A stay at the DoubleTree by Hilton Goa – Panaji, will give you the answer to your eternal dilemma of choosing North vs. South Goa. By Shikha Pushpan
“North Goa is so overrated! It’s the south that captures the real essence of Goa.” “But, you cannot beat the nightlife scene in the north. This is where the world comes to party.”
You’d be no stranger to this war of words if you have friends who’ve seen the state transform from a whimsical beach destination to a psychedelic party capital. However, a second visit to the state and a chance encounter with a croc later, I can undisputedly state
that it’s the backwaters instead that hold the key to an unadulterated Goan experience.
DoubleTree by Hilton Goa – Panaji is my base for two nights as I go about the state in the quest of unique experiences beyond the sun, sand, and the beach. Perched on the Kadamba plateau, the hotel overlooks the River Mandovi, and enjoys an exquisite location away from the commercial hubs of Goa. A short drive and a ferry ride away is our first destination for the day: Chorão Island. The largest of the islands in Goa, Chorão is sparsely dotted with whitewashed churches and quaint Portuguese homes, its vibe evidently more relaxed and streets sans tourist frenzy. “They follow a different calendar here. All day, every day, it’s Sunday, Sunday, Sunday,” Savio, my local guide, croons with an infectious laughter. “How do people earn their livelihoods?” I ask, gazing at the vast expanses of swaying palms. “An old Goan saying goes, ‘You’re a rich man if you have 10 coconut trees in your backyard’,” pat comes the reply. Clearly, I’m in a land where people take pride in their slow-paced lives.
It’s a good thing then that the place has managed to stay off the tourist circuit, Savio tells me, as we board a small motorboat to explore the River Mandovi’s backwaters. Minutes into the ride, and we are transported to another world, where dense mangroves cast a spell and all that breaks the silence is sweet birdsong. Perhaps, this is susegad (derived from the Portuguese word sossegado meaning ‘quiet’), I tell myself. The concept is often mistaken as the relaxed, laid-back attitude the Goans are said to have.
On the boat, just as we begin to lean back and take in the warm winter sun, a loud thud catches us off guard. It’s an adult mugger (crocodile) which had slyly slinked into the river from the marshy mangroves. “So, crocodiles are common around here?” I ask with visible fear that stems from the reptile’s proximity to our boat. “There have been some sightings around these mangroves and in some places closer to the city. However, no attacks on human beings have been reported so far,” Savio tells me, unperturbed by the surprise encounter. We switch off the boat’s motor and wait for the beast to raise its head again. However, much to my relief (and everyone else’s disappointment), it disappears in the muddy waters. I later learn that crocodile excursions are a thing in the River Opa and the brackish waters of Cumbarjua. However, the experience has very few takers and is often limited to offbeat travellers. Bird-watching is another fad in the region. Intrepid birdwatchers can extend the boat ride through the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary and seek out brahminy kites, grey herons, and etc.
Another short ferry ride later, we arrive at Divar Island. This was an all-Hindu island before Sultan Adil Shah invaded the region and introduced Islam to the locals, who were later turned towards Christianity with the arrival of the Portuguese in early 1500s. In fact, it is
here that the Portuguese are believed to have first set foot on the shores of Goa. The Church of St. Cajetan, built on the lines of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, is a testament to the upheavals of power. In the church complex stand the last few ruins of the Sultan’s palace, which was destroyed by the Portuguese army. From here on, the invaders went on to capture the entire state, altering the course of its future.