Ever since I gave up my home to embrace a life of travel, Goa has become my ‘digital nomad refuge’ in the monsoons. That liberating feeling of driving a scooter along the endless rice paddies and palm-fringed interiors, working out of quaint cafes with decent Wifi, indulging my taste buds in authentic Goan curries and at organic cafes, and calling charming old Portuguese houses ‘home’ for a few weeks – it’s everything I need to recharge my batteries, catch up on work and retreat into susagade (contentment) mode.
Away from the grey beaches and boisterous crowds, this is my guide to a lesser-known side of Goa, where peacocks dance in open meadows in the rains, locals gather at neighbourhood churches to pray and socialise, long-term dwellers embrace an organic way of life, and creative types find abundant inspiration.
Stay a while, and discover this side of Goa for yourself:
WHERE TO STAY
- Family-run homestay: Cancio’s House. To be honest, I had never really experienced Goa until I stayed with the Amaral family in the quintessential Goan village of Aldona. Their 500+ year old Portuguese era home is full of untold stories and their drinking water still comes from an ancient well. In the outhouse cottage surrounded by trees, there is plenty of privacy, yet chances are, you won’t leave without feeling like a part of the family.
- Experiential B&B: The Secret Garden. Quietly nestled in one of Saligao’s villages with cobbled streets, Helene and Derek refurbished their 150+ year old ancestral home so beautifully that it’s hard not to fall in love the moment you enter its little blue gate. I felt totally pampered by Helene’s famous breakfasts (think hot home-baked bread, homemade hummus, vegan pancakes and Goan savories), and those late night dips in the pool under a moonlit sky were something else!
- Boutique Hotels. It takes a while to manoeuvre through the long list of characterless hotels in Goa, but a little bit of research could land you amid the sunny courtyards of the uniquely designed, Alila Diwa and its infinity pool overlooking endless rice paddies. Its restaurant Spice Studio serves delicious curries and offers a ‘Dine in the Dark’ experience every month. When you browse through hotels in Goa, the trick is to focus as much on the Goan authenticity as on your budget.
- Volunteer for free accommodation: Saraya. Their rustic eco-huts and vegan-friendly cafe operate on a cool concept. You work for a few hours daily, managing the cafe or working in the organic garden, and get food and lodging in exchange. A pretty sweet deal!
WHERE TO EAT AUTHENTIC GOAN FOOD
Restos like Britto’s and Susa Lobo, which were once considered food institutions in Goa, now serve average, ‘nothing like real Goan’ food. Ditch those, and head to small, obscure, family-run restaurants for an authentic taste of Goa.
- Royal Fantacy (in Ponda): On a desperate afternoon of quiet hunger, while driving from North Goa towards a spice plantation stay near Dudhsagar, we decided to take our chances and stop for lunch at the decrepit Royal Fantacy (yes, fantasy with a “c”). Oh what seredipity it was! Given its vicinity to the spice plantations, my slow-cooked mushroom xacuti was made with aromatic, freshly-ground spices, lending it a flavor so delicious that I still salivate at the thought of it. Totally worth a detour.
- Nostalgia by Chef Fernando (in Salcete): Hugely popular among locals, Nostalgia, set in an old Portuguese house full of character, digs out Goan recipes that are obsolete or otherwise hard to find in other restaurants. The big vegetarian (also vegan, since there’s no dairy in traditional Goan food) section is a delight for plant-based eaters. I like their seasonal Goan curries with sana (a small round bread with a tinge of sweetness), along with a refreshing glass of urrak (a local cashew-based alcohol, lighter than feni) mixed with Limca.
- Voltaire (in Bardez): Right across the Mandovi River, Voltaire focusses on Hindu-influenced Goan cuisine and is the only haunt I’ve found yet that can do a vegetarian / vegan version of udamethi and tonak – both deliciously flavorful curries, served up with une, a local bread similar to pao.
- Sanil’s (in Saligao): I’ve watched friends relish their fish thalis at Ritz Classic with an empty plate, so imagine my delight when my hosts recommended a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall joint that serves a vegetarian/vegan version too. Sanil’s is not a place we could’ve found on our own, but as we squeezed in on one of the only four benches outside and waited for our food, we saw locals step out of fancy cars and join us – and I soon knew why. The dishes are diverse, and each a burst of different coconut-based Goan flavors, with kokum to round up the meal. Go hungry!
- See more of my favorite Goan food restos; the food at Andron in Nachinola is still among the best I’ve had in Goa yet, but call Anthony in advance if you want to eat vegetarian/vegan.
CAFES and WIFI
All these cafes are vegan/vegetarian friendly, offer free wifi, and remain open even during the monsoon season in Goa:
- Saraya (in Saligao): Hands down, the best international food I’ve eaten in Goa and probably India – thanks to their own organic garden! My favorites are the Summertime Sandwich with minced mushrooms and vegan cashew cheese, the homemade hummus and toasted pita bread, and served only at night, the wood-fired vegan pizza. Don’t miss the lemongrass and mint iced tea!
- Ruta’s Roadhouse (in Assagao): My fav cafe to work from, by the dome shaped windows overlooking the wilderness, while indulging in homemade hummus and the Moroccan style chickpea curry and couscous.
