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As she continues on her own epic trip throughout India, TPG Contributor Jenny Miller takes us to Goa, India’s smallest state. Best known for its miles of perfect beaches and all-hours nightlife, this tiny wedge of India’s western coast also offers intriguing Portuguese-influenced cuisine and ornate architecture.
WHAT TO DO
The first step in any Goa vacation is to pick your beach. This may be India’s smallest state, but its coastline stretches for 63 miles, making it necessary to focus your planning efforts.
The beach towns that dot this sandy, palm-fringed slice of the world have vastly different characters, from chilled-out Palolem all the way south, with its perfect crescent beach and vacationing couples, to Arambol way up north, where the hippie vibe of Goa in the 1960s and ’70s lives on among artsy, low-budget travelers. Most of the state’s major hotels are located somewhere in-between, with most near the more commercial areas of Baga or Anjuna, which have more in the way of serious restaurants and nightlife. If you have more than a few days in Goa, it can be fun to hit a couple of different towns for a few nights each to experience their unique ambiance.
As far as what to do, there’s no need to get too ambitious: it’s enough to simply relax and soak up Goa’s sun and surf. Should you need a break from paradise, there are some fascinating cultural activities and driving along the backroads is always gorgeous, with tall, listing palms framing the state’s many beautiful Portuguese-built villas and picturesque, stark-white churches. A Portuguese colony from the 16th century until 1961, Goa still has a relatively large Christian population, and it’s one of the only areas in India where you’ll find pork widely available on menus.
If you’re visiting for more than a few days, it’s worth taking a day or an afternoon off from the beach to hit Panaji (also called Panjim), Goa’s sleepy capital of 1.5 million people, with faded colonial buildings that bear an apparent Portuguese stamp. The best-preserved historic neighborhood is Fontainhas, which has a few gorgeously restored villas that are now hotels and art galleries. Nearby is Old Goa, the capital of Portuguese India from the 16th through 18th centuries, which also warrants a couple of hours to see its many well-preserved churches.
There are also several weekly events in Goa you might want to hit up. Anjuna hosts its famous flea market every Wednesday, with all manner of souvenirs and homemade wares on offer. Every Saturday is the weekly night market in the village of Arpora, a good place to buy your spices, tea, sarongs, and handmade leather goods at better prices that you might find in town (though be sure to bargain hard at both). There’s an international food court here as well, offering everything from falafel to pizza served on nifty biodegradable banana-leaf plates. Goa is also famous for its wild parties; find out what’s happening where at whatsupgoa.com.
WHERE TO EAT
Unfortunately, food in Goa is not as reliably delicious as in other parts of India. Thanks to the state’s huge numbers of international tourists, it can seem like most restaurants serve the same middling menu of Indian-Seafood-Continental-Tibetan-Nepalese-Israeli-Chinese-Russian cuisine. However, a number of restaurants do offer actual Goan food, if you know what to look for.
Goan cuisine’s most famous dish is vindaloo, which gets its name from the Portuguese “vinh d’alho,” meaning wine and garlic. In addition to these ingredients, typical dishes include Indian spices like mustard, coriander, and cumin, and lots of chilies. Another nice specialty is xacuti, a less spicy, brown, coconut-based curry that’s delicious as a preparation for locally caught prawns. Pomfret is a very typical Goan fish (usually one of these small-to-medium flat fish feeds one or two people), and a typical preparation is “recheado” or stuffed. Papad, unique spring rollsrolled in pappadam and deep-fried, are another crowd-pleaser.
If you really want to dig into Goan food, be sure to visit Mum’s Kitchen in Panjim, where the proprietors have made it their mission to preserve the state’s unique cuisine. Here you’ll find some of the most authentic renditions anywhere of typical dishes like chicken cafreal (treated with a cilantro-and-spices rub) and squid ambotik, in a dark curry laced with sour plums. Be sure to get an order of pao – ciabatta-like rolls – on the side to soak this up.
Another famous Goan restaurant is Martin’s Corner, in the small town of Betalbatim, not far from the main railway station in Margao. The 25-year-old restaurant has grown beyond its humble roadside shack origins into an upscale open-air eatery that’s rightly beloved for classic dishes including sorpotel, a deeply funky pork-liver stew, and chili-fried Goan choriço sausage, as well as extremely fresh – if pricey – seafood.
Goa enjoys the cheapest alcohol prices in India, which, along with the beautiful beaches, makes it a popular vacation destination for Indians from other parts of the country. Kingfishers and locally produced Kings beer dominate the beachside drinking scene, but if you want something really local, order the fenny, a hair-raising moonshine made from either coconut or cashew–it’s not for everyone, but it is worth tasting.
There are no direct flights from US destinations to Goa’s Dabolim International Airport (GOI), but it’s only a 45-minute connecting flight from Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (BOM) in Mumbai. International travelers arrive at Terminal 2 and must take a free, 15-minute shuttle ride to domestic Terminal 1 for their connection to GOI.
