The reincarnation of Goa
The scene at Anjuna Beach is predicably chaotic: trance beats compete for attention over the sound of rough surf crashing against the shore of the Arabian Sea. Hawkers peddle wares that range from icy drinks and local snacks to handmade jewellery, handicrafts, cheap trinkets and rainbow-coloured fabrics that flutter in the dry beach air.
This is the home of Goa's hippest open-air market and is what most people think India's smallest and most laid-back state epitomises. And it is also what many of its 2.5 million visitors a year come to experience.
One of India's richest states, Goa has gained a certain notoriety for its sun-and-sand hedonism. White sand beaches stretch for more than 110 kilometres. Its delectable coconut-laced cuisine reflects influences from its colonial heritage, while its architecture is an exotic mixture of Europe and India.
Yet what permeates all of this is a liberal and carefree spirit, which made it a magnet for backpacking hippies over the years. Now its nightlife has become as much of a drawcard as its beaches.
This former fishing village is home to more than 1.5 million residents. It teems with opulent palm-fringed resorts offering luxurious accommodation, onshore and offshore casinos, world-class spas and havens of relaxation. With elements of Macau, Bali and Ibiza, Goa is thriving, and Nikhil Desai, the newly appointed managing director of the Goa Tourism Development Corporation, believes it has the goods to make it stand out from those other tourist havens.
Goa's resorts are each peddling an architectural fable of the state's rich history. International hotel brands such as Leela, Taj, Hyatt and Marriott have long ties here, so the fact that more hoteliers are eyeing the market is no surprise.
'Talks are currently under way with Oberoi Group, Shangri-La Group, Hilton Group and Dusit International Group to develop deluxe luxury resorts', says Desai. 'Plans are also on the horizon for an 18-hole championship golf course, heli-tourism, theme parks, oceanariums, marinas and convention centres.'
Desai likens Goa to Macau, and is keen for visitors from Asia to see it as a gateway to India. 'Macau, with its Portuguese roots, has seen a huge surge in tourism over the past several years, and that's what we are aiming for as well,' he says.
The local government is keen to promote Goa to the masses, and Desai says, a second airport at Mopa, in north Goa, will open in 2014 to cater for the expected influx of tourists.
'Indian immigration now grants tourist-visa-on-arrival facilities to 11 countries,' he says. 'In the past, Goa has always been known for its beaches and nightlife, but now we need to show the world that we are so much more than that.'
As a shack at Anjuna Beach serves up a drink, the full moon shimmers across the water. The horizon of a new Goa is beckoning.
It's a shore thing
Spas in their eyes
Grand Hyatt Goa at Bambolim Bay - wooden accents, natural tones, tropical foliage and contemporary yet old-style decor are merged to resemble an Indo-Portuguese abode. The largest five-star deluxe hotel in Goa (covering 11.3 hectares), the new Hyatt is home to the much-hyped Shamana Spa, where clients can spend the day in the whirlpool and ask for an hour-long Abhyanga massage costing at least 3,500 rupees (HK$510), which features an Ayurvedic remedy. Nightly rates from 6,500 rupees.
Radisson Blu at Cavelossim Beach - one of the new kids on the beach. It has seen a surge in business from those willing to pay the extra rupee for chic mod-cons like temperature-controlled rain showers, 24-hour room service, babysitting services, and, of course, a traditional Goan feel with its bright colours. The newly opened Aura Spa offers intense, tranquil body treatments that soothe and calm. Nightly rates from 6,500 rupees.
Alila Diwa Hotel and Spa at Majorda Beach - this boutique resort, while not overly pretentious, offers all the luxury perks for a relaxing getaway. Request the Alila Suite, where those seeking a romantic getaway can enjoy an extended private bath experience and laze while overlooking lush rice fields and other greenery. At Spa Alila, clients can get a warm stone massage (starting from 3,750 rupees for 90 minutes), a healthy drink at the juice bar and a 'him' or 'her' facial treatment (3,000 rupees for 75 minutes). Nightly rates from 6,000 rupees. aliladiwagoa.com
Goa Marriott - the July relaunch of this resort on Miramar Beach in Panjim included the opening of Quan Spa, where the signature Goan Magic Massage combines Eastern and Western elements. Nightly rates from 7,225 rupees.
Savour the flavours
Souza Lobo - a true taste of Goa is located right on Calangute Beach. It has kept diners happy for almost 80 years and can seat more than 300. Don't let the plastic chairs, cheap tablecloths and garden scenes painted on faux windows throw you off; the food is well worth the wait. Open from 11am to 11pm daily.
souzalobo.com. Bookings: (832) 228 1234 or 227 6463
Ritz Classic - located in the Hotel Le Grande, 18th June Road, Panjim. Fresh food and reasonable prices are the attractions, and Feni - a fearfully potent local brew double distilled from the juice of cashew apples - will help polish off the day. One of these, and you may not even notice the below-par ambiance. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Bookings: (832) 564 4796 or 242 6417 Thalassa - for fresh seafood with an international twist, this upmarket Greek restaurant in Vagator is the place. Muslin-curtained and filled with mirrors, it's an all-white, open-air taverna perched on a cliff overlooking Ozran Beach that serves up succulent prawn souvlaki, moussaka and Greek salad, reminiscent of the true multi-cultural spirit of Goa. Open daily, 4pm-11.30pm.
Bookings: (98) 5003 3537
Action from Goa to whoa
Panjim walking tour - narrow cobbled streets, rustic architecture, riverfront settings.
Old Goa - Unesco World Heritage site which houses the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Viceroy's Arch, Se Cathedral and the remains of a number of destroyed Hindu temples.
Acron Arcade in Candolim - solid shopping in an very classy setting that houses many of the high-end brand names.
The Craft Complex at Panjim's Neogi Nagar - if you're looking for handiworks made by local artisans at prices lower than those sold on the streets and beachfronts, this is the place.
Saturday Night Bazaar - venture out to either Ingo's or Mackies in Arpora, for a taste of home-grown haggling, entertainment and good buys.
Tito's - one of the storied spots for north Goa's nightlife is Tito's Lane on Baga Beach, this local institution (titos.in) has been going for years and attracts anyone and everyone who's up for a party. Part of the Tito's franchise is Cafe Mambo's, an open-air pub where DJs spin rock music. On the same lane, check out Kamaki; a lounge bar that's open 24 hours.
Club Cubana in Arpora Hill, Calungute - this club (clubcubanagoa.com), located atop a cliff with an ambient swimming pool open at night, is a must-see. A cover charge per couple applies and includes open bar with a choice of basic spirits and local beer.
Silent parties at south Goa's Palolem - an interesting concept: revellers are provided with advanced wireless headsets that allow them to switch between several DJs playing that night. The best part? The outside world doesn't have to hear a thing. These parties (silentnoise.in) happen every Saturday at Neptune's Point, a 1,000-person venue with state-of-the-art facilities and lighting.
Casino Royale Goa - if you're feeling lucky, head to the scenic Mandovi River, where several large ships have been licensed to operate onshore casino facilities until the wee small hours of the morning.
Where in the world
Cathay Pacific, Kingfisher and Jet Airways fly direct to Mumbai, with connecting flights on Spice Jet, Kingfisher, GoAir or IndiGo airlines to Goa's Dabolim Airport.