Goa. Since Afonso Albuquerque established the first Portuguese toehold on Goa, the lush coastal region of India has captured the western imagination. Yet while many today think of Goa almost as an extension of a Mediterranean culture grafted onto Indian stock, the image is misleading.
Certainly Goa has an often magical coastline, for three quarters of the year bathed in sunshine yet never suffering the gruelling heat of the Indian interior. From the sandy coves and estuaries of the north to the long palm fringed beaches of the south, sand and the warm waters of the Arabian Sea have been Goa's main attraction for foreign travellers ever since the 1960s.
But it isn't just the beaches that make Goa unique. The State has a relaxed and easy going feel, where the decaying buildings not of the British Raj but of the Portuguese have created a wholly distinctive atmosphere. It is still easy to get the impression that Goa is largely Christian. The coastal villages all have their beautifully white painted churches and piazza and wayside crosses, often creating a startling impression against the clear blue sky.
Yet inland Goa remains predominantly Hindu, and its position right on the border between north and south Indian influences has made its own mark on Goa's identity. Within the tiny state, barely 100 km from north to south and 60 from west to east, it is possible to see in microcosm something of the astonishing diversity of India beyond. Indeed, within two or three days you can easily visit the neighbouring Indian states, tracking back into some of India's great empires and kingdoms.
Goa is much more than just a place for a great beach holiday. It offers a wonderful chance to begin to sample something of India itself, of which today it is an integral if still highly distinctive part. And that indeed is part of its welcoming charm.