Dive right in
Ajey Patil’s love affair with the ocean began when he first ventured underseas, back in 1992. An experienced, PADI-certified diving instructor, Patil spent several years in the Andamans before returning to Goa, where he and his sister Amruta – the graphic novelist – grew up. Here the self-described “marine engineer, naturalist, and raconteur” set up his friendly, family-run dive shop and training centre in 2007.
Over the years, Patil has distinguished himself as a patient, diligent diving instructor, who is particularly good with first-timers and younger students. People now fly into the state just to train with him. If you’ve already got your licence, we highly recommend Dive Goa’s overnight stay trips to tiny Netrani, or Pigeon Island, about 220km from Goa, off the coast of the pilgrim-site of Murudeshwar in Karnataka. Besides Lakshwadeep and the Andamans, Netrani offers the best underwater visibility on the coastline of India – and its coral reefs teem with barracuda, triggerfish, eels, groupers, wrasses and other gloriously-coloured creatures you usually see on the Discovery Channel.
Dive Goa has options to suit all levels of interest, from advanced certification courses to an excellent one-day session called Discover Scuba Diving, which takes newbies (even non-swimmers!) via a thorough briefing to a pool trial, and then straight into the ocean for R 3,000 per head.
Dive Goa O’Pescador Resort, Dona Paula (www.divegoa.com, +91 93250 30110).
Goa is about life in the slow lane, right? Well, there’s excitement for speed demons at a go-karting track that sprawls over 482 metres of South Goan countryside in Nuvem, near Margao. Racing enthusiasts can’t get enough: the track has hosted national championships for the past five years – even Narain Karthikeyan showed up to take a spin.
The Nuvem track is the brainchild of Christopher Moraes, who has loved cars and racing since childhood. He’s turned out a real labour of love, which includes all kinds of professional detailing, such as designated pit lanes and cambered turns.
Go-karting may be Formula 1 in miniature, smaller race cars whizzing around smaller tracks, but there’s nothing pint-sized about the thrills. These cars burn rubber, handle really well, and average more than 70kmph on the tracks. Moraes has also kept the prices on the low side: the basic ten-lap package costs just R 180. He supplies hygiene caps and helmets as well as the vehicles, but you need to bring your own gloves if you want to go the full Schumacher.
Go-Kart Racing Nuvem, behind Tata Motors Showroom, off NH17 (+91 832 275 7899).
Among Goa’s most outstanding features is its sheer biodiversity. From the coastline up innumer-able waterways to the thick jungles that spill over its borders with Maharashtra and Karnataka, the state provides natural habitats for wild birds, animals and plants that have managed to elude the relentless march of mining, tourism and the real estate industry. One of the richest of these habitats is called the Cumbharjua canal, which connects the backwaters of the Zuari and Mandovi rivers along the eastern limits of Tiswadi, the ancient island that is capped by the state capital Panjim at its other end.
Even though the waterway is easily accessible from boats, using the Cortalim jetty just below the Zuari, tourists never seem to venture here. That’s a pity, because the Cumbharjua canal teems with amazing birdlife. You can spot 50 species in an afternoon including the rare Collared Kingfisher – and is also home to a large population of crocodiles, including the Indian Mugger. On a fine afternoon, take a boat up with Pankaj Lad, the bright and energetic young naturalist behind Canopy, an eco-tourism company that also offers other nature-related tours into the
Canopy (http://www.canopygoa.com, +91 97642 61711/ +91 97640 52225). Boat safari R1,000 per person.
Since childhood, Rahul Alvares has had a special affinity with snakes. After he graduated from school, the son of environmental activists Norma and Claude Alvares trained at the Madras Crocodile Bank and soon emerged as one of Goa’s leading snake rescueR Over the years, he’s captured, handled, and safely released hundreds of pythons, cobras, vipers and other snakes that proliferate in the lush countryside and very often cross into human terrain.
Alvares is a multi-talented guy. He’s a top personal trainer, has written two books (the second, Call of the Snake, consists of stories about snake-catching), and also leads popular birdwatching trips all over the state. Most unusual, however is his Snake Watch, a herpetology orientation course. Alvares introduces his students to a variety of wild snakes and covers basic snake-handling, first-aid techniques, and a host of other “snake-y details”. It's particularly recommended for those who’ve harboured an irrational fear of snakes all their lives. Within three hours, you will go from herpetophobia to philia.
Bushmaster Wildlife Excursions Almeida Vaddo, Parra (http://www.rahulalvares.com, +91 98819 61071). Call for rates.
