Mini guide to coastal Goa
An Indian fisherwoman walks on Goa's Anjuna beach. (Indranil Mukherjee/Getty)
The swaying palms, white sands and warm waters of this Indian state justifiably draw plenty of visitors. Discover a different side to Goan life on its less beaten paths.
Best for food
Slung along the banks of the Mandovi River, the easy-going state capital of Panaji is the base for Holiday on the Menu, which offers a range of Goan cooking holidays. Try a morning session and learn the art of creating a sofiani biryani and a Goan fish curry, or sign up for a full-week programme, with a trip to a spice plantation (morning courses from £60).
Former hippy hangout Calangute arguably provides the greatest concentration of dining options in Goa, with everything from stalls selling bhelpuri – a Mumbai snack of puffed rice and mango – to restaurants dishing up bhindi jaipuri (crispy fried okra). Try the main beach strip, which is thick with vendors serving breakfast favourite pav bhaji (a buttery bread roll dipped in curry). The market area is filled with local chai and thali joints that do veg lunches (thalis around 45p).
The village of Siolim is often overlooked by travellers, due to its riverside location some way from the nearest beach. It makes for a pleasant stay if you’re seeking a break from the sea and sand, and is home to a daily fish market near the ferry landing on the banks of the Chapora River. Tours of the market are available as part of classes operated by the Siolim Cooking School, which offer an insight into Goan culture and faith (Siolim-Assagao Rd; classes £20).
Best for relaxing
Much of the accommodation is in family guesthouses in the peaceful village of Benaulim in southern Goa, which gives on to a long stretch of largely empty beach. Benaulim is the location for the very plush Taj Exotica hotel, set in 56 acres of tranquil gardens, with a Jiva spa offering traditional Indian holistic treatments by qualified Ayurveda doctors and therapists (rooms from £180).
Goa’s southernmost beach is set around a small bay by the village of Polem. It’s a wonderfully isolated and distraction-free area that’s escaped development – so there’s little else to do but stroll the seashore, have a picnic on the sand and enjoy the sound of the waves. Fishermen return to shore at the northern end of the beach; enjoy their catches for lunch among the palms at the Kamaxi shack bar (00 91 934 136 7429; Nov–May; fish curry £1.80).
Arambol has a laidback traveller vibe, with a curved beach that’s great for swimming. Best of all is the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre by the sand dunes. In the winter months it’s the base of the Iyengar yoga school, offering five-day courses in hatha vida as well as shorter courses combining yoga with ayurvedic treatments (Arambol Beach; open mid-Nov– mid-Mar; five-day courses £35).
Best for local culture
On the banks of the Mandovi River in northern Goa lies the old Rome of the East – the former principal city of Portugal’s eastern empire. A handful of its imposing churches and convents remain from its glory days, the highlight of which is the Sé Cathedral – Asia’s biggest church. Visit on a weekday morning, when you can join locals in attending Mass and explore the cathedral.
Wednesday’s flea market, Anjuna, is as much a part of the Goan experience as a day on a deserted beach. The market sprawls on and on, hawking so many mirrored bedspreads and floaty Indiancotton dresses that’ll you never want to see one again. It’s a great place for people watching, and if you trawl carefully you can find some interesting one-offs. Bargain hard and take plenty of stamina and patience.
Ferries leave from Old Goa to the beautiful Divar Island, which feels like a land that time forgot. Piedade is the largest settlement, filled with old Portuguese palaces and ladies gossiping at the roadside. In January, the men who have left the island to work elsewhere return for the Festa das Bandeiras, or Flag Festival, taking to the streets for singing, dancing and, bizarrely, firing peashooters at one another.