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Eyes blurry, I got off at the Madgaon railway station in Goa at 7 a.m. after a long train ride. The streets radiating from the station were quiet and clean, unlike the train I had just disembarked. Overnight, I had been transported to another world.
Many visitors come to India expecting an otherworldly sensory overload — and the Asian nation of more than 1 billion delivers with its pulsing megalopolises full of vibrant colors, pungent spices, cacophonic traffic and hypnotic Bollywood rhythms.
Goa, a diminutive former Portuguese outpost, stands out as an extraordinary place within this vast country. For one, India’s smallest state boasts balmy shores lined with swaying coconut trees, soft white sand and colorful shacks. Coastal breezes tickle the hidden coves and cliffs. No wonder it attracts some 2 million tourists each year — from what I’d heard from European friends, Goa was a lot like Ibiza: sunny, sandy and full of sunburned hedonists of all stripes dancing to the beat of electronic music.
But after a whirlwind journey, I had come in search of a respite and to explore Goa’s famed heritage. A Portuguese territory for nearly five centuries until 1961, Goa has retained much of its European traditions. The sheer idea of a Latin enclave in South Asia fascinated me.
Take, for instance, Old Goa, which lies about an hour away from the railway hub of Madgaon. Once a colonial capital, this canopy of Renaissance towers and Baroque domes lies abandoned amid tropical greenery. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, the area is like a time capsule preserving Goa’s golden epoch of the 16th century, when the town surpassed Lisbon in population.
Before buses of domestic Christian pilgrims and foreign tourists arrived, I wandered about the wide, immaculate streets between the whitewashed facades, trying to imagine how this city used to boast more than 300,000 inhabitants. Though its remains are easily navigable on foot, Goa’s Catholic edifices testify to how prosperous and significant Old Goa must have been.
The 1619-built Se Cathedral, for instance, showcases Portugal’s might at the time and, though only one of the twin towers remains, it’s easy to be wowed by the soaring barrel vaults and richly gilded interior. As I stood in front of the elaborate altarpiece depicting the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, I forgot for a moment that I was not in Brazil or Portugal but in India.
The town is sprinkled with luminous gems such as the Jesuit seminary of the Professed House, whose tranquil courtyard and colonnades gave me a break from the sun, and the rust-colored Basilica of Bom Jesus that harbors the elaborately carved tomb of St. Francis Xavier. The collapsed convent of St. Augustine, reduced to mere heaps of bricks on a gecko-strewn field, reminded me how nature could claim even the sturdiest of human creations.
Goa is much more than just the sum of its colonial vestiges and well-manicured lawns, of course. Palolem’s popular beaches bring Indian and foreign visitors together under swaying palms, and old-time hippies wash up at Arambol Beach for its laid-back vibe. Anjuna down the coast is another backpacker paradise, with a famous flea market and moonlight trance parties. Further inland, spice gardens near Ponda lure gastro-tourists with scents of cardamom and pepper, while Dudhsagar Falls, touted to be India’s second-highest, brings visitors out to the Western Ghats. And the Usgalimal Petroglyphs in South Goa, dating back around 20,000 to 30,000 years, depict labyrinths and human figures, giving insight into the prehistoric civilization that once inhabited the region.
The state capital of Panjim, or Panaji, is a small town full of life — and to prove its Portuguese pedigree, it even hosts a traditional Carnival every year. This pulsing city is where visitors will see the long-standing mix of Portuguese and Indian traditions, such as the breakfast ritual of the ubiquitous pao, or bread roll. Goa is also where the popular dish of vindaloo or vin d’alho was created, using vin, or wine, and alho, which means garlic in Portuguese.
Fontainhas, 19th-century lanes in eastern Panjim, is perhaps the best example of modern-day Goa. I ambled about the streets with Portuguese names, lined with brilliantly painted palacios and terraced homes. This felt nothing like a tourist trap — far from it. Though its culture may be rooted in its past, the atmospheric quarter is changing with influxes of new people.
I ducked into a tiny barbershop with a sign that read “Barbearia Republica.” The trim owner didn’t speak a lick of Portuguese, but we communicated what I wanted (a haircut), how many children he had and, of course, the weather, in English and with gestures. It turned out he was from Hyderabad, not Goa, but he assured me he wasn’t about to change the name of the shop.
Chandni ChowkBuilt by Shah Jahan (the Muslim Emperor that erected the Taj Mahal), Chandni Chowk has been one of India’s largest and oldest bazaars for more than 300 years. The market runs through the middle of the walled capital city, Delhi. Inside, visitors can find a microcosm of Indian cultures, as religious shrines, sari shops and chai vendors coexist harmoniously along the busy street. There are more than 1,000 types of traditional foods offered in the bazaar, but a visit to the century-old sweet shop, Jalebiwala, is a favorite for its fried and syrupy local delicacies known as jalebis.
Living Root BridgesHolding the world record for more than 75 feet of annual rainfall, the town of Cherrapunji is credited as the wettest place in the world. This climate is ideal for the rampant growth of the Ficus elastica — a species of Indian rubber fig trees with an extraordinarily strong root system. A Meghalaya tribe known as the War-Khasis has learned how to create naturally-grown bridges by manipulating the roots of these rubber trees. The living root bridges take about 10 to 15 years to form, can be more than 100 feet long and support more than 50 people at a time.
