Monday, 26 January 2015


Goa - India
Fishermen on Palolem Beach

Typical Beach Cafe in Palolem

A few years back I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in Goa, on the west coast of India. Unlike most tourists and travellers I arrived there by bicycle having cycled there with my teenage son all the way from the West of Ireland, on our way to Japan. I have discovered that arriving in a place by some unusual means (on foot, on two wheels or by boat, for example) gives you a totally different perspective on a place – usually a more positive one, so please bear this in mind if I sound somewhat over-enthusiastic at times. This account covers several key locations of interest in Goa. It includes the state capital Panji (Panjim), the southern resorts of Palolem, Patnem and Agonda, along with the northern resorts of Anjuna and Arambol. The perspective is largely from an overland / backpacking point of view but will also be of interest to those on shorter 'package' holidays who are looking to experience more than that which can be found on organised tours in the more well known tourist spots. Sam and I had the luxury (a matter of opinion, I realise) of travelling around Goa on bicycles for a month. It meant we got to see things other visitors couldn't, but most of the places we visited are accessible cheaply by means of local busses or taxi

Palolem is still a relatively small beach resort in the very south of Goa at the edge of the Western Ghats. It amounts to a single street about 1km long, leading down to a lovely sweep of white sandy beach (in a bay about 2km long). The beach ends in Green Island Point to the north and Neptune Point to the south and is backed the entire length by dense palm trees, within which are sited numerous collections of what are generally called 'coco-huts'. 

These huts came about in the sixties when hippy backpackers would get locals to build them somewhere to hang out and smoke weed for a few month before they moved on and continued their hallucinatory roaming about the Indian Sub-continent. Gradually since then these places have come to catered for more 'respectable' backpackers and gap-year travellers. There are an increasing amount of more mature travellers, many of whom are revisiting memories of their youth. Many others are simply seeking the dream they have read about in books about that flower-power era of peace and love. I will not disclose into which category I fit.  

San Pedru Coco-huts on Palolem Beach (Moksha cafe to the left)

Cuba Bar - Palolem

Most of the bamboo and thatch coco-huts have no planning permission. In the past these were bulldozed every year by government order if they were not dismantled first. The huts and bar / cafes returned each new season since they are a vital source of revenue for the locals. This system has become a more formal one now and bulldozers are less often required. This means it is difficult for anyone to give fixed recommendations on which huts are the best since things vary from year to year. Suffice to say that they always vary in quality and facilities, with prices tending to match the specification list more than the location. 

Most of the coco-hut accommodation consists of a single room with a double bed and partitioned shower-room with running luke warm water. Most have a ceiling fan and a few have perspex windows. They are basic but comfortable in a kind of Robinson Crusoe way. We stayed in San Pedru Huts around the middle of the beach, which was bottom end budget (In 2008 400 Rupees per night, but I know by 2013 it was already double that). I would also recommend San Francisco Coco Huts nearby, Brendan's Huts and at the southern end Papillon, run by an English lady and her Indian husband and priced at the upper end of the middle band. Further to the south-east one can now find more luxurious and trendy huts in what is worryingly termed an eco-village. These are at least twice the price of the more basic huts, but for short-term holidaymakers are still perceived as fairly cheap.

The beach at Palolem is fairly clean given its popularity but varies as the season progresses. The local dog population has become a somewhat unpleasant hazard. The sea is clean enough, but not what you could call crystal clear. 
Along the beach there are numerous beach restaurants and bars, mostly associated with groups of coco-huts behind. These also change in popularity, atmosphere and ownership from season to season but a few are regular features and worth recommending: 

Moksha is a well run restaurant and bar with consistently good food at reasonable prices. It caters for those wanting Indian food and tourists missing home who want burgers or full-english breakfast etc. The burgers are pretty damned good actually. We were always told that the beef was actually water-buffalo due to Hindu rules. The same family also run Cool Breeze on the main street. The menu is the same here but the chef at that time was one of the owner/brothers so the food was slightly superior. 

Cuba Beachbar was the current favourite when we were there. There was a second on the main street. 

Cieran's Camp used to be the most upmarket when we were there last. The menu is pretty much the same everywhere but here you could get proper napkins and more attentive service at a premium price. 

Banyan Tree Beach Restaurant had a wholefood orientation and served superb spinach and mushroom burgers etc. 

