An October 2005 trip
to Goa by michaelhudson
Quote: Anjuna, Candolim, and Palolem, and a few stops in between.
Beaches, beaches, and more beaches. Of the ones I visited, Palolem was, by some distance, the most beautiful, though nearby Patnem is a better choice if you prefer some peace and quiet. I didn't like Calangute at all, but I suppose it's nice enough if you need to have culinary familiarity, crowds, and nightlife. Stay in Baga instead, which has a much nicer atmosphere, a better stretch of sand, and fewer restaurants serving steak and chips, and it is only a 10-minute walk away. Candolim and Sinquerim continue the unbroken line of beaches down towards Panjim, but both are overdeveloped and aimed at package tourists, with average swimming and expensive prices. Guesthouses are cheaper and average visitor ages lower in Anjuna and Vagator, but most people come here for the parties--much more subdued nowadays--rather than the beaches. Between the end of the monsoon and the start of the season in November, Anjuna and Vagator are very quiet. If you want a bit more life, head to Arambol, Calangute, or Palolem, where the crowds start coming from the middle of October.
Old Goa and Panjim both deserve a day's exploration. Walk through the Fontainhas district of the capital before eating at Viva Panjim, the best retaurant in town. The spice farms and Hindu temples at Ponda also make a great day trip if you want to see what Goa would have looked like if the Portuguese hadn't hollowed it out.
There's less to see south of Margao. The old Portuguese mansions in Chandor are the only things to go out of your way for. Cotiago Wildlife Sanctuary is a nice change from lying on Palolem Beach, but you won't see any wildlife there.
Spice Jet, Go Air and Air Deccan now fly to Dabolim Airport, sometimes offering cheaper fares than the railways.
Paolo Travels have the best overnight bus services to Mumbai and Hampi, but you'll be much more comfortable on the train.
You can buy sun cream in Goa but it's expensive. Bring lots of factor 30 with you. Water is in short supply everywhere; if you don't want to add to the plastic mountains, bring purification tablets or a filter with you. Some restaurants, such as Blue Planet in Palolem, refill bottles with filtered water for around 5 rupees a litre.
With the temporary closure of Ingoe's Night Bazaar in Arpora, the two best markets are in Anjuna (Wednesdays) and Mapusa (Fridays). There are also daily markets in Panjim and Margao.
Heading inland, you'll need your own transport to see Goa properly. Scooters can be hired from around 100 rupees a day out of season. Taxi and auto rickshaw drivers offer tours to all the major sights but are much more expensive.
Panjim and Old Goa are best seen on foot. It's also possible to walk between some of the beaches, Arambol and Querim and Anjuna and Vagator for example.
There are two train lines in Goa, the Konkan Railway between Mumbai and Mangalore and the South Central Railway from Vasco east towards Hospet and Hyderabad. It's easier to take buses than trains if you're travelling inside Goa, as the stations are mostly inconveniently located inland from the towns.
River Valley is at the northern end of Palolem, 50m back from the beach under a circle of coconut palms. There are 10 plywood-and-blue tarpaulin huts, each raised a metre above the sand on stilts and arranged in an L shape around a central open space looking out on forested hills and a lagoon. In front of the huts four hammocks are slung between the trees, and in the far corner there’s a common covered seating area with small collection of books and games: chess, backgammon, a volleyball, playing cards, Frisbees, and a carrom board. Opposite, by the gated entrance, is a shared shower block consisting of three cold showers and sit-down toilets in a cold stone building with tiled floors and a corrugated metal roof. Each hut has a porch, table, and chairs outside and a plain interior of two single beds wedged together under a mosquito net, reed mats, a bin, a dim 40-watt light bulb, and a rough coffee table. The four larger, more expensive huts have an extra window, wooden benches instead of plastic chairs, a dining table on the porch, and about a third more floor space, though you hardly feel the benefit as nobody spends much time inside.
