IF there’s a reason the West coast state of Goa is India’s top holiday destination, it’s because the place is at once both a part of India and completely different from the rest of the Subcontinent.
Until 1961, the state hadn’t even been liberated into the Indian union and 300 years under the Portuguese instead of the English gives the place a more European feel, right down to the susegaad attitude of the people: fundamentally, Goans know and appreciate that the best things in life are free. The sun, the sand, the sea: what more could you ask for?
Once the rains have come and gone, the beaches come alive with shacks serving all manner of food and drink: fresh-caught fish (in Goa fresh doesn’t just mean caught that day, it’s the catch of that hour), delicious, slow-cooked choricao (sausages), spicy barbecued shelfish, free-flowing Feni (the locally-made cashew or palm liquor).
As you lay there soaking up the sun in between mealtimes, there’s services on offer: from massages to sarongs, coconut juice to junk jewellery, a host of vendors will lay out their wares and strike up a bargain, understanding and catering actively to beachside languor in a personal shopping tradition that dates to long before the Internet. Or you can get up and do things: parasail, water-ski, scuba diving, dolphin-watching tours and more.
You can even sleep nights on the beach: Palolem, Benaulim, Anjuna or good old Baga-Calangute, this last fortunately not too crowded and certainly not acrawl with hirsute hippie pretenders, as it was in the flower power years.
Come the evenings, and there’s a variety of haute cuisine restaurants a stone’s throw away, both in and out of the five-star hotels: Hospedaria Venite (Goan, in Panjim), Casa Portuguesa (Portuguese, in Baga) and the travel-guide-recommended After Eight (Continental, in Calangute).
Hack a trail a few kilometres inland and you’ll stumble on a mountain-top temple, the ruins of an old fort or a Portuguese church dating from early colonial times but still in use today, such as the Basilica of Bom Jesus housing the remains of St Francis Xavier and Our Lady of the Rosary with its Indo-European interiors, both in Old Goa or the St Ana in Talaulim. While the Portuguese destroyed many temples, the presiding deities were often smuggled away, surviving centuries until they were ensconced in their current-day abodes, such as those of Mangeshi at Priol and Shanta Durga at Kavele.
The mountains are spectacularly beautiful, too: the Dudhsagar waterfalls are truly captivating, Arpora’s exclusive 12-room boutique hotel, the Nilaya Hermitage, has played host to Richard Gere and Nicole Kidman, while the Wednesday flea market on Anjuna hill can be reached from the white beach below.
There’s events to be in Goa for, too: the pre-Lenten Carnival in February, and Christmas, which is all-inclusive, don’t be surprised if you’re invited to visit the house of the waiter you met at the restaurant last night, it’s an insult not to go. If family isn’t your scene, there’s raves – the state has even spawned a genre called Goa Trance.
And you can take it all back with you: Goan designers turn out high-fashion western wear with a delicate Indian aesthetic (Savio Jon and Wendell Rodricks), while all manner of furniture and bric-a-brac is available at such stores as Sangloda (in Saligao) and in Ribandar, the aptly-named Camelot. Indeed, there’s simply not a more congenial spot. Richard Burton might well have been singing about Goa.
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