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36 Hours in Goa, India

By Jeff Koyen
March 14, 2010

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FOR many, Goa is synonymous with hippies, hedonism and all-night dance parties held under a full moon. But India’s popular seaside destination offers more than deadheads and clichés. For one thing, Goa is not a single beach, but a rich and varied state — one that offers 63 miles of coastline along the Arabian Sea. Beyond the beaches lies a lush landscape that conceals ancient temples, rich ecosystems and the hilly farmlands that proved irresistible to European spice traders. Centuries before the hippies, there were the Portuguese — and it’s their lingering influence, not the lax laws, that makes Goa such an alluring place.

Friday

6 p.m.
1) BOLLYWOOD BOOZE CRUISE

Before plunging into Goa’s various seaside idylls, jump into a Bollywood-style dance party on a sunset cruise along the Mandovi River. Of the several riverboats there, the Santa Monica, operated by the Goa Tourism Development Corporation, is perhaps the least overrun by rowdy college students (it departs from the Santa Monica Jetty at Old Mandovi Bridge; 91-832-243-8754; goa-tourism.com; 150 rupees, or $3.35 at 45 rupees to the dollar). Its nightly song-and-dance spectacles attract a diverse crowd of Goan regulars and Indian honeymooners eager to jump on-stage. Not in the mood to twist hip-to-hip with a dozen new friends? Retreat to the stern and soak in the view of Goa’s small but busy capital, Panaji (still occasionally referred to as Panjim, as it was known during Portuguese rule).

8 p.m.
2) LA CUISINE DE GOA

Though Goa has attracted expatriates for centuries, its dining scene has only recently gone international. At Le Poisson Rouge (opposite Baga Bridge; 91-832-324-5800; lepoissonrouge-goa.info), the chef and owner, Gregory Bazire, combines spices common to Goan cooking — that is, less curry and more cumin — with locally caught fish and fresh vegetables to create authentic French fare with a unique flair. The steamed red snapper is stuffed with prawns and rechard masala — a standard in any Goan kitchen, made with red chilies, paprika, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Dinner for two, without wine, is about 1,500 rupees.

10 p.m.
3) TRY YOUR LUCK

Though many hotels have small in-house casinos, more fun awaits in the yachts docked at Panaji. Casino Royale is currently the high-rolling hot spot (next to the Panaji Jetty; 91-832-665-9400; casinoroyalegoa.com). The deluxe package (for 3,500 rupees) includes entrance, unlimited house-brand drinks, and a glittery stage show. Savvy gamblers skip the slots, with their unregulated payout ratios, and stick to the table games, which meet international standards.

Saturday

8 a.m.
4) GOA AU NATUREL

Before the heat kicks in, head into the forested hinterlands and disappear into a world without paved roads and cellphone towers. Canopy Goa (M-11, Housing Board Colony, Gogol, Margao; 91-976-426-1711; canopygoa.com) organizes ecologically friendly outings to Goa’s sanctuaries and parks, as well as heritage tours to Goan villages and the Buddhist caves in Rivona, believed to date back to the sixth century. Half-day tours start at 8 a.m; tickets cost 1,750 rupees a person for a group of two.

11 a.m.
5) SPICY SOJOURN

Returning from the wilderness, stop in the small but central city of Ponda to visit the state’s world-famous spice plantations. Tourists lean toward the Tropical Spice Plantation, thanks to the crowd-pleasing elephant rides and taxi drivers who steer business there. Instead, head to the less-trafficked Savoi Plantation (Savoi Village, Ponda; 91-832-234-0272; savoiplantation.com), whose motto is “Organic Since Origin.” At this 200-year-old spice farm, a guide will show you where turmeric, cloves and vanilla beans come from (answer: a root, flower buds and a creeping vine respectively). A fresh fish lunch is included in the 400-rupee price.

1 p.m.
6) QUIET SANDS

Pick a beach, any beach, and you’ll find soft white sands that span the peaceful Arabian Sea, friendly hawkers selling trinkets, necklaces and cheap cotton sarongs and, this being India, a cow or two. But choose your beach wisely. The stretch of sand that runs between Calangute and Baga can get crowded with Russian tourists and deck chairs. If you’re looking for untouched sands, head south to Palolem, where seagulls and the clinking of Kingfisher beer bottles are the sole soundtrack.

