'Where should I go in Goa?' As a travel writer, it was a question I kept getting asked by people travelling in India. The answer was, I didn't know. Goa is a state, rather than just one destination, and the character and appeal of its beaches are constantly changing. I had first visited India over 20 years ago as when Arumbol was the place to go. Accessible only after a several hour journey on a rough road inland from the airport, it was then an unspoilt beach with only a few huts, visited mostly by hippies and backpackers in the know. Arumbol is still, incredibly, free from major development, with the only accommodation simple and small scale. It felt edgy to me, though, and its strip of bars and tourist shops were grubby and tired.
I had walked for 30 minutes along the wide sands from Ashvem beach where I was staying at Palm Grove. The beach is probably the most desirable of all those in the north, with a smattering of decent restaurants and quality mid-range accommodation. Although this part of Goa has attracted russian tourists in recent years, the current economic situation has resulted in far fewer visitors. I had come across the beach thanks to a travel photographer. Confused at which beach to choose, I had decided to ask the question everyone had been asking me. 'Where should I go in Goa?' I put to a selection of friends and colleagues in the travel business.
'Go to Ashvem beach, or nearby Morjim', a travel photographer friend who is also Indian, had advised. 'There are places there that still provide little pockets of India'. This is an important consideration, as many of the bars, hotels and restaurants that line the state's beach are European by ownership and by design. Palm Grove is actually owned by a Scandinavian, Eva, whose flair for design and genuine affection for her guests make it a really popular option. The restaurant dishes up salads, real Italian coffee and strong cocktails, with the beach huts (including one: 'Happy Hippie') set in a palm grove providing a high standard of beach hut accommodation, though you will pay for the privilege.
The sister set up, Little Palm, has the heads up, because its huts are right on the beach and there is no restaurant, giving it a really relaxed atmosphere. The appropriately named L'Amore next door provides extraordinarily good auyvedic massages, including the signature shirodara, which involves dripping oil on the third eye. The simple spa is run by the smiling and enthusiastic Shanti, whose husband serves really good Goan fish curry in the adjoining restaurant.
'If you want to get horizontal, go south to Agonda', my style consultant friend had said, advice I took after a few days in the north. After a three-hour drive costing around £25 in a taxi, I got to the small stretch of sand that offers sheltered swimming and a laid-back vibe. Like Arumbol in the north it attracts backpackers, but still retains an authentic, relatively undiscovered feel. My accommodation was around 30 minutes south at Patnem beach, another small arc of sand with a stretch of simple beach hut accommodation, which immediately felt friendlier and more relaxed than the more sophisticated beaches in the north.
Bamboo provides yoga to resident guests of the bamboo beach huts. The two on the beachfront are the most desirable; ones at the back can feel a little like being on a compound. Bamboo is one of the few places I know of in the world that offer tailor-made yoga in a beachfront location, so that guests can book for dates that suit them rather than sticking to a retreat schedule. It also offers very reasonably priced yoga, and with cheap flights often available, including those direct to Goa, a yoga holiday here can work out half the price for one in Europe, although only brunch, not dinner is included. I have to say the place itself seemed to lack atmosphere and even love: those seeking the care and focus of a retreat may well be disappointed. However, the yoga, which included an in-depth workshop on shoulders and a balletic vinasya flow, was inspiring and innovative and delivered by committed teachers.
'Go to Space; it's a must for lunch', I had been told and dutifully took a rickshaw into the hills. Here was a little colonial style cafe and boutique that has clearly been created with love. Sushi, salads, Italian dishes and raw cakes are served up to visitors sitting in the pretty, plant-filled courtyard. For dinner, I visited the aptly named 'Magic View' which provides authentic Italian pizzas and killer cocktails in a prime spot on the bay. My favourite place, though, and the best kept secret on my list of where to go in Goa, was a deserted, palm-fringed beach south of Patnem. Reached by a 30-minute walk and a short boat ride with local fishermen, here there was not a restaurant, beach hut or even another person in sight.