India, in particular Goa, is a bit like Marmite. And for lovers (like myself) this magical country will keep calling you back. As beyond the dust and the dirt, crows and chaos, there is magic to be found in this sacred land, says Emma Whitehair.
The C&TH Guide to Goa
The best time to visit Goa is between November and March, when the weather is beautifully balmy with a gentle sea breeze. Remember to organise your visa before travelling though, which these days comes through digitally within a few days. Just bear with the slightly bonkers questions asked though – a little taste of Indian bureaucracy. Also note that generally speaking, Goa doesn’t cater to the western standard of luxury. There are often power cuts, while a premium experience is hot running water. So although, in my humble opinion, the accommodation reviewed is some of the best you will find in Goa, prepare to make friends with a hand-held douche. As in India, you don’t flush paper. An unintentional green practice (because the plumbing can’t handle it) that I always come back, feeling should be adopted here in the west too.
With 20 stylish thatched bungalows right on Ashvem Beach, in the North of Goa, this resort is divided in two parts; Palm Grove and Little Palm Grove. The beach restaurant and bar is in Palm Grove, where a simple breakfast is included. With omelettes to order, or crepes, fruit and yoghurt from the buffet.
Bungalows at Palm Grove face onto a lush coconut garden where families with children are welcome. While Little Palm Grove is for singles, couples or families with children over 12 years. And some of the accommodation, including ours, offering sunset views over the sea from the worthy verandahs. Little Palm Grove also has a lovely shala, with a palm tree growing right through the floor and roof. Where guests are welcome to join daily drop in yoga classes, for 800 rupees per person. During our stay, English teacher Amanda set the pace of an hour and a half class to our small group’s ability, offering modifications for different levels.
Interiors are a fusion of Indian and Scandinavian style. Luxurious, but in that lovely rustic way. With soft marble oxide cement walls and floors washed with muted shades of ochre and dark blue, wicker pendant lamps and beautiful silk print cushions from locally based English designer boutique, Alchemy. The hot-running water was a little glitchy when we stayed, but we later learnt it was run by solar panel, so let them off.
Transition into this retreat from Mandrem beach village by crossing a rickety wooden footbridge. Arriving into a stylish sanctuary nestled in a tropical garden – all mahogany wood, vintage Indian doorways and pretty lanterns, offsetting beautifully maintained flora and fauna. With accommodation ranging from basic huts to luxury suites, although Ashiyana describes itself as a ‘yoga retreat village’, its offering is unique – in that guests can treat their stay as much like a yoga retreat as they wish. With a freedom to dip in and out of activities, that you don’t usually get on group retreats. While still feeling part of this wellbeing community.
There are two, two hour yoga classes a day here. But don’t let that put you off. The classes are very gentle and meditative, using plenty of props, and catering to all levels – from first timers to teachers. And in peak season, there’s often choices of the type of yoga classes to join. With everything from Dynamic to Iyengar or Yin. There’s also activities in the evenings, such as the delightful singing yoga nidra with Arianne, conscious cinema or guided meditations. The post-yoga Brunch and Dinner can be quite a sociable affair. With incredible, healthy food, served buffet style from an open kitchen. Where you can chose to join the long communal table. Or perhaps you’ll prefer to take a spot on the floor based seating, hanging out with one of Ashiyana’s incredibly well behaved pet dogs. Who, when not joining yoga classes, seem to enjoy taking naps alongside dining guests.
A fusion of Indian and Nepalese cuisine, with plenty of vegan options, the menu is mostly vegetarian, although there was the one time appearance of a delicious prawn curry during our stay. Followed by a not to be missed vegan cheesecake made with avocado. All meals are prepared in-house and home-made, right down to the yoghurt, coconut milk and cashew butter. With different offerings everyday of the week, breakfast includes daily fresh juices, a savoury dish such as masala omelettes with chapati, alongside delicious raw muesli. Note fresh coffee can be made by special request (something I wish I’d known sooner!)
Ashiyana’s Spa is renowned for its incredible bodywork treatments. With roots in Osteopathic training, try Renita’s deep muscle massage, which works on the point where the muscle joins the bone. Or see the stunning Elsa, who intuitively uses slow long deep strokes to open energy channels and take you into another dimension.
As mentioned, Goa is not known for luxury accomodation, The Cape however, is the exception. As we drove up to barren wasteland, a crowd of locals were perched at the top of the cliff, enjoying the best sunset views in the area. With a guarded, ornate carved wood archway, framing pink skies and palms, marking the steps down to this secluded paradise. Each of the ‘cottages’ here are set among a bank of palm trees, and feature a private terrace with jacuzzi, where guests can watch that romantic sunset with a bubbly bath a deux (or party four, it’s that big!). With a Balinese style interior style, rooms have powerful air-con and fully opening sliding doors, with four poster wooden beds an indulgent empire size. Steps lead down to a stylish wet room set into the natural rock, so showering under a rain head suspended high in the rafters, with the drain concealed within a square of stylish stones, is an alfresco style experience.
Not many staff speak good English here, but they will pretend they do. Which is frustrating and charming in equal measure. You will also be given a mobile phone to reach your own butler. In our case for yoga mats, a cafetiere and fresh coffee for the room, and bath salts for the hot tub. Only the latter which he failed to deliver on.
The cliff set layout of the resort means getting to the restaurant involves quite a few steps, worthwhile if you can nab the table perched on the cliff. Otherwise, all meals can be served to the dining table on the terrace of your cottage, also with panoramic views of the Arabian sea. So do watch out for dolphins while enjoying breakfast (they are mostly sighted in the mornings). The breakfast that is included with the room includes coffee, a juice and one breakfast dish of your choice from the a la carte menu including the usual fruit salad with yoghurt, or eggs served with rostis or lightly cooked smoked salmon. The rest of the menu is categorised into simple european dishes or classic Indian fare. The latter which we ordered daily, enjoying delicious vegetarian pakora, the lushest green palak paneer, crisp garlic naan and moorish daal fry. Followed by an incredible cardamom and lemon lassi.
One thing you should be aware of before booking The Cape though – a cyclone at the end of 2018 swept away its private beach, and the next beach is a 10 min stroll away, across the craggy terrain of the cliff top. Alternatively, you can take the epic swim from rocks off The Cape to the local beach, where we took a rest in the shade of a rock, before swimming back. Probably about over a mile both ways, and we spotted seals and shoals of jumping fish on the way. Check that the waves are not to choppy before embarking on this swim though, as on our last trip, getting in and out the water was a little precarious to say the least. Making that craggy stroll along the cliff top seem a lot more appealing. Or you could always stay on terra firma treat yourself to a firm massage with a Thai yoga flavour, at the bijoux spa down by the water’s edge. With no rocks involved.