Chaudi is the nearest main town to Palolem and is just beyond the railway station. Cancona railway station is about 3km away from Palolem and Chaudi another 2km further. It is a bustling small town with a fruit and veg market and a couple of good, cheap restaurants. Udipi Hotel (Veg Thali very cheap) is excellent but grubby as you would expect, since it does not cater for tourists. Their onion ravi masala (pancake) is superb and used to cost 20R. All the long-termers can be found here at lunch. Their fresh sweet lime soda may be the best in Goa. Udipi Krishna is a smaller and cheaper alternative nearby (Veg Thali there used to be 25R!) Sam had a birthday haircut in Chaudi. He was less than impressed.

Patnem is the next village on the coast, 2km down from Palolem. It was quieter but I understand has become more developed. Many of the long-termers rent houses here. It has become a bit dirty and for some lacks the atmosphere of Palolem itself. If you were going to Goa and you wanted it quieter with less short-term tourists then this may be for you. Bahti Katir Eco-huts were very nice huts in a self-sufficient hamlet on the edge of Patnem. The price for being ethical, however, is significant premium over other places. Nearby was a guest-house called 'Home' which is popular, as was Ocean Hotel (run by Brit's). Lonely Planet sings the praises of Seaview Restaurant. It used to be run by a Canadian couple a few years back, but apparently they were too successful so were run out of town. Bear this in mind if you have business ideas. Seaview Restaurant was run by a slovenly collection of locals when we were there, so had lost its charm somewhat. This is apparently a common scenario so do bear in mind when you read or hear reports from books or other travellers, that good places run by foreigners may suddenly take a dive in quality. 

12km to the north of Palolem is Agonda. It is smaller like Patnem and was also popular with those seeking to 'bliss-out' in peace and tranquility. There were a few beach restaurants just starting to go up so I'm guessing things will have moved on in development by now. There is a bus here from Chaudi but many people rent scooters, or the ubiquitously charming but notoriously unreliable Royal Enfield. We found Franco's Guest House or Jasmine to be the best huts at the time. 

Heading north you arrive at the historic small state capital of Panji. This was previously known as Panjim and most people still call it that. Panjim is notable for it's decaying Portuguese colonial architecture (wooden colonnaded balconies overlooking narrow atmospheric streets). Many travellers pass through it on their way to the beaches but it is worthy of a longer stay. It has a pleasant municipal market, some decent shops and restaurants and a safe, calm atmosphere. It is located along a wide estuary which opens onto the Arabian Sea, so it has large ships passing close to the promenade. The old colonial government buildings really add a delightful air of history. 

 Panjim has a a bit of a traffic problem

Colonaded buildings in Panjim echo a Portuguese past

Food lovers will love Panjim and should head, without delay to a restaurant named 'Viva Panjim'. This is a small family restaurant, run by a charming lady named Linda de Sousa, is an absolute delight. She earned a lifetime achievement award (2007) from the Goan International Cuisine Festival and in our experience it was well deserved. The largely regional Indian food was subtle, well cooked and very reasonably priced. The atmosphere in the small dining room or outside is quite relaxed, but with well-dressed waiters and a tempting top-quality menu. My son Sam and I came back every day for 4 days and never tired of it. You will find it just off 31st January Street. 

Sam and I stayed in the Comfort Guest House also on 31st January street. It was well priced (300R at the time for a spacious twin room with shared clean bathroom but prices will have increased since). It had a pleasant airy atmosphere along with kindly though strict staff. Checkout is at 8.30am and they expect you to stick to it. Laundry used to be 10R per item. There was TV in each room (72 channels even back then). The well known Hotel Venite is further up the street and serves good food, although prices have increased as more tourist guide-books have recommended it. Worth a look round or at least a cup of tea on one of their tiny balconies though. At the end of the street towards the post office you will find Vihar, a local Indian cafe serving vegetarian staples to a lower to middle-end Indian clientele. They have a good menu of dosas and bahjis along with a very good fresh juice bar. Prices should still be low and the pancakes are great. 

Mapusa is a busy junction town north of Panjim where many travellers change buses, go to banks etc. It may be worth delaying here to experience a bit of 'real' Indian small-town life. It has a good Friday night-market which is well known to 'Long-termers'. 

