Goa's reemergence as a more fashionable, suddenly trendy Arabian Sea hangout has much to do with the launch of world-class villas such as Ajai Lakhanpal's awesome Aashyana Lakhanpal (Escrivao Vaddo, Candolim; tel. 0832/248-9225 or -9276. www.aashyanalakhanpal.com; Rs 199,500-Rs 622,650 per week), a haven of impeccable style and sophistication that attracts utterly savvy world travelers, aristocrats, and their favorite dinnertime companions. Ajai one of a few savvy beach lovers who's turned a piece of prime Goan real estate into a luxurious hideaway, providing the ultimate getaway for the fortunate few. The gorgeous five-bedroom villa has every imaginable luxury -- beautiful pool, romantic sleeping quarters, elegant furnishings, and decor that's a careful mix of antique and modern -- all in a setting that is both tropical idyll and luxurious mansion. Rates include breakfast, airport transfers, and a private staff. Ajai also has two more villas: Aashyana Casinhas, which consists of three cottages, each with two bedrooms (Rs 45,500-Rs 144,500 per week), and Villa Venus, a three-bedroom villa (Rs 174,300-Rs 249,900 per week).
If you'd rather forgo the sophistication, and don't really need all that space anyway, preferring to leave your friends at home, then you need to head farther up the coast to the extreme north, between Asvem and Arambol, where you'll find tranquillity on the beach at Elsewhere..., a simple, paradisiacal kind of place that's right on the sand, far from the touristy throng, and shot through with a lovely sense of the past. Fashion photographer Denzil Sequeira considers his ancestral property the biggest secret in Goa, but given how long you need to book in advance, word is definitely out. Away from the crowds, it has an absolutely stunning beach, several lovely, simple houses to stay in, and great food. It's one of the most idyllic boutique properties in Goa, found at the end of a road and reached by crossing a bamboo footbridge through thick green groves -- like all good hideaways, finding it nigh impossible, and once there you'll seldom have the urge or inclination to leave. You won't find chic interiors or heavy themed designs here: The two- and three-bedroom villas are filled with relics from the past -- original tiles, collections of old altars, antique furniture, and planter's chairs and deck beds on verandas and porches overlooking a distinctly tropical beach scene. In place of the obligatory pool you have the entire Arabian Sea to swim in, al fresco showers, and hammocks strung between the trees. Two of the villas, the Piggery and the Bakery, are air-conditioned, while the Priest's House (where Denzil's uncle once lived), and 125-year-old Captain's House (where Brad Pitt and Angelina recently stayed) are more about the breeze. Coming here has a definite purpose -- to take lazing about to new dimensions. Don't expect to find shacks, vendors, or shops; but your hosts will help you with trips to the markets, restaurants, and party zones, if you desire. Come between October and February, and you may spot Olive Ridley and rare loggerhead turtles, since the beach out front is a protected nesting zone. The food is terrific, even though it tends to take forever to get it, and the staff is unobtrusive and ever helpful. And if you want to party, you can probably find something 15 to 20 minutes away. You'll need to reserve well ahead; do it online at www.aseascape.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org (tel. 93-2602-0701 for last-minute bookings or emergencies only). You can expect to pay $1,477 to $2,404 per week; much more during the festive season.
Finally, if you don't mind being quite close to some of the regular action, the former hippie headquarter village of Anjuna shelters one of the ultimate Goan hideaway "villas," a rustic chic place named The Hobbit (tel. 0832/227-4629 or 98-2005-5053; www.thehobbitgoa.com). Fashioned in and around a rock, this was once (minus windows, doors, and ceilings) the psychedelic digs of Anjuna's famed '70s hippies, and you're likely to walk right past the boundary hedge before finding it. Refurbished by the extremely chilled-out Chinmayi and her husband, rally driver Farad Bathena, the Hobbit took birth in 2006, and comprises three boho-sexy rooms on two different levels, done up simply but tastefully (all with air-conditioning and private bathrooms); a sitting and dining room, meditation alcove, and kitchenette; and plenty of porches, a roof terrace, a tiny plunge pool, and semi-open bathrooms around exposed rock with sweeping views of the beach and the neighboring cliff. Even though you are right near the action (2 min. walking distance from the beach), the Hobbit remains secluded, there are unlikely to be any intrusions, but you do have TV, DVD, and Internet should you wish to maintain contact with the outside world. For meals, you can use the services of two nearby shacks -- Curly's (seafood) and Shiva's (Israeli), which are more than happy to "home" deliver via your very own house attendants who go out of their way to make your stay comfortable. The Wednesday Flea Market is a stone's throw away, and parties are fairly common in this area but (fortunately) not held on a nightly basis. Ask Chinmayi for the details if you want to make sure you're at the right place at the right time -- or far away from it. Rates are almost embarrassingly fair -- Rs 9,900 to Rs 14,400 per night for the entire villa (six adults), including a one-way airport transfer, and housekeeping services, although substantially higher over Christmas and New Years; children under 12 stay free, and you're responsible for your own meals. The Hobbit, like most villas in Goa, is closed during the monsoon (June-Sept).
