This diminutive Indian state packs in miles of relaxed beaches, a
rich Portuguese heritage and coconut-laced cuisine.
By Hannah Russell and Simon Calder
Saturday, 27 June 2009
Where and why?
India's smallest state slightly bigger than Devon is tucked into
the south-west coast of the sub-continent. It makes up for its
diminutive size through the diversity of its 1.4 million-strong
population and the wealth of experiences on offer in the region.
Although small, the state is among India's richest, largely thanks to
tourism. The big attraction is more than 80 miles of coastline, and
India's most sophisticated mass-market tourist industry: Indian
culture is given a Goan twist, and strange foreign practices are
tolerated more readily in Goa than in the rest of India. But if you
delve deeper you will find plenty of culture and history, and some
seductively accessible nature.
Conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and returned to
Indian rule only in 1961, the state has a Lusitanian air in
everything from the architectural relics to the names of businesses.
The resumption of Indian rule coincided with the development of the
image of Goa as a hippy haven in the 1960s, and its allure has continued.
Where do I start?
Most visitors including those on charter flights from Britain
arrive at the busy and confusing airport of Dabolim. The nearest town
is Vasco da Gama, named after the Portuguese explorer. But to start
to make sense of Goa, you should begin in the state capital, Panaji.
(Like most places in Goa, the "Indianised" name has taken precedence
over the Portuguese rendition, Panjim.)
Beside the broad, sluggish Mandovi River, all the paraphernalia of a
Portuguese city has been established and much of it has endured.
The church is the most visible symbol: Our Lady of the Immaculate
Conception perches on a hill, keeping a maternal eye on the
once-splendid villas that clutch at her skirts. Their pastel colours
fade deliciously in the hazy sunshine, while their residents ascend
for services in English, Portuguese or Konkan the local language,
and also the name of the high-speed railway line from Mumbai that has
helped put Goa on the map for Indian visitors.
Six miles upriver is the original Portuguese capital, now called Old
Goa. In the 16th century it was one of the most opulent places on
earth; today the wealth belongs to nature. The sight of a
miraculously preserved Portuguese city rising from the jungle is
remarkable. Take in the vision from the original church of Our Lady
of the Mount. Dotted in the thick woodland below are some spectacular
relics of the empire. On a far hill, the church of St Augustine has
degenerated beyond the point of no return, but in the valley a
selection of grand structures remains. The most haunting is St
Cajetan's church, which is a lofty imitation of St Peter's Basilica
in the Vatican. The dome may not be quite as vast as the one in Rome,
but the Vatican cannot boast Islamic masonry outside the front door.
The only evidence of the palace of Adil Shah, who ruled Goa before
the Portuguese arrived, comprises a lonely arch propped up in the
churchyard. The rest of the stone was taken to be used in the
promulgation of Christianity.
The riches that the governors and merchants of Goa enjoyed are
evident in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a great ecclesiastical lump
plonked right in the middle of Old Goa. It was built to house the
remains of St Francis Xavier. He was the Portuguese missionary
charged with evangelising the Indies, and became Goa's patron saint.
He died while spreading the gospel in China. He lies in a Florentine
casket of solid silver.
The best beaches?
Goa's charm lies chiefly in the wealth of beautiful beaches lining
the shores, each with its own appeal. Take your pick from about 30
beaches strung out along the coastline. Swimming in the sea is
generally safe in designated areas but take care in the months of
October and November when the seabed is still settling after the
monsoon. While Goa's reputation as one of the most liberal Indian
states means that sunbathing in a bikini is entirely accepted, it is
important to remember that topless sunbathing is illegal and wearing
flimsy shorts or a bikini anywhere other than the beach is extremely
disrespectful. The image of loose Western women has been circulated
by the Indian media and as a result foreigners can sometimes
experience pestering from local men asking for a photo or simply
staring. These annoyances are less frequent on the northern beaches
which are generally considered to be the most dynamic, developed and
tourist populated. This also means that the best deals can often be
found on packages to these areas. Calangute and Baga, for example,
are prime destinations for tour operators. While lacking much
authentic Indian charm, they do cater for all tastes and also house
some of the most luxurious hotels.
Anjuna beach, the original hippy hangout, has changed dramatically
since its original days but retains a touch of the unconventional.
