Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Beaches of Goa -- I Can See for Miles, and Miles, and Miles….

Palolem Beach, Goa
The Who may have been inspired by the miles and miles of beaches in Goa. You can literally see for miles in either direction on these beautiful golden sand beaches. And in South Goa, the view is often unmarred by any other tourist.

Today we rode our bikes on the hard packed beach sand from Cavelossim Beach in south Goa, north to Colva Beach. The 20 km of beaches here in Goa are so wide, long and empty that it’s easy to forget you’re in crowded India.

Riding on Varca Beach
Our bike ride took us from Cavelossim Beach, past Varca Beach and Benaulim Beach to the town of Colva, a distance of about 10 km.

At low tide, the hard packed sand is 60 metres deep and solid enough to ride your bike for hours. Mere metres away, the sand is soft and golden and your wheels sink into it like deep snow, tumbling you over the handlebars. But if you stay on the dark compacted part, it’s a nice smooth ride with no hills.

Cruising on the hardpacked sand
A little further up the beach away from the surf, the sand is deeper and powdery like flour. When you walk on it, the sand scrunches and squeaks and sounds amazingly just like dry snow on a cold winter day. It’s a weird phenomenon of dry sand that we last experienced on the singing sand beach in PEI.

When you start out on a bike from your beach hotel, first you have to walk the bike down the treed sand dune to the soft singing sand. It’s hard to push your bike through this deep sand, but it’s only 30 metres or so, and you’re laughing like a kid on a sunny winter day as the sand squeaks under your sandals. But it’s 35 C here.

Then you cross over the next stretch of soft wet sand until you reach the hardpack where the wave action has pounded the sand into a solid, flat, smooth roadway with only little crab holes marring its glistening surface. As you ride by, the tiny crabs peek out of their holes and then scurry back down sometimes dragging a small dead starfish along with them. A two-meter wide band of beach at low tide is littered with broken seashells that crunch and crackle under your tires as your ride over them.

The key to successfully riding on the beach, of course, is to time the tides just right.  The tides can come up 60 metres or more. And in Monsoon season, the entire 100-metre depth of beach will be covered in water right up to the tree line, and the beach restaurant shacks all have to be dismantled until next October.

Two days ago, our first excursion up the beach, north to Benaulim, was supposed to start at 9 a.m. at low tide. Unfortunately, someone, who shall remain nameless, needed her beauty sleep and slept in until 9. So by the time we got our rental bikes and headed down to the beach, it was already 11 and very hot.

No matter, we thought, we’ll find a nice beach restaurant an hour or so up the beach, have lunch, explore the town of Benaulim and head back before high tide. Good plan, but it didn’t work out that way.

Portuguese Style Fishing Boat
Once in Benaulim, we had to go inland about 2 km to find an ATM for some much needed cash. Benaulim is a small fishing village with a big Portuguese-style Catholic church. Surprisingly, this whole area is mostly Christian, a carry over from the Portuguese who only left Goa in 1961.

There are still lots of expats living here in rented accommodation or in their own condos. They’re mostly British with a few French thrown in, who come for the winter to bask in the sun and eat fresh seafood at very good prices.

The road inland was narrow, but there wasn’t much traffic, thankfully, and we were able to cruise along without difficulty until we hit the first crossroad where we found two grocery stores and a tiny bakery. The ATM was another kilometer inland near the main highway, but it was all a pleasant safe ride.

An hour later, back at the beach, we decided to try lunch at Pedro’s, which had been recommended by a British gent we had met the day before as he was walking his bike down the beach. He said he lived in Varca for the winter, but even he had misjudged the tide and was having a bit of a struggle pushing his bike through the soft sand to get back home. He recommended Pedro’s prawn soup for Rs100 (about $2), which he said was full of large, fresh prawns.

I had one of my favourite Indian dishes, butter chicken with rice, and Carolann had her new favourite, Dahl, which is a lentil curry. With a large Kingfisher beer, the bill came to under Rs500 (about $5) for the two of us.

Riding through the High-Tide Surf
By the time lunch was over, the tide was coming in and we had to rush back through the incoming surf to avoid the soft, wet sand. By 2:30, the tide was too high and we had to dismount and push our bikes through the slippery sand. But it was all good exercise and splashing through the surf was a lot of fun. Occasionally we’d startle a large crab, schools of tiny fish or a small flounder struggling in the surf.

Our second bike excursion was today and, having learned our lesson, we left even earlier at low tide and managed to ride all the way up to Colva where we briefly explored that much busier town with it’s greater selection of hotels, restaurants and stores.

Town of Colva
Colva is a favourite with Indian tourists and locals. There’s not a lot of nightlife here and it’s not as busy as the beaches of north Goa, which are cheek to cheek with sunbathing Russians, but it’s still far more crowded and hectic than our beach of Varca further south.

Colva Beach
Frankly, Colva’s not much to write home about. There’s some parasailing and sea doos and the same soft golden sand, but it’s still too busy for us. We prefer the quieter stretches further south.

But at the north end of town we did find a small fishing “village,” really just a collection of squalid tents and shacks where migrant workers from other parts of India make their home during the non-monsoon fishing season.

