Ahhhh Goa. That mystical beach paradise on the shores of the Arabian Sea, calling out to travelers across the ages whether they're dusty bodies on the "Hippie Trail" (LINK) in the 60s or the planes full of Russian tourists that pack its shores today. Like Honolulu or Riviera Maya, Goa is India's version of the seashore hot spot that people love.
While the beauty of the region is legendary, others often attach some rather unflattering adjectives to Goa - touristy, overrun, overrated, over. But if you know me at all you know I'm not really one to take anyone else's word at face value, so when I found myself with a ticket to India and a week to kill in the middle of December, a warm beach sounded like just the thing to forget Chicago's snowy and cold weather. Goa was looking might good at that point.
But where to stay?
Goa has its share of name brand hotels (Marriott, Hyatt) as well as high-end Indian luxury brands (Leela, Taj), but neither one of those options really seemed to fit the bill of what I wanted on this trip. I was looking for a little off the wall and unique, and also something that was very close to the beach. Budget was also an issue as it was Christmas time and I needed to cut back on travel spending in order to purchase gifts for those I hold near and dear. A little poking around was all I needed to find the Amarya Shamiyana - a "hotel" just a few meters off of beach that offered lodging in large "Mughal-style" tents. Reviews online were almost all very positive and it seemed to click all the boxes I need in a place to stay - clean, safe, wifi-enabled. So click, click, boom. I was headed to the Amarya!
One important thing to note before I dig into this review - the Amarya temporarily shuttered after my stay to relocate and remodel. It's now moved a little further south along the Goan coast and the tents have a slightly modified look from what I can tell from pictures posted online, but overall I believe the experience should be very similar to what I'm sharing here, so I decided to continue with posting the review.
I arrived at Goa's Dabolim airport (GOI) on a quick one hour flight on Jet Airways from Mumbai. GOI reminds me of Thailand's Phuket airport as it's filled with a slew of foreign tourists, this confused mass of humanity flitting about trying to convert currency and looking for a taxi as wave after wave of locals crash upon them offering services and assistance. As this wasn't my first trip to India I knew what to expect and I had contacted the Amarya prior to arriving and asked if they could send someone to meet me at the airport. For the rather inflated price of 1600 Indian rupees they offered to send someone to greet me and drive me to the property. Sure, I could have paid less by taking a taxi from the airport ... but then I'd be stuck in the swirling mass of people trying to organize themselves in this foreign land.
On my beach break, I was willing to pay more to start off comfortably from the get-go.
I grabbed my suitcase off the carousel and headed out of baggage claim where a man in the standard Indian work uniform of a white button down shirt and khaki pants was waiting with a smile and a sign for the Amarya. A quick handshake, a jump into the back of an air conditioned car, and we were headed north along the coast toward Arambol beach, which is where the property was located at the time. The ride from the airport took about 40 minutes and the scenery along the way is certainly entertaining. You make your way through some typical Indian road side scenery - cows, women in colorful saris fluttering in the wind on the back of motorbikes, and roadside stalls selling a variety of pungently fragrant Indian snacks. The ocean peaked in and out of view between palm trees and dusty yellow hills along the left hand side of the car as I sipped on a bottle of water provided by the driver.
The property was down a nondescript dirt road past some homes. There was a wall around it though I would emphasize that the presence of the wall didn't strike me as unwelcoming, nor did it feel necessary for security purposes. It was more of a property line demarcation. We pulled through the gates (which sat completely open) where I hopped out of the car and made my way through a lounge area with brightly painted furniture and onward to the reception tent.
Color me surprised to find this "local" property had someone working at the front desk who was definitely not local - a young French woman greeted me with a smile. She quickly checked me in and walked me through the amenities of the hotel. She took down my credit card information and offered to have someone walk me to the tent and show me around. Yes, please!
I snapped the "front desk" photo above on another day in bright sunlight, which explains why the following photos were all clearly taken at night. By the time I was following a man named Ajit down the sandy walkway to my tent the sun was already starting to set in the distance.
Despite the offer to "show me the facilities", Ajit mostly carried my bags through the sand and demonstrated how to lock and unlock the flaps to my tent. Which was a great thing since the locking mechanism isn't very intuitive.
