Goa is positively buzzing.
If we travel to escape the mundanity of our world, to experience that elusive magic of elsewhere, Goa is emerging as that magical land in a country facing night curfews and erratic openings. The holiday destination is commonly perceived as some sort of Utopia: mesmerising beaches, live music capital, partying hotspot, fantastic cuisine. These, more than ever, apply to the destination.
Since April 12, when Chief Minister Pramod Sawant declared Goa to be “COVID-free” and eased the internal lockdown, ‘coronavirus refugees’ (as the hordes who travel incessantly have come to be known) have been trooping in.
People have driven cross-country to spend as much time, and money, as they can in the state. The bars, cafes, restaurants are open, and so are the hotels.
Goa has several protocols in place. The Goa Tourism Department has selected particular hotels that travellers can pre-book. Bookings in unapproved hotels are not allowed. A self-declaration form must be filled in the pre-booked hotel.
Tourists can enter the state through flights, trains that stop only on particular stations such as Madgaon, Thivim and Vasco Da Gama, and those who travel by road. All tourists go through thermal screening at every entry point of the state. For domestic travellers, neither is testing on arrival mandatory nor are they asked to stay in quarantine.
Everything isn’t rosy, though: COVID cases are rising and have touched 50,000 since the time the first case was discovered in March. The resident population isn’t too happy about untrammelled tourism (though most agree the state needs the money brought in by one of its biggest industries that employ the maximum number of people) and the cavalier attitude of the tourists to basic safety measures. Neville Proenca, owner of the boutique hotel Pousada Tauma says that Goans are desperate for business and things cannot stay shut forever, but there is also the fear of exposing themselves to the virus brought in by uncaring tourists. “We are trying to find a balance.”
Despite these misgivings, it is business as usual in Goa. For now.
The ultimate list: Clubs, bars and restaurants
Sunburn just opened a beach club in Vagator. Spread over an expansive stretch between Ozran Beach and the nearby cliffs, the club boasts a stunning sky deck, a sun deck, luxurious indoor lounges and a pool deck. On the menu are authentic continental and European cuisines and a selection of cocktails curated by Chef Ahmed Sha and head mixologist Sonaivel.
Inspired by the lush North Goan landscape, the idea was to create an Elysium, an experience that complements the natural beauty which surrounds the club. There is a lit dance floor, leisure seating, cabanas, mood lighting, and unrestricted views. Karan Singh, COO, Percept Live, says, “Sunburn Beach Club is pegged to be the perfect getaway where wanderlust meets tranquil panache. Our vision is to offer world-class hospitality at India’s leading leisure destinations, which, in the long-term, holds the promise of strategic development of Sunburn into a global lifestyle brand. Thirteen years ago, we brought what is now Asia’s biggest music festival to Goa and it couldn’t be a more nostalgic feeling to launch a brand-new initiative in the state that has helped build our brand lineage.”
The chef, after whom Suzie’s is named, curates a five-course dinner and changes the menu every six weeks, working with seasonal ingredients. It is set in the yard of an old Portuguese house and they present the food on bars of granite slabs.
With a set dinner that comes with one special each day, Suzie’s has an option for you to choose any three between a soup, and four varieties of veg and non-veg starters. The cooking is innovative: Plantain Pattaud, a dish of raw plantain fritter topped with taro root leaves, rolled in chickpea flour, steamed and pan-seared, and accompanied with a cilantro mojo, drumstick mousse and raw papaya salad; Eggplant Gazpacho, a lightly smoked eggplant gazpacho with buckwheat croutons; Pork Chao Shou, or pork wontons in a mildly spiced bone broth, topped with toasted sesame and Sichuan peppercorn infused chilli oil; Elephant’s Foot Koftas, or elephant’s foot and bottle gourd cooked in subtly spiced masala gravy, served with a side of soondal and pan-tossed local red rice.
Meanwhile, the regular party places are buzzing with energy and vitality. W Goa said to be the state’s best party hotel that rocks due to its amazing bar and lounge, is hosting a bash at its beachside lounge, Rockpool, with an unlimited beverage, live acts, DJs and breath-taking views of the sea. The party is likely to continue after the New Year, as the hotel is pretty much booked right through January for the moment.
