On a rainy Goan afternoon, wrapped up in my blue poncho, I drive my bike past verdant rice paddies, abandoned railway tracks and sleepy hamlets, to cross over to little-known islands in the interiors of Goa. On the empty ferry, the surprised driver asks me why I’m going there. Why? Because these islands are covered in mangroves and mist-laden meadows, adorned with old Portuguese homes, and home to large populations of colourful migratory birds and tiny populations of people who, far from the beaches and revellers of Goa, exemplify the susagade (content) way of life.
I’ve spent two blissful monsoons rediscovering Goa. Take my list and go, and soak in experiences you never could have imagined:
1) Discover the sleepy Chorao Island.
In the heart of North Goa, this quaint little island is serenaded by gentle backwaters, loved by migratory birds, and home to the friendliest locals. On a weekday afternoon, when a friend and I ferried our bike to its shores, the locals were all tucked in for their afternoon siesta in their old Portuguese homes. We chanced upon La Fayette, a little neighborhood eatery, and knocked on its doors, fully expecting to be turned away. The lady of the house, awoken from her siesta, welcomed us in, fed us heartily and fascinated us with stories of island-living. Legend has it that a stolen statue of Christ the King mysteriously appeared overnight on a hilltop in Chorao; a worthwhile hike for aerial views of Goa’s skyline.
Take a ferry from Pomburpa’s ferry point to reach Chorao.
2) Kayak in the rains
On a dreamy July afternoon, I found myself rowing into the untouched backwaters of northern Goa, maneuvering my way through mangroves, fighting the current of the river, hearing peacock cries and spotting eagles on barren trees – all while getting drenched in the rain. It’s an experience I’m always going to remember.
Lady M charters organize kayaking trips (for up to 2 people at a time) in these backwaters.
3) Try poi at a traditional bakery.
Waiting for the bread-man to deliver the local Goan bread poi to your home is one thing. But visiting a traditional village bakery, letting the aromas of freshly baked breads rumble your tummy, and watching the baker take out hot breads – poi (wheat bread), pao (white bread), kakon (bangle bread), katro (butterfly bread) – from the life size earthen oven, is quite another. Of his 78 years, Jose Carlos D’Silva has been a baker for 50, and his is the only traditional bakery that remains in the region.
Language is a barrier, so visit the bakery with a local; I visited it with my homestay family in Aldona.
4) Drive the river route from Pomburpa to Panjim
Goa is full of beautiful drives, but this one is my all-time favorite. Every time I drove the route from Panjim to Pomburpa, along rolling green meadows, rice paddies, cattle grazing in the pastures, eagles flying low, men fishing by the side of the road in the backwaters, the cool breeze in my face, I hopelessly fell in love with Goa.
Ditch the highway, and ask anyone about the inner route towards Mapusa, which leads on to Pomburpa.
5) Stay with a Goan family in an ancestral Goan-Portuguese house.
I have to confess that if there’s one place where my itchy feet feel grounded, it is the Amarals’ Goan-Portuguese home in Aldona. This ancestral home, dating back atleast 500 years, has been lovingly restored by the Amaral family, and opened up as a homestay to travellers who want more from Goa. The fascinating stories of the house, the aroma of Raquel’s cooking, the silence of the window sill and the timeless beauty of Aldona – sometimes that is just what my soul needs. And Roberto and Raquel – the world doesn’t make people like them anymore.
Plan your trip to Aldona with India Untravelled.
6) Celebrate the traditional Sao Joao festival by jumping in a well!
In the villages of Goa, the Sao Joao festival is celebrated with much gusto. According to an old tradition, all newly married men in the village must jump into a not-so-deep irrigation well and try to recover gifts thrown in by the village folk. I happened to visit post the festival (it happens in late June), but my host family in Aldona invited their friends and celebrated another time; running through the fields and plunging yourself into the well is just something you have to do once.
7) Pay homage to the indomitable spirit of an intrepid female traveller
Legend has it that at a time when women weren’t even allowed to leave the house, Ursula e Lancastre, a Portuguese lady, wore men’s clothes and travelled the globe solo! Unfortunately, at Corjuem Fort in Goa, she was recognized and captured. The ancient, overgrown stone walls of the fort offer views over the Western Ghats, and solitude – you won’t find a signboard or another person here. And maybe if you listen close enough, you might just hear the walls echo with stories of Ursula’s brave journey.
Corjuem Fort is located in the village of Corjuem in North Goa; you’ll see its walls from the street.
8) Speedboat along the backwaters.
Like most people, I had no idea that Goa had backwaters. When my host family invited me on a speedboat ride along North Goa’s riverine backwaters, I had no idea I was going to whizz along such breathtaking scenery – untouched, devoid of houseboats, home to mangroves, and a hangout for kingfishers, eagles and peacocks. We even spotted an Indian mugger crocodile!
Get in touch with Lady M charters to go on a speedboat ride along the untouched backwaters of Goa.
9) Go island hopping
Far from the cries of civilization, some islands in Goa with tiny populations can only be reached via multiple ferry rides. When my bike and I braved the rains to get to them, I was rewarded with colorful misty meadows, delicious bakery food and endless chats with locals on one island. On another, I was surprised to be driving on narrow strips, with shallow waters sprouting mangroves on either side, and old Portuguese-style houses dotting the landscape.
Seek and thou shalt find.
10) Gamble the night away on a casino cruise
I often saw the casino ships floating in the sea from Panjim, but never quite made it to them until last monsoon. On a drizzly night, we took a speedboat out, and spent the night playing roulette, drinking beer on the house and listening to live music. I lost a lot, won it all back, then lost some (greedy me). The best part is, win or lose, once you finally leave the casino, you realize you’re still in Goa!
I went on the new Deltin Royale casino cruise and loved it. Entry is INR 2,500 per person, including INR 1,500 of chips and all-you-can-have drinks and food.
11) Eat at neighbourhood Goan restaurants
It took me a while to realize that “Goan cuisine” served at popular beach shacks is a farce. Last monsoon, I sampled Goan curries, local breads and hearty conversations at neighborhood restos, quietly tucked away in the interiors of Goa – read about my 7 most delightful finds. This year, the list has grown to include Nostalgia by Chef Fernando in Raia, started by a Goan chef who travelled the world and came back to Goa with a dream of keeping authentic Goan cuisine alive; the food is worth the long drive from North Goa that I made twice. On our way to Dudhsagar, for lack of an alternative, we stopped at a run-down family-run eatery called Royal Fantacy (!), and cooked by the father was the best mushroom xacuti I’ve had in Goa. I’ll pen my follow-up list of authentic Goan eateries soon.
12) Paddle-boat on Mayem Lake
I’m not one for boating in tourist-infested lakes, but Mayem Lake is quite exceptional. In the village of Mayem in North Goa, this is a pristine expanse of freshwater surrounded by dense forests, and as you paddle your way towards the far shore of the lake, you can feel the silence engulf you.
Last I heard, they’ve made a fancy boardwalk leading up to the lake in the hope of attracting more people. Go before it’s too late.
What secrets have you discovered in Goa?