India's own Portugal

Plane to paradise? In the first of a series giving the travel essentials for popular destinations, Simon Calder suggests a visit to Goa - on or off season

Summer, in the eyes of many British travellers, is the very worst time to visit the Indian state of Goa. Yet thousands of Middle Eastern tourists disagree. They are flooding in for the floods - or, at least, the rains, held to be the best in the world by precipitation-starved visitors from the Gulf states. British tourists tend to be more impressed by the fine beaches, fading colonial character and rural idylls inland.

The former Portuguese colony found itself unwittingly at the end of a branch line of the hippie trail. All manner of interesting characters washed up at here in the Seventies and Eighties, creating a community where doing not very much with the assistance of some soft drugs became the norm. The Westerners have been indulged by the friendly local people ever since, and have themselves become something of a tourist attraction for thousands of Indian holiday-makers.

The next touristic invasion was not so benign. Goa was put on to the package holiday map a decade ago by a small, Bristol-based company called Inspirations East, which took the brave step of chartering a small MD80 jet and sending it to India with pioneering holiday-makers. They hit upon the essential combination of sun, sea, sand and low prices.

Inevitably, entrepreneurs in Goa and Britain saw the potential for profit and have been building beachside hotels at a fearful rate, often to the detriment of community amenities - though high-rises have yet to blot the horizon. The eccentric behaviour of some foreign visitors, such as heavy drinking and topless sunbathing, runs utterly counter to the conservative, Roman Catholic people of Goa. Some stretches of beach are extremely popular with men from Mumbai (Bombay) and northern India, who arrive en masse to witness (and photograph) Western women sunbathing topless.

There is also a growing rave culture among young Western visitors, with Ecstasy increasingly available. And some Goanese worry that when the broad- gauge rail line from Mumbai is completed, the character of the state will be diluted by an influx of yet more domestic visitors. Yet, as those people who venture inland discover, tourism has barely impacted upon the rich mix of lush farmland, splendid mountain scenery and deeply rooted culturen

Perfect timing

If you are not a rain buff, then avoid the next few months. Goa gets drier from October, and moderate temperatures and rainfall continue through our winter. The latest sensible time to go is April.

A passage to India

Several charter airlines operate from Britain, mostly from Gatwick and Manchester. Tour operators selling inclusive holidays and flight seats include Thomson, Inspirations, First Choice and Somak. Most charter flights stop to refuel in the Gulf. Bookings for next winter are already heavy, especially over Christmas. Prices lead in at about pounds 400 room-only for a week for travel in October, rising to more than pounds 1,200 for an all-inclusive fortnight over Christmas and New Year.

Goa is tricky to reach on scheduled airlines: you have to fly to Mumbai (Bombay), clear immigration and customs, transfer to the domestic terminal and catch one of the three or four daily flights to Goa. Alternatively, you could catch the fast ferry that takes seven hours between Mumbai and Goa. Rail travel is impossible at present, while the narrow-gauge line is being converted to broad gauge.

Finding your feet

The airport is at Dabolim, some way south of both the state capital, Panaji, and the main resort areas. Bus transfers take about an hour to most beach hotels. If you are travelling on a flight-only arrangement, negotiate a reasonable rate for a taxi to Panaji. If you settle on 250 rupees (about pounds 6), you will be paying only slightly over the odds.

Nice enough to eat

Culinary mediocrity is easy to find in Goa, with dismal hotel buffets and restaurants catering for what they fondly believe to be Western tastes. But good Goanese cuisine - much of it fish-based, as in Portugal, but spicier - is easy to find in the places where local people eat. The beach shacks at Baga, subject of a campaign by the local authority to close them down, are good value, with excellent vegetarian dishes. Meat, where available, is likely to be goat or lamb. One exception is the vindaloo, which is a Goan dish of pork marinated in chillies, garlic and vinegar - nothing like the imposters found abroad.

Till you drop

Walking in sunshine

Whatever you do, don't ...

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

What's the best way to ...

Travel from Manchester to Heathrow? You could fly, of course - British Airways has 11 flights a day. But to halve BA's lowest fare, to a more modest pounds 33, take the new, five-times-a-day Flightline bus, through National Express (0990 808080). Better still, Virgin Trains (0345 222333) has a pounds 17.50 fare to London Euston if you book before 2pm the day before; the Underground adds pounds 6.40 to the return fare.

Spend nine days with 200 writers? Attend the annual Ways With Words festival at Dartington Hall in south Devon, beginning on 11 July. On the first day alone, John Mortimer, Mary Wesley and the Ukrainian writer Vitali Vitaliev will be speaking. The festival is supported by the Independent on Sunday, whose literary editor, Jan Dalley, will be chairing many of the events. Friday, 18 July is supported by The Independent, whose literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, will be interviewing the Booker prizewinner Ben Okri. Enquiries and bookings to 01803 867311.

Travel anywhere in Europe for a month? If your vision of Europe is defined by 21 cities, the outermost of which are London, Madrid, Rome, Warsaw and Copenhagen, then a Eurolines bus pass could be the answer. Under-27s and over 60s pay pounds 159 during low season (until mid-June and from mid-September); other adults pay pounds 229, high season.

Trace the progress of the Civil War around Washington DC, or take a peaceful bike ride through the English Midlands? Read the travel pages of the Long Weekend, with The Independent next Saturday, 7 June.

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