After a bit of trial and error I was able to get the hang of the locks. Unlocking it is simple enough (take the key and undo the lock), but the logistics of putting everything in the correct place to properly secure the flaps when leaving is a bit more involved. With the lesson on tent security over, Ajit moved my luggage inside while I took a quick twirl around the tent's front yard.
The tent was massive, flaps of white canvas vaulted toward a center point and draped along a raised concrete slab. A walkway ran along a row of trees behind five tents, each with a "drive way" shooting off from the walk way and leading to the front yard of the tents. Each tent had a nice sized yard covered mostly in sand with some seating options available. One option was a wrought iron table with two matching chairs with white plastic upholstered cushions. The other option were two lounge chairs in the same iron/cushion set up.
A fence made out of woven dried palm leaves encircled the tent areas, all decorated with festive lights and covered with vines creeping along the base toward the sky. This provided a sense of privacy from neighboring tents but still felt open to the elements and outdoorsy. Here's a few photos of the front yard in the daylight:
Each tent also had a small porch running along its front with a few seating options as well.
The furniture on one side was all dark tropical wood and very pretty, really giving the tent a sense of "place". That being said, it was all definitely much better to look at than to sit on. I would highly recommend keeping those pieces entirely decorative. On the other end was a very simple metal table with two chairs. A breakfast nook, if you will.
I was really happy with this porch and yard space. It wasn't particularly fancy or luxurious but it expanded on the standard space a hotel room would give you. I was looking to really enjoy the beach and outdoors on this trip, so having a yard to lounge about in was right in line with that.
When you walked into the tent, the bed was directly in front of the entrance flaps. My tent was the "Gold" tent, which meant all the color elements inside were bronze and gold in tone. That really was evident from the wall that ran along the back of the bed with its European-inspired motif in bright golden paint.
The bed itself was quite large, decorated with green and gold linens and throw pillows. On either side were small white end tables with lamps. At the foot of the bed was a small storage chest with a folder filled with information about the local area and the hotel's amenities. Directly above the bed was a ceiling fan that hung from the apex of the tent's vaulting, which to be quite honest terrified me as the tent's ceiling was quite high and the fan would shake quite violently when it was active. Every night I'd fall asleep quietly wondering if I'd meet my death when it detached at 4AM and shredded me to bits. Survived though....!
The bed itself was standard issue - not uncomfortable but not on the level of a five star hotel's luxurious bedding either. I slept just dandy on it over the course of my stay, and didn't feel any aches or pains in the morning.
The decorative wall behind the bed was the only real structure inside the room and it rose quite high, to the height of a normal room wall. The vaulting of the tent meant that the wall didn't actually fully separate the room into any definitive "rooms". Instead, sheer curtains were used as separating barriers between areas inside the tent.
To the right of the bed past some sheer curtains was what I would describe as a "dressing" area. A large distressed wardrobe was in the corner of the tent, which is where Ajit had placed my luggage. Next to the wardrobe was a large upholstered bench upon which you could lay down or sit while dressing.
Walking back to the left from the wardrobe toward the other corner on that side of the tent was a white room divider.
A quick peek behind the screen showed that this was the bathroom!
I took a moment to thank the Lord that I was on vacation by myself this trip. I'm far from a bashful person in life but that doesn't translate into bathroom confidence. When it comes to the call of nature, the more private and secure the bathroom can be the happier I am. My ideal bathroom is a nuclear bunker.
The open air toilet with a fabric screen barrier would have been a deal breaker for me had I been traveling with anyone. Not to mention that this corner of the tent was one of the two that was adjacent to the walkway to all of the tents. So if you're unlucky and bad with timing, you could be passing a fiery curry while a middle aged French couple strolls in the sand two feet away on their way to dinner.
Hopefully they've enclosed the bathroom in the newly remodeled location, but if not, that's the one major issue I had with the property during my stay.
Running along the opposite side of the dividing wall was the bathroom sink and vanity. A large mirror hung from the wall and the white wooden vanity with the sink sat directly beneath it.
Robes hung on either side of the vanity, extra towels in the cubbies below.
Bath amenity products were all locally sourced (or at least were Indian). I found the scent on both the shampoo and the hand soap to be very pleasant, though unlike a traditional hotel my stock of both was not refilled on a daily basis, which meant I wasn't able to ferret away a few to take home with me.
In the next corner was the shower stall. It was enclosed on three sides and open at the front without any curtain. Again, if you're traveling with someone you don't want to share your nudity with, this might be slightly problematic, though nothing that cannot be fixed with a quick "Hey, I'm naked so stay on the other side of this wispy, gauzy curtain....."
