Love’s labours aren’t lost on boutique hotel Ahilya by the Sea: run by a husband and wife team, this boutique beachside hideaway is built on their passion for all aspects of Goan culture. Listen to traditional Fado singing in the hotel’s tropical gardens and become very well-acquainted with the chef’s take on local cuisine. The colonial-Portuguese style villas are mini-galleries in themselves, with an intriguing array of African ceremonial masks, Burmese earthenware and works by renowned Indian painter Antonio Xavier Trindade; here, you can become a master in art from the comfort of your bed… It's the most leisurely history lesson we've ever had.
11am. Earliest check-in, 1pm. Staff will seek out a temporary room for early arrivals, depending on availability; while waiting, take a dip in one of the hotel’s pools.
Double rooms from £153.86 (INR15,340), including tax at 18 per cent.
Rates usually include a breakfast of daily-changing dishes served in various locations around the hotel.
At the hotel
Spa, gardens, free WiFi throughout and a laundry service. In rooms: unique artworks, free bottled water, air-conditioning, ceiling fan and own-brand toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
To show your true artistic appreciation, book one of the three Rainha rooms in the Sunrise Villa. Minestrel, Barcos and Annalia are filled with bizarre curiosities and chin-stroking artworks. Abstract paintings, African sculptures, wooden wall-hangings and Asian porcelain follies create a makeshift frame around the super king-size bed in the Minestral Suite. Save on future trips with a stay in Barcos; in just 21sq m you’ll learn a fair bit about Goan, Asian and African art, without the tiresome transfers.
There are two outdoor pools: start the day in the large Sunrise infinity pool gazing at the Arabian Sea, end it with a dip in the coconut palm-shaded Sunset plunge pool, surrounded by pink and white frangipani trees.
Banyan Spa, located on the first floor of Arjun's Tree Tower, is a grown-up lofty hideout. The spa’s therapists Nathalie and Cherrie will use their pummelling prowess to work out knots in customised massages and reflexology treatments.
Ladies, leave your heels at home; stilettos won’t fare well on Goa’s sandy beaches and unpaved walkways. Leave room in your suitcase for market finds and the beginnings of your own Indian art collection.
Children of all ages are welcome, but the hotel is better suited to teenagers. Baby cots can be added to rooms.
Lunch is served from noon to 2pm and dinner is served from 6pm to 8pm.
That free-spirited art teacher you had at school.
Ahilya by the Sea doesn’t have a restaurant with individual tables and a fixed menu. Instead, guests dine together alfresco in the hotel’s gloriously jungly grounds. Local Goan and visiting guest chefs from all over the world work together to create a fusion menu that picks the best bits from India, the Med, Provence, Tuscany and wherever else the chef’s inspired by that day. Meals are also dictated by the daily catch. The menu changes nightly and can be tailored to suit guests’ tastes.
There isn’t a bar at the hotel, but guests gather for cocktails in the drawing room of Leela Villa before dinner.
Set a 30-minute drive south of Panaji city, Ahilya by the Sea is located on the crossroads (or ‘cross waterways’) of the Arabian Sea, Mandovi River and Nerul River, next door to Coco Beach Dandarim.
Fly to Delhi or Mumbai and then board a Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) flight to Goa International Airport (around an hour’s journey). The hotel is less than an hour’s drive away from the airport; there’s a taxi rank outside the airport, or the hotel can organise a one-way transfer for INR2,070 a vehicle.
Unless you’re planning to explore the local area extensively, you’ll have little need for a car. Ahilya by the Sea can arrange transfers and trips to the seaside, as needed.
Worth getting out of bed for
Sun-worshippers, ask hotel staff for insider tips on the most-secluded, tourist-free beaches before hitting the sand for the day – or your whole stay, if you’re so inclined. The culturally curious can take a step back in time on a hotel-organised day trip to 16th-century Reis Magos Fort or go on a church crawl to view the Unesco World Heritage site of Basilica of Bom Jesus. Drive for 30 minutes to reach the city of Panaji and pop into the Fundação Oriente for a private guided tour of their Antonio Xavier Trindade collection; known as the Rembrandt of the East, or ‘grandad’ if you’re the hotel’s owner – you’ll recognise his work from your boudoir’s walls. Between the Arabian Sea and the inland winding waterways, Ahilya by the Sea is a fisherman’s paradise; seize the opportunity to cast a line in Dolphin bay or up the Sinquerim River on a day trip with the hotel’s resident angler. Markets are a must-visit in Goa; take a 40-minute drive up the coast to Anjuna Flea Market (open on Wednesdays) or Mapusa Market (Monday to Saturday, but at its best on Friday mornings) to haggle for terracotta pots, decoupaged elephant statues or even a couple of chickens… Not a morning person? Experience the vibrant hubbub at the Saturday Night Market in Arpora held every Saturday night from 7pm to 2am.
