Got a Good Thing Goan
William Sitwell rekindles his love affair with Goa, 24 years after falling for it as a teenager, and finds plenty to admire in its modern, grown-up incarnation
IT’S STRANGE HOW short episodes from one’s past seem to stretch time far beyond the exact hours or days they actually lasted. A long, rainy afternoon could feel like days. So perhaps it’s not surprising that my first visit to Goa felt like a year, rather than the six short weeks of reality.
I was seventeen and pausing during my year-off assignment of teaching in an Irish-Christian brother-run school in New Delhi. The subjects I taught were English, geography and moral science. I knew little more than my students, who were barely younger than me and certainly looked much older. If there is a generation of St Columba’s graduates from the late Eighties who are lacking particularly in their moral science, I’m to blame. And Goa is slightly to blame, too, because the ten-day trip I had planned there turned into nearly two months.
‘Delayed in Goa, will return as soon as possible,’ read my fax to the school. It was at a time when there were no direct dial telephones and a phone call home to the UK could take eight hours to connect. But time took on a new meaning in the lush, green valleys of Goa, with its beaches that seemed to stretch into eternity.
We stayed in a small guest house near Benaulim beach which cost the equivalent of some 20p per night. During the day we hung out in a shack on the beach called Splash Bar, which was run by a local, handsome twentysomething called Peter Cortinho. We lay on the sand, body-surfed in the waves, drank beer, ate delicious fish curries and occasionally went on a foray into the nearest town, Margao.
With my fellow gap-year ‘teachers’ we met other passing travellers, some of whom I am still in touch with today. Although we did practically nothing, those weeks felt formative. How many times since have I thought back to those long, dreamy days and nights? To that unspoilt coastline, to long games of backgammon and sniggering on the beach as I devoured endless PG Wodehouse books (bought, I should add, on College Street in Calcutta)?
SO THE PROSPECT of a first return in 24 years stirred my emotions. A quarter of a century ago Goa was a haven for hippies, who sold their passports and spent their days in the flea markets of Anjuna. Today it is a haven for the wealthy Indian playboys of Mumbai, who come to spend their newly acquired vast riches made in India’s current boom in everything from property to retail and beyond.
Whereas my first journey to the former Portuguese colony was by boat from Bombay (as it was then) and took twelve hours, today there are flights from most major cities every hour, so you can leave your Delhi office at lunchtime and be on the beach in time for tea or cocktails. And whereas a couple of decades back most visitors sought shelter in cheap guesthouses and shacks, these days there is an array of chic and exclusive resorts peppered down the long coastline.
In fact, I was worried that the Goa of my memories would have become overrun with such places, with the beaches of Anjuna and Calangute, Colva and Cavelossim turned into a kind of southern Spanish coastal horror. But as my taxi wound its way south from the airport in Dabolim, little seemed to have changed. We drove through small villages with palm trees shading the road, and then into open countryside with lush green fields. The only evidence of the hotels and resorts was the occasional smart sign for a Marriott Resort or a Hotel Taj Exotica.
My own destination couldn’t have been more different from the Savoya Guest house of the late Eighties. The Leela Goa is set in 75 acres of landscaped gardens quite far south, between the Arabian Sea and the River Sal, where you can watch fishing boats coming and going. There are 206 rooms, from the twenty lavish, new Lagoon terrace suites to smaller but equally well-appointed and comfortable bedrooms.
HAVING GAINED ADMISSION through the tight airport-style security that is now sadly a feature of every smart hotel in India, you come to the impressive colonnaded entrance, some 100 yards long and with the Hindu deity Shiva at the end framed in scarlet. In such temple-like surroundings, the frazzled tourist soon relaxes.
The feeling is intensified in the evenings, when local musicians play drums and sitars in the Yali Lounge — aka the lobby — while you sip cocktails and recline on large, high sofas as the dusky breeze wafts in through the arches, as does the sound of water falling through the tropical gardens.
The music tempts you in to buy pricey cocktails, as do the smells from the various kitchens in the main restaurant that seem to serve every kind of cuisine from around the world. There’s even a smart Italian establishment, the Riverside, so that the Mumbai fatcats can take a break from curry and indulge in fresh pasta.
But while the hotel’s own Indian restaurant is unbelievably good — serving some of the most delicious Indian breads I have tasted — my wife and I tended to go for budget options at night, seeking culinary refuge in the shacks along the beach. We gorged on a huge, late breakfast, missed out on lunch and waited until the evening, when we ate wonderful fish curries and dhal in the cheap and atmospheric beach bars and restaurants.
Indeed, it seems we weren’t the only cheapskates. Most of the local beach shacks were filled with residents of the Leela — although they may not have resorted to the local transport as we did.
Keen for a trip to the town of Margao for some carpet and rug haggling, we were told that a cab ride would be 3,000 rupees (£35). But the local bus, which you can simply flag down as it passes, is a mere 20 rupees (24p) for a return journey. So we travelled cheek by jowl with everyone from grannies to schoolchildren. The hair-raising driving and claustrophobia did make a dip in the pool back at the Leela all the more delicious.
In the evenings, as the sun set, a jog along the beach was swiftly followed by a stiff drink and then another foray out from the hotel. As the Goans have an addiction to fireworks, every evening saw colourful pyrotechnic displays lighting up the sky.
Goa was a paradise of memory from my late teens and it is no less dreamy a holiday for a grown-up who is long done with cheap guesthouses. Now my Goan dreams are of the sunbeds of the Leela under the shade of palm trees which come with two flags: you raise the red one so you’re not disturbed and the green one if you need a drink… or a snack… or a massage…
The Leela Goa offers rates from £99 per night in a Lagoon Terrace room, including breakfast. theleela.com