The hotel has laid out a series of protocols: wear a fashionable mask; mingle with your clique and don’t be a social butterfly; let it stay a no-hug zone and instead, opt for fist bumps; dance like nobody’s watching but keep your distance; keep the rowdy down, and stick to kissing one person a night!
Pretty much every hotel we spoke to, from Park Hyatt Goa to IHCL’s several properties, have similar protocols. Parties are meant to wind up at 12 and so are dinners at standalone restaurants.
Restaurants such as Gunpowder, Antares Goa, Black Sheep Bistro and Bomras, which just shifted to a new space, are drawing in diners. Says Chef Sarah Todd, co-founder and owner of Antares Goa (which was incidentally partially gutted by a fire earlier this year), “We had a difficult time, with the fire and COVID-led shutdowns. But we reopened in May and it has been a rather decent business till about November. And now, it has picked up full speed. Several people have made Goa their semi-permanent home and will be here till February or March. That is good for business.”
Thalassa, the Greek restaurant which moved from Vagator to Siolim, is offering easy evenings with close friends and family, accompanied by wine and souvlakis (both beef and veg), a side of their lamb meatballs in red sauce, veg moussaka or anything else you may fancy from the menu. Baba Au Rhum, a French bakery that runs like a fine-dining restaurant, has beer on tap to complement their Spicy Goan Sausage Pizza and Chicken Cheese Grilled Burger.
The Black Sheep Bistro has launched a limited menu of cocktails with fresh, local flavours, sommelier-selected wines and premium beers. Owners Prahlad and Sabreen Sukhtankar are at hand to make you feel welcome and increasingly, Panjim’s high-rollers dine here over cocktails and small bites such as Prawn-Apple Chaat and Konkan-style Grilled Chicken Bites.
Cantare, a hidden gem in the quaint village of Saligao, is hosting vibrant live music evenings. The restaurant and bar are on the upper level of a restored house, with a balcony wrapped around it. Cantare is known to attract the ‘insider’ crowd—fun-loving residents and in-the-know visitors to Goa and is super-exclusive.
But the big earners are bars such as Club Cubana, LPK (Love, Passion, Karma) Waterfront, SinQ Nightclub and several such, who have been hosting live music nights and drawing in crowds, both locals and tourists. Among them is Hideaway in Anjuna, run by three enterprising young men—Nathan D’costa, Sheldon Abranches and Siddharth Bandal. “We have hosted some amazing live gigs before the pandemic with stellar international bands performing intimate sets,” says Bandal.
Flor Do Mar, India’s first luxury sea lounge that rests in the river of Morjim, with a picturesque island and flocks of birds in sight, has been doing brisk business since re-opening. “It is a beautiful place to party in. A smaller boat takes you onboard, where you can kayak by day and party at night. But the best thing about the lounge is that they cater to groups looking for an exclusive experience,” says Goa insider and fashion stylist, Andrea Mer.
Architect Riva Desai, who has been living between Bangalore and Goa for the past five years, recommends bars such as Escobar in Assagao and The Rice Mill in Morjim. The former, if you want a quiet drink with good music and the ambience of an old Goan house with seating that spills over into the outdoors. The latter, again because of the ambience. The Rice Mill is housed in a renovated rice mill and hosts wonderful jazz nights, besides some innovative cocktails.
Restaurateurs say that the season is far better than what they expected after such stringent shutdowns. According to Ravi Chaudhary, General Manager, Prana Café, “We get a mix of domestic and foreign tourists generally. We took a risk and opened up in July, and the response was great. Not many places were open and we became a staple and started getting regular customers. Once tourism opened up, more people started coming in. August onwards have been fantastic.”
Several restaurants such as Gunpowder and Bomras are attracting a higher footfall of tourists. Many corporate bosses moved to Goa temporarily to work from home, with their families and form the big clientele. According to Anastasia who runs the restaurant, Mojigao, several actors and celebrities who have ended up in Goa have been putting up photographs on social media, helping the floundering businesses to stabilise.
