A Little Bit of Portugal on the West Coast of India : Goa, a former colonial enclave, offers tropical beaches and a harmonious blend of colorful cultures.
In the vast pantheon of Hindu gods, Shiva is particularly revered by Goans. Legend has it that this major deity, having finally rid the universe of evil, sought a place to rest from his arduous chore. Finding none beautiful or peaceful enough, Shiva created Goa.
The Portuguese established this 1,377-square-mile enclave on the southwest coast of India in 1510 in hopes of controlling the Arabian Sea’s lucrative East-West spice trade. They ruled Goa until it was returned to India in 1961; the enclave is now an integral state. But Portuguese culture, cuisine, architecture and language have remained. Older Goans still speak fluent Portuguese, and Portugal’s native costumes are everywhere.
Goa’s tropical climate--it boasts 82 miles of palm-fringed coastline, plus many rivers, rice paddies, mango groves and stands of ebony and teak--give it a distinct appeal found nowhere else in India. Further, its 30%-35% Catholic population has kept it immune to the Hindu-Muslim confrontations that have plagued India in recent years.
Catholicism achieved a firm foothold in Goa with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier three decades after the Portuguese first landed. Results of his fervent proselytizing, and the subsequent educating of a local clergy, is best seen today in Goa’s more than 400 Catholic churches, most of them reflecting the baroque architecture so admired by Iberians of the era.
St. Francis, who eventually moved his mission to other parts of India and Asia, died awaiting entry to China. He is buried in the Bom Jesus Basilica in Velha Goa (Old Goa), the enclave’s capital before it was moved to Panaji in 1843.
During 4 1/2 centuries of occupation of Goa, the Portuguese had tiffs with the British, Dutch, French, Indians and others, all of whom were interested in one of the most cherished port sites east of the Suez Canal.
In the late 1960s and ‘70s, after being reunited with India, Goa confronted its most recent invasion. The world’s flower children descended upon the balmy region to loll nude on its beautiful beaches, smoke a little hashish and otherwise offend locals with their lifestyle and visions of a soon-to-come nirvana of milk and honey.
That era, too, has passed. Goa’s magnificent beaches now are peopled with visitors more interested in natural beauty than lax laws. And there’s the added incentive of the harmonious intertwining of the colorful cultures of Portugal and India.
Getting settled in: A real find is the Ronil Beach Resort, just inland from Calangute Beach, one of Goa’s finest. The hotel, a series of local-style buildings with red-tile roofs, is built around a pool and garden terrace with palm trees. All three meals are served on the terrace, which is lighted at night. Like many Indian hotels, bedrooms are available with or without air conditioning. And the Ronil’s house astrologer represents an unusual service we have found only in Indian hotels.
Hotel Mandovi is in the heart of Panaji overlooking the Mandovi River. There’s nothing fancy about the contemporary bedrooms, but a suite overlooking the river is very reasonable priced, and the river view is marvelous. Mandovi’s lobby has a good bookstore and little pastry shop, and the dining room is noted for its excellent Goan menu.
Taj Holiday Village on Calangute Beach is a member of the excellent Taj Group of Hotels in India. Thirty-three cottages are spread out in traditional Goan style; there’s also the rustic Beach House dining room, a huge pool with swim-up bar, equipment for every water sport there is, plus tennis, squash, badminton and a billiards room.
Regional food and drink: Giant tiger prawns the size of bananas, along with lobsters, are a real Goan treat when grilled with a few spices. Kingfish and pomfret (a flounder-like fish) come from Arabian Sea waters, and both are delicious. Portuguese dishes include peixe recheado , a fish stuffed with prawns with a spicy red masala sauce, and Goan de galwha , a rich chicken soup with peas and rice.
Another holdover from Portuguese days is the piquant red chourisso sausage, first cousin to the Spanish chorizo , and you’ll find it being grilled at street markets throughout the region.
Golden Eagle and Kingfisher are good beers, both in huge bottles, and you’ll find them all over India. Feni , a highly potent liqueur made of cashews or coconuts, is a local product. It’s very inexpensive and great mixed with pineapple juice.
Going first-class: The showplace of Goa is the Fort Aguada Beach Resort, another member of the Taj Group of Hotels and every inch a world-class resort. It was erected in 1612 behind the beach-front ramparts of Ft. Aguada to protect the Mandovi River estuary from attacks by Dutch, British and French fleets. The resort has every possible amenity and overlooks the southern end of beautiful Calangute Beach.
On your own: Pristine and endless beaches are Goa’s principal visitor attraction, and the Calangute-Baga beaches on the north coast stretch for almost five miles. Colva Beach on the south coast measures almost 12 miles and is Goa’s finest stretch of sand.
The old capital of Velha Goa, which once rivaled Lisbon in splendor, is now just a small village. But a visit there is a must, if only to see the Se Cathedral and Bom Jesus Basilica across the road. Both were built in the late 16th Century, and while the former is absolutely huge, the latter is much more interesting architecturally. Buses make the Panaji-Velha Goa run (30 minutes), and boats on the Mandovi River take 45 minutes, both costing a pittance.