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India: Goa: Goa
Goa, India: The great divide
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Contrary to popular belief, Goa is not a city. It's a State - amongst the smallest in India. This beautiful Coastline State dotted with swaying palms can be divided in three tourist segments. North, South & Old Goa. Within each you could make sub divisions… beaches, forts, churches, temples, bazaars, bars, food shacks… makes sense to visit each one of them.
I added a day along with New Year's long weekend which gave me 4 days to explore Goa. Unfortunately, thousands & thousands of others made the same plans. When I was there, Goa had palm trees, plenty of beaches and more than plenty of tourists. Popular beaches like Calangute and Baga had more people than sand. It's a good idea to avoid Goa on such occasions unless of course you put up in secluded resorts.
I was hosted at Mahindra Club's resort at Varca, South Goa. A great property with a beach to itself. Well, no beaches in India are really private, but since these locations are still not very popular with tourists, one can get the feel of being almost alone on the soft white sands. I was quite impressed with the rooms, facilities and the hospitality offered by Club Mahindra. However, the shower areas in the bathrooms need some mending. Despite the shower curtains, the entire bathroom gets wet. First one to go in stands to gain! The property has my recommendation nonetheless.
Goa is easily accessible by road, train and air from the entire country. The airport is home to some international scheduled and charter flights. Sun, surf, sand and beer attract tourists, especially from Europe, in droves. Since my wife Vrunda and younger son Anuj were to accompany me, I decided to drive down to Goa from Pune - a distance of 500 kms. Anuj is a good driver so it was his problem to deal with the traffic. There are a few options to hit Goa by road. If you refer to my Harihareshwar trip, you will get one idea. The other is to take NH 4 all the way up to Sankeshwar and take a right turn, go down Amboli ghat, to meet with Sawantwadi. A left on NH 17 takes you all the way to Mapusa, Panjim and Margao. Here are 2 tips if you plan to take the road. First, avoid going to Goa via Belgaum. The mining activities invite lot of trucks. It will take you ages to reach your destination. Second, avoid the right turn from Nipani. Sankeshwar is just 20 kms further down. The road is excellent all the way (save for a few bad patches) and the view whilst crossing Amboli ghat is amazing. In fact, Amboli is a popular weekend hill destination in itself.
We left Pune at 6:30 AM. With a brief breakfast stop at Karad, we reached the resort in Varca at 2 PM. For your academic interest, we got an average speed of just 45 kms per hour. That's because the time it takes once you touch Mapusa on the northern tip of Goa to Varca on the southern side. Between the two Goan towns, you would cross Panjim, the State's Capital city and Margao the State's commercial capital. You would also cross over two majestic rivers - Mandovi and Zuari - around which Goa throbs. After a late lunch (or an early dinner, if I may) we decided to just laze around. Rest was much in demand.
To do Goa, a vehicle is a must. Depending on the public transport would be chasing your luck. Kadamba, Goa's State Transport, offer services all around. But every time I looked at one of their buses, they were full to the brim. I think they are best avoided. Cars, Jeeps and motorcycles can be hired from all around Goa. You would just need a valid driving license. Rates are negotiable on a per day basis. Taxis are also available. There's no such thing as a metered taxi. It's definitely a wise idea to negotiate the fare beforehand. If you leave it for later, the taxi driver would win the argument. In the 3 days that we were there, we travelled 480 kms. Crisscrossing between North, South & Old Goa.
The next morning we walked the Varca beach and opted for a Dolphin sighting cruise. The 20 minute ride costs Rs 350 per head. Add another Rs 850 to include a ride on the jet scooter and 10 minutes of para sailing. At the time of writing USD 1 fetched about INR 47. These kinds of packages are available on almost all beaches. Of course, there won't be any rate card. Negotiate. We did see quite a few Dolphins. I was lucky to get one on the camera.
Post lunch we headed towards Old Goa. While you have the option of taking the main road (NH 17), we decided to use the internal roads. Driving through shady trees, along paddy fields & overlooking the country homes is really refreshing. Sign posts are along. At times, you definitely would need to stop and ask the locals for directions. They will gladly help. It's a good idea to buy a pocket road map too. From our resort in Varca our first stop was Loutolim via Margao, Fatorda, Raia & Camurlim. In an hour we were at the gates of Ancestral Goa - a village created to take you through Goa that was during the Portuguese days. Entry ticket is Rs 50 per head. Camera fee is Rs 20. Guides will walk you through various exhibits consisting of period homes & lifestyles of people from various walks of life. Quite interesting. Within the campus is the shrine of the Big Foot. Visitors can place their right palm on the footprint and make a wish. I made one. And that's not to be revealed. Also in the campus is a huge Mirabai's (Indian saint) laterite sculpture (largest of its kind in India) sculpted by a local artist in just 30 days using the tools of the bygone era.
From Loutolim we headed to Old Goa. We parked our car on one of the roads near the Gandhi circle. It was on foot thereafter… visiting various world heritage monuments. Don't forget to carry your hat, sunglasses and water bottle. Goa weather will dehydrate you very quickly.
