There isn’t a dearth of exotic destinations in India to pick from, I have plenty shortlisted in my travel-inspiration folder. But the thought of returning to remembered landscapes to rediscover travel post lockdown was comforting.
Our return to coastal Karnataka was not the first break from our extended Covid hibernation. We’d dashed off to Aurangabad for a few days in November (2021) to visit the extraordinary Ajanta & Ellora caves with my sister Mallika and her daughter, Sahana.
The uncertain future of travel was the inevitable topic of conversation over evening drinks in our Aurangabad hotel room. Talk veered, one evening, to my long shelved west coast itinerary. Turned out, Sahana had a wedding to attend in Goa in mid December and intended to drive up from (her mother’s place in) Bangalore. Why not combine the two? Bingo! We had a plan.
The journey was good for our souls. An unfolding of our collective memories even if we didn’t actually use Mangalore as a base. Through temples and beaches, a relaxing two days in a wellness resort and over a highway flanked by a river and the sea along the Karavali and the Southern Konkan coasts all the way north to Goa.
And it included a surfeit of coastal cuisine. If you haven’t tasted seafood from this region you have no idea what you are missing. I live beside the ocean in Chennai and it ought to be similar but it isn’t, for some reason. Neither are the beaches (nor the rains)! And that is NOT a biased statement.
Here’s a summary of our itinerary and some of the highlights from our two weeks motoring through Karnataka and Goa. Scroll down to the end for trip logistics and tips.
SHETTIHALLI: A LITTLE DETOUR TO A SUBMERGED CHURCH
We lived around an hour away from Shettihalli Rosary Church in the 80s. And Gorur dam used to be a favourite picnic spot. But we only learned about its existence some three decades later. From Instagram!
The Franciscan church built in 1860 was abandoned when the construction of the dam (in 1979) caused it to be submerged during the monsoon season. During summers, reservoir levels drop low enough to be able to walk across.
By mid December, I had expected to at least ride a coracle (circular reed boat) through its gothic arches but unprecedented rains throughout this region ensured much of it remained under water. It was still a beautiful, haunting sight and worth the brief detour en route to our Belur homestay.
BELUR AND HALEBIDU: REVISITING DAZZLING HOYSALA ART
Belur Chennakeshava Temple and Helebidu Hoysaleshwara temples are two celebrated examples of the profusely ornamented temple architecture of the Hoysala Dynasty that ruled this region of interior Karnataka between 1006-1346 CE.
We lived in Hassan for nearly a decade in the 80s. Its position midway between Mangalore (my hometown) and Bangalore (Ravi’s parents’ home) ensured a constant stream of guests from both directions and they were usually eager to visit nearby monuments. I had practically turned tour guide to these temples and to the gigantic monolith of Bahubali in Sravanabelagula.
How Sahana, then studying in Mangalore, missed one of my guided ‘tours’ despite frequenting our home along with my younger sister is a mystery. But she claims she did and since I had no photos to show for all my visits we added a pit stop to our coastal circuit. It felt good to rekindle the wonder that familiarity had dimmed somewhat.
Moodbidri: Jain legacies in the ‘Jain Kashi’ Of The SoutH
Jainism is a non theistic religion that broke away from the rituals of Vedic Hinduism even before the birth of the Buddha. It was born in the Gangetic plains of North India but moved westward with Hindu resurgence and then south along with migrants fleeing famine as early as 300BC.
The most prominent of these Jain temples – referred to locally as basadis – is the Chandranatha Basadi or the Saavira Kambhada Basadi (Thousand Pillar Shrine) in the heart of Moodbidri. I am partial to the simplicity of local Jain architecture – borrowed from the spare southern aesthetic – as opposed to the grand marble Jain edifices of the north. But they all seemed forlorn and neglected this time, far removed from our memories of lively celebrations with Jain friends.
The presence of a lovely resort high on a hill and a concentration of Jain sites in the vicinity makes Moodbidri a great base to explore Dakshina Kannada (district) from. Mangalore airport is under an hour away by road.
Karkala: More Jain heritage, many sadly shuttered due to the pandemic
The star attraction in Karkala is the 42′ high 14th century monolith of Gommateshwara: one of the sons of the first Jain Thirthankara (teacher) Rishabanath, and believed to be the first Jain monk to have attained ‘moksha’ or salvation. It is the second largest of the five Jain monoliths in Karnataka. Access is via 200 or so steps carved into the hill or by road all the way to the top (with prior permission from the office below).
