For all the frenzied buzz of Goa’s most popular beaches, the southern stretch of the Konkan Coast still retains pockets of old-world charm and simple pleasures, especially when you include the throwback Karnataka town of Gokarna in the mix.
Photographs by Chris Schalkx
Daybreak in Goa. From the wrought-iron balcony of my suite overlooking Coco Beach, I watched women in colorful saris hunt for clams at the water’s foamy fringe. Boats with names like Holy Spirit and Divine Heart bobbed in the bay, tangles of fishing nets filling their wooden bellies. On the beach, a pack of dogs scavenged for snacks amid a confetti of seashells while a lone crow surveyed the scene from the edge of the hotel’s infinity pool.
Spread across three laterite-walled villas near the northern village of Nerul, Ahilya by the Sea offered a taste of the Goa I had been hoping to find: one of dusty roads and long, honey-hued beaches, of gingerbread-trimmed bungalows brimming with antiques and feni-spiked drinks served in gardens sweetened with frangipani blossoms. A Goa far removed from the rowdy all-night benders on Vagator Beach or the crowds of Calangute. A slice of southwestern India that had long lingered in a faux-nostalgic part of my mind in faded sepia tones.
Given the tumult of the past few years, I had expected to arrive in a place that had, in a way, returned to its sleepy past. But even as Covid-19 kept foreign tourists away, a new crop of visitors swooped in and turned the state increasingly hi-def. “Goa was booming during the pandemic,” Delhi-born Richa Sharma told me over a local thali lunch at Wildflower Villas, her discreet resort on a forest-shrouded hillside just north of Nerul. “All of India came down to visit and zillions of new businesses opened. Goa now has the highest concentration of restaurants in India—there’s no cuisine you won’t find here.” Sharma rattled off a laundry list of places that had popped up over the past two years: Tamil Table has excellent South Indian food; Villa Nova is lovely for lunch; Japanese-tinged Izumi does a killer tofu carpaccio. “Goa is in a beautiful transition,” she added. “We have lots of people trying to develop businesses away from the beach—there’s so much more to Goa that goes undiscovered most of the time.”
I rented a scooter to see it for myself. Driving north from Nerul, I snaked past palm-frilled rice paddies and white churches with swirling roofs and window ornaments like piped icing on a wedding cake. Timeworn bungalows in sorbet colors stood as relics of Goa’s Portuguese past. The jungle foliage thickened the closer I got to Assagao, as did the roadside signs advertising Sunday brunches and luxury villa stays. I picked up a local map that touted Assagao as “the Beverly Hills of Goa,” and I could see why: once a quiet retreat from the buzz of nearby Vagator, the pretty village is now a hot spot for the posh restaurants, yoga shalas, and cocktail lounges that are taking over its Indo-Portuguese mansions. I hopped from concept stores selling hand-dyed shirts and breezy dresses to quaint cafés for cold lattes and spiced carrot cake. Later, on the way back to Nerul, I stopped at Urrak, where owners and childhood friends Mirvaan Vinayak and Aniket Garg were putting the final touches to this smart riverside bistro. “During the pandemic, many people realized they could work from anywhere,” said Vinayak, a MasterChef India finalist who, like his partner, hails from Delhi. “So those who had the means made Goa their base. Life here is easy, no one is running. Working here doesn’t feel like work. Everyone’s invited, and everyone feels at home.”
But not everyone sees Goa’s new groove through rose-tinted glasses. One late afternoon, I met Goa native Mackinlay Barreto on the balcony of his friend’s villa in Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter of the state’s laid-back capital, Panaji. Barreto grew up nearby and spent much of his childhood in the serpentine alleys between the district’s Crayola-colored villas, which were built in the late 18th century by Portuguese colonists escaping the plague that ravaged Old Goa farther east along the Mandovi River. In an email a few weeks earlier, he had written me that I should “be prepared to be both delighted and disappointed.” And from this balcony, overlooking a particularly handsome stretch of terra-cotta-roofed homes engulfed in bougainvillea, I could see what he meant. The street was crowded with camera-toting youngsters, but none seemed particularly interested in the fascinating history that lingered at every corner. Instead, they were lining up to use the eye-popping walls as a photo backdrop. “It’s the Insta-enslaved folks thronging here for a glory picture,” Baretto said floridly. “A full display of the malaise of bucket-list traps.”
After more than a decade of living the corporate lifestyle in Mumbai, Chennai, and Hyderabad, Barreto returned to his hometown in 2016 to launch The Local Beat, a small tour agency missioned to show visitors a quieter, lesser-known side of Goa. “There’s a skewed representation of Goan culture, which has always been portrayed as very beach-centric,” he explained. “I want to allow visitors to peep into the many different worlds that exist within Goa—the unexplored hinterlands, the villages, the old-world corners that make up our DNA.” It’s his counter call to the mega-resorts that have popped up along the coast, or the Sunday brunches of Assagao, where homes are now as expensive as in California. “The version of Goa that once existed has changed too much,” he said. “It was bound to happen, but I wish there was a little more sensibility and mindfulness to it.”
