Between the end of September and the beginning of October 2014, my wife and I had decided to take full advantage of a coming long weekend, and had booked a nice holiday in Kashmir. Unfortunately, life had other plans and Kashmir was hit by its worst floods in recent memory, so we had to cast about for other options. We finally decided we would drive down to Goa.
Driving to Goa
So. We kicked off our trip at about 5:00 AM and headed down towards Shamsabad and the Bangalore highway. This was our planned route: Hyderabad-Jadcherla-Mahbubnagar-Raichur-Lingsugur-Mudgal-Bagalkot-Belgaum-Chorla-Aldona. I must say, I was impressed with the road. Not at all like a state highway, and good enough to hit 100 kmph over most of it. The only rough patches were before and after Raichur, about a kilometer or so long each time. Otherwise, a very nice road! The only real annoyance for us was that there were hardly any roadside eateries on the highway, so we had to head into the nearest town even for a cup of tea.
Anyway, it was breakfast in Mahbubnagar town, and then on to Raichur. Luckily, this one has a bypass road so one doesn’t have to go through town. We also discovered that there’s also a major road down to Sindhanur, Hospet and Hampi that branches off the highway just after Raichur, so if the fancy had taken us, we could have headed left down to Hampi (from where we could have followed the Hubli-Bellary road down to Goa). Instead, we turned right to Lingsugur and Bagalkot.
We stopped at a lone dhaba before Lingsugur for a cup of tea, and were witness to an awesome spectacle while we waited: two tipper trucks pulled up at the dhaba to check their tyres. When they decided to move on, one truck wouldn’t start. So the other reversed up against the back of the first and push-started it! One huge truck pushing another down the highway in reverse: not something you see every day.
Lunch was at Bagalkot, and what a surprisingly pretty town it is! The highway seems to cut the town in two, and runs on top of a sort of natural dam, with the town flowing down either side, and a river just beyond with lots of palm trees poking out of the water. There are also lots of old colonial buildings, so the town was obviously important during the British raj.
On to Belgaum, which we unfortunately hit during rush hour. If you’re taking this route, get through the city as best you can, and keep asking for the Goa road. Once you get beyond the city center, keep an eye out for a fork in the road with a sign pointing left to Londa and right to Chorla. If you’re going to south Goa, take the Londa road. If you’re going to north Goa (which we were), the Chorla road is a treat! It winds through the Western Ghats and forests, with very little traffic and incredible views! Our only problem was that we hit the road just as the sun was setting, so we didn’t get to see as much as we wanted.
By the time we got to Aldona, the town we were headed for, it was quite dark and we were dog tired. It didn’t help that we had to wait at a deserted railway crossing for 20 minutes for the train to go by. When we finally got to our destination, a homestay called Cancio’s House, it was about 9:30 PM. Very kindly, our hosts had dinner all laid out for us, so we wolfed down the delicious local Goan meal, and gratefully hit the sack. We had been on the road for around 15 hours.
Cancio’s House, Aldona, Mapusa, Panjim and more
Cancio’s House turned out to be a 500-year-old sprawling Goan mansion surrounded by bright green, with two lovely cottage rooms furnished with authentic Goan furniture. Roberto and Racquel—our warm and chatty hosts—together with their children and Roberto’s very sweet mother, immediately made us feel like part of the family. With everyone, including another couple that was in the room next door, seated around the large dining table for each meal, the atmosphere was as homely and Goan as you could wish for. And the food was incredible! Even though Racquel had a bit of a tough time thinking up vegetarian dishes for us, what she finally put on the table was absolutely heavenly. Breakfasts of puff pastries, pancakes and buttered poi bread; and lunches and dinners of mushroom xacuti and amado (a sour, spongy local fruit) curry made every meal a treat, even for us vegetarians.
Of course, that’s not to say we didn’t sample the local cuisine at various little restaurants all over. We used a post on The Shooting Star blog to find some nice local restaurants and sample what they had to offer. It was then that we truly learned to appreciate that we had both our own vehicle and GPS-enabled phones. Without either of these, getting around would have been a pain. Happily, all the places we wanted to get to were marked on Google maps, so getting around was easy and fun. By far the best restaurant experience we had was A’Tona, a little place on the Mandovi river just outside Panjim where you can sit, eat and drink right on the riverbank with a nice view of the city’s lights and floating casinos. We also tried Venite in Panjim one evening, and found that, while it had a really nice old-world feel and was a great place for a drink, it sadly had very average vegetarian food.