Try to get here on a Wednesday to see the extensive flea market. Here
you will find hawkers selling jewellery, fabrics and trinkets from
all over India, their wares spread out under the shade of palm trees.
Head north and you'll find peace again on the beaches of Mandrem,
Asvem and Arambol broad sweeps of fawn sand, backed by thickets of
palm trees and casuarina pines.
Similarly unspoilt is Palolem, one of the state's most southerly
beaches. With postcard-perfect views, lazy beach life and a
chilled-out nightlife this broad bay has little in common with the
more commercialised northern beaches. For something even quieter,
wander south to the next beach along, Patnem.
Can I get active?
For divers there is ample choice. Goa Diving was established by an
expatriate Scotsman, Willie Downie, and operates from Bogmalo Beach
(00 91 832 253 8204; goadiving.com). A single dive costs a very
reasonable V C Rs1,700 (£20), while Rs14,000 (about £180) buys an
overnight excursion to Pigeon Island.
You can also learn to dive in Goa. Barracuda Diving, based in Panaji
(00 91 832 227 9409 14; barracudadiving.com) is accredited with five
stars from the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (Padi)
and charges Rs18,000 (about £230) for a full Padi Open Water Diving
Certification course. If you prefer to remain above the surface then
Day Tripper Tours and Travel in Calangute (00 91 832 227 6726;
daytrippergoa.com) organises a two-day safari and white-water rafting
trip which costs around £75.
The deepest immersion in nature can be found in the largest of Goa's
four protected wildlife areas, Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in
the town of Mollem. The sanctuary is on the eastern boundary of Goa,
accessible by road or rail from Panaji or Margao. Leopards, spotted
deer and cobras can all be seen here.
I want to reconnect with my soul
India was where yoga was born, and Goa is the most Western-friendly
place to study the discipline which also means it attracts a number
of charlatans along with genuine yoga teachers. Yoga Magic near
Anjuna (00 91 832 652 37 96; yogamagic.net) is a reliable retreat
that offers daily yoga classes, accommodation in Rajasthani-style
hunting tents and delicious vegetarian meals. Prices start at Rs2,750
(about £35) per person per night.
Before it started offering yoga classes, Yogamagic was built to
accommodate people heading to the nearby Purple Valley Yoga Retreat
(00 91 937 056 86 39; yogagoa.com) which teaches the dynamic and
challenging Astanga style of yoga in a secluded valley. The retreat
now offers its own accommodation; a week' stay at Purple Valley
including classes, and three vegetarian meals daily, begins at £450.
What will I eat and drink?
Rice, fish and coconut are the staple ingredients in most Goan meals,
punctuated with chilli flavourings. The fusion of Indian and
Portuguese gastronomy is best characterised by the ultimate Goan dish
of fish curry, but the vindaloo originated here too. Brought to Goa
by the Portuguese, its name is derived from carne de vinha d'alhos,
or meat with wine and garlic. It is traditionally made from pork and
is less fiery than you might expect.
The dominance of Hinduism in Goa means that vegetarian restaurants
and dishes are widespread and with the prohibition of beef for Hindus
and pork for Muslims, lamb and chicken are the meats that appear most
often on menus.
Drinking alcohol in Goa doesn't have the same stigma attached to it
as it does in other parts of the country. In fact, the region
produces and consumes its own variety of fiery spirit made from
cashew or coconut sap: feni, made more bearable when diluted with
water or soda.
Party like it's 2009
The father of hypnotism
Goa's reputation as a party destination began to be established when
it was a Portuguese colony, providing a liberal bolt-hole in a
conservative nation. When young Western backpackers began to
congregate in Goa, the state became a venue for all-night raves.
The three-day "underground" trance parties take a bit of finding. The
best place to begin is at Vagator beach, starting the evening at an
established venue such as Nine Bar, Hill Top or Primrose Café (00 91
83 22 273 210, open until 3am) and asking around to find the jungle
location where that evening's party will take place.
However, since the police have started to crack down on these
unofficial all-night raves, mainstream club nights and venues are
stepping in to fill the gap, such as Tito's in Baga Beach (titos.in).
In the middle of the day, the pace of life in Goa slows
substantially. It is as though the whole state has been hypnotised.
And, in the city of Panaji, you can find a bronze statue of a dark,
sinister figure looming over the limp form of a beautiful woman that
just happens to be the founder of modern day hypnotism.
