Goa is India’s smallest state by a considerable margin, but its pocket-sized charms exert a powerful allure. You feel the difference on arrival – the familiar subcontinental bustle and jostling give way to a measured languor and broad smiles. Just 1,429 square miles, 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 – not just for travellers, but increasingly for India’s growing middle class.
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 – about a two-hour drive. Further up the coast are the beaches of the ’60s hippie trail, the first of which was Anjuna, which still retains its alternative (though slightly grotty) vibe. There’s also the more edgy Chapora and Vagator, where cafés are jammed with guests smoking pipes.
North of Vagator, the beaches begin to empty out. Morjim, where protected sea turtles still come to lay eggs on the beach, now hosts a thriving Russian subculture. Beyond beautiful Mandrem’s marriage of swift-running freshwater and ocean surf, all roads lead to Arambol, where latter-day versions of the first flower children spend months living in thatched huts.
Panjim & Old Goa
Despite a real estate boom that has set prices soaring, Panjim retains an old-fashioned character that feels quite different from any other state capital in India. Panjim began to emerge around the late 18th century and by the 1820s had become the administrative centre of the Portuguese Estado da India. Beautiful buildings from this period still crowd many neighbourhoods and give the city its character.
The original colonial capital, now known 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.
The original charms of India’s sunshine state are better showcased in South Goa. It’s bigger, less developed, with far more imposing colonial architecture and by far the best beaches. Fifteen miles of white sand stretches from Cansaulim to Mobor. In the interior, there are the astounding Mesolithic carvings at Pansaimol, 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. 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.
The best of Goa
For a journey back in time
Old Goa was once one of the world’s great cities – bigger than London – and home to adventurers and slave-traders. Its surviving churches and convents are 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 Indo-Portuguese houses, chapels and public shrines.
For a glimpse of the grandees
Take a peek into the detailed world of the South Goan aristocracy at the Figueiredo Mansion at Loutolim in the south. Of the surviving grand mansions, the gorgeous Figueiredo Mansion (No 376, Loutolim), a 15-minute drive from Margao, is the most beautiful home open to visitors. Owned by a pair of septuagenarian sisters, the house retains much of its former grandeur, with collections of antique furniture and porcelain. One wing, the Heritage Inn, is open for paying guests.
For the wilderness experience
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.
For the art of the ancients
Visit one of the greatest Mesolithic art sites in the world and one of the most accessible. Awe-inspiring rock carvings cover a riverside shelf of laterite rock at Pansaimol in South Goa. You can walk right up to them to feel the ancient grooves under your fingers.
Need to know
Air India flies direct from Dubai to Goa Dabolim airport, with prices from about Dhs1,700 return. For cheaper prices, opt for a transfer via Mumbai, from about Dhs1,490 return. www.airindia.in.
Dubai to Goa
Flight time: Approximately three hours direct.
Time difference: One and a half hours ahead of Dubai.
Dhs1 = 14.6 rupees.