Exploring Goa, Beyond the Guidebooks

  • Steamed rice hoppers and curried vegetables at Gunpowder are accompanied by the restaurant's namesake spice mix.

    Steamed rice hoppers and curried vegetables at Gunpowder are accompanied by the restaurant's namesake spice mix.

  • Colonial-era villas line a street in Panaji's Fontainhas quarter.

    Colonial-era villas line a street in Panaji's Fontainhas quarter.

  • The 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is a Panaji landmark.

    The 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is a Panaji landmark.

  • A quiet morning on Baga Beach, at the upper reaches of North Goa's busiest beach strip.

    A quiet morning on Baga Beach, at the upper reaches of North Goa's busiest beach strip.

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In Goa, time moves slowly. Even so, two weeks isn’t enough to try half the restaurants on our list. We do manage to fit in a fabulous dinner at the red-hued,  Moroccan-themed

I-95 in Calangute, seated beside a table of Mumbai jetsetters. With its extensive wine list, creative amuse-bouches (warm mushroom cappuccino served in test tubes, anyone?), and devilishly good beef Wellington and mash, the restaurant drives home just how gentrified India’s smallest state has become.

We limit our activities to two per day, spending afternoons lolling in hammocks on Ashwem Beach, a quiet and low-key stretch of sand with only a few beach shacks. As development spreads, and with daily flights arriving from Moscow, I wonder how long this will last. Freewheeling Russian tourists dominate Goa’s northern beach scene. When I ask a woman from Siberia why she comes, she rolls her eyes. “Where I live it is 45 degrees below in winter and plus 30 in summer. Can you blame me?”

Goa has a long history of attracting foreigners. The Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century, first to trade and then to colonize, converting many to Christianity. In the atmospheric Fontainhas quarter of Panaji, the state capital, Portuguese is still the lingua franca, and lunch at George’s Bar wouldn’t be complete without a crème caramel. But it’s in Old Goa, 10 kilometers east of Panaji along the Mandovi River, where you appreciate the wealth of the Portuguese empire at its zenith.

We arrive early to avoid the heat and the crowds. Founded in 1510 on swampland, Old Goa was abandoned in 1835 after a series of cholera and malaria epidemics devastated the port. The grand palacios that once lined the banks of the Mandovi  are no longer standing, but a handful of churches and convents remain clustered around a central square, where the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a World Heritage Site, rears up in Baroque splendor. Inside is the mausoleum of St. Francis Xavier, a place of pilgrimage for Catholics worldwide.

Just across the road are the 17th-century Bishop’s Palace, the Archaeological Museum and Portrait Gallery, and a church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi set among manicured lawns. But it’s the ruins of the St. Augustine church and monastery on the Holy Hill that are the most impressive—and worth the walk. Having poked about the site’s crumbling belfry and collapsed chapels, we revive ourselves with fresh green coconut juices for the drive back to our villa.

Keen to shop with the locals, we stop at the Friday market in Mapusa to buy fresh kingfish, and before we even settle on a price, a young boy whips the fish away, appearing minutes later with it scaled and gutted. Farmers from nearby villages crouch under the shade of umbrellas, and baskets of crimson rose petals and strings of orange marigolds fill the market’s central area. Bakeries sell warm ciabatta rolls, a perfect accompaniment to the grilled fish we cook up with dill.

On our last night, after toasting the sunset at Anjuna with chilled Kingfisher beers, we head back to Assagao, lured one last time to the incendiary flavors of Gunpowder. We’ve dispensed with our hopeless tourist map and drive like the locals with our high beams on. It’s not long before we realize we’ve taken a wrong turn. “But part of the experience is getting lost,” my husband says. “We’ll get there in the end.” And he’s right. In Goa, you’ve just got to surrender. Om shanti.

THE DETAILS

Where to Stay
In the hills of Arpora, the 11 red-stone rooms and two tents at Nilaya Hermitage (91-832/226-9794; doubles from US$275) offer the area’s most extravagant accommodation.

Where to Shop
In Assagao, visit Cheshire Cat (136 Biaro Alto; 91-832/ 651-0294) for gorgeous jewelry and Indian Story (Mapusa-Anjuna Main Rd.; 91-832/226-8608) for looks by up-and-coming Indian designers.

Where to Eat
Days are best started with the brunch buffet at Assagao’s Villa Blanche (283 Badem Church Rd.; 91-982/215-5099) or the flaky croissants at French-owned Baba Au Rhum (Salim House; 91-982/207-8759) in Arpora. I-95 (H. No. 1/9A, Grande Morod; 91-98/8130-1184) offers a mixed-bag gourmet menu amid palm trees near Calangute, while Gunpowder (6 Saunto Vaddo; 91-832/226-8091) in Assagao serves creative South Indian cuisine.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Going Back to Goa”)

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