DRIVING HOLIDAY TO GOA IN JULY – AUGUST 2009.
We were driving down to Goa one more time, our fifth holiday in Goa since December 1999. I had booked in Club Mahindra’s Varca Beach resort almost two months ahead. We got the booking easily because it is the end of blue season (slack season) at this time in Goa. Only die-hard Goa lovers go at this time because of the monsoon rains.
We had to reach Varca by 30th July and our check-out was on 2nd August (3 nights); but we would be utilising only about 1.6 days from our red week. I decided that we would leave a day earlier and spend one night at a destination en route. We had a choice of either a hill resort or a Konkani seaside resort. Finally I narrowed it down to either Sawantwadi or Old Goa/Divar Island.
DAY ONE: 29-July-2009. PUNE TO OLD GOA.
We left home at 6.45 am, after getting up at the ungodly hour of 4.45 am. It’s always good to leave early on a road trip. It was a smooth drive to Kolhapur on National Highway No.4 (NH4), and we were in the city by 11.15 am, with only one tea stop on the way. We turned right into the city and had to wade through the traffic for a good 45 minutes. We passed the main train station, market, and Mahalaxmi temple till we reached Rankala Lake, from where the Gaganbavda road (SH115) takes off.
The road was not in as bad a condition as the Uttur-Ajra-Amboli road, which we had used in November 2008, and was rough only in some patches. As we approached the hill town of Gaganbavda, we could feel the air becoming cooler, and soon we were moving through the rain laden clouds. We stopped at a wayside restaurant, which was more like a dhaba, and ordered mixed vegetables and chapattis for lunch. The MTDC Resort, ‘Hill Top’, was desolate and empty and the restaurant seemed to be closed.
As we were descending the ghats I could not help but stop to take some snaps from the hillside. This was the classic monsoon scenery, with the slowly ascending fluffy clouds misting up the surroundings, glistening wet roads, and small waterfalls trickling down the rocks. As I was clicking, a band of monkeys joined the party and got shot by my Canon. One of them appeared to be the troupe leader, and he sat glowering at me till I took a special shot at him and turned him into a portrait called ‘King Monkey’.
After checking in and having a cuppa tea I went for an evening walk to have a recce of the surroundings. I picked up some bhajjias and pao which we had as a pre-dinner snack. Yummy!
We had dinner at the in-house restaurant run by a contractor. Geeta had a glass of port wine and I had mild beer (Goans prefer mild beer, said the contractor). For dinner he served us prawns fried and Red Snapper fish masala. Our dinner bill amounted to Rs.365, which we thought was on the high side. Goa is supposed to be a food lover’s paradise, remember.
After studying some maps and pamphlets of Old Goa I fell asleep by 11.30pm.
DAY 2: 30-July-2009. OLD GOA TO VARCA.
For my morning walk I first walked to the Gandhi statue, turned right and walked down to the St. Catherine’s ferry point. A lot of locals were crossing over from Divar Island in the approaching ferry to go to their place of work on the mainland. The ferry was carrying a bus, a bevy of two wheelers, and quite a number of people on foot. I got talking to a friendly school teacher, who was waiting with his two wheeler, to cross over to the island. From his descriptions, Divar Island seems to be an enchanting and peaceful paradise, with hardly any vehicles and a lot of trees and birds. In fact, there is a bird sanctuary (Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary) on a neighbouring island called Chorao island. I decided there and then to go with Geeta on the ferry and visit Divar.
Back in the room Geeta was awake since 7.30am. We got ready and left our room at 8.30am and had a breakfast of idli and sweet pao with coffee at a small cafe in the market nearby. We abandoned the car and walked down to St. Cajetan’s Convent and took some snaps of the church and the Viceroy’s Arch.
Then we jumped on to the ferry which seems to be continuously crossing to and fro from the ferry point to the island. The trip is free for people crossing on foot! There was a bus waiting on the island which takes the passengers to Piedade (pronounced Piadaddey), the centre-point of the island, for a mere Rs.5 per head.
