Goa is India’s smallest state by a considerable margin, but its pocket-sized charms exert a powerful allure. The difference is apparent as soon as you arrive – the familiar subcontinental bustle and jostling give way to a measured languor and broad smiles, and the skies clear to a distant horizon. Just 1,429 square miles in size, with a population of 1.5 million, this is where the crowded cityscapes of urban India give way to coconut groves; the blare of traffic yields to birdcalls and the insistent whisper of sea on sand.
No wonder this is India’s most popular resort destination – not just for travellers from Europe, Israel and Russia, but increasingly for India’s growing middle class, for whom Goa is famously summed up by the Konkani word ‘sussegad’, meaning ‘laid-back’.
So much more than hippies
The North Goan beachfront stretches all the way from the Aguada Plateau, which drops to the Mandovi River, to the Tiracol Fort on the Maharashtra border – a drive you can make in about two hours. In between, there’s charter tourism congestion in Candolim, the Indian middle class packing the sands of Calangute, party central for India’s twentysomethings at Baga, and the sprawling luxury villas of India’s rich and famous in Sinquerim.
Further up the coast are the dream beaches of the ’60s hippie trail, the first of which was Anjuna, where a remnant of septuagenarian ‘Goa Freaks’ (the first European hippies to settle in Goa the ’70s) linger on in a wildly international mix that still retains its alternative vibe. There’s also the more edgy Chapora and Vagator, where cafés are jammed with smokers openly puffing on smokestack-sized pipes under the watchful gaze of well-connected locals.
North of Vagator, the beaches begin to empty out and some are relatively deserted. Morjim, where protected Olive Ridley sea turtles still come to lay eggs on the beach, now hosts a thriving Russian subculture. Beyond Mandrem’s unique marriage of swift-running freshwater and ocean surf, all roads lead to the legendary Arambol, where latter-day versions of the first flower children spend months living in thatched huts
under coconut palms.
In peak season, your day on the beach here could easily be spent with 10,000 other travellers, with waiters and hawkers the only Indians in sight. Apart from the beaches, North Goa is also home to some of the most ambitious restaurants in India, including Burmese, Turkish, Italian and French establishments – but there’s always recourse to the inevitable steak and kidney pie and mushy peas so beloved of the Brits who still outnumber all other foreign visitors by a tidy margin.
North Goa’s attractions aren’t just confined to the coast – they extend to hill-hugging cashew plantations that blanket much of Pernem taluka (Goa’s feni-producing heartland), the noisy riot of colours that is Mapusa market in the heart of Bardez district, and the hidden, curiously hybrid Hindu temples of Ponda.
Panjim and Old Goa
Full of raffish charms and crumbling relics
Despite a real-estate boom that has set prices soaring and apartment complexes sprouting on its outskirts, Panjim retains an old-fashioned character that feels quite different from any other state capital in India. The architecture is low-rise, Latinate, with plenty of green spaces, and the riverfront setting ensures a pleasant and breezy atmosphere that feels positively Caribbean. Panjim began to emerge around the late 18th century, and by the 1820s had become the bustling administrative centre of the Portuguese Estado da India. Beautiful buildings from this period still crowd many of the old neighbourhoods and give the city its character. In recent years many of these architectural jewels have been restored and brightly repainted in characteristically Goan pastel shades.
The city is best explored on foot. Wander along the Mandovi riverfront, take a stroll under the overhanging street arcades of 18th June Road (named for the day in 1946 when Indian socialist Ram Manohar
Lohia called for the Portuguese to be expelled from the country) and amble through the old quarter of Fontainhas – a Latinate labyrinth of sun-kissed ochre and magenta buildings, pocket-sized balconies and tiny plazas, and trees laden with ripening papayas and guavas.
The original colonial capital, now known simply as Old Goa, is an area of empty avenues and ancient churches. It’s a few kilometres away, linked to modern Panjim by a centuries-old causeway that stretches through backwaters and salt pans, and passes through some of the state’s earliest colonial architecture at Ribandar.
The coast is clear
The original charms of India’s sunshine state are better showcased in South Goa. It’s bigger and less developed, with far more imposing colonial architecture and by far the best beaches. Fifteen miles of shining, uninterrupted white sands stretch from Cansaulim to Mobor, with the spectacular ruins of the Cabo de Rama Fort looming over a rugged stretch of coastline further down. In the interior, there are the astounding Mesolithic carvings at Pansaimol, resident tigers in the jungle of Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, and the lush agricultural bounty of the hinterland of Quepem.
Rich farmlands and a billion dollars in annual mining income have so far kept South Goa from racing to replicate North Goa’s party strip, which means it has been relatively untouched by mass-market charter tourism. It’s also the home turf of fading generations of Luso-Indian grandees – the aristocracy whose mansions line the streets of Margao, where Portuguese is still widely spoken.
These days, the south’s idyllic character is coming under threat from a rash of proposed development. Construction companies and real estate entrepreneurs have snapped up stretches of land all the way down to the Karnataka border, and though it will probably take years to become as hectic as the north, large-scale development looks inevitable. Until that happens, much of the south offers a glimpse of an older Goa, where farmers work the same fields and orchards that their families have tended for centuries. Spectacular rococo and baroque churches gleam whitewashed amid emerald paddy fields. Old colonial-era houses are still meticulously maintained, and locals retain the gracious culture and manners that still count in Goa.
Need to know
Fly from Dubai to Goa for around Dhs1,300 with Kingfisher, transferring at Bengaluru (www.flykingfisher.com). Emirates also flies to Goa on combined routes with other airlines (www.emirates.com).
Where to stay
Spend a night at one of the most beautiful eco-tourism resorts in the world. Wildernest (0831 520 7954, www.wildernest-goa.com) occupies a stunning location in the Western Ghats, at the lip of the Mhadei Valley in North Goa.
What to see
Visit one of the greatest Mesolithic art sites in the world. Awe-inspiring rock carvings cover a riverside shelf of rock at Pansaimol in South Goa. You can walk up to them to feel the ancient grooves under your fingers.
Old Goa was once one of the world’s great cities – bigger than London – and home to grandees, adventurers and slave traders. Its surviving churches and convents have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
For India’s only Latin quarter, wander the narrow lanes of Fontainhas in Panjim, a charming area full of beautifully maintained Indo-Portuguese houses, chapels and public shrines.
For a glimpse of the grandees, take a peek into the gorgeously detailed world of the South Goan aristocracy at the Figueiredo Mansion at Loutolim.
Weather & climate
Goa has a tropical climate, with average temperatures of 25°C to 30°C from November to April, and up to 40°C with high humidity in October and May. The monsoon lasts from June to late September, with the heaviest rains in July.
The Panjim Directorate of Tourism is located on Rua de Ourem Patto and is open daily 9.30am-1.15pm and 2pm-5.45pm (0832 222 6515).
All foreign visitors to India require a visa except for citizens of Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. There is no provision for granting visas upon arrival in India and you should apply to the Indian embassy or high commission in your home country.