North Goa offers a wide range of accommodations, but we've handpicked those that afford a sense of exclusivity and are more likely to satisfy any craving for tranquillity or an experience other than the mass-market humdrum defined by package tourism. Perhaps the finest place in all-Goa is Nilaya Hermitage, where aesthetic splendor wrestles with a sublime, untouched location for poll position as its top selling point. At Goa's very northernmost point is the rather remote enclave of Tiracol, where the owners of Nilaya Hermitage have restored seven rooms in the old headland fort. If you're design conscious, want to be relatively close to the beach and in the heart of the tourist zone -- yet keen on a boutique "nonhotel" experience, another top option is Pousada Tauma. If you're looking for something more midrange, head for Siolim House or Panchavatti, or one of the Casa properties, a small chain of boutique hotels. But if you're here to be left alone to simply enjoy the beach with as few intrusions as possible, you'll definitely want to check out some of the top villas available here for stays.
Very Expensive -- Situated on the short peninsula where the Portuguese built their defensive Aguada Fortress, is Taj Fort Aguada (tel. 0832/664-5858; www.tajhotels.com), a resort complex comprising three different properties (the Beach Resort, Hermitage, and Holiday Village) clustered together around one of the most spectacular locations in all of Goa. From up here, you get picture-postcard views of the beach, which stretches all the way to Baga, 8km (5 miles) north. Behind the main Beach Resort block are 42 cottages tucked almost invisibly among groves of lantana, cashew, and bougainvillea bush; these are the best places to stay at the Beach Resort (from Rs 18,250) although you don't get a clear view of the sea from all. Alternatively, for absolute privacy (ideal for groups or families), consider one of the more exclusive Hermitage cottages (Rs 18,250-Rs 38,300 for a one-bedroom villa), built as a retreat for delegates during the 1983 meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government. The cottages are set amid terraced gardens of exotic orchids, bougainvilleas, cashew trees, jasmine, and Krishna ficus. Each villa has a separate living room; a dining area; one, two, or three bedrooms; two bathrooms; a balcao (balcony); and a private garden. Interiors are luxurious and include all modern amenities; request a villa near Sunset Point, where cocktails are served while the sun descends over the Arabian Sea. It's quite a stiff climb between the cottages and the hotel lobby (shared with the Beach Resort) and if you're feeling lazy, there are courtesy vehicles for the short transfer. Sharing the facilities is the more informal Taj Holiday Village (from Rs 13,250), fronted by Sinquerim Beach, with cottages and villas in reds, pinks, blues, and yellows scattered among towering coconut trees and lush vegetation. Accommodations at this resort vary considerably, ranging from lavish sea-facing villas to less desirable suites in clusters or duplex cottages. Although its facilities make it immensely popular with families, it wouldn't be your first choice if you're looking for peace and quiet. Facilities, as you can well imagine, are extensive, with every imaginable watersport and distraction laid on, including a spa and some of the finest restaurants in Goa; the head chef, Urbano de Rego, is widely acknowledged as the world's greatest Goan chef, having created the restaurant versions of many classic local dishes.
If you prefer a resort with a fresher look, do investigate the brand-new O Hotel (opening in late-2009), aiming to provide some modern-era competition to the Taj from its location at Dando on Candolim Beach (tel. 0832/304-7000; www.ohotelsindia.com); for some idea of what to expect (albeit in a city context), read our review of the O Hotel in Pune. There will be 75 rooms and, if the Pune version is anything to go by, a truly luxurious, state-of-the-art spa, not to mention a frenzy of unbridled designer-crafted fun throughout.
