What Palacio do Deao lacks in the pomp and splendour of other grand Goan homes in the South, it makes up for in charm and aesthetics and a stunning garden
Given the situation, if you must travel, do so wisely and safely. North Goa used to be my go-to destination for a bit of R&R anytime of the year. I had been warned to avoid anywhere north of Panaji now and so chose the relative calm and obscurity of South Goa. I was gently shaken by many emotions — charm, personality, a gentle way of living similar to the north 30 years ago. I wish I had stayed longer.
Here are my top picks of things to do in south Goa for the mature traveller who’s a hippie at heart, loves great food, seeks a comfortable yet affordable stay and cherishes off-grid experiences.
A farm-to-table story
You must have a meal at Palacio do Deao and let Celia and Ruben Vasco da Gama pamper you. I don’t know why I waited so long to visit. Probably because I felt the trek from north Goa in previous years was just too much of an effort. My loss. This gorgeous Indo-Portuguese-style mansion was built by Jose Paulo de Almeida, a priest from Braga in Portugal, who came to Goa as part of the entourage of the Archbishop of Portugal in the late 18th century. He loved the village of Quepem in South Goa and built this spacious mansion which he modestly described as a farmhouse. After his death, it rightly became known as the Dean’s Palace. What it lacks in the pomp and splendour of other grand Goan homes in the South, it makes up for in charm and aesthetics and a stunning garden. The couple took over the restoration around nine years ago (Ruben had previously helped with the restoration of the Tiracol Fort).
While you wander aimlessly through the gardens and house, Celia offers a sumptuous lunch on the verandah at the back of the house, starting with home-brewed feni or kokum squash, followed by a volley of deliciousness, which could include fresh crab salad, rissois de camarao (little prawn patties), some vegetarian dishes, including her signature pumpkin pie, whole fried sea bass, prawn curry and rice and to finish, a creme caramel with a whiff of fresh orange… this is the original farm-to-table story in a wonderful heritage setting. Please note that they are probably the only restaurateurs in Goa to offer such a wide selection of excellent vegetarian dishes. There are no walk-ins. You must book in advance and there’s limited seating. The “banquet” will set you back a princely sum of Rs 900 per person (palaciododeao.com).
A hidden gem
We chose to stay at Bara Bungalow (rosakue.com), a professionally-run homestay in a heritage Goan house with all the comforts of home, great cooking and room service!
Bara Bungalow is on the main road in the village of Assolna, in South Goa, about three kilometres from the beautiful white sands of Cavelossim Beach. I woke on a Sunday morning to the sound of birdsong and in the distance a beautiful church choir. I almost thought I was in heaven. This is what North Goa used to be like 30 years ago and certainly a refreshing change from the maddening crowds of Anjuna, Assagaon and Ashwem. You have every possible comfort, a beautiful living room where you can sit in the evening, a little swimming pool and great food.
A big advantage is the excellent cook who whips up whatever you want at a few hours’ notice… whether you have dietary restrictions or whether you want something for children… with a lot of ease and a lot of love.
Finding decent vegetarian food anywhere in Goa is a challenge and this is one way of ensuring that your holiday isn’t spoilt with bad food. The other big advantage of Bara Bungalow is that you have a manager who pops in every morning, a housekeeper, a cook, people to clean, so if anything goes wrong, it’s fixed in a couple of hours.
A must-visit and a real hidden gem is a visit to the Cazulo feni distillery (cazulofeni.com), a farm-to-table experience owned by Hansel Vaz, who also owns the best-looking liquor shops in South Goa and a great bar (Tesouro by Firefly). The feni tour starts with a look at sorting, crushing, fermenting the juice in 80-year-old terracotta pots with no added yeast, distilling in copper stills and ends with an interactive tasting of their three fenis paired with a board of Goan and European delicacies.
The last stage is done in their tasting room, which is filled with Hansel’s collection of glass garafa (gigantic glass bottles where they stored alcohol or wine), some which date back to the 18th century and came from Europe. Interestingly, their cashew feni paired exceedingly well with Goa sausage (even with the vinegar) and other spicy, savoury things and the palm feni went distinctively better with fruit and vegetables. An extraordinary find.
