We walk into the elegant restaurant inside a restored, whitewashed Portuguese villa surrounded by coconut palms, and pull up a chair at the glass table. My husband and I scan the menu full of locally sourced fusion food – crab cakes with lemongrass, mango and avocado; sea bass carpaccio with beetroot, watermelon rind and capers – and order glasses of French rosé before perusing a boutique in a back room where handmade silk kaftans sit alongside sustainably made swimsuits.
This is not the Goa I remember, the Goa, that to be honest, I didn’t really like when I first visited south India six years ago. That Goa was hippie and raver central, a place where trance music blared out from almost every restaurant and beach bar I visited and where neon glow sticks were a fashion accessory. But this little restaurant, the recently opened Sublime in the quiet inland village of Assagao, is indicative of a new side of Goa that has emerged in recent years. A sharper, subtler, more design-savvy destination, with a bohemian twist that is in accord with the state’s independent spirit.
Jumping on our rented scooter after lunch, we weave through jungle-lined back roads, flickering in and out of palm tree shadows. We stop at Rangeela, a centuries-old ancestral home turned concept store. The high-ceilinged rooms and open courtyards hold a treasure trove of gorgeous wares including hand-dyed kaftans in blues, pinks and tangerines; chunky silver jewellery and hammered brass bowls; ceramic pots and vases, hand-loomed cushions and block-print tablecloths. Rangeela is worlds away from the tie-dyed happy pants and gaudy T-shirts printed with Hindu gods I remember from Goa’s beach markets, and is just one of many new design stores peppering the northern half of the state established by creatives who have fallen for Goa’s calming energy.
Hippie Goa does, however, still exist, a fact we’re reminded of the following afternoon at Ashwem beach in north Goa. The long stretch of yellow sand is lined with Ayurvedic massage parlours, small hotels and beach shacks selling drinks, snacks and rented lounge chairs. We pick a shack and lay beneath fuchsia beach umbrellas, sipping juice from fresh coconuts and watching local touts hawk prayer beads, sarongs and drums to tourists; long-limbed Israeli yogis salute the setting sun from the sand and Russians in bejewelled bikinis take selfies in the breakers.
When we’ve had enough of the touts we stroll a few hundred metres down the beach, past signs for meditation classes and yoga lessons and all-night beach raves, to La Plage restaurant. We choose a table in the sand and, over a dinner of seared tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes created by the French chef owner, watch the Goan style-set roll in. There are women in breezy kaftans and oversized sunglasses and men in crisp white shirts and trousers with upturned cuffs; there is good lounge music and a sensual, candlelit mood. La Plage is what Goa has become: chic, cosmopolitan and enormous fun. We could be in Antibes, or maybe Ibiza, and could easily order another bottle of chardonnay and let the night sweep us away. Alas, we have a drive ahead of us and a quieter corner of Goa to return to.
We want to discover what lays beyond the crowded beaches and so choose for our stay a century-old Portuguese mansion, Shunya Noi Varo, in Siolim. It is a short scooter ride inland and set in a quiet laneway diagonally opposite the church of St Anthony. The house, a relic from the 500 years Goa spent as a Portuguese colony before finally being returned to India in 1961, has three luxuriously large, airy bedrooms, and for the majority of our stay we have it all to ourselves.
Usually we use hotels as our base, simply a place to stash our suitcases and to sleep after long days spent exploring. However, Shunya Noi Varo feels more like a homestay than a hotel so we linger, mostly in the light-filled sitting room with its traditional white lime plastered walls, sprawling on its sofas listening to the tinkle of the indoor fountain with the french doors open to the breeze.
Entire days disappear by the sleek swimming pool that runs down the side of the house, as we read books, take siestas and soak up that quintessential Goan “susegad”, a word derived from the Portuguese sossegado and used by locals to describe the typical laid-back Goan attitude.
In the evenings we have sundowners in the large treehouse overlooking the river. When we return, if we’ve ordered early enough, the housekeeper chefs cook us a sumptuous Goan meal, usually including freshly caught fish bought from the local market.
Being away from the beach we see the secretive side of North Goa, usually considered the busier, more party-hearty half of the state. Late one morning, after a poolside breakfast of fruit salad, masala omelettes and sweet chai, we ride our scooter through the narrow village roads, passing strings of emerald paddy fields and winding through dusty farmland to the northern tip of the state.
We hear whispers that lunch at Fort Tiracol, an elegant boutique hotel set in the ramparts of a 16th-century Portuguese fort overlooking the Arabian Sea, could be the highlight of our time in Goa, and it just about is. Sitting on a terrace beneath tumbling bougainvillea, we eat Goan chorizo-crumbed snapper and drink chilled rosé and wonder why on Earth this place isn’t overrun.
The same question arises a few days later, when we hire a driver to take us 45 minutes south to Fontainhas, the old Latin Quarter of Goa’s capital city Panjim. We wander the picturesque streets lined with yellow, blue, orange and green Portuguese houses, churches and small Hindu temples. They are almost completely empty, as is the delightfully quirky Hotel Venite we stop at for an excellent Goan fish curry lunch.
Not that we’re complaining about the tranquillity we’ve unearthed. Especially not that evening, when we return to our treehouse sundowner perch at Noi Varo to discover fireworks are being let off over the river, and we have front row seats.
Nina Karnikowski travelled at her own expense.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN PRINT AND ONLINE HERE
Singapore Airlines flies daily to Mumbai, via Singapore, from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. See singaporeair.com
Shunya Noi Varo, Siolim offers three spacious suites. Rent the entire villa from about $645 a night during monsoon season (June to August), or a single room from about $125 a night. See shunyachi.com
FIVE MORE RESTAURANTS AND BOUTIQUES TO VISIT IN NORTH GOA
1 THALASSA GREEK TAVERNA, SIOLIM
This bustling beach bar recently moved to a lakefront location in Siolim, which just might be Goa’s top sunset spot. There are dolmades, souvlaki, potent drinks and a festive vibe plus performances by flame throwers, dancers and acrobats most nights. See thalassaindia.com
2 GUNPOWDER RESTAURANT, ASSAGAO
Set in a renovated Portuguese villa that spills into a verdant courtyard strung with hundreds of colourful flags, Gunpowder focuses on regional South Indian dishes. The Andhra spicy prawns are outstanding, as is the Keralan fish curry. See facebook.com/gunpowdergoa
3 ALCHEMY BOUTIQUE, ASSAGAO AND ASHWEM
Goa has a style aesthetic all its own – floaty kaftans, blouses and jumpsuits in sheer cottons, silks and hemp. Alchemy’s two boutiques epitomise the Goa guise with ethical, designer collections that feature local labels Fara Boutique and Studio Tia. See instagram.com/alchemy.goa
4 OLIVE BAR & KITCHEN, VAGATOR
There’s a bucket of blue flip-flops at the door of Olive, set on a clifftop above Vagator beach, encouraging you to adopt the susegad mood. Arrive at sunset for a zesty cocktail and Mediterranean food with an Indian twist – the mussels topped with butter-garlic breadcrumbs are terrific. See olivebarandkitchen.com
5 THE FLAME STORE, CANDOLIM
A delightful concept store set inside a 300-year-old Portuguese villa, Flame is the place to shop for bold-coloured, floaty cotton shirts and dresses that just scream bohemian jet-setter. There is also a fabulous selection of Indian homewares. See instagram.com/theflamestore