This swathe of postcard-perfect prettiness on India’s western coast has a unique cultural identity thanks to its Portuguese colonial heritage — also partly responsible for its delicious cuisine — which, combined with the stunning coastline fringed with tropical foliage and an inimitable spirit of joie-de-vivre, has drawn in travelers from all around the world who seem to find the exact form of nirvana they were seeking.
Here is an insider guide to staying, seeing and eating in Goa that will help you make the most of a quick getaway to this beach haven.
Where to stay
Steer away from the over-crowded beaches of north Goa and head to the quieter southern coast, where, on the unspoilt Benaulim beach, the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa presides as the grand dame of Goa’s luxury hotels. Spread across 56-acres of lush landscaped grounds — which includes a private putting green — the low-lying resort oozes a stately, old-world charm made only more inviting with the warm Indian hospitality Taj hotels are known for (starting with the welcome reception of a seashell garland, tropical drink and lively Goan music as soon as you enter).
Make like the many A-listers who have holidayed here — from Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan to Hollywood royalty and world leaders — and check in to one of their newly-refurbished villa rooms, which boast private plunge pools. Housed in colorful hacienda-style villas, the oversized accommodations feature traditional local décor accents and plush amenities ranging from pillow menus to marble-clad bathrooms with claw foot tubs and luxury Ayurvedic bath products.
The hotel is also home to a well-equipped kids’ club, complete with daily activities and water slides, and many of the rooms are designed to be inter-connecting, making it ideal for a family break.
With the golden beach just footsteps away; multiple dining options including traditional Goan cuisine, fresh seafood right by the beach at the chilled-out Lobster Shack restaurant and a lavish breakfast buffet best enjoyed alfresco in the Mediterranean-inspired Sala da Pranzo restaurant; plus, expert therapists at the award-winning Jiva spa at hand to enable the ultimate holiday relaxation, there is enough here to tempt you to never leave the resort during your stay. But it is worth tearing yourself away to check out some of Goa’s unique heritage.
What to see and do
This city-state on India’s western coast, part of the Konkan belt, was a long-held Portuguese colony from the 1600s to 1800s, which led to the development of its own hybrid culture and cuisine.
And while lying on the beach and doing nothing is a very important part of a trip to Goa — it is impossible not to have relaxation wash all over you when lounging to the accompaniment of the crashing of the waves, tropical sunshine, and laid-back vibes — you would be amiss if you did not check out some of its incredibly-rich cultural relics.
From ancient churches and sacred Hindu temples, to 17th century forts and even some noteworthy historic mosques, it is all here. Depending on which area you base yourself in, you are probably never too far from a cute little neighborhood church or historic house. But a trip to UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Goa, or Velha Goa — an inland riverside district — is not to be missed.
Replete with cathedrals and churches featuring traditional Renaissance architecture, this is where you will also find what is probably Goa’s most famous attraction, the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Also worth trekking out for is Fort Aguada, a scenic ruin providing panoramic views and the perfect sunset vantage point.
In Goa, history coexists effortlessly with a contemporary, global arts and design scene, which you can explore at the numerous eclectic galleries and boutiques that have mushroomed over the years. The capital city of Panaji (or Panjim) is the best place to discover everything from Goa’s best-known fashion export Wendell Rodricks’ collections, to contemporary art galleries.
What to eat
An amalgam of indigenous and colonial elements, Goan cuisine is wonderfully eclectic, complex, flavorful and quite fiery. Seafood, naturally, is a mainstay, as is coconut — in true tropical tradition — which are complemented with an array of spices and culinary influences as varied as Portuguese, Asian, Konkani and Malabari and even Arabian.
In Goa, you are never too far from the staple diet of fish fry — typically done here with a spicy marinade and semolina crumb — or fish curry with rice, which you simply cannot go wrong with.
But to try some rarer authentic dishes in a refined fine dining setting, Miguel Arcanjo’s restaurant at the Taj Exotica resort is not to be missed.
The Goan chef draws upon memories and family recipes as well as his own travels around the world to serve up specialties such as prawns piri piri (stir-fried in a spicy sauce); mushroom rissioes (Goan-style empanadas); the classic chicken cafreal (grilled chicken in a coriander and chilli sauce); and xacuti (a curry made with 12 different spices, which can be made with chicken or seafood) which are best mopped up with sannas, steamed rice flour patties that tread that fine line between sweet and savory.
An integral part of Goan cuisine is the wide array of sweets, of which many, expectedly, rely heavily on coconut. If you only try one dessert in Goa, make it the signature bebinca — a rich, layered coconut cake, which pairs beautifully with ice cream. The dry cake also makes for a great culinary souvenir and is available at many stores in Goa.
In fact, bebinca may well be the perfect gastronomic metaphor for the multi-layered, moreish and delightfully sweet destination that is Goa.