Six roast dinners and a vat of gravy later, I zoomed through the ice on boxing day to Heathrow where I caught a flight to Mumbai.
Touching down on India soil, London’s snow and over indulgence soon seemed like a distant memory. Two weeks in Goa were on the agenda; my brief – good food, yoga, adventure and relaxation away from the madding crowds.
In among the cultural wreckage that has become Calangute and Baga with their leather-skinned holiday makers from Liverpool, and the trance heavy shores of Anjuna, there are still some delicious pockets of calm to be enjoyed in Goa. From North to South, with a two week time frame, here are my tips on how to enjoy a chic, low-fi but essentially very Indian exploration.
Reclining along a soft stretch of sand in the very North of Goa is the relatively sleepy Ashwem. Sandwiched between the beaches of Mandrem and Morjim, at low tide it’s possible to walk or run the entire 5 mile stretch – so long as you’re prepared to pile your belongings on your head and wade through the occasional snake of chest high water.
Stay: YogaGypsy’s. Forgive the cheesy name, for this place offers total serenity in elegant surroundings. Tree houses with solid, polished wood floors, proper beds and wrap around veranders fulfil Robinson Crusoe-esque fantasies amid palm trees and banana groves.
Cheaper TiPis are also available. Run by two warm and friendly English ladies, the menu is simple but sophisticated with zingy salads to make Wholefood’s Market green with envy. The homemade veggie samosas will knock your sandy socks off.
Indulge: In an Ayervedic massage at one of Arti’s salons. I visited the outlet behind the fancy French restaurant La Plage, and had a 90 minute Rejuvination Massage, which included a full body deep tissue, reflexology and neck massage. If you’ve never had an Ayervedic massage before, be prepared, it involves A Lot of oil. Book in for a post-sunset rub down to avoid the risk of frying in the mid day heat on exit.
It’s worth noting that Arti also run morning meditation classes from 7-8am. You can enquire from the UK on firstname.lastname@example.org
Action here clings to the top of a red sandstone cliff. Rocky pathways lead down to crashing waves, palms and huddles of sleepy cows. The vibe still nods towards the Party end of my spectrum, which is rather more trance than balaeric in style, so stay for one night only and book into Thalassa. Unless you want to join the wide-eyed sunrise crew, after the beach, this restaurant really is the only (but worthwhile) reason for coming here.
Indulge: Billowing white canopies, chilled G&T’s and moonsized plates of grilled melt-in-the-mouth lamb, dollops of garlic studded hummus and fleshy rings of rubber-band squid. The waiting staff are knowledgable and attentive, and arriving at sunset rewards with a stunning pink-tinged view over the seas below.
A wide, long, clean beach with a handful of sun loungers spaced out few and far between. The flat sweeping beach is perfect for a barefoot morning run.
Lined to the rear, rickety wooden steps lead to all manner of coco-huts, restaurants and juice bars. At night, fairy lights strung from palm trees twinkle and the only sound past 10pm are the rolling waves and perhaps the odd over-excited dog.
Indulge: H2o Agonda takes the beach hut up a notch, with hard wood constructions, wide porches, proper beds and bright bed linen. There’s a airy bar and restaurant with great sea views, but in honesty so have 90% of the bars and restaurants on Agonda beach. Restaurants here all serve fresh fish and seafood, so shop around and pick a place, price and flounder to suit you. The innocuous looking Arabian Nights did a stunning seafood platter during our stay.
A half hour taxi ride from Patnem is the glorious Khola Beach. A bouncy ride along a pot-holed dirt track and a final scramble down a rocky stairwell reward with a paradise-like vista.
A spit of sand creates a stunning island, to the right of which is the Arabian Sea and to the left lies a tranquil fresh water lagoon. Thick palm trees surround, and white yurts have been sensitively erected on the hillside.
There’s only one bar/restaurant here, but that is Khola’s appeal – at the moment it’s pretty unspoiled. The menu includes some surprisingly excellent North Indian food and of course fresh fish. Keep your eyes peeled at sunset and watch dolphins gambling in the water.
Stay: Of the two places you can stay at Khola, Blue Lagoon is the best value for money. Simple, clean yurt style tents each have proper beds, toilets and showers. Light and airy, all with sea views, they suit the ambience of the beach perfectly.
Indulge: Action here finishes early, so get a good night sleep and get up with the dolphins for an hour and a half of Ashtanga Yoga on the beach. A class runs from 7.30-9am on the beach before the sun gets too bright and stops play. Private classes can also be arranged for sunset.
