THE TAXI driver tilted back in his seat: 'Whatever it's like,' he begged, 'tell everybody that it's not up to much.' This Kenyan-born British citizen, who had not yet set foot in the land of his ancestors but had high hopes, was keen for me to enjoy Goa - but not to spread the word. 'It will get ruined,' he explained, as he took me to Gatwick on the first stage of a two-week package holiday in the former Portuguese colony that is the smallest of India's 25 states.

When the first direct charter flight from Europe landed at Dabolim airport in northern Goa, the disembarking passengers were pelted with rotten vegetables. Their assailants were less concerned with harm to a tropical paradise than with damage to their small businesses. Organised trips heralded the arrival of big business and the edging out of the Goan entrepreneur, who had forged a beneficial coexistence with the hippies, drop-outs, eccentrics and ravers who had, since the Sixties, chosen Goa as the next best thing to heaven on earth.

The stewardess of our Thomson charter warned us on touchdown: 'As this is the first Britannia flight into Goa, we're not sure what the reaction will be when we open the doors.' But she needn't have worried. This package to India was given the warmest of welcomes.

Thomson's arrival in Goa is a coup for the Indian tourist office. Last year around 125,000 tourists visited the region, a substantial increase on recent years, and it is pushing for many more, particularly of the package variety. So the tourist office was doing its bit to ensure that we felt welcome. A smiling woman presented each disembarking passenger with a rose (already sadly wilting in the morning sun), labelled 'Best wishes from the Government of India Tourist Office'; curious civilians and servicemen - Dabolim doubles as an Indian naval base - massed to watch our exit; and a shambolic but enthusiastic brass band greeted our first bemused steps out of the airport.

I had been full of trepidation about this trip. Would there be karaoke in Ye Olde Taj Mahal pub? Would our tour representative be ever on hand to warn us against drinking the water? Would we be marooned in a whitewashed enclave, protected from the less pleasant side of a developing nation? Old India hands had warned me that Goa was unlike any other part of this enormous country, and I already knew that the subcontinent's fabulous temples are few and far between in Goa, thanks to more than four centuries of Catholic Portuguese rule. Was this going to be just a rather exotic beach holiday?

My fears were largely unfounded. Goa remains unspoilt and tourist developments tend to be low-level and discreet. There are no purely Western restaurants - though those worried about local delicacies such as stuffed pomfret fish, vegetarian curries, the Goan sweet bebinca and the potent liquor, palm or cashew fenni, need never wander from the bland offerings of hotel restaurants - and we were never asked to get 'ready, steady, Goa]' We were more likely to be stopped by honeymooners from Bombay wanting to take pictures of us (all youngish Westerners tend to be mistaken for Goan hippies).

Wherever you stay you are, essentially, in the heart of Goan village life. Accommodation ranges from guest houses to village-style complexes, and up to the five-star deluxe Fort Aguada beach resort, part of the Taj hotel group. None of it assaults the eye, although it tends to be concentrated by the best beaches: Calangute and Baga in the north, and Colva and Benaulim in the south. The infrastructure, however, can barely cope with the present tourist influx - the water table is said to be worryingly low and the over-stretched electricity grid frequently fails. The furious rate of building leads one to wonder what the region will be like in a few years' time.

Goa is a lush and beautiful feast. The interior is a medley of luxuriantly wooded hills and brilliant green flatlands irrigated by a network of broad rivers, streams, canals and freshwater lakes. In the coastal areas, fields sown with rice, cashews and groundnuts or groves of palm and mango - as well as banyan trees with outlandish aerial roots - lead down to beaches and the rolling Arabian Sea.

The roads are rough, red earth over which pigs and oxen wander freely, unperturbed by maniacal bus drivers, auto-rickshaws and whole families on scooters. Homes built from the ubiquitous red earth and covered with palm fronds often have small shrines outside.

Even on the beach the subcontinent is always close at hand, with constant cries of 'Give me rupee', 'Like lungi, like bag, like scarf, like massage?' and shrieks of 'Fruu-it' from women and children who descend on Goa from all parts of India. Fishing nets spread across the beach provide pickings for crows and pigs.

Goa's Portuguese heritage is evident. Old Goa, until 1843 the colonial capital, is an abandoned city of baroque splendour. There are said to be more churches in its square kilometre than in the whole of Rome. They include the huge Se Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus with its richly gilded interior and tomb containing the remains of St Francis Xavier. Five miles away, Panaji, on the Mandovi river, is where the Portuguese rulers moved in 1843. The city became the state capital when they finally departed in 1961; here, old red-roofed houses with balconies and the occasional Portuguese sign are reminders of the past.

The Portuguese also bequeathed numerous forts, now ruined. The 18th-century fort at Chapora has marvellous views of the river delta, the ocean and the distant Western Ghats.

The Wednesday flea market held among the palms behind Anjuna beach is evidence of more recent Western influence. Traders from Kashmir, Rajasthan, Gujarat and as far afield as Tibet come to Anjuna to sell jewellery, clothing, bedspreads, spices and knick-knacks to travellers. There are snake charmers, ear cleaners and tea brewers. But the strangest sight is of the unreconstructed hippies who, once they found Goa, never left. At Anjuna they make a living selling beads, biscuits and clothing as their blond, tanned children run free. In season, beach parties mark the end of market day. For a less touristy but equally rumbustious event, there is the Friday market at the centre of Mapusa.

Goa's natural beauty is visible on the trip by train to Dudhsagar, where 1,800ft falls plunge over several cascades into the Candlepar, an arm of the Mandovi. A dip in one of its clear pools is a refreshing cooler, enlivened by the avaricious monkeys that join in.

No wonder hippies and Goans have reservations about outsiders. If I lived in Goa, I would want to keep it to myself too.-


GETTING THERE: The 'season' in Goa is from the beginning of October to the end of April. Independent travellers can obtain Trailfinders (071-938 3366) flights for pounds 477 return to Goa via Bombay from London/ Manchester/Birmingham or Glasgow (price up to 30 Nov). Air India (071-491 7979) has flights for pounds 760 return to Bombay and around pounds 62 Bombay-Goa-Bombay.

PACKAGE TOURS: Thomson (021-632 6282) does two-week package tours, including bed and breakfast, direct, but only from Gatwick, at prices from pounds 469 in November. Inspirations East (0753 830883) has two- week packages, including bed and breakfast, from pounds 434 from Gatwick and pounds 449 from Manchester (possible reductions in November). Add-on tours are also available.

FURTHER INFORMATION: A visa is required. Immunisation is not compulsory but the tourist office suggests anti-malaria tablets, typhoid and cholera injections: no certificates are needed. Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 1PB (071-437 3677), provides lists of hotels and guest houses for independent travellers.

(Photograph omitted)