After more than 30 years on the tourist map, Goa still draws visitors from both near and far, says Tom Otley
Walking along Mobor Beach in South Goa, it’s not hard to see what has drawn tourists from all over the world to this stretch of coastline in western India. The few hotels here – a Leela, a Holiday Inn, and some local brands – are set far back from the shoreline, hidden behind trees.
The handful of beach bars – Mike’s Beach Shack, Vernon’s and Betty’s – seem like temporary things, constructed each holiday season from plywood and decorated with driftwood. This is the Goa of popular imagination: unspoilt, with a range of family-stay resorts catering for all budgets, and that lovely warm weather, the humidity quelled by sea breezes.
Between two high flags, lifeguards sit bored under parasols, their surfboards propped up in the sand, while the beach gradually fills with Indian tourists for the long-weekend festival of Dussehra (also known as Vijayadashimi).
On our first morning, mothers in traditional dress take pictures of their children running in and out of the sea, while pot-bellied men stand up to their knees in the water, holding bottles of beer as they watch the sun confirm its rise.
Goa has been welcoming international travellers since the 1960s, but it was in the 1980s that mass tourism arrived on the coast, which runs from Querim in the north to Loliem Polem in the South, itself one of the smallest of India’s 29 states.
I’m told it was the hippies more than the beaches that first attracted Indian visitors, curious to catch a glimpse of young naked Westerners. Today, it’s more likely to be package holidaymakers from abroad, many of whom you wish would wear more clothes, but the domestic visitors keep arriving.
The coast is neatly divided into north and south Goa, with the capital, Panaji (or Panajin) making up the centre point, at the mouth of the River Mandovi. Among tourist arrivals, Western Europeans still make up the majority of international tourists (59 per cent in 2014), but it’s the Russians who have formed the second-largest bulk in recent years (29 per cent), and many beach signs are in both English and Cyrillic.
As you might imagine, the past few years have been more difficult. Political and economic problems in Russia, including the loss in value of the rouble and the cancellation of many charter flights, has seen a drop in visitors (from 162,000 to 149,000 between 2013 and 2014). The collapse of Transaero in October worsened the situation.
A few still come, though – one morning, we share a stretch of sand with a couple of Russian families, diving into the surf then coming back to the beach to drink coffee at one of the bars, where the menu is also in two languages.
Along with mining, tourism is the main industry in Goa, and has been a mixed blessing, providing much-needed income but bringing environmental problems. New laws have stopped rampant coastline development but, as with the rest of India, popular areas have become congested with holiday apartments while the infrastructure struggles to cope.
For international visitors, the good news is that hotel prices are competitive and there is less crowding in popular spots. Thousands of European retirees also make the state their home in winter, and I can see the attraction – great food, cheap living, superb weather, a laid-back atmosphere, beaches and alluring Indian culture.
A good way of seeing the sights is to arrange for a local guide (see footnote) to take you on a day trip to the capital. The beauty of Goa isn’t just in its beaches. The Portuguese architecture of the Baroque-style churches is evident in many of the towns en route, which are also home to brightly painted houses; some centuries old, some brand new.
Built from the local, porous volcanic rock, they are a deep red, darkening in the rain. To protect the bricks, lime stucco is applied to the exteriors, then painted, and the colours move from pale yellow (used by the Portuguese) through to terracotta (for official buildings) and white and blue on churches.
Newer residences are everything from luminescent pink and purple to green and blue. Turning a corner, we’re surprised by one in startling turquoise, which our driver says was probably chosen to stop cars missing the corner and driving into the garden (believable when you’ve spent time on India’s roads).
At a spice plantation just south of Panajin, an hour-long tour gives us the chance to see the plants and trees from which India’s fabulous cuisine is made, with betel nut, nutmeg flowers, green and black cardamom, lemon grass, cloves, vanilla pods, curry leaves, coriander and cinnamon bark all for sale.
Spices alone aren’t enough of a draw for the coach tours, however, so there are three elephants waiting in the car park to take people for a ride.
Unless totally focused on beach hedonism, the Basilica of Bom Jesus should be on every tourist’s list. Built in 1605, it contains the bones of St Francis Xavier, the so-called Apostle of the Indies. It is in Old Goa, a settlement that was abandoned in 1835 after several cholera outbreaks. Left behind were the churches. The result is that the Basilica sits in attractive open grounds; across the road is the Church of St Francis of Assisi and Se Cathedral.
Leaving Old Goa to reach Panaji, you follow the road that has the river on one side and marshes on the other, used for salt pans. This 3km-long causeway – Ponte Conde de Linhares – was constructed in the 17th century by the Viceroy of Portuguese India – Miguel de Noronha, fourth Count of Linhares – and the colonial heritage is still visible in the capital’s old Latin quarter of Fontainhas, with its narrow streets of colourful houses.
If you walk along 18 June Road (in commemoration of Goa’s independence) you’ll find plenty of international brands, or pop into Singh’s Bombay Bazar for handicrafts, toys, clothes and luggage. Throw in the street sellers flogging pashminas, drums and jewellery, and it’s a fun day out, but make sure you get back to the beach for the famous Goan sunset. Of all the memories of a trip to India, it’s likely to be the one that stays with you.
Greaves Travel can arrange tailor-made trips to India, including local guides: tel +44 (0)20 7487 9111; greavesindia.com
WHERE TO STAY
Set in ten hectares complete with a golf course, various restaurants and pools, the Leela (left) is one of the top resorts in Goa and has a prime position on Mobor Beach. There are extra facilities for Royal Club guests at its “hotel within a hotel”.
Further south, the Lalit (left) occupies 34 hectares between the picturesque Talpona River and Raj Bagh Beach, and offers a superb range of activities including water sports, golf, squash and tennis. Wonderful colonial architecture and gardens make this a very five-star experience.
Popular with Europeans, this is a fashionable choice near the airport. Alila (right) is an Asian rather than Indian brand, with an infinity pool overlooking rice fields. It’s not on the beach, which is a few minutes away by buggy.