Exploring North Goa

‘The Pearl of the Orient’- Goa on the Konkan coast of India is popular with Indian as well as International travellers. It has witnessed the rule of several dynasties with the Portuguese influence being the most significant. The former Portuguese colony was finally handed over to India in 1961. In the 1960s, Goa became popular with the Hippies for its fun in the sun and parties on the beaches.

Painting of Goa Map @Rahin Somani

Goa for all Seasons

Goa is for all seasons. Goa in summer when all one wants to do is dive in the sea and not care about getting tanned. Goa in the rains when the countryside turns verdant, and you enjoy getting drenched. Goa in winters when the cool breeze blows, and you ring in Christmas and New Year. Any time of the year when one is overworked and looking for a break Goa is the perfect escape with friends and family.

Goa for all Reasons

In the same breath, Goa is for all reasons and no reason. To make a relationship official with a kiss and seal. After a heartbreak or bereavement to heal. To walk back in time and explore the Portuguese era. To get the perfect Instagram click, with a glass of drink and the setting sun. To party like there is no tomorrow and try your luck at the casino. To lose yourself and yet find yourself.

The three friends in ‘Dil Chahta Hain’ Bollywood movie sitting on Chapora Fort make a vow, “Hum logon ko har saal ek na ek baar Goa zaroor aana chahiye.” When translated in English, it would mean “We guys should definitely come to Goa at least once a year, every year!” It’s almost been a ritual for us to visit Goa if not every year at least once in 2-3 years. ‘When in doubt, head to Goa’ has been a mantra for many.

Although known for its sun-kissed beaches, historic churches, and nightlife, one can do a lot while in Goa. From going on a Heritage Walk to signing up for a Goan cooking class, to witnessing familiar and exotic animals and birds at the Wildlife Sanctuaries, to going crab catching in the backwaters. In fact, there is so much to do in Goa that it is impossible to cover it all in a single trip unless one plans an extended staycation.

Then there is the ever-raging debate between North Goa and South Goa with staunch loyalists for both. North Goa is all about partying, casinos, nightlife, shopping and razzmatazz. By contrast, South Goa is known for its picturesque beaches, tranquillity, slow-paced life away from the crowds. If you are a ‘tourist’ with a to-do list, you will like North Goa. But if you are a ‘traveller’ with no fixed agenda and open to experiencing whatever fancies you. In that case, South Goa is a good bet.

We were initially tourists with a to-do list of places and things to do so we were diehard North Goa fans. Having sprouted greys and accepting our wrinkles, we seem to favour the quiet and unhurried side of South Goa now. However, we try and add a sprinkling of North Goa to our itineraries to be fair to our teenage kids.

We will take you to Goa through a series of travelogues:

  1. Exploring North Goa
  2. The UNESCO Heritage Sites of Old Goa
  3. Exploring South Goa.

Also, check out these three articles:

  1. 12 Things to do in Goa
  2. 5 Things to Shop in Goa
  3. The Fontainhas Heritage Walk

We begin with our first travelogue ‘Exploring North Goa.’

The Dabolim Airport in Goa is the centre between the North and South divide. Anything to the north is designated as North Goa (except for Ponda) and south as South Goa. So North Goa would include Panjim the capital, Mapusa, Old Goa with historic churches, Ponda known for Spice plantations. The beaches of Baga, Calangute, Anjuna, Vagator and Miramar are all in North Goa.

On most of our earlier trips, we explored North Goa, and this travelogue is actually a collection of those trips. 

Panjim the Heart of North Goa

Panjim, the capital of Goa, is also the headquarters of the North Goa District. Situated on the Mandovi River banks, it is a vibrant city with the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception at its heart. Built in a fusion Portuguese Baroque style the most striking feature of this church are its zigzag stairways. Bollywood movie buffs will recognise it in several movies like Ranveer Singh starer ‘Simba’. Its sparkling white façade lives up to its name but conceals its real age making it appear more recent in construction.

Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Panjim @Rafiq Somani

Latin Quarter, Fontainhas

The other feather in the cap of Panaji is the Latin Quarters, or Fontainhas is known for its colourful buildings, chapels and rich heritage. Although we have explored North Goa several times, we had somehow missed visiting this part of Panjim.  So on our recent trip, we went on a heritage walk exploring Fontainhas’ colourful homes, sampling sweet treats at 31st January bakery and listening to Goan music. Kindly read the Fontainhas Heritage Walk article to know more about this experience.

Miramar

Miramar is the most popular and also the longest beach of Panjim. It is situated at the confluence of the Mandovi river and the Arabian Sea. It is what Juhu Beach and Chowpatty are to Mumbai with a lot of crowds. As we step on the beach, we can see eateries, water sports facilities. People are enjoying in the water, couples are cosy, as children make sandcastles while youngsters are drinking and making merry.

