Adventurous, globe-trotting, and seeking some winter sun? Now is the time to visit Goa. Once a staple of the hippie trail in the 70s, this gem of a region nestled between Maharashtra and Karnataka on the shores of the Arabian Sea has somewhat fallen off the map as a holiday destination. There is no good reason for this. Goa, with its perfect beaches, laid-back atmosphere, and unique blend of Portuguese and Indian culture, is not only a hidden gem, but a gateway into the rest of India. Whether you’re looking for a starting point to launch your Indian adventure or safe environment to discover one of the world’s oldest civilisations, Goa is for you.
The fact is, travelling to India can seem daunting. Unlike the hassle-free borders along the gap-year trail around South East Asia, India’s visa process used to be extremely stringent and bureaucratic, while the country’s vastness can make planning a trip feel overwhelming. Luckily, the new Indian e-visa was extended to British tourists in 2015, eliminating the first hurdle, and the endless but compact wonders of Goa – India’s smallest state – alleviate the second. In addition, a host of airlines now offer flights right into Goa via Mumbai or Arab Gulf countries at extremely affordable rates, making travel there swift and hassle-free. As for when to go, peak season runs from November to February, with temperatures consistently above 30 degrees. And although it can be particularly crowded around Christmas and New Year, the monsoon rains don’t start until early June, so there’s lots of scope for a more un-congested experience.
Now you’ve booked your flights, it’s time to figure out which part of the state to head for. You will hear a lot of contradictory advice about whether to visit North or South Goa. The North is for the nightlife, the clubs, the beach parties, with throngs of multinational revellers jamming to trance music or hip-hop on the sand. The South is for paradise beaches of the kind usually only found in holiday brochures – white sand, warm blue sea, uncrowded and unspoilt, with the occasional beach shack serving cocktails and cool beers.
This is all true, but what it doesn’t tell you is that, unusually in a vast country where travel between cities can take days, these two mirror-image sides of Goa are just a short taxi ride apart. You can get from the notorious party strip Baga in the North to the famously picturesque Palolem Beach in the South in just two hours. Day trips are possible, but if you really want to get the most out of the state, split your trip in two and give yourself the chance to explore both sides of this incredible region.
With the North, the temptation is to head straight to the party hubs of Baga and neighbouring Calangute. Don’t. These might be the most well-known beaches in Goa, but they are by no means the nicest, especially not to stay near. Instead, for an area that’s a bit more refined and relaxed, visit Vagator or Anjuna. Just fifteen minutes up the coast from Baga, these beaches feel a world away. Vagator is renowned for its red cliffs that jut out over the sea, and you can spend a lazy day on the sand without being hassled by touts insisting you buy their drinks or massages. Both Vagator and Anjuna have India’s wide range of holiday accommodation, from budget hostels to luxury hotel complexes. For something in between – clean, classy and fully air-conditioned, without breaking the bank – try Living Room or Jacks Resort in Vagator, or Orritel Village Square in Anjuna. All are just a short walk from the beach. While you’ll be spending most of your time out of the hotel, a refreshing private pool can be a welcome comfort after a long day in the sun. Jacks Resort in particular is an oasis of calm in the heart of Vagator’s tangle of dusty streets.
Those who already know Goa flock to its shores for three things: the beaches, the food, and the nightlife. All are plentiful. During the day, the only reason to head to Calangute or Baga, those focal destinations of the hippie trail, is if you’re desperate for a ride on a jet ski or a parasailing trip. Otherwise avoid the hoards and skip Goa’s headline area altogether. At night it’s another matter, when the beach shacks transform into charming restaurants on the sand, serving all the Indian staples you could desire, plus a host of Goan speciality dishes. Goa is famous for its seafood, and you can’t leave without trying the fish curry and at least three different ways of cooking prawns. Prices are cheap – ₹1500 (£18) for dinner for two, including starters and drinks – and the ambience is unbeatable. But for a more upmarket dinner, head to Thalassa in Vagator. This Greek taverna (yes, a Greek restaurant in India, but stay with me) draws diners from all over India, for its delicious classic Greek food and gorgeous views, perched as it is on a clifftop overlooking the sea. The freshly-caught fish of the day is exquisite, as are their honey-wrapped feta cheese appetisers. You can also expect live performances of Greek dancing, music and cabaret shows, complete with plate-smashing. Not a restaurant to be missed.
In terms of nightlife, the host of clubs on Tito’s Road in Baga (named after the notorious Tito’s Club) are friendly and buzzing every night from 10pm. And although the authorities have tried to clamp down on unauthorised beach parties in Vagator, if you’re there in peak season there’s a high chance something will be going on. But for a night you won’t get anywhere else in the world, head to Club Cubana in Arpora. Known as “the nightclub in the sky”, Cubana is built on the side of a mountain, and is more of an immersive theatre experience than a club. Wander through an outdoor maze of hidden staircases and lush greenery with lights in the trees, enjoy fresh stone-baked pizza while looking out at the city and sea below, dip your feet in the open-air pool (yes, they have a pool) and listen to the thumping base pulsing through the stonework. Entry is ₹2000 (£24) for a couple with unlimited drinks all night. The music is a mix of hip-hop and R&B, with live performances and fire dancers. But even if partying until the small hours isn’t your thing, go for the atmosphere and the experience of dancing in the sky.
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Arpora also hosts Goa’s biggest night market on Saturdays – though again this is a misnomer. A secret world of market stalls springs up out of the hillside each weekend, a treasure trail of jewellery stands, spice-sellers, and vendors hawking every type of clothing imaginable. Come ready to bargain, hard – never pay much more than half the original asking price. And once you’re tired of shopping, head to the food court in the centre for an array of tasty refreshments and cocktails. There’s an open-air stage with more live music and performances, with chairs so you can rest your feet before heading once more into the fray.
