Goa's famous for its beaches - and rightly so - but this former Portuguese colony on India's west coast also has a wealth of other natural and cultural highlights that might surprise you
A tiny piece of Portugal nestles on the Indian sub-continent. Well, technically not any more, since Goa was absorbed by India in 1961. But for 450 years this was Portugal’s foothold in Asia. While the surrounding countries were bloodying themselves in conflicts, Goa went calmly about its business of fishing and farming. That calm, relaxed, time-doesn’t-matter attitude was my most overriding impression when I visited.
I knew all about the miles of gorgeous palm-fringed sandy beaches, and the turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea. Every guidebook, travel brochure and website has pictures of them to tempt you. I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised, however, by just how much more this tiny province has to offer.
I was staying at the charming Hotel Golden Eye, in one of the main tourist resorts, Calangute. It’s a pleasant mid-range hotel, run by a Swiss-Goan family who are both friendly and knowledgeable. As well as the tasteful, comfortable rooms, I appreciated the excellent seafood restaurant.
The town itself has grown dramatically in the last few decades, capitalising on the influx of both overseas and Indian visitors. That said, it’s not without appeal. The lively bustle of people and traffic, combined with the exotic mix of aromas when the spices of the local food stalls meet the fragrant sea air, made this an intriguing place to explore.
I found the main tourist district, near the beach, a strange blend of 21st-century aspirations, and (in places) decidedly 19th-century standards. Malnourished cows, apparently strays, wander past five-star hotels, while India’s well-to-do, in their Prada shoes, pick their way through rotting rubbish beside the road. It’s not a clean town, but then this is India, and health and hygiene have never been things they excel in. Thankfully it’s mostly not obtrusive, and as long as you stay sensible, only drink bottled water, and steer clear of food stalls that are surrounded by piles of rubbish, you should be all right.
The lines of souvenir stalls, markets and hawkers do give the place a real buzz, and there are plenty of nice areas and pleasant restaurants. Try the Souza Lobo, right on the beach, where I downed a very agreeable dish of tiger prawns and stuffed avocados.
The beach in Calangute is nothing special, but a short trip north to Anjuna provides the tourist-poster white sands, and a far more pleasant town generally. It’s renowned for its flea market, held every Wednesday, although that naturally means it’s inundated with visitors for that day. There are boats that will take you from either Baga or Calangute, making the trip more interesting than the standard coach excursion. It’s a fabulously colourful event, with traders in multicoloured traditional garb, and goods from right across India, Tibet and the Himalayas. It’s the best place if you’re souvenir hunting, but go prepared for some hard bartering to get a bargain.
I spent the whole day exploring the flea market and the old town area, with just a brief stop for lunch at the Sea Breeze, in the Market Place, and returned the next day to find it a completely different town. Peace and tranquillity were restored, with hardly a tourist to be seen, and the paradise beach offering ample space. Towards the southern end of the beach were makeshift tents and a small multinational group of ageing hippies - a faint reminder of the days of the Sixties and Seventies when this was a stronghold of such free spirits.