After locating ‘Our Lady of Divar High School’, we started looking for Mr. Jan Bostock’s house. A retired gentleman, who seemed to be the Landlord of a nearby bungalow (the island is full of old style Portugese bungalows), went out of his way to help us find the house. The Bostocks have a very nice homestay bungalow, and the best part is the cute little swimming pool, which was being kept very clean by the attendant. We were greeted by Jan’s mother and the Goan house-maid. Mr and Mrs Bostock had probably gone to the market. There was a chessboard lying around and a lot of books strewn on the bookshelves. The bedroom was small but homely and inviting. It did seem a nice place to spend a week long vacation if one wants to just ‘chill-out’.
We had to wait 15 minutes to get a bus back. There are four ferry points on the island so we had to wait for the right bus to take us back. A local helped us board the correct bus and we were back on the ferry in 5 minutes. We checked out of our room at noon, and visited the historical churches of Old Goa. The buildings are indeed majestic, and the atmosphere inside the churches is soothing and has a calming effect on the nerves. We visited the churches of St. Francis of Assisi, Basilica of Bom Jesus, and the Se Cathedral.
We took the Ponda route to reach Margao, instead of going back via Panjim. This road goes into the interiors of Goa and is more hilly and scenic, and has less traffic. We stopped by a wayside vendor who was selling freshly cut cucumbers. He rubbed it with some red chilli powder and salt, and we ate it with the skin. It quenched our thirst and mitigated our hunger pangs for a while, till we reached Margao. We didn’t stop at any of the famous temples, though we passed close to Sri Mahalsa (Mardol), Sri Mangueshi (Priol) and Shantadurga (Kavlem) temples.
We were in Margao at 2pm and stopped for lunch at a newly opened restaurant called “Chilli-n-Spice”. We then filled petrol at the HP pump near the market, and had the stalling problem attended to by a mechanic in a lane nearby. He adjusted the screws on the carburettor and didn’t charge anything. It wasn’t a case of adulterated petrol as I had thought.
We then picked up some cashew nuts from the Margao market. Salted cashews were available for Rs.350/kg and broken cashews for around Rs.200/kg. This must be the best place to buy cashew nuts anywhere in India!
The roads in Margao still confuse me somewhat, with one way streets and circular roads going round and about, and I had some trouble finding the exit to Colva from the market. I could have taken the short-cut directly to Benaulim but wasn’t confident of finding that either. Finally we reached the Club Mahindra Resort at Varca around 4.30pm, and found a place for the car in their parking lot. We were taken to our room in a golf cart.
As soon as we were in the cool confines of our room it was as if we had been transported into a different world. The campus was like a tropical paradise and there are two large swimming pools. We were invited for an introduction and orientation at their ‘Tamara’ restaurant and were served complimentary snacks and coffee. The receptionist told us about the layout and facilities in the resort.
To go out for a walk on the beach one has to sign the security register. At the beach I was accosted by a hotel salesman who started to question me regarding my holiday details and filling up a form; and I had to rudely shoo him away.
Later in the evening we went for a walk outside the resort towards Varca village. There were at least three restaurants (shacks) within walking distance of ClubM and seemed to be open for business in the off season, with brightly lit decorative lights. We bought bread-butter-cheese from a store and returned to our room for dinner. We had Vinicola’s Port wine, cashews and TTK’s pre-cooked packet of mutter paneer with bread for dinner.
DAY 3: 31-July-2009. VARCA.
I was awake at 6.30am and had to immediately increase the temperature in the room. The temperature can be controlled to the nearest degree from 18C upwards. I raised it to 22C and that seemed quite comfortable. I was ready to jump into the swimming pool at 7.30am.
The pool was very clean though the depth seemed to be only 1 metre throughout, so no jumping or diving was allowed. The length was around 35 metres. There were only about three or four people and one kid in the water at this time in the morning. More people seemed to be interested in taking a walk on the beach. The sky was cloudy but it didn’t seem like it would rain.
Back in the room we had a breakfast of cheese-slice sandwiches, bread-butter and a cup of hot milk. We then left to do some shopping for groceries and to have lunch out at Martin’s Corner on Betalbatim beach. We stopped for shopping after Varca Church at a small super-market, and bought MTR’s mushroom-peas masala, veg biryani, and prawns balchow ready-to-eat packets.
