Way to Goa: Top things to do in and around India's leading beach resort
Everyone knows Goa has long sandy beaches, great seafood, and an endless choice of resorts, hotels and guesthouses. But India's smallest state is more than beach. Inland there are spice farms, beautiful river valleys and backwaters, while 450 years of Portuguese rule have left heritage mansions, churches, and tasty fusion cuisine.
Goa's infamous hippy and party scene still exists, but it's mellowing and there's a beach for all, from budget backpackers and partygoers to adventure-seekers and the luxury crowd, and it could all be yours with Thomas Cook Airlines, which offers great value direct flights from both Manchester and London Gatwick.
Panaji: the capital
For a second, you might think you're in Europe as you wander the tiny, winding streets of Fontainhas in Goa's capital Panaji (or Panjim, the Portuguese name). This historic Latin quarter is one of the most obvious reminders of Portuguese rule, with its pastel-coloured balconies, red-tiled roofs and traditional villas. It's a city of markets too - fish, spice and fruit-and-vegetable and flowers - and home to the impressive 16th-century Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception church in the Altinho quarter. By night, visitors and locals flock to the cruise boats and floating casinos on the Mandovi River. If you're into photography, book a private walking tour with photographer Francisco De Souza.
North Goa: Old Goa & around
Whether visiting independently or on a tour, don't miss Old Goa or Velha Goa, 10 kilometres east of Panaji. Once a thriving city and capital of Portuguese India, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage site with the Basilica of Bom Jesus, dedicated to St Francis Xavier, and nearby Se Cathedral.
At Sinquerim Beach, you'll find the 17th-century Portuguese fort, Fort Aguada and the lighthouse, and the village of Reis Magos (Three Wise Men) where you'll find the Reis Magos Fort, once a point of defence for the port town of Goa, and Reis Magos Church. On Wednesdays, Anjuna Beach's flea market is a popular stop and a fun place to shop and haggle, while others include Mackie's Night Bazaar and Saturday Night Market in Arpora and Mapusa Market for its textiles and jewellery.
There are numerous spice plantations in Goa, and most offer guided tours and a simple traditional lunch, either organised in advance or if you just turn up. Popular ones include Sahakari Spice Farm at Curti, Ponda's Tropical Spice Plantations and Tanshikar's Working Organic Spice Farm near Sanguem, where guides talk you through the medicinal properties of local spices, herbs and fruits, and show the farming methods used on the plantation.
Some of the spices you'll see and can buy include cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg. The plantations themselves are beautiful, shaded by tropical fruit and palm trees. Some spice farms also produce feni, Goa's local tipple, made from cashew apples and sometimes coconut palm sap. It's strong stuff...
On the forested slopes of the Western Ghats on the border with Karnataka is the Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary and Mollem National Park. It's no safari experience - you'll work hard to spot jungle cats, Malayan giant squirrels and, if you're very lucky, a leopard - but it's a wonderful landscape, good for birdwatching if you go early morning, and better for animals in the late afternoon.
It's often incorporated in day tours to Dudhsagar Falls, one of India's highest waterfalls, and the Devil's Canyon river gorge but avoid trips which offer elephant rides. There are several ziplining tours while birders will enjoy Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary on Chorao island, so-called after India's celebrated ornithologist.
Too many people miss out Ancestral Goa, one of Goa's few structured visitor centres where you can get an overview of the region's art, culture and environment. More commonly known as the Big Foot Museum, after a mysterious footprint was found in a rock face, it's in the village of Loutolim and home to a sculpture of Saint Mirabai, the longest sculpture carved in India. The museum showcases Goan village life, feni-making and the Portuguese influence, and across the road is Casa Araujo, a beautifully preserved 250-year-old Portuguese mansion where the furniture, antiques and newspaper clippings recall wealthy colonial life.
It's easily combined with trips to spice plantations, the Indo-Portuguese 18th-century Shantadurga Temple and the 400-year-old Mangueshi Temple further out. There's more Goan heritage information at the Goa Chitra museum in Benaulim where over 4000 artefacts chart Goa's traditional agrarian technology and lifestyle through the ages.
On the water
Take a kayak along the Sal Backwaters to see yet another, even quieter side of Goa. Guided excursions meander along winding waterways flanked by mangroves where you'll find cashew plants, lotus ponds, and mango trees, as well as sightings of fish, otters and migratory and local birds; four species of kingfisher live along these backwaters, along with egrets, lapwings and others.
Goa Kayaking and Goa Nature Trails are among the operators or you can book excursions via hotels and local travel companies. Kayaking trips also take place along the Zuari, Mandovi and Nerul (Spike) rivers and offer a chance to visit riverside fishing communities and eat in locally run restaurants. You can also go crab-fishing; hotels and tour companies organise trips but one of the best known is John's Boat Tours, while crocodile cruises, dolphin-watching and moonlight kayaking (available five days a month) are also among the options.
Food & drink
Ice-cold beers and seafood platters are a given, but Goa's cuisine is a genuinely diverse mix of classic Indian and Indo-Portuguese fusion dishes, a legacy of Portuguese rule. Cooking classes are one of the best ways to get to know the two sides of Goan cuisine. At Rita's Gourmet Goa, you make a combination; for example, stuffed parathas, chole (chickpea) masala, and tasty dals while Goan specialities include fish recheado, shallow-fried fish in a masala paste, spicy, sweet and sour prawns balchao and even crème caramel. Siolim Cooking School particularly excels at Goan dishes, but classes can also be tailored.
Whether you're tempted by the fusion food, ancient wonders, natural sights or the renowned beaches, you can get to Goa with Thomas Cook Airlines for less than you might expect. Check out the latest fares to Goa with Thomas Cook Airlines for a fabulous winter sun break, and remember to see when we think is the best time to visit plus what the weather in Goa is like all year round.
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