Return to Paradise: Discover Goa’s modern-day appeal

Nick Redman
Mar 12, 2020

Goa was the place for hippies, happy-clappies and other work-shirking hedonists. But times have changed. Nick Redman — a winter idler there decades ago — returns to discover its modern day appeal 

Low and cubic above the sands of Vagator, it could be a clutter of giant white shoeboxes. Set against the familiar Indian beach scene of crowds in rainbow fabrics and cattle, it might be LA. Whatever the vibe, my hotel — W Goa — is unlike the digs I recall from my first trip to India’s hippie-chic paradise three decades ago. Which is a good thing, I think, as I check in for a few days. 

The housey-pulsy music emanating from the hotel’s Woobar is gentle, if relentless: the way once-clubbers now saddled with careers and mortgages are supposed to like it. I watch liquid sunsets from the indoor-outdoor lobby (‘Living Room’, in W Hotels-speak). I eat sushi and Thai at the restaurant, Spice Traders. And after 36 hours amid the sherbet-hued, purposefully mismatched modern furniture, I feel I’ve moved in with Ken and Barbie. 

Fort Aguada on Sinquerim Beach
Fort Aguada on Sinquerim Beach

Call me a terminal nostalgic, but I’d always yearned to return to India, to Goa’s golden sands — minus the mosquitoes, hard beds and new best friends with hygiene issues I’d encountered aged 25. Older and wider, I’ve sought the happy medium: a smart resort beside the same beach where I laid my (awful, embroidered) hat all those years ago. I’m far from Calangute and Candolim, irreparably changed by ’90s development. And if Vagator Beach has gone massmarket (damn those jet-skis), the hotel does do a good Mojito: doctor’s orders for a willing-but-wimpy India returnee, last here when T’Pau ruled the charts. 

I relax into the clifftop pool scene, which morphs at dusk into a club of sorts. A DJ inside what looks like half an enormous eggshell plays for the rich and shameless from California, Italy, Mumbai and Dubai. I teeter on to the dance floor and it’s all very Goa for grown-ups, although maybe I’m too grown-up — after a 7.15am Bollywood fitness workout on the lawn, I feel about 85. True, I did want somewhere comfy and contemporary, which the hotel is, but after another 24 hours of bass pulse and loud sofas, I realise I also want somewhere peaceful and genuinely Goan, too — if only for a day off. Two front-desk staff listen in and confer discreetly. One traces a finger north up a map, as if searching for buried treasure: Ashwem, a $12, 40-minute taxi ride away. 

Next day, as the drive takes me inland, it’s not long before I’m getting reassuring flickers of real India: a flash of a cricket match, the teams clad in yellow; a swirl of shoppers and scooters around a white church in a small town, Siolem (Goa is 45% Catholic and only 55% Hindu). At a lonely junction a temple emerges, in shades of fizzy Love Hearts: pink, peach, blue and mint; then Ashwem. Refreshingly, it’s how I recall Goa. Mostly… 

Waves lap the shores of Vagator Beach
Vagator Beach

‘Vous avez réservé une table?’ 

Valentine is the niece of Florence from Provence, long-time proprietor of La Plage restaurant. It basks below palms, sandy underfoot, accessed from the beach via lantern-topped carved doors. No speaker blare, no tie-dye, just deckchairs at low tables and dangling lamps. 

Have I struck (old) gold? The place seemed to be working a grown-up Goa theme, serving mackerel tarts with tapenade or royal crab and seafood risotto to bikini’d guests from Moscow and Rome, to discreetly moneyed Mumbaikers and to start-up entrepreneurs from Bangalore. I could have stayed all day on the vast sands: accepting good-natured entreaties to having a foot massage; ducking into a beach-shack bar for a sweet-salt lime soda; perusing the Eurasian-fusion bags and espadrilles sold by Yashu, the nut-brown-tanned Sardinian, who was part of a low-key community here for six months of the year. ‘Morjim, Arambol, Ashwem… This northern part is hippie-chic Goa now,’ she told me. 

Goan Seafood Curry served with kokum juice and small prawns
Goan Seafood Curry served with kokum juice and small prawns

I said it was all terribly chi-chi, which may have sounded like a bad thing — she searched for a response. ‘You will like the south of Goa. Amazing. Cola Beach.’ 

Barefoot hippie beauty? I took note. 

Anand, who picked me up the next morning for a few days of discovery, was the calmest guide a grown-up-Goaseeker could wish for, and the most informative: ‘Back in the ’60s the hippies first found their ‘natural’ uniform, here,’ he explained, as we motored off past waterlogged meadows of listless buffaloes. ‘Even in the ’90s it was a trend for Indian people to come to the beaches and “sightsee”, as it were. They’d never seen white people like that before.’ In 2001, the phenomenon propelled Goa to Bollywood fame in the coming-of-age drama Dil Chahta Hai (What the Heart Wants). 

‘And the much-loved Chapora Fort was a key location,’ he said. ‘Which really added to the film’s popularity.’ 

I told Anand I’d climbed up to it from W Goa in the silver dawn light that morning. I’d loved its worn rust-red walls; I’d looked north to Ashwem, south to infinity — there was no sign of development, it was as if I was gazing at a photo of my ’80s nostalgia. I’d seen trawlers trailing white foam, heading home full of mackerel and catfish. Looking out over space-blue Arabian Sea horizons, Chapora is one of many Goan forts of heart-stopping drama, even more so for their plainness: stony memorials of Muslim rule, then centuries of Portuguese domination — not until 1961 did the latter end 450 years of control, decades after the British. 