River Valley’s small size is its biggest selling point. There’s a real community feeling here with the limited number of huts and the open space in the centre. The staff is helpful and there are lots of nice touches, like a morning newspaper, night security guard, free locks and lockers, and on-site yoga classes twice a day (100 rupees for an hour and a half). Another big plus is the cleanliness: the sheets and mattress were spotless, and the toilets and the area around the huts are cleaned each morning. There’s a small snack menu of toast, omelettes, and drinks, and the prices, though not the cheapest on the beach, are very competitive given the facilities and build of the huts. The only real drawbacks are the music from the Dreamcatcher huts next door, which is both loud and annoying, and the mosquito invasion every sunset.
Rates are 400 rupees for the larger huts and 250 for smaller ones (double occupancy), rising 50 rupees in mid-November and again in mid-December. Singles are 50 rupees less and reductions can sometimes be negotiated on the bigger huts. Checkout is 12pm.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 13, 2005
River Valley Huts
At 300 rupees for a double with cold shower (hot water, 50 rupees extra), the Moonlight Bar and Restaurant is about as cheap as Candolim gets. The four rooms are located on the first floor of the owner’s large family home and are all small but immaculately clean, with curtained windows, whitewashed walls, a powerful ceiling fan, plastic chairs on a triangular balcony overlooking a courtyard of palm trees, tiled floors, and simple bathrooms with a shower, Western toilet, and sink.
There’s very little to complain about given the price, though the lack of mosquito nets on the windows was a problem in the evenings, and the bed, while fine width-wise, was small and rickety. There was also quite a lot of noise in the evenings from the surrounding homes, which drowned out the sound of the sea, only 400m away at the end of Beach Road. More positively, the room had a secure lock; there were towels, a good-sized wardrobe, and a bin; and the room was thoroughly cleaned after 3 days, the sheets and towels all replaced and the floor swept clean. I particularly liked the small touches - the mat on the step up to the bathroom, the ashtray on the balcony, pictures in the entrance corridor, coat hangers in the wardrobe, and plastic flowers on the corner dressing table - which showed that a little bit of thought had gone into the preparation of the room.
The friendly owner also has more expensive rooms at Antonio’s Guest House, located between the restaurant and his home, which are usually filled with package tourists. The restaurant itself is reasonably priced, with Goan and Indian food (from 50 rupees), plus a few pasta dishes, Wednesday night barbecues, and Sunday roast dinners (205 rupees), and you can have the meals added to your final bill.
You can book by email at email@example.com. If the rooms aren't full or you're staying for more than a few nights, you may be able to negotiate a discount.
Restaurant | "Avalon Sunset"
The service was a mixed bag on the three occasions I ate at Avalon Sunset. The waiters are very helpful and always smiling, but the time between placing and receiving an order is typically slow at around half an hour, and the lack of toilet facilities added to the ever changing availability of items on the menu can get irritating. One thing I liked was that the staff were in no hurry to move people on after they’d finished their meals, unlike other restaurants where the bill appears almost before you’ve finished the last spoon full of rice. The kitchen is outside at the bottom end of the restaurant and seemed clean enough. The cutlery and glasses were unstained and the tablecloths had at least been washed.
While the restaurant is a decent choice for breakfast or lunch, the fact that it’s not on the beach itself means it’s never very busy until the evenings, when the dim lighting and open sides provide a wonderful view of the sun setting over the waves, the sky gradually darkening until only the stars and the slowly moving lights from the traffic jam of boats heading down the coast to Panjim can be seen. You won’t find a more romantic spot in the whole of Anjuna.
Avalon Sunset Restaurant
Far away from the beaches on the outskirts of Ponda, a visit to Sahakari Spice Farm is one of Goa’s most memorable and informative day trips.
As we entered the grounds, we were greeted with a traditional dance, a garland of flowers, and a short presentation on the history of the plantation, accompanied by drinks of coconut milk; hot lemon grass, ginger, and cardamom tea; and handfuls of cashew nuts from a coconut bowl. The 40-minute guided tour that follows takes in only a small fraction of the estate’s 130 acres but is extremely interesting, with explanations of fenni (the local firewater) distillation, the extraction of cinnamon from tree bark and energy from cow dung, plus the financial and medicinal values of spices such as vanilla, coffee, coriander, black pepper, and turmeric. The commentary is a little earnest but thankfully more anecdotal than scientific, and the pace of the tour is very easy, with lots of stops to view the spices close up and pose for photos. The route is also impressively scenic, winding along the river bank, across wooden bridges, and past drying spices and even a pair of elephants, which you can ride or bathe for an extra fee if you wish.
