Goa was part of the union territory of Goa, Daman and Diu until 1987, when it became the 25th State of the Indian union. Geographically divided into North and South, North Goa has Panaji – the small and charming State capital on the banks of the Mandovi river. The Portuguese heritage still survives in the oldest part of the town with narrow cobbled streets, Latin villas, overhanging balconies and white washed churches. The Church of Immaculate Conception is Panaji’s main place of worship for the Catholics.
Nine km off Panaji is Old Goa – the old hub of Portugal’s eastern empire. All that remains of this once magnificent city are half a dozen churches. The largest in India, the imposing Se Cathedral dedicated to St. Catherine, has 14 altars, an 80m long aisle and 5 bells including the Golden Bell, reputed to be one of the best in the world. The 16th century Basilica of Born Jesus with its richly gilded altars, is famous throughout the Catholic world; the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier are enshrined here in a silver casket.
Religion is deeply rooted in the psyche of the Goans and the entire State is dotted with churches, temples and mosques. These are not just places of worship but have a unique charm of their own – aesthetic architecture, idyllic locations and a tranquil ambience. The Reis Magos church, once the residence of all dignitaries in Goa, the beautiful Church of Mae de Deus at Saligao, the Shri Naguesh and Mahalaxmi temples at Bandode, Shri Mahalsa temple at Mardol, Shri Mahadev temple at Tambdi Suria, 5th century Brahma temple near Valpoi, the Jama Masjid at Sanguem and the Safa Masjid at Ponda are some of the more famous ones.
The thickly forested 240 sq km Bhagvan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary that lies along the eastern border of the State at Molem (60 km from Panaji), is a paradise for bird watchers. Further north, Bondia Forest, just 50 km from Panaji, is an ideal jungle resort and attracts people throughout the year. Dudhsagar Waterfalls, about an hour’s journey from Colem by train, is a feast for the eyes, with water plummeting hundreds of feet and forming one of the most spectacular phenomena in the region, particularly soon after the monsoons. Mayem Lake, a pretty picnic spot just 35 km from Panaji, and Kesarval Spring (22 km), whose waters are said to possess medicinal properties, are also pleasant getaways.
Southern Goa has a sprinkling of beaches like Colva, Benaulim and Bogmalo and some upmarket resorts. Its capital Margao is an important commercial centre. Inland, to the East, is Ponda Taluka, famous for its complex of Hindu temples. The 400 year old Shiva temple of Shri Manguesh and the Shantadurga temple are visited in large numbers.
Apart from its beaches, a variety of water sport activities provide much aquatic excitement in Goa. You can skim over the river Mandovi on hovercraft, or take a slower river cruise on the Santa Monica luxury yacht that includes a cultural programme of Goan folk songs and dances. You can choose a cruise to suit your schedule – an hour-long cruise at sunset (6 pm) or sundown (7.15 pm); two-hour island pleasure cruise; the 5-hour pleasure cruise starting at ten in the morning along the course of the Mandovi and Zuari rivers, or, if you are lucky to be there, the enchanting Full-moon cruise! Pedal boating and aqua bikes bring crowds of youngsters to Dona Paula jetty (near Panaji), Ourem Creek at Patto, Panaji and to the Mayem Lake. And frequent wind surfing regattas draw world class surfers to test the waves.
Day-long conducted tours of North and South Goa by luxury coach are arranged by the Goa Tourism Development Corporation that also runs special tours to Dudhsagar Waterfalls and the Bondia Wild life sanctuary.