Later that tranquil day, under a cloudless sky, I’d walked the empty ramparts of Reis Magos Fort. It rose over the Mandovi estuary (where the Goan capital, Panaji, clusters) radiating calm, with its white walls and scarlet pan tiles, and even the original cannons still trained on the skyline over which old enemies appeared. Less serene, though, was the Death Hole, fed with boiling oil to deep-fry those who breached the gates; and grim, too, were the cells of solitary confinement: ‘Used in the ’50s Goa Liberation Movement,’ said Anand, ‘when Reis Magos was a prison.’ 

Sobering thoughts for a beachgoer — but I was loving having left my lounger. If I hadn’t, I’d never have seen the churches of abandoned Old Goa (the precursor to Panaji town). Finished off by malaria, it was a mausoleum of ancient faith caught in slow-grow jungle, haunted and divine. In the Chapel of the Weeping Cross, gold Corinthian columns supported the side altars. In the Basilica of Bom Jesus — resplendent in lung-pink stone — an official with a mic tried heroically, but hopelessly, to halt the selfies with the preserved remains of Saint Francis Xavier. The mummy was assaulted in 1953 by a pilgrim who bit off a big toe and tried to run away with it. You don’t get foot treatments like that in Ashwem. 

Vibrant bungalows on Palolem Beach
Vibrant bungalows on Palolem Beach

We moved on to lovely Panaji, faintly evocative of Lisbon or Madrid. With wrought-iron window grilles and a ripple of roof tiles, Panaji’s cobbled Fontainhas quarter is the most concentrated chunk of old Portugal in Goa. Cool dishevelment hung around the drowsy late-pm streets: the facades painted indigo and turmeric; alleys brimming with plants; the bakery, Confeitaria 31 de Janeiro, 75 years old, filled with rose-topped chocolate cakes. 

I left Vagator the next day, for Ahilya by the Sea, a remarkable — very grown-up — boutique hideaway full of the owner’s finds from Turkey, Burma and beyond. That night, I could make out the glow of Panaji from its lawns: a rim of urban orange and white light far across the black estuary waters. Cicadas chattered in the uplit undergrowth; a slate-grey-blue infinity pool slapped sporadically; white stars were pin-sharp, far above the palms — a lonely moment to make you shiver, realising the speeding arc of our time on Earth, which only later decades reveal as real. But chef Jason made edifying Goan-infused dishes for us guests to eat under the banyan tree: chilli fish of the day in coconut milk, and masala mussels in shells as big as castanets. 

Only the beach was lacking. There was a fine one, but it was a working one, for vivid fishermen’s boats, not swimmers. Yet by moving down here from Vagator, Anand advised, I could search more easily for Goa’s promised beautiful barefoot south. One morning, after a 6am breakfast, we set off, fuzz-gold light upon the tarmac ahead. Full-on Goan scenes of memory were soon unfolding. We passed once-elegant bungalows, low-roofed at crossroads, peering from greenery like Lisbon ladies who had moved here in colonial times, only to lose their money and minds, ageing in lichened, liver-spotted solitude.

The Portuguese brought chillies from Africa; cashew-nut trees from Brazil, too, to control soil erosion during the Monsoon. These produce violently scarlet ‘apples’, which hang like evil fruit in a fairy tale. The Western Ghats began to rise, clad in dewy deciduous forest — teak, Indian rosewood — and we neared Chandor village, for the venerable Menezes Braganza House. Here was a musty, magical reminder of how historic Goa actually is, if you travel away from its touristy shores. Distantly related to the Portuguese family who built it 350 years ago, stern Judith led us past the Wedgwood set brought by the East India Company; the dining chairs (‘Same type Queen Elizabeth uses in her Buckingham Palace’); the crystal chandelier from Belgium and the ablution set from Macau.

No photos,’ Judith barked, admonishing a French couple. ‘Always ask permission before you take.’ She softened to tell the concluding story of family wealth sucked away by Goa’s 1962 land reforms: ‘I am overburdened, but God is always there to bless you.’ And she was back on form for the ‘voluntary’ donations: ‘This is my contribution box,’ she said, with a flip of the lid and a rebuke to the French duo: ‘It’s 300 rupees, not 200.’ 

With that fond farewell, we were en route to the beaches of southern Goa where, if ever I come back, I want to spend an eternity. Agonda was so less ‘Riviera’ than the north, with simple cottages fronted by porches of wicker chairs in which retired people from Europe sat. Further south, at Palolem, was Alan from Londob with mates: here for a month for the 12th year running. ‘There were more dogs than humans then, same as now.’ 

Later that day, one of two blissed-out ladies — in a car coming the other way — said, ‘You’re going to paradise,’ when we asked for directions to Cola Beach. The approach was stony-bumpy, but finally I glimpsed sea and a flash of glampy canvas: Cola Beach Exclusive Tented Resort. I ordered a drink as the sun sank and already wished I could stay a whole winter. The rinse of the surf. The peace of the bay. It was as if time hadn’t happened. I’d found it: grown-up and unruined. I promised myself I’d not wait another 30 years. By then, Goa, I’ll be gone.

Credit. The Sunday Times/News Licensing