Beach, Goa, India

Beached in Goa, India. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Goa

Isolated from the rest of India during 400-plus years of Portuguese rule, the state of Goa on the subcontinent's west coast boasts a rare blend of cultures. Portuguese influences are everywhere, from Catholic churches (about a quarter of the state's 1.4 million population is Christian) to afternoon siestas, cuisine, and European-style villas—but all with an Indian fusion making for a distinct local culture. In recent decades, Goa was synonymous with dropped-out, tuned-in, flower children and New Agers who populated the nude beaches and all-night raves. Although Goa is a little more mainstream and five-star now, it retains an alternative edge and freshness that makes it one of the most interesting places to visit in India, and an easy introduction to traveling in the sometimes challenging country.

Although Goa is the smallest state in India, going from the districts of North Goa (where the party beaches are) to South Goa (where the quieter resorts are) takes nearly two hours. Goa has its fair share of Northern European package tourists nowadays, and a surprising amount of Indian tourism traffic as well (Indians make up more than half of the two million annual travelers). Goa's tourism traffic is very seasonal, with Christmas and New Year's weeks being extremely packed, while some hotels close during the monsoon season between June and September.

Goa's miles of beaches take center stage, with hawkers and guesthouses lining most of them—but many retain some of that remote 1960s feel.Om Beach, said to be one of the best in India, is a favorite destination, as is the windsurfing mecca of Dona Paula Beach. Full-moon rave parties still occur on Goa's beaches, but are more underground and word-of-mouth than in the past (ask around at the Nine Bar at Vagator Beach to hear what's going on). The Baga-to-Candolim area (north of Panjim) is the more developed tourist beach area.

Beyond the beaches, Goa has Portuguese-influenced cities like Panaji, the state capital, and Old Goa, a World Heritage Site with cathedrals and basilicas. Wherever you go, you'll be sure to hear the local motto Sossegade, or, "Take it easy."

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