Fishing Village

Fields of fish were laid out to dry in the hot sun and workers were sorting fish into baskets for sale or drying. The stench of rotting fish and fish guts was almost unbearable, but the activity was fascinating to watch.

Fish Drying in the Sun
Sorting Fish
A couple of tiny urchins ran over to us from their hovel and asked for chocolate, which we didn’t have, so we gave them some bananas instead and they happily shared them amongst themselves.

On our way back – before high tide this time – we stopped at another of our favourite beach shack restaurants, Pereira’s Sweet Hut. The staff here explained that they shut down in May when the really hot weather comes and dismantle the whole restaurant before the monsoon starts in June. Then they reassemble everything in October or November when the tourists come back.

Pereira's Sweet Hut (temporary)

Fresh Crab at Pereira's
As I said earlier, the beaches south of Colva are usually almost empty, except for a few Russian tourists and the ubiquitous roving packs of friendly dogs, but this day, as we sat eating our lunch, we were surprised to see an enormous water buffalo with long sharp horns wander down to the beach where he laid down in the surf while his owner cooled him off and washed him down. He made quite a contrast with the red bikini clad Russian girls and the pink beach umbrellas at the restaurant.

The next morning, back at our quieter Varca Beach, we discovered that if you get up early enough, you can see the fishermen bring in their nets fully laden with shiny silver fish of all shapes and sizes, from tiny fingerlings to larger mackerel and red snappers, as well as a long, skinny, slender ribbon fish that looked like snakes.

Bringing in the Catch
They sort the fish by size and type, right on the beach, rinse them in sea water and then women cart them off in baskets on their heads to sell in the markets. Pairs of fishermen carry the last baskets between them on their oars.

Sorting the Fish
Rinsing in the Ocean

Baskets Loaded onto Heads

Off to Market Down the Beach

Last of the Baskets
Crowds of crows, the local replacement for seagulls here, swoop down and fight off the fish hawks to snatch small fish from the nets or scoop up the leftovers after the nets have been strung out to dry on the beach.

Kilometers of Nets are Strung out to Dry on the Beach
At first we didn’t believe that the dirty, old, black fishing boat on the beach was actually used for anything more than storing the nets overnight. In fact one of our hotel waiters told us that was the case. But on the second day we noticed that the boat had moved from its previous location high up on the beach. They had been out all night and had just returned with the tide around 6 in the morning. By 7:30, all the fish had been sorted, the nets were strung out to dry, and only the crows and dogs were left to pick over the fish too small to sell.

During the day, further out to sea, we could see larger, more modern trawlers slowly plying the waters with their nets trailing behind. But we never saw them land anything and assumed they must take their catch into a bigger port somewhere.

Further south of Varca Beach we stayed at Palolem Beach, which is quite different again. Where Varca Beach was almost too quiet and we we’re limited to one or two beach shack restaurants or our own hotel, Palolem is wall-to-wall restaurants, bars and coco huts, or small B&Bs.

Temporary Beach Huts on Palolem Beach
It’s still very pleasant and never too crowded. Most of the tourists here are European, not Russian. Our neighbours at the Palolem Beach Resort were Spanish, French, English, and Swiss, a very nice eclectic mix of retired travellers and storytellers with whom we had a lot in common. Interestingly, we never met any American or Australian tourists in Goa.
Palolem Fishing Boat

Palolem Beach is smaller than Varca and Colva Beaches and curves between two rocky headlands. It’s not as deep as those Beaches either. But the swimming is better because the surf isn’t as rough.

Dozens of fishing boats in the bright colours of a Portuguese fishing village line the beach to take tourists out for dolphin watching or a leisurely ride up river into the quiet backwaters.

Portuguese Fishing Boats on Palolem Beach
No one rides a bike on the beach here because of the steeper slope down to the hard sand and the presence of the fishing boats. But it’s great to walk from end to end of the two-kilometer-long beach on the soft sand. We saw people jogging or doing yoga on the beach every morning and at night we watched the sunset from one of the many ocean view restaurants.
Bridge and Tunnel Restaurant for Sunset Dining

We quite enjoyed this beach because of the greater options for dining and accommodation.  But we found an even quieter beach a half-hour walk south on the other side of the rocky promontory.

It’s called Patnem Beach and it is a u-shaped beach about 900 metres long with only a few small B&Bs or coco huts and no large hotels. It seemed to have the perfect mix of that quiet relaxing beach vibe and dining and accommodation. Our favourite restaurant here was at the Home B&B, which served only vegetarian meals, but with a nice European twist. Soft meditative music played in the background and it was oh so relaxing to sit and watch the waves crashing in.

Patnem Beach is Even Quieter
The beaches of Goa are as varied as the tourists who flock to them. But there is sure to be one that suits everyone’s style. All of the beaches seemed very clean and we rarely saw a cow, unlike the beaches on the east coast of India around Pondycherry and Mamalapuram.

Sunset on Palolem Beach
We like the more private beaches of Varca and Cavolessim and we really enjoyed our bike rides, but when we come back to Goa, I think we’ll be staying at Home B&B on the mellow Patnem Beach and just chill out.
A Nicely Chilled Carolann

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