Slow travel to experience Goa’s many charms
There is more to Goa then the bars and restaurants and travellers are booking bespoke tours, particularly those who choose to stay on till February or March on long-term rentals.
Natural and built heritage
Sonny Singh, the founder of The Cube Gallery recommends the forests and Chorla Ghats for those who love natural getaways, and hotels such as Wildernest in Chorla and Ciaren’s in Palolem. Experiences include nature and forest walks and kayaking/cruising experiences. In the south of Goa is the Galgibaga beach, a spectacular Olive Ridley turtle nesting site. Beyond is Catigao Wildlife Sanctuary, which offers opportunities to explore the wild terrains.
Maria Victor, Founder-CEO of experiential travel company, Make It Happen, recommends travel through quaint villages, studded with the pre-Portuguese heritage of the old Goan capital of Chandor. Palacio De Deao in Quepem is a 200-year-old mansion where the owners curate home-cooked meals. Close to the Old Capital is also the Buddhist caves of Rivona, the pre-historic rock carvings in Usgalimal and the Betal Sateri temple in Netravali.
In southern Goa is the Shaivite shrine of Tambdi Surla, ensconced amidst mountains. Goa has plenty of history lessons to offer to the ones willing to explore. What better way than exploring it on foot especially if the trip panders to your interest? Choose from heritage tours of Latin quarters such as Fontainhas or culinary tours to get your fill of Ros Omelette or Cutlet Pao.
The Local Beat curates specific tours around less-explored and less-exotic heritage sites in Goa. Each outing is handpicked by the owner and customised according to the wishes of the guest. Each trip is well-planned to include stories by locals themselves.
To get in touch with The Local Beat contact on +91 90499 76761 / 70201 68189 or email at email@example.com.
Distillery visits: Paul John
Alcohol is easily a reason why Goa is a favoured destination. The state boasts of an envious drinking culture whether it is at a local watering hole like Joseph’s in Panjim or a fine dining place such as Antares. It also houses Paul John Distillery, a home-grown single malt distillery situated in Cuncolim, a quaint southern district, where the genius of master distiller, Michael D’souza creates magic. They have a visitors centre and offer a comprehensive tour of their facility. You will learn about the six-pronged procedure to make whisky-milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, maturing and tasting. You will also learn about fun facts, such as the use of oak barrels originally used to distil whisky in America, and the story of the angels’ share, which is the amount of alcohol lost to evaporation.
The tour details:
Package 1: Rs. 350 – Tour only.
Package 2: Rs. 650 – Tour + Tasting of Flagship expressions.
Package 3: Rs. 1000– Tour + Tasting of Family expressions
Book the tour with the Distillery Centre in-charge Pankaj at +91-74477 88979 for more details.
Learn how to bake poee and sourdough
If you are going to be stationed in Goa for a while, drop by an old-school bakery to see the poder (baker) dishing up Goan. There are very few traditional bakeries left in Goa and bread get sold out almost as soon as they come out of the oven. The smell of freshly-baked bread is an experience worth exploring. Goan chef Alison Jane Lobo hosts poee making classes, which teaches you how to knead the dough to its rising and baking, from her kitchen in her bungalow in Dona Paula.
Her ancient recipe includes whole wheat flour, wheat bran and ragi flour, besides a secret ingredient, sur, or palm toddy. A substitute for yeast, it was introduced in the bread-making process by the Portuguese during their 450-year-long rule in the sunshine state. The toddy makes the bread more tasty and fluffy but bakeries rarely use it these days as it is quite expensive and the number of skilled toddy tappers has also reduced drastically.
Bakers such as Sujit Sumitran are offering sourdough baking sessions where you learn baking the bread that everyone seems to love these days. Considered the gold standard in baking, sourdough is the closest you can get to the ancient form of bread making, says Sumitran, who began baking while he still lived in Bengaluru. He began taking classes once he moved to Goa. “It fits right into the slow food trend. There is so much of history and culture backing it.”
Poee-baking workshop: Call on 8554054640 to book a baking class. Cost: Rs 2,500. Sourdough baking workshop