On one of the days we were in Aldona, our hostess kindly took us to the colourful market in Mapusa for a look around. Though it wasn’t Friday, Mapusa’s traditional market day, the place was still very crowded, hot and colourful. We also visited the Goa tourism souvenir shop near the market, but found that it didn’t have much to offer besides run-of-the-mill stuff and a bad case of fungus on the walls. One typical Goan experience that was incredible, though, was ordering chilled beer and a ‘snack plate’ at Café SF Xavier in Mapusa market—where we found that a snack plate was an assortment of snacks that is brought to the table, for which you are billed only for how much you eat! Needless to say, after the heat outside, the ice-cold beer and the great snacks were a godsend. No lunch that day, of course. Later in the day, we drove down to Panjim, took the ferry across to Chorão island, and spent a frustrating evening looking for a lookout point that no-one seemed to know how to get to.
Another day, our host Roberto took us kayaking down one of the nearby tributaries of the Mandovi, which was great fun despite the heat and humidity. Good for a workout, and for working up an appetite! And on our last day at Aldona, we spent the morning on Roberto’s speedboat, enjoying amazing river views of Panjim, Old Goa, Chorão island and lots of other interesting sights, including a sleeping crocodile. I even got to take the wheel on the way back! After lunch, we got a guided tour of the less-known experiences of Aldona, including a stop at a 200-year-old fishpond dam and a visit to the local bakery, where we ate fresh poi and katre bread—straight out of oven and dripping with butter! Not something one would do on one’s regular Goa itinerary, I think.
Martin’s Comfort, Betalbatim, Margao, Palolem and more
The second half of our holiday was a little more typical, with great beaches, good food, and the company of good friends in south Goa.
On days five and six, we shacked up at Martin’s Comfort, a cozy little place right opposite the famous Martin’s Corner restaurant in Betalbatim, and obviously managed by the same people. Of course, our first meal just had to be at the restaurant, and even though it was the most expensive lunch we had in Goa this time, it was also the best. A plus point for Martin’s Comfort is that it’s a 15-minute walk from a nice little beach. A drawback is that the restaurant can get quite loud in the evenings with its live music.
During our stay there, we met up with some friends, and they introduced us to a very nice beach shack: Zeebop by the Sea (!) on Utorda beach. It was neat, on a great beach and served great food. One thing that really impressed me, though, was they had special ‘sand smoothing’ staff who would smooth out the sand floor with a rake as soon as guests walked over it and when they left their tables after their meal. The pleasure of digging your toes into cool, smooth sand is indescribable! The only downside: they are sometimes booked for private parties, in which case you will leave disappointed. It happened to us too.
While in that part of Goa, we also took full advantage of our own transport and drove all the way down to Palolem beach for lunch. A brilliant drive, especially if you avoid the highway and take the road along the coast. A word of caution, though: use your GPS, or risk getting lost. In my opinion, Palolem beach is (or was, at the time), the best beach in Goa, with calm water, spotless sand, not too many people, and an enticing little island with abandoned shacks that one can reach only by boat or by wading across a narrow rivulet that flows into the sea. Unfortunately, we were there at lunch time, and it was blazing hot! Fearing sunburn because there was no shade to be had, we just walked along the beach and then retired to one of the shacks for lunch. Not such great food, either. So, while the beach was great, getting there and back took a while, the food wasn’t great, there was nothing much around, and we found that the best times to be there were in the mornings and evenings, not lunchtime. But it was still worth it!
A few other gems we discovered while in south Goa:
- Ruta’s World Café in Margao: Excellent world cuisine, chilled out interiors, and amazing desserts and bakery items. Unfortunately, it has since shut down, but you can check out its sister restaurant, Ruta’s Roadhouse at Assagao.
- Nanu Resort in Betalbatim, just down the road from Martin’s Comfort. We had booked for one day too few at Martin’s by mistake, so we had to spend a night at this weird-sounding resort. We were pleasantly surprised at the nice interiors, its proximity to the beach, and the lack of crowds. A very nice place, one we would definitely visit again.
- The Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant on Mobor beach, near the Holiday Inn. Very nicely done, with a great view of a long jetty with fishing boats tied up along it. Nice food too, though a tad expensive. The only drawbacks were that it was crowded, and the live music was way too loud.
The drive back
After contemplating using the regular route back through Hubli-Dharwad, we decided on driving back the way we had come, just to see the sunrise in the ghats. And we were not disappointed.
- If you need to drive through Belgaum, try to avoid rush hour so you don’t spend an extra hour crawling through town.
- The route through the Chorla ghats is definitely worth it, even if it didn’t shave two hours off our travelling time.
- Finding food or decent washroom facilities is difficult on this route, so keep a sharp lookout.
- Having your own car and GPS makes it incredibly easy to get around in Goa!
- Try visiting a local bakery during one of their two baking runs, at 4:00 AM or 3:00 PM, for a uniquely Goan experience.
- The villages away from the coast and towards the mountains of Goa have loads of charm, are less touristy and are worth exploring.
- When in south Goa, visit Palolem for a quieter beach scene, the Zeebop beach shack in Utroda for good food and a nice beach view; Fisherman’s Wharf near Mobor for a more varied menu; and Nanu Resort in Betalbatim for a quiet and comfortable stay.