For supper with soul, head to Go with the Flow by Baga Beach (+91 (0) 7507771556), where all profits are donated to the Samarpan Foundation, which supports a wide range of social projects throughout India. Dishes are international, but use local ingredients. Try Thai chicken satay, Sicilian marinated aubergine and Goan coconut cake while watching the sunset over the ocean; as night falls, there’s live music and dancing. If you’re missing your mama’s home cooking, go to Mum’s Kitchen (+91 (0) 9822175559) in Panaji city, which takes pride in its authentic fare. All recipes and preparation techniques have been passed down from local mothers (who in turn inherited them from their mothers… and so on) making this the spot for genuine Goan grub. We recommend the kombdechem sukhem, a spicy fried-chicken dish, which hails from the Goan Ghats.
The small village of Reis Magos is home to Babazin’s Shack (+91 (0) 77986 85862). Go for the fresh-from-the-water seafood, but stay for the views; this laid-back, waterfront café overlooks the Mandovi River to Panaji and Miramar beyond. Take a sea-side seat and soak up the rays while scoffing prawn-stuffed papad, shark ambotik and crab xec xec. Calamari Bathe & Binge on Dando Beach lets you mingle with the locals, while tucking into spicy specialities, or western picks, including pizzas, jacket potatoes and fried chicken. If you’re in no hurry, stay all afternoon into the evening when the unassuming beach shack turns into a bar with live music.
I set off for Goa, mind, body, soul (and liver) a little bruised after a big fat four-day Indian wedding in Mumbai. My eyes only really opened fully when I read the email from the Ahilya reservations team about my arrival at the hotel in two days' time.
Brilliant. At least someone was on top of my diary management but that didn't help me with a place to stay tonight. Boarding my flight, I call my only pal in Goa who, it turns out, lives five bloody minutes away from the hotel. Thank you, universe.
I write all this only to set the scene. I was in some serious need of some R&R when I eventually check-in at Ahilya by the Sea. When its pearly white gates part, well, it was as though the gates to heaven themselves opened before me. Admittance: one.
I've travelled to Goa many times and it's home to some of my favourite hotels, so I feel I can write this with good authority: there really is nothing else like Ahilya by the Sea.
A home, not a hotel, it first opened its doors to the public in 2015, having been the private abode of enigmatic owner Leela Ellis and family. Mathieu, along with Coco, who take care of the day-to-day are a Gallic force to be reckoned with, running Ahilya with trademark je ne sais quoi.
Goan by way of Bali in style (traditional porous red brick topped with intricate carved roofs) it makes the very most of that enviable style of indoor-outdoor living, possible only in such tropical climates. Not a thing has changed, save for a few alterations to some of the guestrooms, since Leela lived here herself.
The reading room and living areas are full to the rafters with curios from around the world: decorated crucifixes, shell-covered wall hangings, hand-carved animals, plus enormous works by celebrated local artists. You half feel like you're perusing a V&A exhibition – Arts of Asia and Afar, only without all the DO NOT TOUCH signs and tetchy security guards.
Even the grass is exotic; it's from Europe. What an unexpected surprise to feel the softness of European grass beneath your feet, all the way out here in Goa. A testament to the attention that has been given to Ahilya's manicured, but unfussy, gardens. Horticulture may be something that escapes me, but even this novice's nose could detect the exotic scent of jasmine and frangipani on the evening breeze.
Or salty sea air, depending on which way the wind blows. The smell, sounds and sight of the ocean are a running theme throughout Ahilya by the Sea. I was staying in the Arjun Treehouse: bijou, but ideal for the solo traveller, and every adult's childhood dream. Throwing open the doors to my balcony in the morning, to see the Indian Ocean below, whilst chipmunks scurry between the branches, made it quite difficult to make my way to breakfast. Which, by the way, was certainly worth getting out of bed for.
Every table has an ocean vista, so you only need jostle with your dining companion for yours. By night, it's transformed into a candle-lit, al-fresco dining space. Utterly romantic with fine food to match. I got chatting with head chef Raju and hit it off right away. His sister lives in London. ‘Abbey Road’, he tells me. ‘I think there's some sort of music studio there?’.
Mercifully what Raju lacks in music trivia he more than makes up for in culinary skills. I opted for the three-course set menu. The most intriguing parcel of roasted courgette was swiftly placed in front of me. One mouthful told me it was filled with yoghurt and, I later found out, rucola cheese, mint, parsley and lashings of olive oil. The main course – Goan favourite steamed kingfish with grilled vegetables and zesty quinoa salad – was delicious, though far too healthy for me. I barely even let my poor waiter finish reciting what was for pudding before replying with the affirmative. Pound cake with a homemade mango coulis ‘And a scoop of roasted almond ice-cream’ I added.
Just before checking out, my laundry, which I’d rather shamelessly deposited a pile worthy of a student returning home from University (it’s a complimentary service – don't pretend you wouldn't do the same) was delivered to my room pressed, packaged, and quite literally smelling of roses. I was feeling quite at home in my little treehouse. Did I really have to leave?