Goa's reputation as a hangout for hippies during the '60s and '70s was made on the northern beaches of Calangute, Baga, and Anjuna. Along with the relaxed lifestyle and good times came busloads of Indian men keen to observe free-spirited foreigners and, finally, a crackdown by local government. This forced fun-loving hippies to head to more remote tracts of coastline, leaving the door open for backpackers and package tourists. Thus were the north's most famous beaches transformed into tanning lots for the masses -- even Anjuna has become an Ibiza-like experience -- and today no card-carrying hippie would deign to set foot on the beach that stretches between Calangute and Baga (defined by resort-centered Sinquerim in the south to Vagator in the north). That said, you can't deny the beauty of the beaches (in south Vagator, Ozran Beach is peaceful and beautiful, with relaxed swimming in a bay at its southernmost end) -- certainly this is where you'll want to be if you're here to party during the season. Baga is the smaller, slightly less-developed area of activity. Beach shacks-turned-establishment hangouts like Britto's (Baga) and Fisherman's Paradise (Calangute) are crowded with beer-quaffing visitors recovering from the previous night's adventure at the legendary bar-cum-nightclub, Tito's, now a veritable strip-mall of entertainment outlets. Still, beach shacks are very much a part of Goan culture, and if you can track down those that haven't gone commercial (a la sponsorship by major drinks conglomerates), you may just sample some of the old life.
For a sense of Goa's hippie origins, head for Arambol, Goa's most northerly "discovered" beach (36km/22 miles northwest of Mapusa), before you hit the utterly remote and untouched beach at Keri. Arambol is no longer the undiscovered paradise it was just a few years back, but it offers better bodysurfing that Anjuna or Vagator -- the water's a little more turbulent. It draws quite a crowd during the season (you arrive through a lane crammed with stalls selling CDs and T-shirts, and laid-back restaurants playing competing brands of music), but the setting is nevertheless lovely, with a hill looming over a small freshwater lake fed by a spring. The farther north you walk, the more solitude you enjoy. Besides looking at beautiful bodies, you can spend hours watching the surf glide. Another option is to head a little farther south from Arambol for Asvem Beach; while the Russians may have set up camp here it's still a great beach, and is where you'll fall in love with a beautiful restaurant called La Plage -- one the best in the state -- disguised as a simple beach shack offering sustenance and style that's not all that easy to come by among the hoi polloi magnets of Baga-Calangute. Immediately south, secluded and largely undeveloped Mandrem is a peaceful fishing village and beach separating Asvem from the dark sands of Morjim, popular with the Olive Ridley turtles that have been coming here for centuries and, more recently, Russian tour groups and expats keen to carve out their own place in paradise.
If you're taking a break from the beaches and lust for a bit of culture but don't have time to tour any of the heritage homes recommended in the southern part of Goa, drop in at the Calizz museum (Bammon Vaddo, Candolim; tel. 0832/325-0000; www.calizz.com; daily 10am-9:30pm). Curators here have made an impressive attempt to trace the evolution of local architecture and re-create traditional Goan homes. Each house is filled with intriguing artifacts and antiques, kitchen utensils, maps, paintings, medical paraphernalia, spectacle frames, jars, bottles, and so on -- some of it several hundred years old, and painstakingly collected over the years by Laxmikant Kudchadkar. You can also see the differences in Goan-Portuguese and Hindu styles of architecture and enjoy a taste of traditional cuisine. The guided tour ends with a bizarre 3-D display of Hindu gods and mythologies -- perhaps the only sore point in this grand affair.
Panjim & Old Goa
Panjim is 600km (372 miles) S of Mumbai
Located at the mouth of the Mandovi River, the state capital (also known as Panaji) relocated here from Old Goa in 1759, when bubonic plague finally wiped out the once-spectacular trade city. Panjim is today a breezy, laid-back town that lends itself to easy exploration. The chief attraction is the wonderful colonial Portuguese architecture, particularly in the eastern neighborhoods of Fontainhas and Sao Tome, where the atmospheric cobbled streets are lined with old mansions and churches dating as far back as the mid-1700s -- look for Fontainhas's Chapel of St. Sebastian, where the crucifix from Old Goa's "Palace of the Inquisition" is now kept. With head upright and eyes wide open, the figure of Christ on the crucifix here is quite unlike the usual figures, which feature lowered head and eyes.
Dominating Panjim's town center is the imposing Church of the Immaculate Conception, built in the Portuguese baroque style in 1541. Nearer the water's edge is the Secretariat; an old palace of Adil Shah of Bijapur, this became the Portuguese viceroy's residence when the colonial administration moved here.