Back at the beginning, it’s time for the buffet lunch, consumed out of coconut shell cups and bowls and betel nut plates. With coconut ashtrays and bamboo napkin holders, only the metal cutlery is environmentally unsound. The food is varied and filling but nothing spectacular, with a choice of plain or jeera rice, chicken or vegetable curry, dhal, bread buns, fried potatoes and kingfish, salad, pickle, and roast papad. A dessert tray of watermelon and pineapple slices arrives after you’ve finished, and you can pick your own bananas from a big bunch hanging nearby. Soft drinks are extra, but you can drink as much cashew fenni as you’re able to free of charge.
The day ends with the bill--300 rupees per person for the tour and lunch, plus a 20 rupee service charge per group--and a visit to the farm shop, where the selection is good but the prices higher than you’d pay at the likes of Anjuna Flea Market.
Travel agents at the main beaches operate day trips to Sahakari, but it's best to come by your own transport in order to combine the spice farm with the nearby Hindu temples. Local buses run regularly from Panjim to Ponda, from where you can walk the remaining 3km, take a taxi (50 rupees), or wait for one of the buses heading east out of town. Although it's still very touristy, the plantation is a fascinating counterpoint to the beaches. However, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with children, as it's a long day with the travelling and there is very little to appeal to kids other than the elephants.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 14, 2005
Sahakari Spice Farm
Off NH4A road, Ponda
Palolem is a dream of a beach, a languid kilometre and a half-long crescent of light golden sand overseen by high coconut palms, blue hills, humpbacked rocks, and rounded islands. The beach is hard and flat and never more than 100m wide. The water was warm and shallow, with small, bubbly waves sliding 20m apart into the shore with the ease and precision of escalator steps. It’s crowded but concrete-free, with bobbing heads instead of jet skis and speedboats, a couple of beach volleyball nets, and a handful of sun loungers as the only facilities beyond what people make for themselves. Bamboo and plywood huts stretch all the way along the back of the beach, most with their own restaurants, whose fronts spill people out directly on to the sand. Somewhere near the centre, floodlights illuminate the steps up to the T-shaped village at night, two streets of shops selling the same bars of chocolate, toiletries, and plastic bottles of water; open-air restaurants; Internet cafes; and travel agents.
At high tide the beach shrinks to the width of the fishing boats parked up by the trees. When the water goes back out, you can walk across the dimpled sand and fast-moving lagoon waters to Green Island, standing on smooth boulders to watch the sun go down. The swimming is good: the sand drops so slowly that you can be 50m out and still only up to your chest in water, and the waves are far smaller than at the northern beaches. Be very careful of the undertows, though, especially at the southern end of the beach, where tourists are occasionally washed up by the jagged rocks.
Palolem is not a place for the energetic or those in need of luxury. Most people spend their days sitting in a restaurant or lying on the sand with sun cream and a book, thinking of how long they‘re staying and where they‘re going next. You won’t find any water sports here, the loud nightlife is mainly confined to the Café del Mar, and the ban on permanent development along the beach leaves only temporary shacks under the palm trees, plus a few concrete guest houses farther back.
At night, the northern side of the beach is dark and quiet. Farther south, restaurants put candle-lit tables out on the sand, while the restaurants in the village use happy hours and live music to draw you inland. The Casa Fiesta serves good Mexican food at tables with sombrero lamp shades, Cool Breeze has friendly service and tasty continental and Indian dishes, and Blue Planet does decent business in healthy organic dishes and unusual smoothies. The pizzas at Magic Italy are more expensive but much better than at Little Italy, while Smugglers is way overpriced but does have a pool table and a good collection of DVDs.