The Chaturmukha (four-faced) Basadi, which was the main focus of this detour since I’d never visited before, was closed. Its gate at the foot of the hill was locked so we couldn’t even photograph the exterior. The caretaker was unreachable. We discovered later that he had turned off his phone since he also works as a school attendant. It was particularly disappointing since this is a listed ASI monument that can surely afford a full time caretaker.
There are plenty of smaller, personal shrines that are open to the public within town as well as along connecting roads.
Varanga: A most photogenic lake temple
This enchanting Jain shrine floating dreamily in the middle of a tranquil kere (pond/lake) in a village named Varanga has been in existence since the 12th century. I grew up in Mangalore, a mere 72km south of the village, and never knew of its existence.
It took a Tweet – several decades later – showing stunning drone footage of the little basadi to pique my interest. And a pandemic to get me here.
This is another Chaturmukha shrine with stone idols of four Jain Tirthankaras facing each cardinal direction. The priest lives on the south bank and rows himself to the temple to perform rituals at specific times. Visitors are ferried in from the eastern bank for a fee payable at the office within the Matada Basadi on the edge of a field, barren at the time.
It was a special morning, just the four of us gliding silently towards the temple on a boat propelled by a pole and witnessing what felt like an intimate, private ritual. The even older Matada Basadi on the mainland – worth visiting from all accounts – was closed.
Hiriyadka: Serendipitous (re)connection with the gods of our ancestors!
It occurred to us, just as we were leaving Varanga, that the route we had picked passed close to our ancestral village. Our wing of the ancient house does not exist anymore but Google confirmed that the family temple – Shree Veerabhadraswamy Temple – was right along our route to Udupi. So we stopped. And prayed for our ancestors living and dead and for generations yet to be born, certain in our minds that it was mum’s invisible hand that had steered us here.
All members of the family are expected to mark attendance here (at least) before weddings and to ‘present’ new borns. My last visit was just before our daughter got married. Mum was around, I wasn’t given a choice. My niece did bring her new born – they’d gathered to photograph five generations of first born daughters! – but failed to do so before her wedding last Jan. My grandchildren are yet to visit Mangalore let alone this temple.
It was a delight to find the temple beautifully restored. The metal roof gleamed in the afternoon light. The stone work was precise. The banana blossom shaped ‘thorans’ exquisitely crafted.
Brownie points in Heaven scored, we set off for Hasta Shilpa in Manipal followed by lunch in Thimmappa ‘Hotel’ (for non Indian readers, the word restaurant does not exist in the Indian lexicon) that did not disappoint. A basic (foolhardy?) meal in our first crowded, closed eatery in over two years. Our fingers were firmly crossed as we devoured our seafood.
Hasta Shilpa: Homage to our fast disappearing built heritage
The remarkable Mr. Vijayanath Shenoy’s passion for the conservation of vernacular architecture led to the establishment of this very special open air museum in 1997. It showcases 22 characteristic buildings from across the region ranging from simple homes to durbar halls of palaces along with traditional shopfronts and indigenous craft museums. All painstakingly re-erected on a six acre property that is absolute joy to walk through.
Gokarna: Breather in a temple town by the sea
Apart from early starts on several consecutive days in order to avoid crowds, this was a leisurely trip with journey times rarely exceeding four hours. We still factored in two free days. And what better place to catch our breaths than a wellness resort beside a beach named Om?
Gokarna Town, situated as it is at the confluence of two rivers and the Arabian sea, is considered a sacred spot to conduct the last rites of the dead. It feels quite like Varanasi, even if the vibe is less intense, and is nearly as photogenic (with narrow winding lanes that we foolishly attempted navigating in my niece’s Land Rover!). We failed, however, to connect with the sacred. Again. Possibly because we carried the baggage of overwhelming hassle from past visits to immerse the ashes of our grandfather and father.
But the pristine coastline of Gokarna is the finest you’ll find anywhere. The reason it’s been a haven for backpackers escaping the high costs and heaving beaches of Goa. And our wellness resort was all peace and quietude. (Details below).
And finally, Goa!
What can I say about Goa – the erstwhile capital of Portugal’s Oriental Empire – that hasn’t already been said? We’ve been there countless times before with our extended families when we’d only eat, drink and hang around beaches on a loop. On this visit, we took time off from the eating and drinking to explore Goa’s colonial and Goud Saraswat legacies.
Highlights include an early morning stroll through the vividly painted streets of Fountainhas in Panjim to connect with Goa’s Portuguese heart; a guided walk through Velha Goa and its many beautiful churches; a whole day dedicated to opulent Indo Portuguese mansions, chief among them the Figueiredo House built by jesuit priests for a freshly converted local family that took on the Portuguese name and Palácio do Deão in Quepem, painstakingly restored based on drawings belonging to the original owner, a priest from Braga; and the Mahalasa Narayani and Laxmi Narasimha temples among the eclectic Hindu shrines we visited in Ponda.