4 p.m.
7) CLIFFSIDE TRANQUILLITY

For another brand of peace and quiet, brave the winding dirt roads through the small towns of Anjuna and Vagator and climb the steep but small hillock to the ruins of Chapora Fort (north of Vagator Beach). Even before the Portuguese arrived, this perch at the mouth of the Chapora River was of crucial strategic importance, thanks to its 360-degree views. Today, nearly 400 years after the Portuguese first laid their claim, all that remains are ruins of the ruin, but the view has lost none of its magic. What’s more, there’s little here to interrupt your solitude — no ticket booth, no souvenir stands.

6 p.m.
8) SUNSET WITH SHISHA

An hour before sunset, a ritual begins at Baga Beach. Deck chairs are replaced by tables for two, towel boys are redressed as waiters, and the smell of sweet shisha fills the air as water pipes are shared by twinkling candlelight. Considering the daytime buzz, it’s surprisingly peaceful at this golden hour.

8 p.m.
9) VIVA VINDALOO

Vindaloo may be a staple of Indian restaurants in the West, but the dish isn’t, strictly speaking, Indian. It hails from the Portuguese garlic and wine sauce known as vin d’alho, and there’s no better place to sample this heavily spiced dish — with chicken, fish or vegetables — than Viva Panjim (House No. 178, 31st January Road, Panaji; 91-832-242-2405), a family-run restaurant on a smallside alley in central Panaji. Dinner for two, without drinks, about 300 rupees.

10 p.m.
10) THE AFTER PARTY

The rave craze may be a decade past its prime, but Goa remains a magnet for anything-goes party-seekers. Beachside blowouts are still organized in the north, where Anjuna’s backpackers whisper about the night’s quasi-illegal parties. And nightclubs in Calangute are routinely packed with rowdy tourists jumping in unison to pounding beats. Positioned — literally and figuratively — between these two extremes is Tito’s (Tito’s Lane; 91-832-227-5028; www.titos.in), where the crowds are more manageable and the music less likely to cause a headache. But if this huge open-air nightclub proves too much, stroll down the sandy lane to a cluster of less madcap bars, where happy hours run past dusk.

Sunday

8 a.m.
11) CHAKRA, FROM THE SOURCE

Goa is synonymous with decadence in some circles, but it’s still India after all, so you’ll find yoga-cum-massage parlors on practically every block. They range from “authentic” healing centers to quickie $3 foot-massage joints. Oddly, this bounty of competition hasn’t bred quality; even the legitimate-sounding Ayurvedic Natural Health Centre in Baga fails to deliver. The go-to spot for herbal healing and rejuvenating rubdowns is the northern village of Mandrem, where Ashiyana Tropical Retreat (Junas Waddo, Mandrem Beach; 91-985-040-1714; ashiyana-yoga-goa.com) earns top marks among yoga enthusiasts. The founder, Chris Nelson, organizes retreats and welcomes drop-ins, from 1,500 rupees.

Noon
12) LUNCH WITH HIPPIES

Anjuna Beach remains an enclave for expat hippies and relatively well-behaved societal dropouts. Along the laidback beach road (a sandy path, really), several open-air restaurants advertise pizzas and other Western fare. Seek out the paneer tikka cooked in Moon Star Restaurant’s brick oven (north of Andy’s Tattoos, North Anjuna Beach). The grilled cubes of curd cheese are served kebab-style with onions and green peppers, firm but not overcooked, and liberally spiced. Maybe the hippies have had the right idea all along — what’s better than a delicious cheap meal, cooked to order and served overlooking the tranquil Arabian Sea?

IF YOU GO

From the United States, the best way to get to Goa is to fly into Mumbai and transfer to a domestic airline. Continental, United and Air India offer nonstop flights from Newark or Kennedy Airport to Mumbai, with fares starting at $1,050 for travel this month, according to a recent Web search. Jet Airways, JetLite and Kingfisher Airlines offer easy one-hour flights to Goa several times daily, round trip from $87.

The Leela Kempinski Goa (Cavelossim, Mobor; 91-83-2662-1234; theleela.com) is part of Leela’s growing collection of luxury hotels in India. All 186 rooms on this 75-acre resort, with private beach, overlook the water; from $550.

Coco Shambhala (Coco Beach, Nerul, Bardez; 44-120-248-4257; cocoshambhala.com) has four exquisite villas — each with two bedrooms, a garden and private pool, as well as a car and driver; from $2,100 a week in midseason (through May). It is near quiet Coco Beach, near north and central Goa.

Panchavatti Guest House (Corjuem Island, Aldona, Bardez; 91-982-258-0632; islaingoa.com) is a four-suite guesthouse on Corjuem island, just 30 minutes by car from the northern town of Mapusa. It is run by Loulou Van Damme, a Belgian expatriate who invites everyone to yoga each morning and treats guests like family. Rooms from $225, including meals (through May).