The story of Goa’s transformation from palm-fringed backwater to tourism hot spot begins in the sixties, when hordes of hippies first flocked to this tiny state on the southwest Konkan coast. They came here, a quick one-hour flight from Mumbai, for the clear and unpolluted skies, pristine beaches, and relaxed vibe, and they stayed in rugged waterfront cottages, partying on the beach all night. Today this hippie-dippy vibe largely remains, but Goa’s gone chic, too, with many of its two million annual visitors arriving by private jet, especially around New Year’s, when Bollywood stars throng the shores. Goa veterans, however, will advise against going during these congested weeks, as prices soar and space is tight. The relative quiet of the rest of the November-to-February season allows travelers to better appreciate the region’s natural beauty and simpler joys.
Among these is the town of Arpora’s famed Saturday-night market, in North Goa, the more commercialized part of the state, where most of the hotels are. The market is great for picking up, say, handcrafted tote bags and costume jewelry. And then in Old Goa, a unesco World Heritage site, also in the north, timeworn churches and landmarks provide evidence of the state’s Portuguese colonizers. The Basilica of Bom Jesus holds the relics of Goa’s patron saint, Francis Xavier, and Sé Cathedral is said to be the largest church in Asia.
Goa’s cuisine, like its architecture, blends many influences, Portuguese and Arabian among them, while also making great use of local seafood. At North Goa’s waterside La Plage (Ashvem Beach), an eclectic menu of tapas and barbecued meats caters to a hip, young crowd. Similar in style is Bomra’s, a modern Burmese spot also in North Goa, run by a dynamic London-trained chef and beloved by author Amitav Ghosh (Fort Aguada Rd.).
For classic renditions of local fare, Nostalgia (608 Uzra Raia Salcete) calls upon painstaking traditional techniques to reproduce brilliant vindaloos as well as bebinca, a signature multilayered Goan dessert made with eggs and coconut milk. And at Horse Shoe (E-245 Rua de Ourem), the inspired chef brings a nuanced twist to local home cooking, whipping up dishes like traditional seafood curry and feijoada, a stew of pork and beans.
What visitors really come here for, though, are the beaches. The most beautiful and far less touristed ones are in the south, most notably Colva Beach, the state’s longest uninterrupted stretch of sand, and Palolem, known for its excellent dolphin viewing.
Now that indiscriminate development has overwhelmed much of the coastline, such small pleasures as a serene beach can be difficult to locate, even in the quieter part of the season. While luxuriously pampering, the large five-star hotels reveal little of Goa’s distinct character. One exception is the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa ($350–$3,500; Arrosim Beach; 91-83/2272-1234; goa.park.hyatt.com), which features a traditional Goan restaurant, Casa Sarita, and the 36,000-square-foot Sereno Spa, arguably one of the finest in India.
But for the most part, it’s best to stay at Goa’s boutique hotels, which are just as elegant (and pricy) as the five-stars but far more authentic. The 12-room family-owned Pousada Tauma ($350–$800; Porba Vaddo; 91-83/2227-9061; pousada-tauma.com) is meticulously run. Its lush landscaping and stylish poolside rooms keep the focus on the tropical surroundings, and the restaurant, Copper Bowl, serves a blend of Konkan and North Indian cuisine.
The Nilaya Hermitage ($530–$800; Apora Bhati; 91-83/ 2227-6793; nilaya.com), perched on a hilltop and designed by Dean D’Cruz, the same architect who did Pousada Tauma, has views of banana and coconut trees. Painted in bright colors and accented with domed ceilings and local artwork, its 11 rooms take their names from celestial elements. “The Star Room is my favorite,” says fashion designer Rachel Roy, who visits with her family. “The space feels otherworldly but still Indian.”
Even more special is Elsewhere ($80–$700; aseascape.com), a retreat of four cottages and three tents owned by top Indian fashion photographer Denzil Sequeira. In a secret location about 45 minutes from Old Goa and overlooking one of the best beaches in the north, Elsewhere can be reached only by a bamboo footbridge, giving visitors exclusive access to miles of white sand.
And, finally, for a glimpse of Goa in its heyday, nothing is more exquisite than Aashyana Lakhanpal (from $9,500 a week; Escrivao Vaddo; 91-83/2248-9225; aashyanalakhanpal.com). This five-bedroom, fully staffed villa on Candolim Beach belongs to a local industrialist whose impressive collection of contemporary Indian art is hung throughout.