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Nirvana for dropouts, flower children, and New Age travelers since the late 1960s, Goa peaked as a hippie haven in the '70s, when Anjuna Beach became a rocking venue for party demons and naturalists who would sell their last piece of clothing at the local flea market for just enough cash to buy more dope and extend their stay. For many, Goa still conjures up images of all-night parties and tripping, naked hippies sauntering along sun-soaked beaches. But there is more to this tiny western state than sea and sand, dropouts, and hedonists. Goa's history alone has ensured that its persona, a rich amalgam of Portuguese and Indian influences, is unlike any other in India.

Arriving in 1498, the Portuguese christened it as the "Pearl of the Orient" and stayed for almost 500 years (forced to leave, finally, in 1961 -- the last Europeans to withdraw from the subcontinent), leaving an indelible impression on the local population and landscape. Goans still take a siesta every afternoon; many are Catholic, and you'll meet Portuguese-speaking Mirandas, D'Souzas, and Braganzas, their ancestors renamed by the colonial priests who converted them, often by force. Garden Hindu shrines stand cheek-by-jowl with holy crosses, and the local vindaloo (curry) is made with pork. Dotted among the palm groves and rice fields are dainty villas bearing European coats of arms and imposing mansions with wrought-iron gates -- built not only for European gentry but for the Brahmins who, by converting, earned the right to own land.

Over the past decade Goa has become more hip than hippie, with well-heeled Indians frequenting the new rash of flashy international-style restaurants and design-conscious furniture and lifestyle stores at which they shop in order to adorn their ostentatious Goa mansions. Joining them every winter are the white-skinned package tourists, who come to indulge in the commercialized trance culture, and Indian youngsters who cruise from beach to beach, legs wrapped around cheap motorbikes and credit cards tucked into their Diesel jeans.

Goa is a more laid-back, "anything goes" version of India, a cosmopolitan tourist-oriented place of five-star resorts, boutique guesthouses, and ever more enchanting villas remodeled for international travelers. In many ways Goa is the perfect introduction to a country that, elsewhere, can be very challenging. Of course, when the crowds arrive, particularly over New Year, Goa's beaches and markets are anything but tranquil. Sun beds and shacks line the most commercial beaches, and hawkers haggle ceaselessly with droves of Europeans here to sample paradise at bargain prices while Mumbai and Bangalore puppies crowd the shoreline bars and restaurants. If it's action you're after, there are endless opportunities for all-night partying and reckless abandon. But Goa's true pleasures are found away from the crowds, on the more remote beaches to the far north and south, on the semiprivate beaches adjoining luxury resorts, or in the charming guesthouses farther inland. Come for at least 3 days, and you may end up staying for a lifetime -- as a number of very content expats from around the world will attest to. However you decide to play it, live the local motto,"Sossegade": "Take it easy."