If you want to escape the seafront and explore inland India, there are a range of easily-accessible day trips on offer. Old Goa, the original Portuguese city, is a historic wonderland of Portuguese cathedrals and 16th century architecture – it was known as the “Rome of the East” for a reason. There are also a variety of wildlife sanctuaries and hiking trails where you can spot birds, deer and snakes, although be careful about the heat. But by far the most popular excursion is a visit to the Dudhsagar waterfalls – which literally translates as Sea of Milk. Countless tour operators will offer to transport you from your hotel to the Mollem National Park, arrange a jeep to ferry you to and from the falls, and then drop by a spice plantation on the way back – all for around ₹1600 per person (£20). It’s a long day (much of it spent on the road), but nothing compares to the sheer exhilaration of stripping down to swim in Goa’s iconic waterfalls. Lifejackets are essential (provided by the your companies), and watch out for monkeys on the trail, which will undoubtedly try to steal any easily-accessible food. As for the spice plantation, expect a crash-course in one of India’s key exports, from the medical properties of lemongrass to the cultural history of cinnamon. All in all, it’s an exhausting day out, but well worth it.
With Vagator beach, Club Cubana, and the Dudhsagar falls out of the way, let’s talk about the South. Goa’s most acclaimed beach is Palolem, right down South about an hour and a half from the airport. Here, the coastline’s natural curvature means the sea is always calm and offers beautiful vistas of the entire beach and lofty ridges that surround it. There’s also the opportunity to go dolphin-spotting on a boat trip, or if it’s low tide, paddle across to Monkey Island for a guided jungle trek.
Gorgeous as Palolem is, you don’t have to go that far to find the kind of picture-perfect beaches featured in travel magazines. In the middle of the state lies a strip of untouched coastline, banked by high-end resorts that offer every conceivable luxury. If you’re after a 5-star hotel right on the beach for a price that won’t break the bank, try the Kenilworth Resort or the Royal Orchid Beach Resort near the town of Majorda. For around ₹10,000 (£120) a night for a basic double room, expect swimming pools, bars, balconies, and the convenience of being able to walk from your room to the beach in five minutes. Just make sure you don’t stick to the hotel restaurants – the twin areas of Majorda and Utorda host two of Goa’s best restaurants for seafood: Martin’s Corner and Pentagon. Expect fresh crab and lobster cooked in masala, local fish caught that day, and a wide range of other authentic Indian delicacies.
But if you want more than just a beach, and are looking for something truly special, there is one hotel that outshines all the others for a true Indian experience: the Alila Diwa Goa. Located 500m inland, the sea is still easily accessible (they run a shuttle bus throughout the day), but arriving at this hotel feels like entering another universe. For one thing, it is built in the heart of a rice paddy, with an infinity pool with vistas of the Indian countryside that makes you feel like you’re floating on the edge of the world. Every care has been taken to make this a haven of calm and tranquility – far away from the bustle of Baga. But this isn’t just about luxury, it’s about India. The Alila’s unique take on high tea is served daily by the pool, and offers a gourmet selection of street food snacks more usually found on the corners of Mumbai or Delhi, accompanied by sweet masala chai tea. The spa combines Asian and Western therapeutic techniques for an immersive relaxation experience that is far more than a basic massage, with soothing traditional music, herbal oils, and the option of an Indian head massage. They also offer Ayurveda, a system of medicine originating from India – and whether or not you believe in the philosophy behind it, it’ll be sure to leave you feeling rejuvenated and relaxed.
The Alila Diwa Goa also hosts one of the best restaurants in the region: the Spice Studio. A meal here is a culinary journey across India, from the mountains of Rajasthan to the southern shores of Kerala. And of course, Goan specialities are represented in full. The head chef is something of a celebrity in the region, a local grandmother who has become famous through her expertise in traditional Goan and Indian cuisine. Try the prawns cooked fresh in coconut and kokum fruit, the locally-spiced lamb, the chicken tikka with cashews, or the signature Goan seafood curry with fish, scallops and squid. For dessert, the choice of traditional homemade ice-creams is sublime, from saffron and cardamon, to fennel and cashew, to the rose-flavoured gulkand.
And if those aren’t reason enough to splurge on this incredible hotel, here’s one more: the Alila experiences. Unlike other resorts in the area, which do their best to make sure guests want for nothing and stay within the walls, the Alila encourages travellers to see the real Goa, with a choice of bespoke excursions. These range from a trip to the fish market to help choose the catch of the day, followed by an Indian cooking class, to a tour of a newly renovated Portuguese mansion converted into a museum of Goan history, to a visit to the local baker, complete with the chance to make bread the traditional way in an oven built into the wall. All these experiences offer guests an inside view of Goan life that is inaccessible on the standard tourist trail, and are central to the Alila philosophy of providing an immersion into Indian culture, rather than just another luxury hotel. Terrace rooms start at around ₹18,000 (£220) a night if you book in advance, with the opulent Diwa Club rooms (which include access to an extra Club-only pool) offering even more exceptional comfort for ₹27,300 (£330).
Whether you throw yourself into everything the Alila Diwa Goa has to offer, stick to the relaxation of the beach resorts, or opt for hostels and home-stays, Goa has something for everyone. The locals will proudly tell you that this is not “real India” – it’s where real Indians go to experience something special. And this winter, you should join them.