Mumbai’s BOM serves carriers from all three alliances:
Star Alliance: United flies here nonstop from Newark, as does Air India, which is set to join Star Alliance in June 2014. Air New Zealand flies to London where travelers can connect via Air India. Lufthansa flies here from its hub in Frankfurt, where you can travel via several other Star Alliance carriers including United and Air Canada. Turkish Airlines arrives via Istanbul; Singapore connects via Singapore; Swiss via Zurich; and South African Airways via Johannesburg.
Oneworld: Flights on American Airlines or British Airways stop in London and connect on BA flights to Mumbai. Cathay Pacific and Qantas connect via Hong Kong; Malaysian via Kuala Lumpur; and Qatar Airways via Doha.
SkyTeam: Delta actually operates a connecting flight from the US in Amsterdam; Air France arrives from Paris CDG; Kenya Airways connects via Nairobi and Saudia via Jeddah.
Non-alliance airlines represented at BOM include Virgin Atlantic via London; Bangkok Airways via Bangkok; Emirates via Dubai; and Etihad via Abu Dhabi.
Inexpensive connecting flights to GOI can be booked on Indian budget airlines like Spice Jet, Jet Airways and IndiGo, but be sure to book in advance, as fares for these tickets can increase dramatically at the last minute. Make sure you have at least 90 minutes between flights to accommodate the necessary transfer between Terminals 2 and 1 at BOM.
At GOI, there is one major terminal for both domestic and international flights. Just outside the terminal, prepaid taxi stands at GOI offer fixed-rate fares that passengers pay up front. An air-conditioned, 45-minute taxi ride to the capital, Panaji (aka Panjim), costs about 768 rupees ($13 US); note that fares rates do occasionally increase. Travel around Goa is safest by taxi, but be aware that it can get rather expensive.
You won’t want to drive a car on these busy, chaotic roads, but some intrepid types opt to rent motorbikes, cheaply and readily available throughout the state. However, if you choose this option, be aware that most rental motorbikes are better suited to short distances than long highway rides, and be sure to familiarize yourself with Indian road signs and traffic etiquette.
If you’ll be traveling to several destinations within Goa, consider using India’s extensive train system. Goa’s main, centrally located rail hub is in the state’s second-largest city, Margao (also known as Madgaon); the train code is MAO. If you’re heading to far southern beaches like Palolem, head to Canacona; for northern outposts like Arambol Beach, disembark at Pernem. In either case, be sure to double-check stops with train personnel while you’re onboard.
WHERE TO STAY
Though tiny, Goa is such a popular international tourist destination that you’ll find plenty of properties where you can use your hotel loyalty points for an exotic seaside vacation.
Radisson Blu Goa: This resort is centrally located in Goa, 45 minutes from Dabolim International Airport and 30 minutes from the railway station. Buildings are inspired by Goa’s Indo-Portuguese architecture, and situated on extensive green grounds with beachside access. Guests enjoy lovely colorful rooms with free high-speed WiFi, LCD TVs, a pillow menu, and bathrooms equipped with rain showers. There’s a Goan-Portuguese restaurant on-site, a Chinese restaurant, and a bar. There’s also a gym, a spa with four Ayurvedic treatment rooms, a beauty salon, and two pools. Rates in late March begin at 8,250 rupees ($135 US) per night, or 28,000 Gold Points.
Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Goa Arpora Baga: This Hilton family property is situated in North Goa on a scenic lagoon not far from Baga beach, an hour from Dabolim (GOI). It’s an ideal location for those who want to do some shopping, just a short drive from the lively Saturday night market and Anjuna’s Wednesday flea market. Business travelers will find everything they need on-site, including audio/visual equipment rental. Meanwhile, leisure travelers can enjoy a pool, pool and ping-pong tables, a gym, and several on-site restaurants. There are accessible guest rooms for those with special needs, and all rooms include amenities like internet for a fee, flat-panel TVs, room service, and a minibar. In late March, rates begin at 4,000 rupees ($65 US), or 5,000 HHonors points (no, you did not read that wrong – it’s seriously 5,000 points a night).
Grand Hyatt Goa: This sprawling, 312-guestroom hotel has no fewer than seven bars and restaurants, including eateries specializing in seafood and Indian cuisine. The location is extremely central, just 15 minutes’ drive from Goa’s lovely old Portuguese capital of Panjim, and 25 minutes from GOI. The extensive on-site Shamana Spa offers 19 treatment rooms, a gym, indoor lap pool, sauna and whirlpool, and activities like yoga, pilates, and aerobics. Meanwhile, business travelers will find seven meeting and boardrooms. Rooms have WiFi for a fee, spacious marble bathrooms, and iPod docking stations. Rates in late March begin at 10,000 rupees ($164 US) per night, or 12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.
There is also a Park Hyatt (see below in Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts).