The Shanti StupaBuilt in 1991, the Shanti Stupa is one of 80 Peace Pagodas built around the world to unite people and inspire peace. The Shanti Stupa also celebrates 2,500 years of Buddhism and is believed to hold relics of Buddha, enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama. Located three miles from the city of Leh at a height of 13,999 feet, the site provides panoramic views of the surrounding Ladakh landscape. The Shanti Stupa is open to visitors from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and can be reached by car or on foot — for those who can handle a 500-stair hike.
Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger ReserveWith a total area of 1,378 square miles, the Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve is the largest of its kind in India. Since 1983, it has been a part of the Project Tiger program aimed at protecting the Bengal tiger species from extinction. In fact, the reserve is so sheltered that visitors must get permission from the site’s field director before entering. Tourists can find lodging near the multipurpose temples of Srisailam, which also function as massive reservoirs. Leopards, sloths, crocodiles, pythons and the famous king cobra are among other wildlife found at the reserve.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY:
Dancing Through IndiaBestway Tours & Safaris has announced the addition of a new 20-day tour focused on the musical and cultural heritage of South India. The exclusive tour, scheduled for Dec. 28, will explore the art scenes of Chennai, Pondicherry and Kerala, and will be led by award-winning dancer Lata Pada. The journey features deluxe hotel accommodations, a night on a luxury houseboat, guided tours, air conditioned transportation, meals and entrance fees to various natural sites and dance shows. The tour is priced at $5,995 per person, based on double occupancy
Pacific Delight Tours Expands to India and NepalPacific Delight Tours is expanding its portfolio with the new air-inclusive Dreams of India & Nepal 11-day program. The tour begins in the capital city of Delhi and continues through Jaipur, Agra and Kathmandu, with visits to top attractions such as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the memorial site of Mahatma Gandhi. Travelers are provided with first-class accommodations, transpacific and intra-Asia flights via Air India, land transportation, English-speaking guides and meals. The program starts at $3,499 per person, based on double occupancy.
Experiential TravelCruising through the enchanting backwaters of Kerala, The Oberoi Motor Vessel Vrinda is the perfect way to discover South India’s rich heritage and natural beauty. From Oct. 1, 2014, to April 30, 2015, a reservation on the Motor Vessel Vrinda cruiser includes accommodation in a Deluxe Cabin, all meals on board, a sightseeing excursion with a guide, evening entertainment and transfers to and from Cochin airport to Vembanad Lake jetty. Guests can pick and choose from events included in the cruise’s two- or three-day itineraries, including traditional “Kathakali” dance performances and a visit to the half-statue of Lord Buddha at Karumandi. This unique getaway is priced per cabin at about $1,600 for two nights and $2,200 for three nights.
Stay Just a Little LongerWith the opening of Hilton Jaipur in May 2014, Hilton Worldwide is offering special rates for clients staying at least four nights. The Extended Stay offer includes daily breakfasts, free Wi-Fi access, a 25 percent discount on food and laundry and accommodations in the same room for up to two kids (12 years and under). The hotel is located minutes from local attractions, such as the City Palace and Bapu Bazaar. The package is good through May 30, 2015.
New Star RisingAfter only 15 months of operation, the Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg has been honored with two outstanding travel honors, including Outlook Traveler’s Special Jury Award for Indian Hotel Debut of the year and Travel + Leisure India and South Asia’s Best Boutique Hotel India Award. The resort unveiled its world-class spa, gym and indoor pool as part of The Khyber Wellness Block in 2014. Spread over seven acres in pine-rich valleys of Kashmir, The Khyber Himalayan is a short walk from the highest ski lift in the world, the Gulmarg Gondola, and offers guests an elite skiing experience.
Sunburn FestivalThe Sunburn Festival is Asia’s largest three-day electronic music festival. Now in its sixth year, the globally-renowned event takes place at Candolim Beach in Goa each year, where people from all over the world convene to experience a vibrant blend of music, entertainment, food and shopping. With last year’s lineup including artists such as Afrojack, Swedish House Mafia, Tiesto and Avicii, the 2014 festival is sure to offer a world-class lineup. (Dec. 27-29)
Makar SankrantiAlso known as the Kite Festival, Makar Sankranti takes place throughout India during the winter solstice when people of all ages crowd the streets and rooftops to show off their kite-flying skills from sunrise to sunset. Friendly rivalries are common, and many participants tie glass to their kite tails to cut down the kites of their opponents. The festival is most renowned in the city of Ahmedabad, where the Patang Bazaar, or kite market, is open night and day in the heart of the city during the entire week. (Jan. 14, 2015)
Taj MahotsavCelebrated in Agra at the eastern gate of the Taj Mahal, Mahotsav is a cultural festival that hosts nearly 400 legendary artisans from around India in a stunning display of regional art, cuisine and folk dance. Since 1992, the celebration has drawn specialties such as stone carvings from Tamil Nadu, brass wares from South India, silk from Banaras and carpets from Kashmir. The best part: It’s free for foreign tourists. (Feb. 18-27, 2015)
International Yoga FestivalOrganized by the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, the week-long International Yoga Festival takes place in Rishikesh, also known as the birthplace of Yoga. The Himalayan town’s popularity increased significantly in 1968 when The Beatles stayed at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram, composing nearly 48 songs during their visit. During the International Yoga Festival, distinguished yogis conduct more than 70 hours of lessons for followers along the banks of the Ganges River. The festival has been hosted by the Hotel Ganga Kinare nine times since the event’s inception in 1999. (March 1-7, 2015)