- Natti’s Naturals (near Anjuna): An all-organic cafe and store set within an old Portuguese house, Natti’s Naturals opened for the season just when my monsoon sojourn in Goa this year was getting over. I loved a sampling of the vegan food on their menu (especially the vegan burger and an appetizer with beetroot and other dips), but I need to go back and try their tofu scramble!
- Café Bodega (in Panjim): While running errands around Panjim, I liked grabbing a bite at Café Bodega, built around a sunny, green courtyard – a respite from the city and the hangout of choice for the well-heeled; I only wish they had more vegan options.
OFFBEAT THINGS TO DO
- Museum of Goa (MOG): Something we would’ve never known had our hostess at Secret Garden not tipped us off; every Sunday morning, locals and expats meet up at MOG (near Saligao) for a talk / discussion by Goans doing something different. We saw a short play by a theatre startup, followed by an interesting discussion on Konkan vs international theatre; the following week was a documentary screening by a local artist. I think it’s a great way to connect with the creative side of Goa.
- Have a beach to yourself in the rains: Truth be told, the grey beaches of Goa don’t do much for me. But I’d take the coast in the monsoon over the December crowds anyday – with grey skies, roaring waves and beaches like Little Vagator and Ashwem almost entirely to myself.
- Sunrise walks: I’m not a morning person, but I made a vow to be awake for more sunrises, and managed it on my last day in Goa this monsoon. I’m glad I did, because seeing those rice paddies shrouded in mist is totally worth it. You can do it yourself, or join a heritage walk (complete with offbeat locations and quirky stories) with Subodh, the founder of MOG.
- Jazz nights: It’s one thing to hit the discotheques in Goa with other travellers, quite another to dance with locals to jazz music at a neighborhood joint (Cantare in Saligao for example) till the wee hours of the morning – it’s not my thing, but it could become yours!
- Drive your bike on the inner roads: For me, one of the biggest charms of Goa is driving a scooter along the palm-fringed inner roads and the vast rice paddies, through truly susegade Goan villages, away from the traffic and the crowds. The point is not to get anywhere, but to just let my hair down, set my thoughts free, and experience that ‘Goa is a state of mind’ feeling!
- See 12 more mind-blowing experiences I’ve discovered in Goa; these include kayaking in the backwaters and joining a local festival that involves jumping in old irrigation wells!
HOW TO GET AROUND
- Automatic bikes / scooters: Seriously, rent an automatic scooter and feel the wind in your hair as you whizz around Goa! Look for inner routes on Google maps so you can ditch the crowded highways and main roads. I love Honda’s new 125cc bikes, but the more easily available Activa is good enough too. Ask your hosts to get you a good deal – usually INR 300 a day for short term rentals, and INR 250 a day for longer stays.
- Self drive cars: A convenient option to get around on rainy days, or when you need to go a long distance, like from north to south Goa. A basic car like Maruti or Indigo costs around INR 1200 a day.
- Taxi: My least preferred option, but for rides to/from the airport or if you’re not too keen to drive yourself, go with a Goan driver who can also share stories of living there. Ask your host to arrange a local driver for you.
Time and again, I’ve heard Goans lament about (and seen for myself) how mass tourism is slowly destroying the beauty of Goa. As travellers, it is upon us to make more informed travel choices and be more aware of our surroundings.
We can do our bit in these simple ways:
- Live and buy local: While deciding where to stay and what to eat, choose places owned or run by Goans – these tend to be more authentic experiences and ensure that tourism money goes back to the locals.
- Say no to plastic bags and bottles: I picked up a nifty cloth bag that folds into the size of a fist, at the boutique shop at Gunpowder. Although plastic bags are banned in Goa, many small shops still give them freely, and you just have to say no – better still, remind them about the ban. And like anywhere else, carry your own water bottle to refill fresh spring/well water and save money (and trash) on plastic mineral water bottles. Every time you see trash lining the beaches and hillsides, you’ll remember why.
- Best time to visit Goa: The winter months (October to March) are the most popular time to visit Goa, but if you ask me, there is nothing like Goa in the rains. The cloudy weather makes it much more pleasant to be outdoors than the otherwise hot sun, the rice paddies paint the countryside lush green, and everywhere is relatively less crowded.
- Phone connectivity: Airtel and Vodafone tend to work well (with 3G/4G) in North Goa, but I remember Airtel giving me trouble the one time I stayed at Agonda in South Goa.
- Must pack: I love that you can walk into a fancy resto or a street market in flip-flops, a casual dress, harem pants or anything you fancy – without being judged. Pack for tropical weather; carry sunscreen, shades and a cap.
- What’s Up Goa: Their events calendar is a handy way to find out what’s happening in Goa while you’re around.
- Goan food critic, Odette Mascarenhas: I’ve discovered many of my favorite eats in Goa, thanks to Odette’s candid food reviews in Goa!
- Hippie in Heels: A travel blog written by Rachel, who moved to Goa from the US a while ago. Her list of places to volunteer in Goa is especially helpful.
- Global Gallivanting: Run by travel blogger Anna, who quit her job in the UK and is now based out of Goa. Her recommendations of books on Goa’s hippie past have expanded my reading list.
- Noticeboards in cafes: There is always something happening in Goa – yoga classes, discussions, movie screenings, live music. Look out for event posters in cafes like Saraya.
Got any tips / questions for slow travel and living like a digital nomad in Goa?
I wrote this post in collaboration with Cleartrip. Opinions on this blog are always mine.
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