Finding enlightenment in India is such a cliché that I was surprised my trip to Goa, India served a similar purpose, illuminating psychic baggage of long-ago travel myths.
My misconceptions about this Indian Ocean coastal resort arose from coming of age in the 1970s. Like thousands of others, I headed out with a copy of Tony and Maureen Wheelers’ “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” as soon as I could afford to. I knew one day I would get to Goa, a haven for hippies traveling the same world circuit I had. Or so I thought…
1. Hippies are still in Goa.
At the recent Goa Travel Mart, a panel discussed the future of tourism in my fantasy hippie destination – Goa — now caught in its past despite a changing world. Noted speakers raged about Goa’s mismanagement of waste, about corruption and price fixing, poor infrastructure, tourist safety, and ignorance of social media to communicate sustainable practices to the locals. Surely Tito’s Bar, Martin’s Corner and Bruno’s Guitar Class were considered positive economic engines founded by my generation of global roamers? Nope. Founded by the hippies’ entrepreneurial kids.
2. Goa is no longer a Backpacker’s Dream.
Goa is one of the few hippie havens that has remained a low budget, easy drugs, and thatched bungalow kind of place –- the appeal of cheap liquor is a newer phenomenon. It now attracts charters from the UK, Germany and Russia packed with young people out to steal a sun, sea and sand holiday. That’s not all bad. North Goa still boasts the Full Moon Party beaches at Baga and Calangute. Far to the south, Agonda and Palolem are where nextgen eco-aware backpackers find yoga and vegan menus.
3. Goa is not only for the Rich and Bollywood Famous.
It’s true that Taj, Hilton, Hyatt, Kempinski, Novotel and others have put their own gated five-stars on the site of some original hippie enclaves. The irony? In today’s state of Goa, room rates range from US$30 to US$750 per night — and both ends of the spectrum get high marks on TripAdvisor.
4. Goa is only for Free Love Singles.
Goa is no longer just for singles. In fact, it’s an incredibly popular Indian family vacation destination, primarily because the easy-going blend of Portuguese heritage (Goa remained a Portuguese colony until 1996), Christian ways (72% of the population is Catholic) and tolerance allows Indian men and women from all over the country to enjoy a beer, a breeze, and a fish curry at a waterfront beach shack; walk around in shorts; sip some Susa or Raya wine; and take in Christian religious sites that are unique in this predominantly Hindu country. And no one gives a hoot.
5. Goa has the World’s Most Beautiful Beach.
Goa has a beautiful, 92-kilometer-long white sand beach on the Arabian Sea featured in many Bollywood musicals. There are palm trees swaying, a swoonable sunset, and lifeguards watching over sometimes rough seas. However, this exotic beach also hosts annoying vendors and cows who doze or wander aimlessly, beach shacks where Western tourists can find incredibly cheap beer and loud, bad music; palm trees with “Don’t Urinate Here” signs written in English and Cyrillic; curry-in-a-hurry picnic trash and other waste. They’ve got to clean it up.
6. There’s nothing to do except Smoke Pot and Sunbathe.
Having spent several days touring the island while based in Goa’s liveliest city, Panjim, I found good restaurants, shops, ayurvedic massage clinics, and many attractions. The local spice plantations give guided tours and allow kids to ride an elephant; the private Big Foot Museum has a remarkable collection of Christian crosses and Hindu Ganesh figures. For less than $5, an air-conditioned taxi took us to Panjim Market to shop for kaju (cashews are the local crop), and have a samosa at Narendra, a favorite vegetarian restaurant.
7. Run away from American Chain Hotels.
I usually hate chain hotels. After seeing many other local Goa resorts, however, I was delighted with the Goa Marriott Resort & Spa in the capital of Panjim. For under US$200 per night I had Marriott business services, the full-amenity rooms I’d expect in a five-star hotel, breakfast, bottled water, and a fruit tray of the island’s delicious mini bananas restocked daily.
8. Business Hotels hate Kids.
Goa hotels like kids. The Goa Marriott has a spotless, well-equipped kids club that is supervised from 10am to 11pm daily, open to children ages 4 and up at no fee. There are daily arts and crafts activities around the beautiful pool, a playground with slides, and daily breakfast included at the indoor/outdoor Waterfront buffet restaurant overlooking the (non-swimmable) Mandovi River. Parents appreciate the 24-hour fitness room, discrete casino, and spa with ayurvedic massages and wellness treatments. Guests can take advantage of each day’s guided island tour (fee is only 300 INR or US$1.80 per person), to see all of Goa in a week.
9. Goa isn’t even The Real India.
I was assured by many that visiting Goa was not a “real” trip to India, but I beg to differ. Goa roads are narrow and slow with the color and aggravation of mopeds, tuk-tuks, spangled trucks delivering goods, drivers slowing to watch open-air Hindu ceremonies, pickups piled with fresh fish, the occasional crossing animal, and school buses delivering uniformed children. The few wandering hippies are as much India as the Taj Mahal.
10. All Travel Tales are true.
Travel tales may not be true, but memories never change. It certainly wasn’t the Goa I’d imagined, but I found a delightfully Indian-style family vacation destination. Just take a look.
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