Dona Paula

We next head to the Dona Paula which has a vantage point with scenic views. One can see the confluence of the Mandovi River and Zuari River meets the Arabian Sea. We notice a statue of a couple which some say is of the lovers Dona and Paula while others disagree. Various stories can be heard about Dona and Paula with the most popular version being as follows. Dona was the daughter of a Viceroy who fell in love with a fisherman. Since her father was not in favour of their marriage, she threw herself on the rocks and ended her life. This legend gives this place its name and the reason it is popular among lovers.

Mandovi River Cruise

The one thing that most first-timers in Goa do is go on a Mandovi river cruise as you can marvel at the Panjim landmarks and enjoy the sunset. There is palpable excitement in the air as we board the cruise. There are chairs on the deck, and revellers scramble for seats. Some choose to be at the edges to get an unobstructed view of the coastline. The folk dance performances begin and everyone is clapping and some even singing along.

The commentator keeps pointing to the various landmarks of Panjim. We can see tourists picnicking on the Miramar beach and several of the waterfront beach resorts. As we cruise along, we see Fort Aguada, Reis Magos Fort and the forest cover. The dancefloor is soon open to all, and the kids join in as one after another Bollywood songs are played by the DJ. We didn’t realise how time flew, and the sun had set as we return to the jetty.  As we driver pass the jetty, we can see the crowds at the floating Casinos. In Goa, gambling is legal, so the Casinos are very popular with those eager to try their luck.

View Mandovi River Cruise @Rafiq Somani

Vagator Beach and Chapora Fort in North Goa

After a goodnight’s sleep, we are now all set to explore other landmarks of North Goa. We drive to Chapora Fort, but our car gets stuck on the slope. With help from the locals, we manage to get it out of the gravel. We decided to thank them in return by picking some refreshments for them. We trek up to the fort nicknamed the ‘Dil Chahta Hain Fort’ after it was epitomised in the movie by the same name. One can see the entire stretch of Vagator Beach from the fort. The W Hotel is situated on this beach where we subsequently stayed. It has a panoramic point from where one can see a long stretch of Vagator beach too.

Vagator Beach @Rafiq Somani

Fort Aguada in North Goa

We then head to Fort Aguada built in 1612 by the Portuguese to protect the Dutch and Marathas’ invasion. It was significant as ships travelling from Europe would stop here to replenish drinking water from the fort’s freshwater spring. That is how the fort got its name Aguada meaning ‘watering place’ in Portuguese. We walk over the ramparts of the fort which provides a breathtaking view of the sea and surroundings. The children are amused by the lighthouse that stands tall and would guide ships in the past. The fort has served as a prison too. The Taj Property is located next to Fort Aguada.

Spice Plantation in Ponda

It is time now for us to drive to Ponda for our Spice Plantation tour. As we enter, we are greeted with a garland and shower of flower petals. After the initial round of introductions, we are taken around the plantation. Our guide shows us spice plants like pepper, vanilla, cardamom and many more. The medicinal and culinary uses of each are then explained. The children are excited at seeing ducks swimming in a pond and a calf ruminating over cud. We see trees and plants of cashew nut, banana, beetle nut, jackfruit, pineapple and many more. A sachet with assorted spices is handed over as a return gift. On the way to our hotel, we stop at the Mangueshi Temple, one of Goa’s most famous temples.

Mangueshi Temple @Rafiq Somani

Dolphin Watching in North Goa

The next day we are excited as we are about to go dolphin watching. As we step in the 20-seater boat, we realise that another couple and our family are the only travellers. This makes us feel like this is a specially curated private cruise for us. As the boat engine starts, the breeze blows, and the boat bobs on the sea. We see the verdant coastline with homes, churches and hotels nestled among the thick vegetation. We can see the Fort Aguada, which we had visited earlier, then the Reis Magos fort adjacent to a beautiful whitewashed church. This magnificent fort is the oldest in Goa and has served as a prison and hospital in the past. After a while we notice a couple of dolphins flipping in the water, and the children squeal excitedly. The Indo Pacific Humpback dolphins are the most common dolphins spotted here.

Baga and Calangute beaches of North Goa

The next day we explore the beaches of Baga and Calangute. The roads leading up to the beaches are lined by shops selling boho-chic clothes, jewellery, bags and hats, souvenirs and other collectables. The beaches have shacks which serve multicuisine dishes. Music is at full throttle as revellers are eating, drinking and partying. People are doing different water sports like parasailing, banana boat rides, jet skis and so on. A tattoo artist approaches us with a catalogue from which one can pick and choose a design. The kids and my husband get a temporary tattoo and are all smiles as they show off their tattoos.

Getting a Tattoo @Rafiq Somani

Several food joints are popular in North Goa like Titos, Thalassa, Copperleaf, Banyan Tree that can be visited. A lot of them require prior bookings. Exploring North Goa for its pulsating energy, happening beaches, the colourful Latin Quarters and Mandovi river cruise is a must-do. Old Goa with its historic churches and convents is also a part of North Goa, but that is our next travelogue.

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