The former Portuguese enclave of Goa, midway down India’s southwest coast, has been a holiday destination since colonial times, when British troops and officials used to travel here from across the country for a spot of “R&R”. Back then, the three Bs – bars, brothels and booze – were the big attractions. Now it’s the golden, palm-fringed beaches spread along the state’s 105km coastline that pull in the tourists – around two million of them each winter. Cheap air travel has spawned a dramatic rise in the number of domestic visitors in recent years, and planeloads of free-spending Russians have also started to pour in. Yet in spite of the increasing chaos of Goa’s main resorts, it’s still possible to find the odd quiet corner if you’re prepared to explore and can avoid the busy Christmas–New Year period. If you know where to go, Goa can still be a wonderful place to recuperate from the travails of life on the road.

Serving as the linchpin for a vast trade network for more than 450 years, Goa was Portugal’s first toe-hold in Asia. However, when the Portuguese empire began to flounder in the seventeenth century, so too did the fortunes of its capital. Cut off from the rest of India by a wall of mountains and hundreds of kilometres of un-navigable alluvial plain, it remained aloof from the wider Subcontinent until 1961, when the exasperated prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, finally gave up trying to negotiate with the Portuguese dictator Salazar and sent in the army.

It was shortly after the “Liberation” (or “Occupation” as some Goans still regard it), that the first hippie travellers came to the region on the old overland trail. They found a way of life little changed in centuries: back then Portuguese was still very much the lingua franca of the well-educated elite, and the coastal settlements were mere fishing and coconut cultivation villages. Relieved to have found somewhere culturally undemanding to party, the “freaks” got stoned, watched the mesmeric sunsets over the Arabian Sea and danced like lunatics on full-moon nights.

Since then, the state has been at pains to shake off its reputation as a druggy drop-out zone, and its beaches have grown in popularity year on year. Around two dozen stretches of soft white sand indent the region’s coast, from spectacular 25km sweeps to secluded palm-backed coves. The level of development behind them varies a great deal; while some are lined by swanky Western-style resorts, the most sophisticated structures on others are palm-leaf shacks.

Which beach you opt for largely depends on what sort of holiday you have in mind. Developed resorts such as Calangute and Baga in the north, and Colva and Benaulim in the south, offer more accommodation than elsewhere. Anjuna, Vagator and Chapora, where places to stay are generally harder to come by, are the beaches to aim for if you’ve come to Goa to party. However, the bulk of budget travellers taking time out from tours of India end up in Palolem, in the far south beyond the reach of the charter transfer buses – though be warned that it too has become a major resort over the past decade, attracting literally thousands of long-stay visitors in peak season. For a quieter scene, you could head for Patnem, just over the headland from Palolem, or Agonda, further up the coast, where development is limited to a string of hut camps and family guesthouses. The only place where the hippie scene endures to any significant extent is Arambol, in the far north of the state, where you can dip in to any number of yoga styles and holistic therapies between spells on the beach.

Some 10km from the state capital, Panjim, the ruins of the former Portuguese capital at Old Goa are foremost among the attractions away from the coast – a sprawl of Catholic cathedrals, convents and churches that draw crowds of Christian pilgrims from all over India. Another popular day excursion is to Anjuna’s Wednesday flea market, a sociable place to shop for souvenirs and dance wear. In the south, the district of Salcete, and its main market town, Margao, is also littered with distinctively hybrid buildings in the form of Portuguese-era mansions, churches and seminaries. Finally, wildlife enthusiasts may be tempted into the interior to visit the nature reserves at Cotigao and Netravali in the far south.

The best time to come to Goa is during the dry, relatively cool winter months between late November and mid-March. At other times, either the sun is too hot for comfort, or the humidity, clouds and rain make life miserable. During peak season, from mid-December to the end of January, the weather is perfect, with temperatures rarely nudging above 32°C. Finding a room or a house to rent at that time, however – particularly over Christmas and New Year when tariffs double, or triple – can be a real hassle.

Brief history

Goa’s sheer inaccessibility by land has always kept it out of the mainstream of Indian history; on the other hand, its control of the seas and the lucrative spice trade made it a much-coveted prize for rival colonial powers. Until a century before the arrival of the Portuguese, Goa had belonged for more than a thousand years to the kingdom of the Kadamba dynasty. They, in turn, were overthrown by the Karnatakan Vijayanagars, the Muslim Bahmanis, and Yusuf Adil Shah of Bijapur, but the capture of the fort at Panjim by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510 signalled the start of a Portuguese occupation that was to last 451 years.

As the colony expanded, its splendid capital (dubbed as “Goa Dourada”, or “Golden Goa”, due to its incredible prosperity) came to hold a larger population than Paris or London. Though Ismail Adil Shah laid siege for ten months in 1570, and the Marathas came very close to seizing the region, the greatest threat was from other European maritime nations, principally Holland and France. Meanwhile, conversions to Christianity, started by the Franciscans, gathered pace when St Francis Xavier founded the Jesuit mission in 1542. With the advent of the Inquisition soon afterwards, laws were introduced censoring literature and banning any faith other than Catholicism. Hindu temples were destroyed, and converted Hindus adopted Portuguese names, such as Da Silva, Correa and De Sousa, which remain common in the region. Thereafter, the colony, whose trade monopoly had been broken by its European rivals, went into gradual decline, hastened by the unhealthy, disease-ridden environment of its capital.

Despite certain liberalization, such as the restoration of Hindus’ right to worship and the final banishment of the dreaded Inquisition in 1820, the nineteenth century saw widespread civil unrest. During the British Raj many Goans moved to Bombay, and elsewhere in British India, to find work.

The success of the post-Independence Goan struggle for freedom owed as much to the efforts of the Indian government, which cut off diplomatic ties with Portugal, as to the work of freedom fighters such as Menezes Braganza and Dr. Cunha. After a “liberation march” in 1955 resulted in a number of deaths, the state was blockaded. Trade with Bombay ceased, and the railway was cut off, so Goa set out to forge international links, particularly with Pakistan and Sri Lanka: that led to the building of Dabolim airport, and a determination to improve local agricultural output. In 1961, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru finally sent in the armed forces. Mounted in defiance of a United Nations resolution, “Operation Vijay” met only token resistance, and the Indian army overran Goa in two days. Thereafter, Goa (along with Portugal’s other two enclaves, Daman and Diu) became part of India as a self-governing Union Territory, with minimum interference from Delhi.

Since Independence, Goa has continued to prosper, bolstered by iron-ore exports and a booming tourist industry. Dominated by issues of statehood, the status of Konkani and the ever-rising levels of immigration, its political life has been dogged by chronic instability, with frequent changes of government and chief ministers, interrupted by occasional periods of President’s Rule, when the state had to be governed directly from New Delhi.

At the start of the twenty-first century, renewed fears over the pace of change on the coastal strip started to dominate the news. A sudden influx of Russian charter tourists and high-rolling property developers from Delhi and Mumbai provoked a backlash from successive ruling coalitions, with a state-sponsored land grab of expatriate property. Hundreds of resident Europeans had their assets confiscated, and fled. A series of high-profile attacks on and by foreigners – notably the murder in 2008 of British teenager Scarlett Keeling – has done little to improve the state’s image abroad. Meanwhile, as ever-improving infrastructural links with the rest of India render Goa’s borders more porous, the survival of the region as a culturally distinct entity continues to hang in the balance.

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