A journey of discovery in Goa

Most tourists only venture from their hotel bar to the beautiful beaches, but Amanda Thow sets off to find its other charms
W hen I asked the waiter for a Kingfisher beer, he brought it to me in a teapot. Questioning him further, I discovered that this was not some bizarre local custom but due to the election. Alcohol was banned for four days, starting two days before the results.

There would be much to celebrate, I was told: the odds-on favourite was running on an anti-corruption ticket. Most of the Goans I spoke to hoped that the illegal shacks which line the beaches would get closed down. Selfishly, I felt that this would be a shame, having just enjoyed the five-mile walk from the 17th-century Fort Aguada along the edge of the surf to Baga Beach, stopping along the way for fresh lime sodas and giant banana pancakes (30p each).

Under the thatched canopies of these illegal shacks, I had watched white, hump-backed cattle wandering by or squabbling for the deep shade between the beached outriggers. Young fishermen squatted near by, sorting and mending the froth of pale-green nets. Women dressed in bright saris held up armfuls of lungis, pineapples and embroidered bags. A man approached and offered me an official-looking document sheathed in plastic: a certificate of competence in professional ear cleaning. "Just take a look," he insisted, producing a frightening array of gleaming metal instruments in a black case.

Another day, I extended my walk over the rocky headland to the next beach, Anjuna, a hippy haven of the Sixties, where there is a flea market every Wednesday selling wonderful chocolate brownies (of the non-herbal variety), baked by a local Englishman.

Apart from brief forays for souvenirs in places like these, many visitors to Goa simply shuttle between the white sand of their local beach and the cool of their local bar. While even the most popular beaches are far from crowded (there are 160 miles of coast), it is still worth hiring a motorbike or scooter and taking a trip around the state.

At the top of Bardez province, a ferry crosses the Chapora River from Siolim every 20 minutes to take you north into Pernem province. Harmal beach and the sleepy charm of the villages en route provide a welcome change from the relative clamour of Bardez. The wide, sandy bay is reached by a short walk over a low headland. There is also a stream which flows down from the hills into a large freshwater pool separated from the sea by a narrow hump of sand. The seclusion of this beautiful spot does, however, attract a few devoted nudists, ageing hippies and a colourful array of posing pouches.

Farther north, a second ferry crosses the Tiracol river to reach Tiracol Fort. If the ferry is on the other side of the river, piercing whistles and frantic waving may attract the ferryman's attention. He will then pick you up, although this unscheduled trip increases the fare from 2p to pounds 1. Tiracol Fort was built by the Rajahs of Savantvadi in the 17th century and captured by the Portuguese, who added lookout turrets and a small, whitewashed church which takes up most of the inner courtyard. It is now a hotel and serves good vindalhao (a local speciality of marinated pork which has nothing in common with the palate-burner normally associated with the term). The battlements offer stunning views of the river's mouth, the surrounding beaches and neighbouring state of Maharashtra while you're waiting for your meal.

Heading in the opposite direction, to Canacona, the southernmost province, you find the most beautiful beach in Goa. Palolem has a wide, curving bay about a mile long, with Canacona island at one end. At low tide you can pick your way along the rocky promontory to the island, but otherwise it is easy enough to hire a fishing boat to take you round to its western side, where there is a small sandy beach and delicate monkeys that are just visible swinging through the trees. For an all-in price of pounds 10, the same boat will pick you up at a specified time and take you to see the dolphins in the waters near the island, then bring you back to the beach for some freshly caught pomfret or tuna.

More accessible is the former capital, Old Goa, in Tiswadi province. In the 16th century it was the most important colonial city in Asia and had a population larger than Lisbon. Today about 15 Renaissance and baroque churches and an archaeological museum housed in part of a Franciscan monastery remain, all surrounded by well-watered lawns.

Like most towns in the state, Old Goa is easily reached by bus. And bus travel is an experience in itself: old ladies will talk of the Portuguese occupation, when there was no electricity in the villages and some had a bus service only once a day. A man interjects that it's no better now. He has been waiting three years for a telephone, even though he paid a bribe to go to the top of the waiting list. All this to the sound of the driver's one tape, playing Indian hits such as "You are my chicken fry, you are my fish pie" at top volume. It's enough to make you long for a Kingfisher beer.

Getting there

Unless you are on an extensive tour of India, the only sensible way to approach Goa from the UK is on a charter flight. Plenty of British tour operators organise trips to Goa, from a variety of airports - but predominantly from Gatwick. First Choice (0161-745 7000) has a week's holiday departing Gatwick on 9 March, price pounds 549 including B&B. Inspirations Flights (01293 821821) is selling seat-only tickets on 7 March for pounds 359 and 28 March for pounds 406.

Getting in

You need a visa, obtainable from the Indian High Commission, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA (0171-836 8484).

Getting information

Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2LN (0171- 437 3677).