Anjuna is a well known resort on the northern end of Goa's coastline. It was once a chilled-out small seaside village but has suffered from popularity with westerner holidaymakers. Consequently it has an oversupply of beach hawkers, hustlers trying to clean your ears (and often pick your pocket at the same time) and now such pursuits as para-scending etc. 
There are some pleasant beach restaurants / bars here but it is less relaxed than either Palolem to the south or Arambol to the north. There is still an undersupply of accommodation in season despite some new modern (ugly) hotels. Sticking with traditional Indian hotels, the mid to higher end of the market is well covered by Villa Anjuna (proper stone and brick with windows). It is a good hotel on the main road into town. Rooms are comfortable and still affordable for most. 
Lower down the range but still a proper building is Mary's Holiday Home overlooking the beach from the cliffs. This is very popular so booking required. 
On the beach there are a number of Coco-hut collections. Manali guest house was also popular with backpackers at the time and was cheap.

The main attraction in Anjuna is the all too famous Friday market. It takes a whole day to see every stall, although after you have seen 20 you have basically seen everything. Only if you are bargaining hard for something do you need to see it all. However, it is a colourful and entertaining day out. 

Anjuna Friday Market

Restaurants /beach bars to recommend form a few years ago in Anjuna are Agnello's and Janet & John's (which used to do an all you can eat seafood buffet on Saturdays and Thursdays after 8pm at a budget price. Also Baba Beach Restaurant and Guest House. At that time Sea Queen Restaurant on the main road has movies every night and good food. Hopefully this information remains fairly current. 
Oasis Cafe has good German bakery. Shiva Cafe is by the bus stand and is an airy rooftop location. Nearby on the way to the beach is 'Yash' a traditional and cheap Indian cafe / restaurant serving good biryanis. 

Arambol is still a fairly chilled-out place which is preffered by long-termers. We met some really nice western semi-residents there who come each year for a 5 month season and fall into a day to day / week to week routine of breakfasting together (Akram cafe), lunching together (Ganesh) and playing guitars / singing on the beach at night. It really is the late 60's revisited. The Beatles came here during their Buddhist period. 

 Arambol Main Street in late 2008

Arambol beach comes alive at night

There are some good restaurants in Arambol that suit most tastes. A few we would recommend from that time are: 

Ganesh - on the main street. It majored on basic Indian thalis etc. It is at the bus stand end of town.

Akram - had a good menu of typical Indian fare with superb pancakes and fresh fruit salads at good prices. They also showed football and cricket matches in a low-key, local community kind of way. It was run by the Piya Guesthouse people / vice-versa. 
Rice Bowl is at the headland end of the beach and served decent, predominantly Chinese food along with a few Tibetan and Japanese dishes. Prices were mid-range, which means cheap if you are a westerner. It had snooker tables and a healthy mosquito population at times. 
Double Dutch was famous locally for excellent steaks and fitted into the upper-end of the market but was still reasonable for what you get (Arambol is still cheaper than Anjuna or even Palolem). It had a better selection of deserts than most restaurants we came across in India. Their apple pie is was our favourite. 

Accommodation in Arambol is generally well priced but often basic (which is what the typical visitor here likes it would seem). Piya Guest House (next to Akram restaurant) was very popular. It was very basic - the classic Indian Guest House of backpacking 30 years ago I'd say, but had twin rooms with basic en-suite bathrooms at very cheap prices. The management (Piya and her family) were pleasant and very relaxed. People we spoke to seemed to come back year after year. 

Residensea was a largish collection of coco-huts at the north end of the beach. No doubt it has grown since. Huts were mostly cheap, but the popularity of these huts at this end of the beach had already started to create a light sewage problem back then and contributed, no doubt, to the mosquito population in that location. Om Ganesh Huts and Sunny Guest House nearby were also popular (with travellers as well as mosquitos). 
There were various yoga / beach-paradise-oriented huts along the beach to the south which were quieter and priced similarly. 

The beach goes on from here to Mandrem to the south which also has coco-huts. These were for those wanting to be further away from the busier and more social atmosphere in Arambol. 
Arambol in those days already had plenty of internet cafes and some provisions shops (mainly fruit, vegetables and sun cream) so I can imagine it has grown significantly since then and not (in my mind) for the better. Buses back then went to the nearby towns of Mapusa and Pernem every hour. It was a paradise back then to many who yearned for the sixties of their youth (or their parents' youth) but could be irritating to some who find this commune-oriented lifestyle passé or naïve. Personally I find it reassuringly different to be in a place where everyone is trying to make good things happen for each other, but each to his own. It will no doubt have moved on and be more commercial now.

Rumours that Goa is ruined are probably premature, but I urge you not to contribute to it. If you are looking for cleanliness and home comforts it is not really the place for you. If the developers manage to persuade the local planners / government that a more local international airport is a good idea or that Panjim airport should be enlarged, then sadly things will change quickly. 

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

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