Goa, the tiny state on India's western coast, is graced with more than 60 miles of palm-fringed beaches lapped by the Arabian Sea. In the 1970s this tropical spot was a magnet for hippies, drawn to the lush and exotic setting. While times have changed, today Goa lures more than two million visitors a year. Many of them seldom stray far from the beach, but away from the coast there's a rich tapestry of villages to explore.
The state's unique Portuguese colonial culture derived from a link between East and West that lasted for more than 450 years, until Goa was annexed back to India in 1961. Many remnants of this Portuguese colonial past can be seen in and around Old Goa—the original capital—and Panaji, the modern capital. For another day trip, visit some of the stunning Portuguese–era mansions in southern Goa.
SOULS AND SPICES—OLD GOA
Portugal was on a quest to control the lucrative maritime trade routes between Europe and the East when nobleman Vasco da Gama landed on the Malabar coast, south of Goa, in 1498. The Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque succeeded in conquering Goa in 1510. By the end of that century, Old Goa—then known as Goa Dourada, or "Golden Goa"—was the center of the world's spice trade and one of the richest places on earth. More people lived there than in London or Paris.
At first, Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians came here to service the spiritual needs of the Portuguese. But by the 1540s, they had begun converting the Indian population to Christianity. This religious zeal can still be seen in Goa's outstanding examples of Christian architecture.
Despite their European exteriors, the grand churches are often decorated with subtle Hindu ornamentation. To get an understanding of Indian-made Christian art, start in Old Goa at the Museum of Christian Art, in an ancient chapel at the Convent of Santa Monica. You'll see 17th-century Christian altar pillars that are actually carved Hindu nagas (snakes), and a superb 17th-century tabernacle veil decorated with intricate ivory carvings of Christian figures. The upper floor holds an ivory infant Jesus, adorned with jewels and gold and reminiscent of baby Krishna, the Hindu deity (christianartmuseum.goa-india.org).
Look for similar examples of Indian art inside Old Goa's Basilica of Bom Jesus, a baroque church completed in 1605, with marble floors and ornate altars. St. Francis Xavier is buried here. Nearby is the imposing Se Cathedral Church, to this day bigger than any church in Portugal. Construction began in 1562 and took 80 years. Its Golden Bell is regarded as one of the sweetest-sounding bells in the world.
A 20-minute drive takes you to the village of Ponda, known for its Mangeshi Temple, one of the oldest in Goa. The interior is decorated with chandeliers, tiled walls and marble floors.
ON THE RIVERFRONT—NEW GOA
When Old Goa was besieged by plague in the mid to late 1700s, the Portuguese created a new capital at Panjim, now officially called Panaji, on the Mandovi River. Bridges, houses and commercial buildings soon sprang up. The first church, Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, is still the centerpiece. From its steps visitors can overlook the lively Panjim Church Square.
It's a short walk from the church to Fontainhas, Panaji's Latin Quarter. With its winding alleys and old mansions painted ocher, maroon and indigo, Fontainhas is often compared to Lisbon. While the houses were inspired by Western design, the ornamentation on columns, railings, gateposts and balconies often incorporates Indian motifs. Stop for refreshment on the verandah of the Panjim Inn, Goa's first heritage hotel. The young proprietor, Jack Sukhija, is passionate about Goa's heritage, and enjoys taking hotel guests on neighborhood walks.
AT HOME IN GOA
Another passionate Goan is Gerard da Cunha, an architect whose Houses of Goa museum celebrates the state's distinctive building styles. It's in the pretty village of Salvador-do-Mundo, just north of Panaji. Among the exhibits are windows made from oyster shells and model hands holding up Belgian mirrors. Da Cunha himself often welcomes visitors; after touring the three floors, you can stop for tea in the small café (archgoa.org).
The best examples of Goa's grand mansions can be seen on a drive south of Panaji, between Loutolim and Quepem. Formal two-story houses, they resemble the baroque and Italianate palaces of Portuguese noblemen, but with courtyards and verandahs to adapt to the Indian climate. The ornate interiors are filled with artifacts from Europe and the Far East, and European-style furniture carved by Goan craftsmen.
One of the most spectacular houses is in Loutolim, the home of octogenarian Maria de Lourdes Figueiredo de Albuquerque. The oldest part dates from 1606 and is now the Old Heritage Inn, while the newer wing houses a museum, where Maria shows you family treasures in rooms she played in as a child. The dining room displays a mural of Vasco da Gama's arrival in India, and porcelain made in China for the East India Company.
From here it's a 12-mile drive southeast to Quepem, where the Palacio do Deão mansion is open to the public. After your tour, stay for lunch or high tea on the belvedere, under the cooling whir of overhead fans (palaciododeao.com).
Six miles northeast, you'll arrive in Chandor at the Braganza House, a palatial 17th-century mansion with narrow balconies outside each of the 24 windows. Since 1962, Aida de Menezes Braganza has been welcoming visitors to see its Italian mosaic floors, grand ballrooms and family possessions: Chinese porcelain, Japanese ginger jars, Murano crystal and Belgian chandeliers. After viewing these treasures, head for the coast to see one of Goa's everyday riches: the glorious sunset.
HOW & WHEN
The state of Goa is about 360 miles south of Mumbai (Bombay), India. The easiest way to go is by air from Mumbai; the flight takes less than an hour.
Goa has a good network of paved roads through scenic countryside. While rental cars are available, most visitors hire a car and driver, easily arranged through your hotel for about $30 USD per day. Distances are short (from top to bottom, Goa measures about 75 miles), but heavy traffic can slow your progress.
October to March—India’s winter—is the best time to go. The weather is warm and sunny, with daytime highs averaging 80 degrees. April and May are hot and humid. The monsoon season begins in July and continues until September. As much as 36 inches of rain can fall in the peak month, July. However, the season’s lush green landscapes (and reduced prices) lure travelers.
IN GOA INCLUDE:
SUN VILLAGE, Arpora
ROYAL GOAN BEACH CLUB
AT MONTERIO, Baga
ROYAL GOAN BEACH CLUB—
ROYAL PALMS, Benaulim
CLUB MAHINDRA VARCA
For more information,
visit RCI.com or call
THE LEELA KEMPINSKI GOA
One of Goa's most luxurious
resorts, with 186 beachfront
rooms, suites and villas.
doubles from $280
VIVENDA DOS PALHACOS
A seven-room hotel in a
century-old house near the
One of India's first luxury
beach resorts, with 140 rooms
and villas in a 56-acre tropical
tajhotels.com; doubles from
VIVANTA BY TAJ
A hip new 170-room hotel
with a rooftop infinity pool.
Panaji; tajhotels.com; doubles
Goa's first heritage hotel,
in the Latin Quarter. The 24
rooms have period furniture.
doubles from $150
OLD HERITAGE INN
The Figueiredo family's
ancestral house dates to 1606.
The five guest rooms have
antique four-posters. Loutolim;
no website; doubles from $100
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.