Holiday Inn Resort Goa: This hotel is situated in South Goa, 45 minutes’ drive from GOI. A great choice for families, the resort offers direct access to Mobor Beach, along with an outdoor pool, recreation facilities, barbecue grills, a racquet court, and self-serve laundry machines on-site. There’s also a kids’ park and on-site babysitting. Standard WiFi service is free for all IHG® Rewards Club members, and rooms are equipped with work desks, bathtubs, coffee and tea makers, and minibars. There’s a Mediterranean restaurant, a 24-hour coffee shop, and several other food and beverage outlets, as well as the Spa Villa, specializing in Ayurvedic treatments. Room rates in late March start at 5,850 rupees ($96 US) per night, or 20,000 IHG Rewards Club points.
While Goa has nowhere to spend your Starpoints just yet, two properties are in the works: a W Retreat & Spa is expected to open in November 2015 in Vagator Beach, and an Aloft property in Calangute will open in September 2016.
Marriott Goa Resort & Spa: This Category 6 hotel is located in Goa’s capital of Panjim, making it ideal for those heading to Goa for the beautiful churches and intriguing vestiges of Portuguese culture, though not so much for those who simply want to laze around on a gorgeous beach. Business travelers will feel at home here thanks to room amenities like speakerphones and a trouser press, plus a full-service business center. There’s 24-hour room service and several restaurants and bars on-site, as well as other notable eateries within a short drive. Fitness buffs will find a fully equipped gym and outdoor pool at their disposal, along with the Quan Spa for winding down. In late March, rates begin at 9,350 rupees ($153 US) per night or 30,000 Marriott Reward points.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Vivanta by Taj Goa: This hotel is well-situated for both beach bums and culture buffs, set on beautiful Candolim Beach not far from Goa’s onetime Portuguese capital of Panjim. Accommodations are comprised of 142 cottages and villas designed in an Indo-Portuguese style and set on lush, leafy grounds. Rooms offer balconies, coffee and tea makers, 24-hour room service, and high-speed WiFi (for a fee). The property has four bars and restaurants that are destinations for guests and non-guests, including Banyan Tree, a Thai option; Beach House, specializing in a seafood and Goan cuisine; and Caravela, offering North Indian and Mediterranean fare. Drift Bar offers some of the property’s most dramatic sea views. In late March, rates start at 10,500 rupees ($172 US) per night.
American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels and Resorts is a hotel program specifically for American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cardholders. By booking through this portal, you receive added perks and benefits thrown in with your stay – sort of like you would with elite status or by booking through a travel agent with great contacts at a hotel.
Park Hyatt Goa Resort & Spa: Both this luxury hotel and its on-site Sereno Spa have won numerous awards. Just a 15-minute drive from GOI, the resort is convenient to some of the region’s non-sandy attractions, including Old Goa. Featuring Indo-Portuguese architecture, the property’s 250 pousada-style guestrooms are set on 45 acres of landscaped grounds dotted with lagoons and waterways, as well one of the largest swimming pools in India and several restaurants. There’s also a 24-hour fitness center, daily yoga, and cooking classes. In late March, rates start at 16,000 rupees ($262 US) per night.
Other Notable Properties
The Leela Goa: This deluxe property is set on 75 acres of lush, landscaped grounds near beautiful Mobor Beach in central Goa (not far from GOI and a train station). Here you’ll have everything you could want or need: a 12-hole golf course, tennis courts, a business center, and beach volleyball. Seven bars and restaurants on site offer a range of settings and cuisines. The spa specializes in Ayurveda but also offers all manner of Eastern and Western treatments, as well as yoga, a gym, sauna and steam room. Rooms offer Portuguese-inspired styling and balconies, while Club-level rooms offer butlers, airport transfers, outdoor showers and private plunge pools. In late March, rates begin at 18,000 rupees ($295 US) per night.
Taj Exotica: From the famed Taj hotel group, this luxury resort is set amid 56 acres of gardens. You’ll have a number of fine eateries to choose from that feature Goan, Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian fare respectively, as well as the Lobster Shack situated right on Benaulim Beach. Two- and four-bedroom villas are ideal for families, while facilities capable of accommodating 800-person events make this a nice choice for businesses. Rooms are done in a Goan-Portuguese style, all with private balconies, coffee and tea makers, and minibars; luxury rooms have jacuzzi tubs in the bathroom. The Jiva Spa specializes in Indian wellness and beauty treatments. In late March, rates begin at 12,000 rupees ($197 US) per night.
From now through May, hotels prices will be at some of their lowest throughout the year, as temperatures and humidity rise in anticipation of the lush rains of summer and early fall. High season here (both in terms of tourist numbers and room rates) lasts from November to February, when the weather is at its most comfortable and cool.
We here at TPG hope you’ll enjoy whichever seasonal version of Goa you choose – and if you’ve been there before, please share your impression in the comments below!