Moderate -- There are quite a number of soulless places in the midrange category; many cater specifically to package tourists who fly in to bronze their neon-white skin and overindulge on cheap liquor. We assume you've got other plans, so the places we've reviewed generally have a bit of character. Of these, Siolim House is the most authentic option, set in a beautifully restored Portuguese villa that once belonged to the Governor of Macau; and Wildernest is an inland eco-resort that offers a complete alternative to the beach holiday most people associate with Goa. In addition to these, you can also go in for the totally intimate and very private atmosphere of the two rooms attached to the seasonal restaurant, Ku (tel. 93-2612-3570; email@example.com; $110-$175 double), run by a European couple, but decorated in a Balinese-cum-Japanese style that works amazingly well when surrounded by rice paddies and a lovely water garden. The slick design cleverly blurs the line between outdoor and indoor living -- perfect for Goa's sultry, tropical atmosphere. If you like the sound of Casa Vagator and Casa Britona, then you might also appreciate the classy styling of Casa Colvale (tel. 93-7308-1973; www.casaboutiquehotels.com), a snazzy 12-room contemporary hotel with a pretty setting on the Chapora River. It's several kilometers inland from Anjuna, so not the first choice if the beach and hippie vibe is important to you, but it has a fabulous infinity pool and superb deck straddling the water's edge; there's also a speedboat on hand to get you where you need to go. The intimate spa here is also a big highlight. Doubles run Rs 6,000 to Rs 9,000; much higher during the Christmas/New Year period, and lower during the monsoon. This is likely to be a hip place to meet savvy, sophisticated vacationers from Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru
Inexpensive -- Occupying the same infinitely peaceful location (and with the same excellent staff and restaurant) as Elsewhere (one of our favorite collection of "villas"), are the rustic-luxury Otter Creek Tents (tel. 0832/224-7616; www.aseascape.com). Bargain hunters should really consider one of these three tents ($407-$663 double per week; $1,126 over Christmas and New Years), which overlook the freshwater creek; these are furnished with four-poster beds and have en-suite bathrooms with hot showers and personal lounges on a bamboo jetty. And there's a great sense of exclusivity, to boot.
Another decent budget-oriented option (and one which you needn't take for an entire week) would be to bag one of the two suites at Hotel Bougainvillea (tel. 0832/227-3270 or -3271; www.granpasinn.com) in Anjuna, some distance from the beach. Built by owner Betina Faria's grandfather, it's also fondly referred to as Granpa's Inn and is a well-regarded hangout for backpackers looking for something a little more substantial and characterful than the shacks and impromptu guesthouses nearer the beach. Actually, the fact that Bougainvillea is a couple of miles away from the beach may be a bit of a letdown for some -- for others, the distance from the flea market and endless vendors of Anjuna may be its saving grace. There's a convoluted list of room categories, with standard (basic) doubles from Rs 850 to Rs 2,150; but those prized suites cost Rs 1,250 to Rs 2,450. Try to book the one with its own garden. The small accommodations are quiet and cool; there's a lovely garden, swimming pool, and old pool table. Both short and long sessions of Brahmani yoga are held on the premises.
Panjim & Old Goa
To sample authentic neighborhood life, it's worthwhile spending a night in the heritage quarter that's developed in Panjim's oldest area, Fontainhas -- here there's a resolutely faded Portuguese atmosphere, and if you stay at one of the smaller guesthouses, you'll get a feel for the way people -- many of them unaffected by tourism -- live in the Goan capital. There's also the option of forgoing the heritage properties that we prefer and heading for the Goa Marriott Resort (www.goamarriottresort.com), an upmarket waterfront hotel situated on the outskirts of the city. Staying here, however, slightly misses the point of being in Panjim, and there are better resorts north and south of here. The clutch of guesthouses and small family run hotels situated in the heart of the Fontainhas neighborhood, not only have more character, but will immerse you in the spirit of the place far better than the luxurious resortlike places tucked behind the security booms. Also in the city, but a bit of a walk from the historic neighborhoods, is the brand new Vivanta by Taj (www.tajhotels.com), definitely the classiest place in town, even if not exactly brimming with local flavor. It's more a business hotel than anything else, with sleek contemporary rooms behind a facade from a different 20th-century era; ask for a room with a balcony or porch so you can at least catch a glimpse of the outside world while you're here.
The Central Coast
The stretch of coastline from Panjim to Mobor has more five-star resorts (the big, sprawling kind with countless activities laid on) than north Goa, and the number is added to annually (raising the hackles of eco-watchdogs). Most of these resorts are characterless but very child-friendly, often with separate pools and activities, and babysitters are always available. If you're looking for the best of these, the Leela is off the charts. However, our first choice for a wonderful and inspiring stay is Vivenda dos Palhaços -- it's not a beach resort at all, but a boutique guesthouse offering all the comforts of a real home, coupled with great style, a welcoming atmosphere, and a charmed location.