Palolem is no longer paradise, but it’s about as close as Goa is ever likely to get.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 15, 2005
42km from Margao
Between Chapora and Vagator, high on the hill separating the beach from the harbour, Chapora Fort crowns a space first fortified by the Muslim rulers of Bijapur. The ruined red laterite walls you see today date back to 1617, built by the Portuguese to protect against the return of the Muslims and the incursions of the Marathas, who conquered the fort twice in 1684 and 1739 and abandoned at the end of the 19th century as the threats passed and the border stretched north.
There are two trails up to the fort, a few flights of black steps that begin at the top of Big Vagator beach or the steep climb along the path that branches off to the right of the main beach road, cutting past whitewashed cemetery walls to the southwards facing main gate. There’s no shade on the climb, which takes between 10 and 20 minutes depending on the time of day and number of rest stops, so come in the morning or early evening and bring plenty of water.
At the top, ramparts circle an open space of overgrown grass, a Christian cross, and a few Muslim headstones, the only structures left. Weeds grow out of the walls, a couple of people sit on the steps in the far corner hawking cold drinks for 50 rupees and an array of tat pulled from a bag like a magician’s rabbit, and a group of Indian tourists do a quick circle before heading back down the hill. It’s baking hot and totally unsheltered, almost enough to tempt me into a sympathy purchase, and after 15 minutes, I feel like I’ve seen everything in the fort: the heads of underground tunnels the Portuguese built as escape routes, crumbling stone, short walkways, and desolate watchtowers.
But it’s the commanding views that make the climb worthwhile: the choppy estuary waters where the Chapora River meets the sea and an indented line of beaches heading up to Arambol to the north, the drop back down to Vagator Beach on the other side, and the village hiding under the palm trees. Chapora looks like a swamp from up above, a few houses clinging to the edge of the water, almost swallowed by the trees with no visible sign of life. With hardly anyone to disturb you, you could sit here for hours if only it wasn’t so hot.
The fort is open daily. There are no facilities at the top, so buy anything you need in Vagator before starting the climb.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 16, 2005
Hello, how are you? Which country? Come and see my shop, looking is free. Tomorrow? Promise? The words come as often as the waves on the long, flat sands of Anjuna Beach from sari-clad stall holders, out-of-town masseurs holding books full of testimonials in half a dozen different languages, and, more dubiously, whispering men offering grass and coke and ecstasy.
The beach is nice, just a little unexceptional. There are dogs and rocks, frequent clumps of coconut palms, and small concrete buildings, raised up at the back, with cold beer and plastic menus. The best swimming is at the very end of the beach, down past the Shore Bar and the flea market grounds, where a semicircle of rocks holds back the waves in front of Curlies, a thatched-roofed restaurant with the worst music and best coffee banana shakes in the whole of Goa.
Wednesday is flea market day, when everybody comes to Anjuna. It’s not what I expected, just an extension of the same stalls selling the same things you can buy at any other beach. More noise, more people, more hassle. Even the cows seem unimpressed. The only bonus is the live music in the beachfront bars as the sun goes down and the buses start to leave.
I liked the rural feel of Anjuna, even if it is fast disappearing: the views up and down the coast from the cemetery topped hill next to the bus stop, workers in the rice paddies on the other side of the village dirt road, and the small guesthouses, like Sai Prasad and Avalon Sunset, that serve breakfast on the very edge of the beach.
Central Anjuna is at the Vagator end of the beach. You’ll find scooters and taxi drivers, Internet cafes, travel agents, buses to Mapusa, restaurants with garden seating, and some of the better places to stay in the village, from the top-end Villa Anjuna with its swimming pool and 12% luxury tax down to Manali Guest House, shared bathrooms around a small courtyard, with a bookshop and fast Internet access upstairs. I stayed at the Poonam, a rambling complex of three different buildings with a teenage staff, a swimming pool-size hole in the ground, and room rates that drop like a stone if you haggle hard enough.
You won’t see many over-40s in Anjuna other than the ones who never leave. Along with Vagator, it's known as a party beach, though it didn’t feel like one in October and the all-night raves ended in the last century. The facilities are too basic for the real high spenders and there are better beaches closer to the airport. It’s a good first stop in Goa, but you’d be missing out if you stayed here and nowhere else.
Jarrow, Tyne & Wear, United Kingdom