A full length mirror was on the side of one wall of the shower stall. There was also some sort of contraption that at first I thought was a beach lounge chair without any of the cloth that normally creates the seat, but then I figured out was actually a towel drying rack.
Next to the shower was a water heater. Growing up in Japan in an older Japanese house, I was familiar with this contraption though I'm assuming most people might not know how it works. There's instructions inside the guide at the foot of the bed, and if you're still confused I'm sure one of the staff members would be happy to walk guests through the process needed to get a piping hot shower. Either way, you need to remember to heat the water about five minutes prior to taking a shower, otherwise you'll end up being awash in freezing water.
Shower pressure varied from excellent to "spring time drizzle", but I give them a bit of leeway considering this is all happening inside a tent on a beach in India. The fact that there's warm, clean water being projected at my body at any velocity is a win.
Just past the sheer curtains by the water heater in a little cut out near the floor was a powerful air conditioner. I can imagine this thing is a major lifesaver during the months of the year when the heat and humidity is just sweltering in Goa. I was here in December though, so I only needed to use it on occasion. As you'd imagine, being in a tented area meant that the insulation was pretty non-existent, so you're never going to get that hotel room chill that can be so refreshing when staying in a hot climate. Still a nice touch and a good tool to use during hot days. It's positioned to blow cold air into the two areas of the tent you're most likely to be using, so that's a good thing to remember.
The last corner of the tent, accessible if you had simply gone to the left instead of the right when you walked in, was filled with a metal desk with a chair and an upholstered day bed with multiple pillows. There was a standing fan in case you needed another method of trying to cool yourself off besides the air conditioning and the ceiling fan.
The desk was unused by me, mostly because the day bed offered a nicer location for reading and internet surfing when I was inside the tent. The metal, backless stool that accompanied the desk was just bad mojo and wasn't even an aesthetically pleasing choice to be honest. While the padding on the day bed could have been much better, it worked sufficiently well for my needs as I wasn't really camping on it for long periods of time. If I wanted to read or relax, there were better places to do that in the front yard area or 50 feet away on the beachfront. The only reason I would really end up on the day bed was to use the wifi internet service.
While the service was free, I think they only had one or two routers for the entire property, and my tent must have been right on the outer reach of both as I found it pretty difficult to get a strong signal during my stay. I definitely couldn't get any signal when I was in the bed, so I ended up using the day bed for internet usage as that seemed to move me within range of a router. Again, hopefully the newly renovated property has improved wifi options for folks.
On top of the desk I found a cold drink that Ajit had left for me - iced ginger tea with lime juice. It was delicious and refreshing, a good welcome to the shores of the Arabian Sea. Not to mention I'm without fail soaked in sweat and exhaustion from God knows what whenever I go from the airport to my hotel, so I was deeply in need of rehydration. Honestly I could take a flight from Chicago to Indianapolis and take a complimentary shuttle bus to an airport hotel and still enter it looking like I'd run the Boston Marathon.
On top of the desk were a few interesting items. Several copies of Vogue and Vogue India were available. There was also a box of tissues and a giant, complimentary bottle of water. This water bottle was replaced daily.
The desk also featured an Iphone dock speaker and a bottle of insect/mosquito repellent, neither of which I felt I needed to use during my stay.
One nice feature of the Amarya is the provision of free cell phones for guests to use while they're staying at the property. This amenity is becoming much more popular at various hotels, particularly in Asia, though for me it was the very first time it was every offered. Many hotels in Asia offer iPhones or Samsung smartphones to customers, though the simple Nokia worked just fine for me in Goa. It was nice to have an option to call my tuk tuk driver for the day when I was out and about and needed to be picked up, or to contact the hotel once I had wandered out along the beach and needed to ask a question or organize something for later in the day. Numbers for the hotel reception and kitchen were pre-programmed into the phone for you.
A complimentary breakfast was included with the booking, which you received by calling the kitchen. You're given a choice of eggs, breads, sweet pancakes, sausage, etc., as well as a choice of tea or coffee and fruit juice. My preferred way to start the day at Amarya was a big pot of masala chai tea, a masala spiced omelette, and a basket of toast with various jams and jellies. There was no dining area at this iteration of the property, so a tray was brought to your tent and set up on the front porch by a friendly gentleman every morning. It appears through research that the new set up at the remodeled property does have a dining area though. Breakfast was served at any time, so you weren't required to wake up by a certain time to get in on the goods. This worked out well for me as I tend to sleep into the late morning on most occasions when traveling.