I’m not obsessed with alcohol but a visit to the John Distilleries (pauljohnwhisky.com) is an experience not to be missed. This is an amazingly well-organised operation with an international-looking visitor tasting centre made to look like an old Portuguese house by architect Dean D’Cruz. Young Pankaj took us around and explained how they make single malt whisky here, which is very similar to the Scottish experience.
The tour takes you around the copper stills, through the barrel room where the whisky is aged (one year ageing here is equivalent to four-five years in Scotland because of the heat and humidity) and then to the tasting. They have some amazing experiments going on, ageing in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry barrels. Their store has some whiskies on sale which are not available outside Goa. When I first tasted Paul John a few years ago, I found the whiskies quite harsh. The new, very affordable Nirvana at 40 per cent proof is an approachable way to start your Indian single malt journey. Next step up, try the Christmas Edition which has a sweet intense sherry chocolate note from the Pedro Ximenez finish.
Goan version of the burger
If you must stay right on the beach then Beleza (belezagoa.com) is your ticket. It’s a luxury resort with a laid-back feel in the sleepy village of Betalbatim. Beleza is a family-run hotel. It has 90 rooms with the feel of a boutique hotel and the efficiency of a luxury resort. They have a lovely all-day-dining restaurant and a beautiful restaurant and bar right on the beach called Nazare where they serve seafood and grills. They also have a soundproof indoor banquet hall for weddings and parties and must be a cool destination for a small Indian wedding or special destination getaway… a little secret in the hospitality world. Prices are very reasonable and the rooms are pretty large, so for a beach resort this would be my pick.
Domnic and Rosalina Fernandes undoubtedly make the best chorizo chourico or Goa sausages. I’ve been buying my coconut husk smoked sausages directly from them for years. Happy to report that they now have a store on the main road opposite the church. This is a small family business worth talking about. They do everything from rearing the pigs to grinding their own masalas and making their own toddy vinegar. The sausages are then smoked ever so slowly over burnt coconut shells, dried, cured and smoked again… an artisanal tradition worth encouraging.
What do you do with chorizo once it’s survived your suitcase? Cook it like the Goans, boiled till dry with a little water, skin removed and stuffed inside a pav, the Goan version of the burger. Goans also add a sausage to pullaus to add flavour or in a stew with potatoes and onions
Visit the Figueiredo mansion (figueiredohouse.com) in Loutolim. Maria de Lourdes painstakingly looked after her incredible Portuguese/ Goan ancestral home along with the family silver, crockery and beautiful furniture. The old lady was nothing short of an enigma.
A force to reckon with in any of the three languages she speaks fluently. She comes from a family of distinguished advisors to the government and lawyers who were also great patrons of the arts (both local and Portuguese) and fine living.
Dinners in the old days would be for a minimum of 60 people, starting with canapes, a soup, cold fish, a meat main course, a leg of ham from Portugal, asparagus imported from Holland and roast turkey as centrepiece. Today her teatime spread consists of apa de camarao, (a prawn and rice cake), a few almond cakes, her famous orange roll, empadinhas (little pork pies), chicken tart and rissois. She is now 92.
Her daughter Fatima has returned from Portugal and converted the main house into a museum and the other side of the mansion into a stunning homestay, keeping both heritage and home intact.
I’d say there’s enough to do in South Goa for a week or more…and have a restful vacation too.
Celia’s lunch main course at Palacio do Deao
Bara Bungalow — a professionally run homestay in a heritage Goan house with all the comforts of home, great cooking and room service
The main dining room of the Figueiredo mansion in Loutulim
Prawn curry and rice at Beleza
Domnic and Rosalina Fernandes undoubtedly make the best chorizo chourico or Goa sausages
Want to learn how feni is made? Visit the Cazulo feni distillery in Goa
Pictures: Karen Anand
Karen Anand is a culinary consultant, food writer and entrepreneur. In recent times her name has been synonymous with farmers’ markets. Follow her on www.facebook.com/karenanand and on Instagram @karen_anand