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31 Jan

Exploring Goa, India’s Beachy Bohemian Paradise

00-Story-Goa

A tropical enclave popular among American hippies in the 1960s, Goa—a state in western India that hugs the Arabian Sea—is now home to as many rustic yoga retreats as there are luxury hotels. Over the last two decades, dual-personality Goa has earned a following among tourists for its all-night parties in the north and its calm disposition in the south (most style their holiday based on latitude).

Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Goa
 / Photo: Courtesy of Taj Exotica Resort
Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Goa / Photo: Courtesy of Taj Exotica Resort

Relics of Goa’s past as a Portuguese province still color the architecture and cuisine; in its southern capital city of Margao—also the state’s cultural hub—Indo-Portuguese mansions and churches are most ubiquitous. Goan cuisine is a combination of a Catholic affinity for pork and the Saraswat Brahmins’ vegetarianism, the “repertoire of flavors, and ingredients [like] palm jaggery, fermented raw mangoes, and cured local chorizo found here are quite different from other parts of India,” explains chef Thomas Zacharias, executive chef of one of Mumbai’s hottest eateries, The Bombay Canteen, and who recently helped launch Goan-focused O Pedro.

All in all, it’s a varied land of beach bungalows and cushy hotels, street-side ras omelets and Krug by the pool. Below, how to ace a free-spirited Goa holiday.

Where to Stay
The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai is arguably India’s most historic and glamorous hotel. With history dating back to 1903 (countless celebrities, presidents, and royal families have called the place home) the brand now operates 99 venues spread around the world. In Goa, the Taj counts four properties, the most plush of which is southern Goa’s Taj Exotica Resort & Spa. Overlooking the beach and counting a medicinal herb garden, the 138-room estate is spread over 56 acres and comes equipped with five-star amenities, from a tennis court and cricket grounds to an Ayurvedic spa.

Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Goa
 / Photo: Courtesy of Taj Exotica Resort
Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Goa / Photo: Courtesy of Taj Exotica Resort

While the Taj Exotica has served well-heeled Goans for nearly 20 years, the state’s newest abodes, the W and Le Méridien, land in Goa’s northern play zone. As India’s first W, open since last spring, the hip brand channels its spunky American roots with a colorful, beachy, contemporary look. Unsurprisingly, with its party-poised locale, the W’s pool can be as rowdy as a hotel pool on the Las Vegas Strip.

Sleek and modern Le Méridien, which debuted last August, is built on a compact two-and-a-half-acre plot about 25 minutes south of the W by car. Its more central Calangute location makes it easy to walk to any number of the town’s nearby restaurants and bars. The closest beach is about seven minutes by foot down a dusty café and shop–lined path, but for those more keen on service, grab a chaise beside the property’s rear pool. While the bar offers a slew of typically saccharine cocktails, opt instead for one of the fresh juices, like watermelon or pineapple, and fortify it with your choice of booze.

What to Do
A kaleidoscope of vibrant jewel tones defines Indian markets, from fabric to jewelry to spices, and Goa is no exception. Popular Mapusa Market is best frequented during more mellow morning hours, and it’s here that traders from all over the state come to sell everything from pottery and textiles to jaggery (unrefined sugar) and spices. Like with most markets, you’ll find touristy trinkets alongside antique artifacts, and it’s well worth haggling for the best price. Those looking for more one of a kind saris, scarves, and sandals will want to drop by the Paper Boat Collective, a hip boutique that would be equally at home in Los Angeles or Williamsburg. Here, owner Bhagyashree Patwardhan curates an earthy palette of clothing and homewares crafted by artisans from all over India, using only natural materials. Pro tip: Paper Boat Collective has a café in the back; pop in for refreshing house-made ice cream in flavors like espresso and chocolate.

But one of the best ways to appreciate Indian flavor is on a spice plantation tour, which provides the opportunity to observe vanilla bean pods and cardamom blossoms in the flesh. A slew of these lush gardens exist throughout the state, and some offer extras like an elephant ride or a meal built from the surrounding botanicals.

Of course you’ll want to catch some beach time. And depending on which part of the state you’re in, Goan beaches can be a crowded mess. But if you swing to the north (despite its party reputation), tranquil paradise awaits. Ashwem Beach counts miles of white sand and fewer beach huts, as does Mandrem Beach, which is also famous for its colorful bungalows.

Where to Eat
Thanks to its bohemian spirit, Goa is a paradise of healthy eats, from the health-conscious chia bowls at Natti’s Naturals to Matsya Freestyle Kitchen’s organic Ayurvedic plates. Like elsewhere in India, there’s street food galore (look out for ras omelets, an omelet doused in chicken gravy), alongside a number of European eateries. However, you’re best served exploring what’s local. Bhatti Village and Mum’s Kitchen are two of Goa’s most famous mom-and-pop haunts, both dedicated to surf and turf Goan flavors in the form of curries and sautées. Horseshoe is another stalwart, and while service can be slow, the Portuguese Goan cuisine is some of the area’s best. Go for the pão com chouriço (chorizo bread) and cashew cake.

From Vogue

Hannah Kim
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