I only regret not being able to fit in the ancient Mahadev Temple in Tambdi Surla before Ravi and I decamped to a charming resort by the sea after which sightseeing was the last thing on our minds.
We flew in from Chennai to Bangalore and out of Goa. You could fly direct to Mangalore if you intend to focus on the coast alone. Or hop on to the new Vistadome train from Bangalore.
Bangalore to Belur: 219 km, approx. 4.30hrs by road via NH 75. The brief detour to Shettihalli Rosary Church took just over an hour more. Mallika & Sahana (they joined us a day later) took around the same time for a quick visit to Sravanabelagula en route.
Belur to Moodbidri: 132 km, approx. 3.5 hours on NH 73 (Charmadi Ghat via Mudigere). NH 75 (Shiradi Ghat via Sakleshpur) is the most popular route from Hassan to the west coast but reports of monsoon damage led to us picking the former and we enjoyed the extremely scenic ride.
All subsequent stops on this itinerary right up to Panaji, Goa, are along the coastal highway NH 66 and and directions on Google Maps are pretty accurate.
Getting around is easiest with a car. It is possible, however, to reach the larger towns (along the west coast) by train or bus from (Mangalore, Bangalore or Goa) and then use taxis or auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) to move around locally. Do factor in notoriously pricey taxi fares when budgeting for Goa .
NUMBER OF DAYS
We spent two nights in Belur. Both temples are doable in a single day.
We divided our three days in Dakshina Kannada between Moodbidri & Kundapura. As mentioned before, much on our itinerary is doable from Moodbidri with two full days. Mangalore will require a couple more days.
Allow at least two nights to experience Gokarna’s beaches. We stopped briefly at Murudeshwar temple on the way in and visited Gokarna town and Mirjan fort in a single morning.
Goa has enough to keep you occupied for days on end. We had five. I’m dreaming of returning for a whole monsoon week.
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BEST TIME TO VISIT
The best time to visit the west coast, or much of South India for that matter, is from November to February. South west monsoons lash the region from June to September. While heavy day-long downpours are the norm, this season can be most picturesque along the coast and the wooded foothills of the Western Ghats that line the entire stretch.
MORE THINGS TO DO IN COASTAL KARNATAKA
This itinerary should ideally include Mangalore. We deliberately chose to leave it out since personal commitments demand our presence there often enough and we didn’t want to rush through the rest of the itinerary.
Mangalore has a fair share of landmarks: Kadri & Mangala Devi Temples, Tippu Sultan’s Battery, St. Aloysious Church and its frescoes are some of the more significant. But it is the backwaters and beaches and especially the food most people come here for.
St. Mary’s island off the coast of Malpe – a national geological monument known for its unique basalt rock formations – was very much on our itinerary. The plan was to catch the last ferry out from Malpe beach and linger for some freshly cooked seafood at the shacks on our return. But the searing heat that afternoon left us loath to leave the shady confines of our Kundapura homestay.
Kasarkod Beach near Honnavar and Padubidri Beach near Udupi, are among the ten Indian beaches to have received Blue Flag certification from the Foundation for Environment Education in Denmark (FEE).
For those interested in water sports, surfing, kayaking, stand up paddling and boating is available at Tannir Bhavi (Mangalore), Mulki and Malpe beaches. Netrani, one of the Islands off Murudeshwara, is an authorised Scuba diving destination. Not linking to any agency since I cannot vouch for them personally.
There are a host of religious shrines that we didn’t include due to social distancing worries and in order to maintain a slower pace. I now regret not having taken the detour to the Gerusoppa Jain Basadis in Honnavar. We were kind of templed out by then.
The Sri Krishna Temple in Udupi is a major pilgrimage site with its many legends and a famed kitchen that feeds thousands of devotees daily for free. Its culinary tradition, begun to keep the infant god in its sanctum happy, has evolved into an indigenous countrywide fast-food culture. If you’ve had a dosa or South Indian (vegetarian) thali anywhere in India, it was likely in an Udupi Restaurant.
Kateel Durgaparameshwari Temple (Ravi’s family temple that we did pop into briefly) and the Mahabaleshwar temple in Gokarna are the other major places of worship along the coast. Kollur Mookambika Temple is an ancient Durga shrine in an atmospheric setting up on a hill near Kundapura. Expect crowds in all of them. The latter two temples have dress codes: men need to be bare chested and wear dhotis (traditional wrap around lower attire) and women wearing trousers will not be allowed entry. I find it strange that Salwars are allowed even though they are forked and as foreign to the region as jeans!