The kitchen only served breakfast, though that wasn't an issue as the property was located directly adjacent to one of the better rated restaurants in all of Goa - La Plage. This French-owned restaurant featured affordable lunch and dinner cuisine a few steps away from my tent's door. La Plage is so close to the property that guests actually need to walk through the dining area of the restaurant to access the beachfront. My first trip down to the waterfront was a bit confusing when I found myself amongst the tables and waiters, but everyone is used to the tide of people moving in and out of the area and it's not a big deal at all. And, this shouldn't be an issue at all as the new property has moved further south and appears to have beach access directly from the tents without walking through a restaurant. The down side? It's no longer next to La Plage!
The beach areas in Goa that I visited were all pretty lovely. People were making their way out into the water on a regular basis, so it seems they were happy enough with the cleanliness and warmth offered by the Arabian Sea. The Amarya's beach area was empty of chairs or loungers, though if you moved down the beach in either direction you would quickly find other hotels/properties offering amenities for you. Most of the chairs/canopies appeared to be owned and operated by restaurants that were tucked into the forested area off the beach. You simply had to plop down on one of the empty chairs and purchase something from the restaurant.
Food and beverage was, as expected for India, very affordable. This meant for the low price of a bottle of Sprite and some Nepalese momo dumplings, you could lounge about on a comfortable chair under a canopy for the majority of the day. During my stay, this meant something around $3-8 USD for half a day. The beach area itself was never too crowded when I was out enjoying it, though if you found yourself wandering in front of one of the larger hotels in the area you'd suddenly be swarmed with hundreds of European pensioners. Keep walking for five minutes and you'd be clear of it all and end up in emptiness once again.
So what's my overall thought on the Amarya Shamiyana? It's an excellent value and a relaxing retreat from the every day. I enjoyed it so much that I actually booked a stay with them on their first day open after their move and remodel. Unfortunately I was unable to make that visit because when I stepped off the plane in Mumbai I was notified of a death in the family and needed to return to Chicago immediately. It still speaks volumes about how much I enjoyed this property though, as I rarely return to a hotel more than once unless it's next to an airport that I have overnight layovers in quite often.
Let's be honest - if you're a pampered princess and are looking for 500 thread count linens and Bulgari toiletries on your vacation, this is not the property for you. The Amarya is definitely targeted toward a more casual, low key traveler that's interested in a different sort of hotel experience. The "Mughal" tent offering was just what I needed on this trip - something comfortable but down to Earth. I had outdoor space and a private indoor space to lounge about in for the entirety of my stay in Goa. The shores of the Arabian Sea were literally less than a minute's walk away from the front of my accommodation. This really was one of my favorite "hotels" I've experienced in the world. The pampering of the world's five star hotel brands is excellent if you can secure it, but there's something to be said for a simple, straightforward property that takes care of all the necessities and let's you just enjoy being in the moment.
The real downsides to the Amarya were the less than private bathroom and shower set up, as well as the lack of consistent wifi connection. If you're traveling alone like I was, the bathroom and shower situation is less of an issue, but for those traveling with a significant other, friend, or family, coordinating privacy can be quite difficult. And while lack of consistent wifi might seem like an odd thing to be worried about at a hotel property that seems catered toward leaving the world behind for a few days, the reality of modern travel is that most people need to be connected to the outside world in some way, shape or form. I'm completely happy spending a day lounging on the beach, reading for a little bit, and then making my way through the local village peaking down alleyways and into courtyards without once pulling up Facebook. But at the end of the day I do like to hop online quickly to tell my boyfriend that I'm alive and doing well.
I tend to find myself in India once a year, once every two years at a minimum. While I'd love to explore every little corner of this globe, there are a few places we visit that we hold dear in our hearts and tend to make multiple return journeys to, and India is definitely one of those places for me. I was sad that I wasn't able to visit and see the remodeled accommodations at the Amarya Shamiyana as planned a few months ago, but chances are I'll be back in India sometime soon and hopefully I can hop down to Goa for a few days of relaxation and check-in on one of my favorite hotel properties in the world.