Early the next morning, under a sky still heavy with fog, I joined Barreto’s business partner and guide Raul da Costa on a Local Beat experience around the hinterlands. Gliding down the chocolate-brown Mapusa River in a fiberglass canoe, Da Costa pointed out kingfishers, storks, and wintering ibises escaping the cold of their native Russia—just a few of the 200 or so bird species that inhabit these wetlands. We passed a crocodile, about a meter long, lounging among the tangled roots of a mangrove forest, and saw brahminy kites resting in the branches overhead. We stopped for a breakfast of pillowy poee buns and lentil curry at a small farm, and ferry-hopped around river islands dotted with ancient churches and rural communities.
It wasn’t until our arrival at Old Goa’s main tourist draw, the 16th-century Basilica of Bom Jesus, that I saw another foreign face; and even there, The Local Beat unlocked corners few others get to see. With the help of a local friend (“my church mouse,” as da Costa affectionately called him), we brushed past a sign that read ENTRY RESTRICTED and ended up in the cathedral’s sacristy, where we browsed glass cabinets of sacred relics—jars of human teeth with faded labels, a martyr’s rib bones, a rainbow of priestly vestments—and listened to more history than I could possibly comprehend. Understandably, Barreto and da Costa like to keep these spots hush-hush, and implored me, as they do with all their guests, to not tag their locations on Instagram.
Goa slowed down the farther south I went. Even at Palolem Beach, a popular crescent of sand dotted with pleather day beds and candy-striped parasols, the glitz I saw in the days prior seemed worlds away. I spent a lazy morning in the shade of a thatched umbrella, watching persistent boatsmen hawk dolphin-spotting tours and dreadlocked tourists bargain for seashell bracelets and henna tattoos until my body was as sweaty as the drips of condensation on my cardamom-spiked iced coffee. I had almost slipped into a beachy bliss when a German lady in harem pants handed me a flyer for a “hippie market” down the road. I took that as a sign to move on.
I flagged down a tuk-tuk to bring me to Cabo de Rama, a swoop of silvery sand in the shadow of a crumbling cliff-top fortress. Only reachable via a steep trail that zigzags down a rocky bluff, Cabo de Rama has largely been spared from beachfront developments. There’s only one beach bar, a ramshackle toes-in-the-sand number selling cheap beers and grilled pomfret, and no one hawking trinkets. Next to a sign warning beachgoers not to swim, a young Indian couple frolicked in the waves, fully clothed in jeans and flannel shirts.
I spent the night at Cabo Serai, a small eco-resort on a palm-pinned hill at Cabo de Rama’s northern end. Accessed via a rickety wooden bridge and with just seven airy cottages, it’s the kind of laid-back and lo-fi spot you really want to find in a place like this. A daily changing chalkboard menu offered items like masala crab and local curries cooked with ingredients from an organic vegetable garden. At night, after I watched the last few resident lemurs disappear into the trees, a DIY herbal scrub awaited me in my semi-open bathroom. Once the last remaining visitors had left the beach far below, a sense of calm washed over the coast—the Goa of trance parties and cheek-by-jowl sun loungers could not have felt farther away.
For a glimpse of what Goa is said to have been like in the 1970s, I hired a taxi to take me across the state border into neighboring Karnataka and on to the small seaside town of Gokarna, a pilgrimage site for Shaivite Hindus from across the country. This was still part of India’s Konkan Coast, bounded to the east by the foothills of the Western Ghats. But the vibe was immediately different. With the thrumming buzz of Goa’s more popular corners behind us, the landscape turned a deeper shade of green. We trailed behind huffing buses with marigold garlands dangling from their side-view mirrors and saried limbs spilling out of open windows. Goa’s ubiquitous souvenir stores hawking dream catchers and Bob Marley tees had all but disappeared. And instead of dodging blond Europeans swerving past on rented scooters, we maneuvered around cows taking their sweet time to cross the road.
I could see why, when Goa’s beatnik spirit fizzled out in the ’90s and big-brand resorts started replacing boho beach shacks, hardcore hippies found a new haven here. While many Goans had given up their old ways and succumbed to the lure of the tourist dollar, Gokarna remained—and still is—a deeply religious place. Temples dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva poked through the jungle canopy wherever I looked. Their gates, marked with signs that read NO FOREIGNERS, framed a constant coming-and-going of women in gold-hemmed saris and men in sarong-like dhotis with sacred cotton upanayana threads running down their spines. Gokarna’s beaches, too, possessed a tinge of nostalgia, even though a handful of smart boutique stays have cropped up between the palm trees.