Goa’s famous laid-back atmosphere comes under severe threat every peak season, from November to February. The state’s population nearly doubles to an uncomfortable crowd of three million. The beaches are packed, roads are jammed, and you find yourself standing in line even to use the loo. Where to go to find peace, restore sanity? Just hop on a boat and head up one of the many rivers that criss-cross the state. Within minutes from the mayhem of the coastline, remarkably pristine backwaters open up to unexpected vistas of calm, where the only sounds you hear are the lapping of water against the hull and the whir of kingfishers on the wing.
One of the best ways to experience this serenity is on the Solita, a 42-foot motor yacht with front and back decks, a fully equipped pantry, two bedrooms and a crew to attend to your every need. The Solita runs regular trips to locations around the state: upriver to Old Goa, across to the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, and the Ocean Cruise to Tiracol Fort. There’s even a Dolphin Discovery tour. But we think the basic sunset cruise is hard to beat – it’s best capped by an atmospheric onboard dinner under the stars.
Odyssey Tours Naikavaddo, Calangute (http://www.solita.co.in, +91 98221 80826, +91 832 227 7124). Check website for prices.
Can’t spare the 15 grand per hour required to secure the Solita for your river escape? Don’t fret, there’s still the ferry. In a score of locations strung across Goa, slow-moving, flat-bottomed ferry boats do the hard work of transporting commuters and their vehicles from one side of the river to the other. Some rides are short – the ferry to the island of St Estevao in the Mandovi takes just a couple of minutes – but many are pleasantly long, allowing you a nice comfortable breather with refreshing cool breezes off the water.
We like the Ribandar-Chorao ferry, which angles around a sandbank, and offers views of historic Old Goa upstream. But the ferry from Betim to Panjim is understandably popular. It’s best taken at the sunset hour, with the sky flaming scarlet above. At that precise time, if the water is perfectly calm (which it almost always is), pods of Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins take a kind of promenade upriver, passing directly across the ferry’s route and often lingering alongside for a minute or two.
Ferry rides available at 22 locations across the state.
A 40-minute drive inland from Panjim, the topography rises to the lush foothills of the Western Ghats, one of only two remaining biodiversity hot spots in the subcontinent. The landscape is alternately gorgeous and devastated, the latter because of mining concessions that have gouged the earth red to extract iron ore for export. In recent years, an unstoppable demand has led to massive illegalities; Goa’s Chief Minister (and long-time Minister for Mines) has been repeatedly accused of personal involvement in the annual billion-dollar illegal ore business.
The desire to save one particular patch of land from mining motivated Jyoti and Yashodan Heblekar to quit the capital and move to the interior of Ponda taluka. Here, they founded the Butterfly Conservatory of Goa, “a not-for-profit initiative by ordinary people” that has transformed 1,200 metres of countryside into a way-station for the fluttering set. Unlike other butterfly parks in other parts of the world, there is no enclosure. The insects are entirely free, and visit the Heblekar property specifically because the couple has planted large numbers of “mother plants” like cinnamon, native limes, and passion fruit – a special draw for birdwings, the huge wobbling butterflies that are the subcontinent’s largest. On any given day, the Heblekars say a visitor can spot more than 40 species. They have documented 123 in total, including many species that were previously unknown to inhabit Goa.
Butterfly Conservatory of Goa “Mystic Woods” Priol, Ponda (www.bcogoa.org, +91 98228 95471, +91 832 298 5174). Entry R100, students free.
Before there was Panjim, there was the Palacio Idalcao, the fortified “summer palace” of the Sultan of Bijapur (Idalcao is derived from his name, Yusuf Adil Khan). The original structure spread across the two extant buildings, and its five (“panj”) turrets gave the city its name. In 1615, Portuguese colonists rebuilt the Palace in Iberian style, and eventually used it as the official chambers of the Viceroy. When Old Goa was replaced as the capital by Panjim, the Palacio Idalcao became the seat of power of the entire Estado da India, at the centre of a huge maritime empire that spread from Mozambique to Timor, right across the Indian Ocean.
Even after 1961, the palace remained under control of the state’s big shots as the Secretariat. Currently, the Palacio Idalcao is undergoing its most dramatic transformation yet. The Goa government has restored the building, and the entire magnificent structure will be a museum for art and culture. A café has been planned in the wooden balcony that overlooks the water. The museum will open in December with an exhibition to commemorate Goa’s golden jubilee. After playing host to politicians and princes, Palacio Idalcao will finally be a palace for the people.
Old Secretariat Panjim Main Street, Off Mahatma Gandhi Road, Panjim (+91 832 222 3412).