We then drove on further north of Colva village, Sernabatim, passed Betalbatim, and Majorda till we reached Utorda beach. The famous ‘Zeebop-on-the-beach’ is supposed to be located here, just beyond Hotel Kenilworth. But all we could find was a beach restaurant by the name of “Island View”. We found Martin’s by 1.30pm and settled down for a cosy lunch. Being an off-season weekday it wasn’t very crowded. It’s not located exactly on the beach, and didn’t even have a sea view, but it had a nice Goan beach shack ambience. The structure was of bamboo and wood panels and plastic sheets were in place to prevent the rain coming in during the monsoons. Plastic chairs were provided for seating and the tables were covered with clean checked table cloths, with a single-stem rose on each table. Most importantly it didn’t have a 5-star air about it, though the prices were on the 3-star side. According to the restaurant manager, Sachin drops in only about once a year, but his parents visit more often as they have a bungalow nearby. There were snaps of other celebrities who had dropped by for a meal on the restaurant’s wall.
The restaurant was started by Mr. Martin in 1989, and was now being run by his three sons, one of whom was sitting on the next table. Late Mr. Martin’s photograph was on the wall next to the bar with a garland around it. We ordered fish tikka to go with my beer and Geeta’s sweet-lime soda. For the main course we had prawn curry rice and shark masala fry with garlic nan.
We had a two hour long siesta on reaching back to our cool room. In the evening we made ourselves some microwave pop-corn and ate it straight from the bag, followed by ‘Real’ apple juice. We then walked to the beach. It hadn’t rained the whole day and the climate was quite warm and humid. Instead of eating at one of the nearby shacks, we decided to have dinner in our kitchenette. After some wine and cashews, we opened the ready-to-eat packets which we had bought earlier and finished both. I increased the thermostat to 23⁰C before going to sleep.
DAY 4: 1-August-2009. VARCA.
I swam 40 lengths this morning to work up an appetite to make the most of our ‘Fun Dining’ experience today. ‘Fun Dining’ is when you pay for breakfast and lunch and/or dinner for that day’s buffet meals and you can hog as much as you want.
At breakfast I started with omelette bread, idli sambar, and sada dosa, and finished the meal with a bowl of fruit (papaya and pineapple) washed down with fresh watermelon juice. Geeta had paratha with aloo bhaji, croissants, cup cakes, dosa, watermelon juice and pineapple cooler.
After breakfast I went to meet Mr. McLoyd Vaz at ‘Holiday World’. He gave me all the updates of ClubM’s new resorts like Thekkady, Masinagudi, Tungi, and their plan to buy over Blue Country Resort at Panchgani. He also explained the benefits of being a Red member when it comes to booking RCI bonus holidays. Later we walked around the resort premises. We visited the souvenir shop, went to the beach and strolled around taking plenty of snaps.
We went for a late lunch at 2.45pm as our breakfast had still not been digested. For lunch we got Goan fish curry (Caldeen), mutton masala and rice, bhindi rechado, masala buttermilk, curd, dodol and bebinca (Goan sweet dishes), cheese cake and ice-cream. All this rich food made us so lethargic that we slept for 2 hours after lunch!
In the evening we strolled down to the beach and took some sunset snaps. We tried walking south along the beach towards Fatrade beach but couldn’t cross the rivulets of rain water flowing towards the sea.
Later we drove down to Colonia Jose Menino, which was about 7 km south of ClubM. The whole resort seemed dark and deserted with even the shops and restaurants closed for the season.
We had dinner and drinks in our cosy room. We had bought a bottle of Bacardi Breezer (cranberry and lime), but it was over too quickly so we supplemented it with some wine. Bread and butter was enough for dinner as we were still digesting our ‘fun’ lunch!
DAY 5: 2-Aug-2009. VARCA to RATNAGIRI.
Today was check-out day. After a long and luxurious swim (40 lengths) and relaxing in the jacuzzi, I was lazing in the pool for some more time and gazing expectantly at the dark clouds approaching from the sea. We had hardly had any rain in the last few days that we had been here. We finished off the remaining bread and butter for breakfast and started packing up. We checked out of our room at 11am and we were sad to leave after another nice holiday in Goa.