“When my parents came here in 2005, it was a true paradise,” said British entrepreneur Anthony Bellm, whose family, albeit not part of the hippie tribe, was drawn to Gokarna for similar reasons. “It delivered so much more than Goa could. It’s small and much more intricate.” After a years-long, India-wide search for a place to build their holiday home, the Bellms stumbled on a patch of land above Gokarna’s Paradise Beach, a hard-to-reach cove with caramel-colored sand wedged between craggy boulders of blackened laterite. “There was a big wooden shack on top of the hill,” Anthony added. “And lots of naked hippies lying around.” From that hill, the eight-hectare plot unfurled into a motley patchwork of wild jungle, coconut groves, a betel nut plantation and rice paddies speckled with white egrets hunting for frogs. Overlooking the conver – gence of the Aghanashini River and the Arabian Sea, it’s a place of spectacular beauty. “It was astounding,” Anthony said of his first visit at age 21, “Like a bowl of magic. There was just nature, and nothing else.”
The absence of any infrastructure meant that the family had their work cut out for them. With the help of a London-based architect, they spent the following years turning this drought-prone peninsula into a veritable garden of Eden. The installation of a rainwater collection system allowed a new garden to prosper into a neatly manicured chaos of more than 15 types of palms, tall grasses, and trees frothy with bougainvillea, frangipani, and purple jacaranda flowers. In between, they planted a two-story villa and a handful of outbuildings. They named it Kahani Paradise—kahani being Hindi for “story.”
It proved an apt moniker. At the communal living room in the main villa, which borders an oblong pool from where stairs of rust-colored stone swirl down to the dining pavilion, antiques from all over India each had a tale to tell. There were ornate doors from Rajasthani palaces and a room-spanning wooden coffee table sourced in Nagaland. The ceilings overhead were constructed from reclaimed railway sleepers. From my palatial suite on the second floor (there are six in total), I could see the estate roll down into a tangle of green; only a sputtering fishing boat on the horizon reminded me that we were still within reach of civilization.
I spent the day exploring the area in the shotgun seat of the hotel’s rattling vintage jeep. Gokarna’s Thursday market was in full swing when I arrived, and in the confusion of honking tuk-tuks and a kaleidoscope of fruits and vegetables laid out on tarpaulins, I watched a cow steal mangos from an old hippie’s parked motorbike. That evening, Kahani Paradise’s manager led me to his favorite spot on the estate, the hilltop where it all began. The naked hippies were long gone, and the wooden shack had been replaced by a sturdy cabana with loungers and a small swimming pool, which was now lit up with dozens of oil lamps. With a drink in hand, I stretched out on a lounger and listened to the waves sloshing onto Paradise Beach below. The setting sun slowly disappeared behind the hills and washed the scene in sepia tones. The Konkan Coast might no longer be the hushed hideaway it once was, but if you know where to look, flashes of its past still linger in its prettiest corners.
Coasting through Goa and Gokarna
WHERE TO STAY
Ahilya by the Sea
Run by descendants of the last Maharaja of Indore, this intimate eight-suite bolt-hole lies within easy reach of bustling Panaji and North Goa’s most popular beaches, but is a world away in terms of vibe. Expect understated luxury, old-world charm, and soothing Arabian Sea views (doubles from US$255).
The seven Portuguese-style villas here dot a forested hillside just outside Candolim, offering yet another refuge from the touristy side of North Goa (doubles from US$300).
This lush eco-resort in southern Goa commands panoramic views from its perch on a hilltop above Cabo de Rama Beach, with just a handful of thatched wooden cottages and luxury surrounded by more than five hectares of native forest (doubles from US$130).
The passion project of a British family, Kahani Paradise is reason alone to visit Gokarna, a still low-key beach town in Karnataka. The antiques-filled main villa houses just six suites, and for guests looking to explore farther afield, there are Royal Enfield motorbikes and an open-top jeep at the ready (doubles from US$300).
WHERE TO EAT
After gaining a cult-like following at its first outpost in Mumbai’s hip Bandra district, this Japanese restaurant now lures crowds of an equally cool caliber to its second branch in Assagao for real-deal ramen and hyper-fresh sushi.
South Indian curries and stews are the highlight at Tamil Table, a checkerboard-floored restaurant surrounded by lush tropical gardens. Order a bit of everything, and don’t skip the mini medu vadas.
Not far from Baga Beach, this buzzy brunch spot takes over a classic villa with a courtyard covered in bougainvillea and serves some of the best wood-fired pizzas in this part of Goa.
Urrak Cookhouse & Cocktails
Apart from feni-laced cocktails, this breezy, terrazzo-clad hangout with views over Goa’s backwaters dishes out pan-Indian comfort food, from Himalayan thukpa noodles to prawn curries from the country’s south.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
The Local Beat
The tours curated by this by-appointment-only company immerse guests in a unique and less-touristy slice of Goan life.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Under the Konkan Sun”).