Bogmalo -- Close to both Panjim and Margao (the main market town in the south), and 5 minutes from the airport, Bogmalo offers a swimmable beach and plenty of water sport options but without the intense overcrowding of Baga-Calangute. It is not, however, as secluded as the beaches you'll find if you travel farther south; nor -- thanks to visible concrete developments -- is it quite so beautiful. The only decent accommodation here is Coconut Creek (tel. 0832/253-8090; firstname.lastname@example.org; Rs 5,250-Rs 10,000 A/C double, depending on the season), which is generally full with long-term charter groups and offers the basic requisites -- pool, cottages, greenery, and beach at walking distance. Owned by the same family is the simple and stylish Joets (Bogmalo Beach; tel. 0832/253-8036), a fishing cottage turned guesthouse, right on the beach; upstairs bedrooms each have balconies and private sitting areas (Rs 2,900-Rs 6,000 double). More important, Joets has a "happening" restaurant with live music on Friday -- make reservations and ask for a corner table by the sea.
Cansaulim, Utorda & Majorda -- With locals for neighbors, rather than the resorts and concrete developments found in the more built-up areas along the coast, the best place to stay, anywhere in Goa south of Panjim, is Vivenda dos Palhaços. Nearby, boasting the biggest pool in the country, not to mention handsome rooms, manicured grounds, and snappy service, is the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa (tel. 0832/272-1234; www.goa.park.hyatt.com) -- spread over 18 hectares (45 acres) on the virgin beach of Arrossim, it's a massive piece of Cansaulim real estate, with 250 slick rooms and plenty of distractions (from parasailing and jet-skiing to yoga and Ayurvedic massage) if you're not satisfied just lazing on the beach. Although it's utterly modern, architects styled the resort like a sprawling Indo-Goan pousada; tropical plants and mother of pearl chandeliers help the concept along, accommodations are elegant, fresh and light-filled, and you can dine in a different venue just about every night of the week. The best rates are available online several months in advance; a standard double starts at Rs 9,900 -- but you'd do well to invest in a sea-view room (Rs 14,400-Rs 15,500 double). Not too far away, in Utorda, is the older, much smaller Kenilworth Beach Resort (tel. 0832/275-4180; www.kenilworthhotels.com), which has always struck us as a perfectly lovely place with friendly service and good facilities. It's a better value than the Hyatt (even if rooms are slightly older fashioned), and although you won't necessarily have the same extensive menu of services (or high-end dining options), you'll be right on the beach, with some lovely beach shacks in easy striking distance.
Benaulim, Varca & Cavelossim -- Midway down the south coast, once you get beyond the uglified beach at Colva (completely ruined by hapless development) are some of the prettiest, uncrowded, and pristine stretches in all of Goa. There are several very good, well-serviced resorts here, including the Taj Exotica, on Benaulim beach; but the Radisson White Sands (tel. 0832/272-7272; www.radisson.com/goain) at nearby Varca isn't too shabby either, with all the requisite resort amenities, a vibey beach bar, and bland, predictable, sleek rooms. However, the top full-blown resort in Goa, The Leela, is a good deal farther down the coast, neatly cut off from most other developments, with its own stretch of beach and riverside location on the lovely Mobor headland.
The Far South
In the southernmost reaches of the state, there is only one large resort, and quite frankly it's a huge disappointment, particularly since it commandeers such a gorgeous stretch of beach -- Raj Baga. You could subject yourself to the substandard service and atrocious architecture at The InterContinental Lalit Goa Resort, which is overrated, but that would be doing yourself an immense disservice, not to mention locating yourself just a little too far (around 3km/2 miles) from the action; frankly, this is probably the least appealing of the five-star resorts in Goa -- if you must stay in a large resort, choose one of those along the central part of the coast.
In Palolem you'll have to venture back to nature at one of a handful of budget-chic options (such as the wonderful Bhakti Kutir eco-resort), or try The Village Guesthouse, which brings a touch of style to a traditionally rustic and earthy lodging scene. There are plenty more down-home options hereabouts, but if you fancy a bit of honest-to-goodness glamour thrown in with your beachfront idyll, look no further than the Turtle Lounge in Agonda. On the other side of Palolem, Patnem is a peaceful and lovely beach with very few hassles; the best place to stay is Home (tel. 0832/264-3916; www.homeispatnem.com; $30-$47 double), operated by a laid-back Swiss couple. Accommodations all have attached bathrooms and are scrupulously clean, if quite basic; the restaurant is also Patnem's best.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.