Our first visit was to Basilica of Bom Jesus. Construction of this massive structure was commenced in 1594 and was completed in 1605. In there are the relics of the body of St Francis Xavier. The interior of the Basilica are made from laterite and wood with intricate carvings. Just across the road are St Catherine's Chapel (largest in Asia), Archeological Museum and St Francis of Assissi Church.
Next, we took our car and drove towards St Cajetan Church. We parked our car in the church premises. This 17th century church is modeled on the lines of St Peter's Church of Rome. Exquisite interiors, wooden pulpits, Corinthian pillars and the dome were indeed awesome. A short walk from St Cajetan Church takes you to the ferry on the banks of River Mandovi. On this little road is the Viceroy's Gate. The archway marks the Portuguese conquest of the City. Earlier restoration of the archway was done in 1597 under the guidance of the Governor Fransisco Da Gama, the great grandson of Vasco Da Gama. Passengers and their vehicles can use the ferry to cross the River Mandovi thus avoiding a few kms of road.
We then drove back towards Gandhi circle and turned left to reach Our Lady of Mount Chapel. Situated on a hill, the location gives a spectacular view of Old Goa. From there we headed to St Augustine Tower. Built in 1602, the church has ruins of a 46 meter high tower, 8 chapels, 4 altars and a convent with numerous cells. I was amazed to see the massive ruins. It's indeed surprising that these two sites are still not very popular with the tourists. Most of them just turn back after visiting Basilica of Bom Jesus.
We headed back to the hotel, this time using the main road. I later realized that had I driven a few more kms on the NH 4A from Old Goa towards Ponda, I would have been at the famous Mangueshi temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Well, that was not to be. That evening the resort had organized a gala dinner - Goan cuisine, music, acrobatic shows and fireworks by the beach ushered us in the New Year.
Next morning we planned to do the South tip. We took the NH 17 and reached Palolem beach via Canacona. Beaches on the southern side of Goa are relatively quieter. From Palolem we drove a few kms further South to touch Patnem beach. It was a nice clean beach with a little hill making up for an island. We had brunch at one of the sea side shacks. Generally speaking, these kinds of shacks offer wholesome food & drinks and are not expensive as compared to restaurants within hotels & resorts. They are a must try.
We turned back and drove all the way up North. A left turn from Mapusa took us towards Vagator beach. Just before the beach we took a right turn, up the hill towards Chapora Fort. Vehicles need to be parked at the base. A short but steep climb takes you up the fort. From the fort rampart, one gets excellent view of the Vagator beach beneath as also the mouth of the River Chapora. Not to forget the setting sun. For the Bollywood buffs, the Chapora fort was the location for the shoot of the Hindi film Dil Chahata Hai.
For our return journey, we took an internal road, running parallel to the sea. Our next destination was the famous Calangute beach, with a stopover at Baga beach. The traffic on this narrow road tried our patience. The stretch between Baga and Calangute was at a snail's speed. Both sides of the road were restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Tourists, from all over the world, were just pouring in and out. This was certainly the most happening stretch of street of Goa. Around here are the famous flea and night markets. Dinner that evening was at Bistro, a sea side shack on the Baga beach. By the time we reached our hotel it was past midnight.
We lazed around the next morning. Post lunch, we drove North and headed for the Aguada Fort. You would turn left on an internal road soon after crossing the bridge over River Mandovi. The Aguada Fort is about 9 kms from the turn. The fort premise has a light house and the rampart offers excellent view of the Aguada Bay, mouth of River Mandovi, Dona Paula and the Raj Bhavan (Governor's home). Make sure to enter the fort before 5:30 PM. They lock it up thereafter. Next stop was the Taj Village set on the Aguada beach. Acres and acres of sprawling lawns and gardens dotted with villas. We had our evening tea on the deck and witnessed the setting sun. What put me off, however, was the bad shape of the beach. It was dirty and was smelling of gasoline - thanks to the scores of motor boats hawking water sports. I think the beaches on the Northern side of Goa have had their good days.
Before heading back to the hotel, we drove on the stretch from Aguada to Calangute. Both sides of this stretch had boutique stores and of course bars and restaurants. One difference between the stretch from Baga to Calangute and Calangute to Aguada was obvious; the latter offered originals and the former their fakes. Dinner that night was on a shack on the Varca beach. It was just our candle lit table. For company we had a star-studded night.
We checked out early the next morning and left for Dona Paula. A left turn from NH 17 via Goa University. It's a beautiful road that cuts across the university campus. Dona Paula is on the mouth of River Zuari. So large, that one can easily mistake it for a sea! On the other side is Mormugoa harbor. On the edge is a cliff and it is said that Dona Paula, the Viceroy's daughter, committed suicide by jumping off the cliff after being refused the permission to marry a local fisherman. A viewing point on the cliff offers excellent view of the Miramar beach.
From Dona Paula we headed towards Panjim using the D B Road running parallel to River Mandovi. Enroute we crossed the Miramar neighbourhood. Large mansions, upscale condominiums well maintained period homes were all testimonies of affluence. River Mandovi is home to floating casinos and its jetty to ferries. We just drove on some streets and lanes in Panjim soaking in the spirit of Goa. After a brief stop at the Panjim church we commenced our journey back home that was 500 kms away.
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