At the moment Patnem is the perfect balance of pretty Indian beach and developed beach resort. It’s possible to get a delicious mojito (Solitude Dream Wood does a particularly excellent one for RS100), fresh lobster and well brewed coffee, but places are still all independently run, mostly by locals with the majority of accommodation being in beach huts. Meaning that you can get your holiday luxuries in attractive, but very Indian surrounds. Soft white sand and sparkly sea come as standard and the crowd is mid-twenties to early 50s, relaxed and stylish. Lily Cole was spotted nibbling on a Kingfish while we were there.
Indulge: We didn’t stay here, but we spotted Papaya Eco Cottages and they were very beautiful.
Stay: On our way into Mumbai we stayed at The Leela, a fancy gilt-edged hotel with bowing staff and a luxuriant pool lit by fairy lights. Our room cost 129 pound for a one night stay, which given the level of luxury felt a snip. Downsides are that it’s based out of town, meaning long taxi rides in and out should you want to explore. Best to stay on leaving India, so you can really indulge after two weeks travel and enjoy the fact you’re stones throw from the check-in desk. Something you’ll appreciate if you’re picking up the 04.20am flight.
On our return to Mumbai, we arrived at 5am off the overnight Margao-Mumbai express. We were flying out the following morning at a dreaded 4am. With 24 hours to spare, we filled our time with markets, thali, Chowpatty Beach action, coffee, cocktails, dinner and a dash to the airport…
Coffee and Croissant: Arrive off the Margao-Mumbai sleeper train, check into your Colaba hotel (best spot for sightseeing) then make a beeline for Theobrama. Arriving around 8.30am you’ll be greeted by the bakers delivering trays laden with sticky pastries, and plump crusty loafs all still hot from the oven. We counted eight different types of brownie, but ourselves opted for an almond croissant, a pain au raisen and two lattes. Hands down the best almond croissant I’ve ever had pass my lips, and trust me I’ve eaten a few.
Theombrama, Shop 24, Colaba Causeway, Mumbai, 400 039
Give You Good Price: You may want to wander the stalls of Colaba Causeway. The offer pretty standard fayre – Indian slippers, jewellery and other traveller trinkets. Nothing mind-blowing to see here, but a good place to stock up on little gifts for the folk you’ve left at home.
Spices Madam: Hop in a rickshaw and head for Crawford Market just north of CST. Largely undercover this sprawling market sells everything from fruit and veg to spices to tiffin tins to sweets to puppies (gulp). Hold your breath and explore the meat market if you’re feeling brave. Closed toe shoes are a must (double gulp).
More Chappati: Navigate the chaos and head down nearby Sheik Memon Street. Anything you could possibly need, from yoga mats to washing-up bowls, and a few things you don’t are to be found here. Halfway down the road ask a stall holder to point you in the direction of Rajdahni, at time of writing they restaurant is undergoing a refurb so the building has no sign.
This place is well worth the hunt, for a bottomless daily changing vegetarian thali to rival all others. Pickles, curries and chutney all come in abundance while chapatis and breads in all shapes and sizes are served hot, oozing with ghee and a serving of palm sugar
Rajdahni, 361 Sheik Memon Strt, Kalbadevi, Mumbai. 12-4 or 7-10,30pm
Chowpatty: Chowpatty is a Mumbai institution, best at sunset when local families mill about playing with dogs, kites and rusty fairground rides. A smoggy sunset settles behind the city skyline and you should walk off your thali and indulge in a steaming cup of chai. Be sure to save some room through for a Bhelpuri or Panipuri – a tumble of spicy puffed wheat, coriander, chopped tomatoes and tamarind water.
Taj Palace Hotel: Non residents can drink in the Harbour Bar, a marbled drinking area over looking India Gate. Get there early and slide into a cream leather booth with waterside view and watch darkness slowly fall. The bar itself doesn’t do the enormous hotel justice, so make sure you have a little snoop about in between cocktails – marvel at the famous staircase that ascends to the hotel’s room quarters and persuade the doorman to let you peek at the stunning pool.
Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Apollo Bunder, Colaba
There are plenty of swanky places to wile away your last night in India, Zenzi and Olive Bar and Kitchen were both recommended to us – but are situated out of town. So instead we opted for Indigo with its pretty garden restaurant and roof top terrace. A handful of their exquisite espresso martinis should keep you perky all the way to the airport for your 4 am flight.
Indigo, 4 Mandlik Marg. 12-4 and 7-11pm.