We departed at 11.15am and went via Colva, Margao, Panjim, Mapusa and up to Pernem non-stop. There at the last BPCL petrol pump inside Goa I topped up the fuel tank with 6.5 litres of ordinary petrol, as ‘Speed’ was not available. By 1.15pm we had reached Savantwadi and cruised on up to Kudal where we stopped at Hotel Raaj for lunch. This was the same hotel where we had stayed overnight on our first trip to Goa in 2001. We ordered bangda (mackerel) fry, and prawn curry rice with chapattis and the bill amounted to a modest Rs.117. I complimented the manager on the tasty Malwani fare. He was an old, friendly man and said that he had taken over the management of the restaurant only a month and a half back. There were placards saying ‘no smoking’ and ‘no alcohol’ in the restaurant. It was neat and clean with very clean washrooms.
It was 3pm and we were still 200 km away from Chiplun, our next destination. The road was quite winding and undulating, and it was impossible to keep a constant speed. I averaged around 60 to 70 km/hr, the speedometer indicating a top speed of 110 km/hr on the straight stretches. There were some potholes on the road but mostly they had been filled up with crushed brick so the ride wasn’t too bad. It rained intermittently but not very heavily.
By the time we reached Hathkhamba it was 5pm, so we decided to make a night halt at Ratnagiri. Chiplun was still about 80 km away and it would be dark by the time we reached there. I asked Geeta to look up Outlook Traveller’s “52 Weekend Breaks from Mumbai” and she called ahead while I drove. We decided to halt for the night at Hotel Landmark, which seemed reasonably priced at Rs. 1000 for a non a/c room. Kohinoor Samudra Resort seemed to be luxury resort and there was no point in spending Rs.3000 for a night halt.
Ratnagiri is famous for the king of fruits, the Alphonso Mango, and the route from the highway to the town was lined with hundreds of mango trees. Hotel Landmark was on Thibaw Palace Road and we reached there by 5.30pm. The second floor room was stuffy when we entered and had a damp musty smell. We opened the only window in the room and kept it open till sundown. After a cup of tea I went out walking and exploring.
Thibaw Palace and Thibaw Points are just a 5 minute walk away from the hotel. The palace was closed and had a run-down appearance. It seemed more like an oversize and dilapidated bungalow. The exiled King of Burma is supposed to have spent his last years here during British Raj days, gazing at the passing ships from Thibaw Point. The Point had a beautiful view of Ratnagiri harbour and the town in general. There was an enclosed amusement ground, and a look-out tower, playground and park for kids, and a series of fountains. There were chaat and snack stalls too. It seems that this is the favourite picnic spot and happening place for all of Ratnagiri, and being a Sunday there was quite a crowd of people of all ages enjoying their evening out. I took some snaps from the tower and was out in 15 minutes.
DAY 6: 3-August-2009. RATNAGIRI – CHIPLUN – KOYNA – PUNE.
We decided to leave as early as possible, but still it was not before 9.30am. For breakfast I had kanda poha and Geeta had sheera. Both the dishes were quite fresh and tasty. We washed it down with our room-made tea.
We arrived in Chiplun by 11am, taking an hour and fifteen minutes from Hathkhamba, going at 70 km/hr. We found the right turn to Karad after some enquiries and were soon climbing the ghats up to Koynanagar. The road was not as bad as I had feared and imagined it would be. It was quite motorable with only a few potholes on the way. We had to take a left turn to go to Koynanagar after reaching up.
However, the resorts, Koyna Lake View (MTDC) and Gursale Resort, are located on top of a hill called Humbarli and this left turn was just before the ST bus stand. It was a narrow and very steep winding road of about 2 km and I had to do most of it in first gear. But the view from the top, of the lake and the dam, was a heavenly reward!
The rooms at MTDC Koyna Lake View had individual balconies overlooking the lake. But when we asked for lunch we were told that it would take an hour and a half to prepare! So we drove down to Gursale’s which had an equally spectacular view, though from a lesser height. However the rooms (tariff Rs.1200) did not have a balcony. We were welcomed with a cup of tea, and lunch was served in 45 minutes. Vegetarian thali cost Rs.75 each, with two vegetables, rice, dal, chapatti and papad.
We reached Patan in half an hour and after about 20 km more the road forked at the toll naka. We took the left turn and joined NH4 at Umbaraj. The right fork would have taken us to Karad. Soon we were speeding towards Pune and reached Kikvi around 5pm. The fuel indicator was touching red and I had to fill the tank with 26 litres. We had dosas and coffee at Kamat’s and were on our way again.
We were in Pune at 6.30pm after driving 1221 km to and from Goa. Main odometer reading was 55,555 at the finishing point!