Wandering around Panjim on foot shouldn't take more than a few hours, but do spare some time for the Municipal Market -- outside the smell will let you know when you're near the fish sellers, while inside, the orderly layout of vendors pushing the mountains of fruit, vegetables, and myriad other kitchen consumables will have you reaching for your camera. If you're pushed for time, confine your Panjim exploration to Fontainhas and hop onto an auto-rickshaw or on the back of a bike to Old Goa (30 min. from Panjim). In its heyday reputedly larger than the city of London and one of Asia's great trade centers, today it's only Old Goa's monumental churches that hint at the former splendor which earned it the nickname "Rome of the East." From Old Goa, it's a short trip (and a great contrast) to view the popular Hindu temples that lie north of the dull town of Ponda, on National Highway 4. Very few Hindu temples dating from earlier than the 19th century still exist -- affronted by the Hindus' "pagan" practices, the Portuguese tore them down -- but Ponda became a repository for a large number of idols smuggled from the coast during the violent years of the 16th-century Inquisition. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is Sri Mangueshi Temple, built specifically as a refuge for these refugee deities. A path lined with palm trees leads to a colorful entranceway, behind which the tiled, steep-roofed temple exemplifies a fusion of Hindu and Christian architectural styles, hardly surprising considering that it was constructed by Goan craftsmen weaned on 200 years of Portuguese church-building. Walking distance from here (15 min. south) is the slightly less commercial (no temple "guides") Sri Mahalsa Temple. Another half-hour from Old Goa is Sahakari Spice Plantation (Curti, Ponda; tel. 0832/231-2394; www.sahakarifarms.com) -- if you're not heading down to Kerala you might want to take a tour here. It's quite a commercial venture, but the tours provide an interesting insight into Indian spices, along with plenty of quizzing by the well-informed guides about basic facts related to your food.
The Central Coast
Compared with the beach playgrounds of north Goa, the beaches south of Panjim are more about solitude and stretches of virgin sand (with the north only a short ride away). For the most part, you'll be sunning yourself on whatever beach is slap-bang in front of your resort hotel -- each with its own idyllic setting, these stretches of largely untouched beaches are paradise. Nearest of the beach resorts to the airport, and one of the quietest of south Goa's more popular beaches, Bogmalo has quaint shacks (as well as a number of ugly concrete buildings), fishing boats, and a view of two small islands some distance out to sea -- ask about trips to the islands at the Watersports Goa shack, which also has equipment for activities like windsurfing and water-skiing. As you move down the coast, you'll discover that you're on a seemingly endless stretch of beach until you reach the headland at Mobor; with the exception of development-mutilated Colva, much of this is pristine, practically untouched by the sort of commercial mayhem that has besieged Baga-Calangute in the north. You can unfurl your beach towel and cozy up to a friendly beach shack almost anywhere here -- just be sure to check that you only swim in areas where lifeguards are stationed, or ask about the local swimming conditions at your hotel.
Alternatively, consider a meandering trip via the Goan interior, traveling past Ponda to the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary to view Goa's oldest Hindu temple, Mahadeva Temple in Tambdi Surla, and the 600m-high (190-ft.) Dudhsagar (Sea of Milk) Falls. Constructed from slabs of black basalt, the 11th-century Mahadeva Temple is one of the few to have survived the Portuguese, thanks largely to its distance from the coast (some 75km/46 miles from Panjim). To reach the falls, you will need a jeep, so either set off with one from the outset, or hire one in nearby Collem. Take lunch (look out for greedy monkeys) and a bathing suit for a swim in the deep, icy pool surrounded by rocks and wild greenery; be cautious at the falls, however, as each year a number of careless visitors drown because they underestimate the depth of the water, or bash their head on the rocks after diving in. There is little reason to spend much time in Goa's second city, Madgaon (Margao), which has little more to offer than a stroll through the sprawling spice-scented town market -- a maze of covered stalls selling everything from garlands of flowers and peeled prawns to sacks bursting with turmeric, chilies, and tamarind. The town does boast some gorgeous crumbling colonial architecture, and two particularly worthwhile house museums are in the nearby villages of Loutolim and Chandor respectively; or you can visit Quepem to combine a heritage visit with an authentic Goan meal.
The Far South
Palolem is 40km (25 miles) S of Madgaon
If you're on a tighter budget and looking for a party atmosphere that's a little more reminiscent of the scene in north Goa (yet without the same commercial intensity), head farther south to the picturesque stretch of coast that stretches south from Agonda to the protected Olive Ridley turtle breeding beach of Galgibaga, another remote haven with eucalyptus trees and empty stretches of sand. The most famous beach -- unfortunately now also increasingly overstocked with tourists and day-trippers -- is Palolem. Until just a few years back, this was a thoroughly remote and tranquil hideaway; thankfully, though, despite the intrusion of shacks, trinket-peddlers, and human traffic, it remains one of India's most beautiful stretches of coastline, a gorgeous sandy crescent cove lined with coconut palms and manned by fishermen with their outrigger boats that line the northern end of the beach. It remains relatively free of day-trippers, but if you find the crowds too much, simply walk until you find a quieter spot, even if you need to end up on neighboring Patnem. Accommodations in Palolem and Patnem, as well as still-lovely Agonda (just 7km/4 1/2 miles north of Palolem) were once limited to thatched tree houses or wooden houses on stilts, but now there are even semismart guesthouses available -- some with hot water. At sunset, Palolem becomes a natural meditation spot; the sun disappearing slowly behind the beach's northernmost promontory casts a shadow over local fishing boats, swimmers, joggers, cavorting dogs, and pockets of befuddled-looking cows, as the bars and restaurants come to life with pleasant lounge music. Palolem is also the birthplace of Goa's enterprising new "silent party" scene.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.