruit, vegetables, and myriad other kitchen consumables will have you reaching for your camera.

In Goa’s south, the spice-scented market in Madgaon (aka Margao) is a maze of covered stalls selling everything from flower garlands and peeled prawns to sacks bursting with turmeric, chillies, and tamarind. The town also boasts gorgeous crumbling colonial architecture, and two particularly worthwhile house museums are in the nearby villages of Loutolim and Chandor. You can also visit Calizz, a museum tracing the evolution of local architecture using recreated traditional Goan houses.

Constructed from slabs of black basalt in the 11th century, Mahadev Temple, in Tambdi Surla, is Goa’s oldest Hindu temple and worth seeing – a great contrast to the Portuguese-built Catholic edifices. Nearby, the 600m high Dudhsagar (Sea of Milk) waterfall requires a 4X4, but is worth visiting for a swim in its deep, icy rock pool. Another worthy excursion is to Sahakari Spice Plantation, which has guided tours.

Shop till you drop

Although Goa is famed for its hippie-style markets where most of the spending inevitably involves liquor and food, there are some tantalisingly chic stores too. In Panjim, there’s the boutique of Goa’s best-known designer, Wendell Rodricks (wendellrodricks.com). Known for his non-conformist style, he uses organic fabrics, naturally dyed using vinegar, onion, turmeric, indigo, and guava leaves. For authentic Goan souvenirs, head to Rua De Ourém in Fontainhas, where Velha Goa Galeria sells azulejos, attractive Portuguese-style hand-painted tiles and ceramics. And nearby Sôsa’s stocks couture by Goan designer Savio Jon who makes pretty, summery cotton dresses and elegant men’s shirts. Outside Panjim, you can spend an afternoon poring over magnificent treasures at Monsoon Heritage (monsoonheritage.com), marvelling at eco-friendly furniture, funky lamps, and mirrors at Sotohaus (sotodecor.com), or getting lost in miles and miles of brilliantly hued fabrics at Rust (colonialcollectionsindia.com), a homeware store in Sangolda.

Foodie heaven

Goan cuisine has evolved from a mélange of influences, inspired by the abundance of fresh seafood, a unique cultural heritage, and a predilection for the tangiest, spiciest vindaloos. To sample a few of these distinctive flavours, head for Panjim’s quirky graffiti-decorated old Hotel Venite in São Tomé – it’s been serving local specialities since 1955. Try the spicy Portuguese chouricos, vegetable vindaloo, or fragrant masala prawns. In Saligao, Florentine is a legendary no-frills chicken joint where you’ll witness Goan families tucking into chicken cafreal, chicken xacuti and chicken vindaloo.

Closer to the sea, there are literally hundreds of shacks where can you sit with you feet in the sand, but there’s a wave of sophisticated eateries as well, such as La Plage, a boho-chic French bistro in Ashvem (where Jade Jagger has a home). It’s where you might find exquisite tiger prawn carpaccio, sardine fillets with wasabi cream, or fillets of rare tuna encrusted with sesame seeds.

At Sublime which reopens in November on Morjim beach, owner-chef Christopher Saleem Agha Bee prepares fusion dishes such as Goan pork sausage and mozzarella phyllo parcels.

Finally, do plan one meal at Zeebop by the Sea (zeeboprestaurantgoa.com), where you can feast on the freshest seafood while seated on a flat dune overlooking the beach.

Party central

Of course, a ’60s flashback is entirely feasible in Goa too: Thousands of travellers come here to kick back and dance all their cares away. You can start at a gentle pace on the Tesò Waterfront in Siolim, sampling lemony gin-infused Chiller cocktails at SOMA Project, an Ibiza-imitating lounge bar that turns spirited as the night unfolds to the beat of DJ-crafted tunes.

A special spot to party down south is at one of Palolem’s Silent Noise (silentnoise.in) parties at Neptune’s Point where you’re handed a set of wireless headphones and a choice of DJs. Each time you crave another feni shooter, instead of screaming at the barman, you simply remove your headset and rejoin the civilised world.

Photography: gallo/gettyimages

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