Noite de Fado
On December 19, 1961, Indian troops quickly brought an end to the 451-year-old Estado da India, and Goa was absorbed into the Republic of India. The expulsion of the Portuguese ended a colonial experience different from the rest of the subcontinent. Yet recent generations of both Hindu and Catholic Goans have been studying Portuguese in ever-greater number And, in a newly-invented bit of colonial tradition, Goa has quietly produced a small troop of talented fado musicians, led by the diva Sonia Shirsat, who recently wowed audiences in Lisbon and Macau. At the initiative of owner Anju Timblo, the Cidade de Goa hotel hosts fado music on the first Tuesday of every month. The concerts take place at Alfama, the hotel’s beautiful Charles Correa-designed restaurant, which is named after the iconic Lisbon district and serves dishes inspired by the Portuguese maritime empire, from Mozambique to Malacca. Shirsat is a regular guest singer, but the staple performers are Carlos Meneses on the six-string guitar, Franz Schubert Cotta on the 12-string guitarra, and Cotta’s sister Chantale and father Miguelon as vocalists. These are serious musicians, not your usual tourist fare. Cotta learned the guitarra in Lisbon, and this is a matter of pride to him. “We are the only non-Portuguese group in the world which plays fado like it is supposed to be played,” he said.
Noite de Fado Alfama, Hotel Cidade de Goa, Dona Paula (www.cidadedegoa.com, +91 832 245 4545). First Tue of every month. Meal for two R 2,000.
For over 50 years, the deceptively simple and delightful drawings of Mario de Miranda have brought smiles to lakhs of newspaper and magazine readeR Miranda has never received the acclaim that he deserves, not even in Goa. The octagenarian is finally getting his due because of the efforts of Gerard da Cunha, an award-winning architect and publisher. Da Cunha’s Architecture Anonymous press has produced a stream of books, posters, post cards and other quality products featuring Miranda’s work. Da Cunha has created a showcase and gallery of Miranda's work in Torda, near his Houses of Goa museum. Visitors have instant access to da Cunha’s collection of several thousand drawings. There’s a one-stop shop for all of the recently printed material on Miranda and even a few originals on sale.
Mario Gallery House 674, Torda (www.mariodemiranda.com, +91 832 241 0711). Open Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm, Sat 9am-1pm. Admission free.
Now you know where to go, but when? Pick from these season highlights
The Think Fest
You may not have heard of Katherine Boo, but you will soon. The MacArthur “Genius” and New Yorker correspondent has spent years in Mumbai, recording life in “the undercity” for a book that could change the way we think about urban India. The book comes out early next year, but Boo will make an appearance at the Think Fest, organised by Tehelka and Newsweek. With a total of 75 intellectuals, entrepreneurs and celebrities, The Think Fest aims to be “a forum of speakers whose work cuts across human thought”, said Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka’s executive editor. Get the word on humanity’s future from Carl and Anna Dietrich, inventors of the first flying car (this time it’s real!), legendary architect Frank Gehry, or provocative Chinese news editor Hu Shuli.
At the Grand Hyatt, Bambolim Bay, 7 km from Panjim. Open sessions are free; registration for closed events costs R31,000. For more details, call +91 99101 53154 or visit www.goathinkfest.com.
International Film Festival of India
Touted as India’s answer to Cannes, IFFI is a bright-lights showcase of international films in Panjim. With the city lit up with fairy lights, it should be a dreamy ten days for cinephiles.
For tickets, visit www.iffi.nic.in.
Semana De Cultura Portuguesa
Imagine yourself frolicking in Lisbon with Portuguese art workshops, exhibitions, musical performances, folk dances, film screenings and cooking classes.
Call +91 98817 37479 for details.
Goa Arts and Literary Festival
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Goa’s liberation, the Goa Arts and Literary Festival brings together perspectives on cultures, communities and writers on the margins. Focusing on diasporic Goan and other migrant communities, the festival will also be heavy with performances, exhibitions, poetry and book releases.
For more information, visit www.goaartlitfest.com.
Sunburn Electronic Dance Music Festival
Sunburn has featured an impressive roster of talent in the five years since its inception: Paul Van Dyk, John 00 Fleming and Armin Van Buuren. Pack sunscreen and stamina: the party starts early in the day, and once the line-up wraps up, get to the after-parties at Candolim’s beach-front bars.
For tickets, visit www.sunburn.in.
You may not want to drink the same wine afterwards, but there’s no harm in getting your feet dirty with the grape-stomping at Goa’s wine and haute cuisine festival.
For more details, call +91 832 222 4132 or visit www.goa-tourism.com.
Monte Music Festival
A quaint hilltop chapel in Old Goa plays host to the annual Monte Music Festival, where Portuguese choirs, Kuchipudi dancers, Romanian pianists and others assemble to celebrate heritage and music.
For more information, contact the Cidade de Goa hotel (+91 832 2454545) closer to the date.