Goa is known as India’s beach escape and as a partying hot spot, fueled in part by its minuscule alcohol excise taxes in comparison to the rest of the country, in addition to legal gambling at casino boats and hotels. But while its modern reputation is that of a holiday haven and vice destination, the region is even more of an outlier due to its unique history.
Portuguese rule in Goa lasted from 1510 through the end of 1961, a staggering 450 years that hasn’t been washed away in the past half century since, a period including two and a half decades as part of the Goa, Daman, and Diu union territory before becoming recognized as a full state in 1987. With a population of 1.8 million, Goa represents a tiny sliver of India’s whole; it’s India’s smallest state by area, and fourth smallest by population.
Goan crabs, prawns, and curries are on the culinary hit list, and pork and beef are both on local menus as well, making the state’s cuisine another stark point of difference. Goa is tinged with Portuguese influence as seen in its architecture, tasted in its food, and witnessed in its culture and religion, including a preference for soccer rather than cricket in the former, and its sizable Catholic population in the latter.
While Goa’s Dabolim Airport services international flights, and its new Mopa Airport is scheduled to open by the end of 2022, most western travelers will connect via New Delhi or Mumbai.
The Taj Fort Aguada Resort & Spa is perched atop Sinquerim Beach and nestled alongside the historic fort for which it’s named. Its main building, with two wings of rooms, showcases a welcoming view of both sites, with its pool, terraces, and bars serving as prime sunset real estate. Its hilly 73-acre grounds include a series of Hermitage villas, constructed with a year’s notice in advance of a 1983 Commonwealth meeting including Indian prime minister
Margaret Thatcher, and other dignitaries.
Villas have grassy lawns with lounge chairs, and Portuguese décor in the form of blue and white tiles and wall hangings, while its guests receive access to a lounge including a separate pool, gym, and breakfast restaurant. On-demand car service shuttles guests around the property, as well as to sister property, the Taj Holiday Village Resort & Spa.
Resorts dot Goa’s coastline, with the area roughly split into two halves: northern Goa attracts more tourists and has more nightlife, while southern Goa is quieter. For a study in contrasts, start at the new St. Regis Goa on Mobor Beach, along the southern stretch of the state. The property took over the site of a former Leela hotel, features a pristine swath of beach, and is set amid lush greenery and lagoons, with a 12-hole golf course.
Then consider heading to the W Goa near the northernmost edge of the state, resting atop Vagator Beach and beside Chapora Fort. It’s where the flashy brand has one of its showiest homes, with a neon-adorned entrance, the see-and-be-seen Woobar lounge and Rockpool bar and restaurant, and poolside cabanas galore. The W encourages guests to move straight from daytime yoga into nighttime club sessions, and attracts a crowd who relishes both.
Old Goa, or Velha Goa, was once home to 200,000 residents and served as the center of Portugal’s regional trade empire. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the riverfront district is known for its colonial architecture and surviving cathedrals and monuments, including the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Old Goa Church, Church of St. Cajetan, Se Cathedral, and St. Augustine Tower. On the flip side, Shree Mangesh temple is an ornate compound dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and further inland is Sri Mahadeva Temple Tambdi Surla, a still active 12th-century Hindu temple complex, also dedicated to Shiva.
Fort Aguada was built in 1612 and remains intact along its oceanfront post, its ramparts still extending steadfast into the ocean. During its era, it was one of the strongest fortified positions in Asia, well suited to withstand lengthy sieges. The nearby hilltop Aguada Lighthouse was built in 1864, and the Devil’s Finger viewpoint is worthy of a photo op. Goa’s beaches are open to the public and range in personalities and offerings. Five to know are Colva Beach, Benaulim Beach, Anjuna Beach, Calangute Beach, and Dona Paula Beach.
EAT & DRINK
Most visitors select dining destinations close to where they’re staying, perhaps making one or two longer excursions in search of an excellent meal, and Goa’s resorts are known for offering multiple on-site dining options. For a fusion of Portuguese and Konkani influences representative of five centuries of shared history, visit Miguel’s in Panaji, specializing in cocktails and petiscos. Goan small plates are the name of the game at nearby Antonio @ 31. The two restaurants are a short walk apart and make for a strong combination. In the Candolim and Fort Aguada area, stop into the venerated Banyan Tree Restaurant, specializing in Thai cuisine. It’s housed in an indoor-outdoor pavilion beside an enormous, 300 year old Banyan tree, and uses herbs grown on-site and produce from nearby partner farms. Morisco is known for its Goan specialties, offering regional takes on thali, curry, crabs, prawns, and king fish.
Thirsty travelers should visit the Paul John Distillery Visitor Center. The production site is the home of one of India’s leading whisky operations, and has the feel of a Portuguese governor’s estate hidden amid an industrial park. The distillery opened in 2008, and when the visitor’s center debuted a decade later it became the first such tour and tasting experience in India.
The writer was hosted by the Taj Fort Aguada Resort & Spa.