We stopped briefly at Mirjan Fort – an impressive 17th century fortification built by a feudatory of the Sultans of Bijapur – on our way back to Swaswara from Gokarna town. From photos I’ve since come across online, it appears distinctly more atmospheric in its post-monsoon moss covered avatar.
Karwar, on the border with Goa, boasts more pristine beaches, a warship museum (connected to the Indian Naval Base) and a resort on a private island that we briefly considered in lieu of our Gokarna retreat.
Stops anywhere along this coast can be rewarding although stay options are limited as compared to Goa or Kerala. The upside of that is an, as yet, unspoilt coastline.
WHERE WE STAYED & ATE
Hiravate Estate, within a coffee plantation about 30 min by road from Belur, is a beautiful property with great potential. But our expectations, based on our acquaintance with the host’s parents (when we lived in Hassan) and their impeccable hospitality, were let down by poor management and housekeeping.
MOODBIDRI (DAKSHINA KANNADA)
The Estate Resort: Lovely resort – just under an hour by road from Mangalore – with good food and service and beautiful views overlooking a valley. A welcome addition to the region’s limited hospitality scene.
Thimmapa ‘Hotel’, Udipi: Highly recommended for seafood. You get rice, one vegetable side and gravy served at the table on a banana leaf and then you get to pick your choice of seafood from trays brought to the table or from the menu board out front. Have no idea how they keep track!
Vanas, Mangalore: Mallika & Sahana had lunch here one afternoon and can’t stop talking about the amazing seafood thali that included homestyle vegetable curries and chutneys.
KUNDAPURA (UDUPI DISTRICT)
Balkatmane: We chose to split our stay and spend a night at this property which retains the feel of the region’s ancestral homes and offers traditional food and Ayurvedic treatment options. Currently only bookable directly from their website.
GOKARNA (UTTARA KANNADA)
CGH SwaSwara – from the same stable as the Brunton Boatyard in Kochi – is an eco-conscious Ayurveda and Yoga resort and the only upscale property in Gokarna with access to a beach. The sparseness and quietude of their expansive Konkan Villas enforce the feeling of being one with nature without diminishing any of the comforts of a boutique retreat.
Disclaimer: Our stay was hosted by CGHSwaSwara. We would have picked it regardless.
Gokarna has a fair share of beachside restaurants but we weren’t in the mood to try any of them.
Mateus Boutique Hotel, housed in a restored Indo-Portuguese house bang on 31 Janeiro Street, is clean and ideally located to explore Panjim and Old Goa sights. But amenities and service are pretty basic.
Ahilya By The Sea is a dreamy resort situated right on the ocean. Its 12 rooms/suites are spread across three antique filled villas and a tree house with panoramic views across the bay. The shore is rocky so you don’t get to access a sandy beach like in a typical Goan resort, but that is exactly how we like our beach experience: sipping a favourite drink in a beautiful, cool room looking out into that watery expanse.
Best bars: For The Record – Vinyl Bar and Antonio@31 both in Panjim. The former had better cocktails, the latter, more food options. What Miguel’s Cocktails and Petiscos lacked in vibe it made up for with its version of Serradura. The general consensus is that we are too old and finicky for the iconic Joseph’s Bar.
Best Goan Thali: Kokni Kanteen. The seafood thali was fantastic but I also recommend their very interesting vegetarian thali in combination with seafood sides. Don’t miss the smoky dried shrimp kismur. No reservations, you’ll need to get there (very) early to snag a table.
Best Meals: Our set lunch in a shady patio of Palácio do Deão was truly special (needs pre-booking at least a day in advance via the number on their website). As was chef Avinash Martins ‘reimagined Goan’ tasting menu at Cavatina. My niece raves about Mahe, we didn’t get to try it. Bomras as well as Black Sheep Bistro were hugely underwhelming.
Cafe Bodega up on Altinho is a lovely lunch spot.
Our al fresco dinners at Ahilya accompanied by the sounds of the sea were all lovely.
This (so far) easy going region is among the safest in India even for solo female travellers although wandering around by yourself after dark, especially on deserted beaches, is not advisable.
Dressing respectfully when visiting religious places is expected and is increasingly being mandated.
Cameras were not allowed into some temples like Varanga Kere Basadi but they were fine with mobile phones. Belur and Halebid temples charge nominal camera fees. Photographing principal deities in temple sanctums is usually prohibited. Photography is also restricted within several churches in Old Goa.
PS: I do intend to write more specific posts on some of the stops on this itinerary as and when I can. Please feel free to get in touch if any of you need more information in the meantime.