Abbé Faria was born in Goa in 1756. He used a combination of
showmanship and science of questionable validity to anaesthetise his subjects.
There is no evidence that Faria enabled anyone to stop smoking, or
helped them to lose weight or phobias, but he moved to Paris where
his skills made him somewhat of a celebrity.
Despite the statue to his memory close to the waterfront, no
discernable tradition of hypnosis remains in Goa.
When to go
The best time to visit Goa is after the monsoon, which lasts from
June until late September. The cooler tourist season begins in
November and lasts until March. Even during the cool season
temperatures can peak at 31C and drop down to around 23C. There is a
massive influx of tourists over the holiday season from mid-December
to late January, so prices rocket. The hottest months to visit are
usually April and May when temperatures can reach 33C, but it is also
very humid during this time.
Most British visitors to Goa travel on package holidays.
Thomas Cook (0871 895 0055; thomascook.com) offers a week in a
two-star hotel in Baga with breakfast and flights from Gatwick
included starting at £609 per person. Cosmos (0871 423 8422;
cosmos-holidays.co.uk) offers a similar deal for a week in a two-star
hotel in Candolim from £634 per person.
Several adventure operators offer alternatives to beach holidays.
Blazing Trails Tours (01293 533338; blazingtrailstours.com) has a
two-week guided motorbike tour around Goa, venturing into
neighbouring Karnataka. Explore the most remote areas of the region
on a 350cc Enfield Bullet. Prices start at £1,399, with breakfast but
Travelling independently, the main international gateway is Mumbai,
which has plenty of cheap flights from the UK prices start at £300
return. From the city, the Konkan railway India's answer to the TGV
races south-east to Goa. Frequent trains run from Mumbai to several
stations in Goa: Thivim for the north, Old Goa for the centre, and
Madgaon for the south. Booking trains in advance is strongly advised,
for example through SD Enterprises of Wembley (020-8903 3411;
Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; flights.thomson.co.uk) operates
direct charter flights from Gatwick and Manchester to Dabolim between
November and April. You can also fly from Mumbai to Dabolim in an
hour with one of India's numerous domestic airlines for well under
£100 if you book online; try flykingfisher.com; spicejet.com; or goair.in.
From late October, Qatar Airways (020-7896 3636; qatarairways. com)
will fly from the UK to Goa via Doha. Prices start at £313 return.
British passport holders require a visa to visit India. In the UK the
system has been outsourced from the High Commission to a private
company. A tourist visa is valid for six months and usually allows
multiple entries; the cost is £30 plus £8.86 service charge. You
should apply online (in.vfsglobal.co.uk) and then make an appointment
to visit one of the visa application centres to collect your
passport. Visas are valid from the date of issue and not the date of
travel, so you should apply sufficiently close to your date of travel
to ensure validity for the duration of the stay in India.
Auto-rickshaws open three-wheelers with small, noisy engines are
the standard way to cover small distances. Fix a fare in advance. In
resort areas, you can rent a bike for less than £1 a week. Rented
motorcycles are a popular, albeit dangerous, form of transport.
Hiring a car with a driver can often work out cheaper than self drive
rentals, and considering the hazardous Indian driving regulations
it's safer too. Expect to pay around Rs600-1,000 (£7.50-£13) per day.
Ciaran's Camp in Palolem (00 91 832 26 43 477; ciarans10.com) is
something of an institution. Rebuilt every year after the monsoon,
its cottages are some of the more luxurious huts on this beach. B&B
starts at Rs2,500 (£32). Casa Candolim (00 91 981 01 30 518;
casacandolim.com) is a boutique hotel located in the northern beach
of Candolim. The eight suites all have balconies with a view of
either the beach or pool. B&B from Rs7,500 (£96). Further north is
Elsewhere ( aseascape.com) in Asvem. Here colonial estate buildings
and luxury tents offer chic accommodation. Prices from £270 to £549 per week.
For another encounter with the Portuguese way of life head to a
renovated mansion hotel, Vivenda dos Palhacos (00 91 832 32 21 119;
vivendagoa.com), in Majorda. The beach is 1km by cycle or
auto-rickshaw. B&B from Rs12,100 (£153).
India Tourism, 7 Cork Street, London W1S 3LH (020-7437 3677;