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In this week's Winter Sun Holidays post, we're heading east to the balmy shores of Goa in the company of travel writer and India expert Caroline Eden, author of the soon-to-be-published Hedonist's Guide to Mumbai and specialist Asia contributor to dozens of magazines and newspapers across the globe. If Goa is on your shortlist this winter, then let Caroline help you discover some of the natural and cultural treasures that lie just beyond the beach...
India's ultimate winter sun destination
Goa is India’s ultimate winter sun destination. With its paradise backdrop of palm-fringed beaches, coconut trees and rosy Arabian Sea sunsets, it has just the right ingredients for an idyllic and relaxing seaside holiday. Due to its size -- Goa is one of India’s smallest states stretching for just 100 kilometres north to south -- it is also very easy to explore.
Just beyond the beaches, in the interior, lies a fascinating world of Portuguese heritage, Hindu temples, historical monuments, wildlife and ample ecological diversity. With many highlights easily accessible on a day trip, you don’t have to travel far to add a different flavour to your beach holiday. Here we suggest some enticing outings to tempt you away from the sun-lounger…
Birds and Mangrove Forests
Named in honour of the ‘bird man of India’, Dr. Salim Ali, the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is a must-do for anyone with even a passing interest in birds and wildlife. A haven on the little island of Chorao, the sanctuary is accessible by a short ferry ride that leaves every 30 minutes from Ribander, close to Panaji, the state capital. Here, amongst the cool, tranquil mangroves and marshes, it's possible to watch herons, mudskippers, black drongos and other birds and wildlife, including flying foxes and crocodiles.
To arrange a tour aboard a mangrove-trunk canoe speak to the men at the ferry dock to negotiate a deal. It's also a good idea to hire a local guide to get the most out of your visit and to bring some mosquito repellent to keep insects at bay in this swampy region. The winter is the best season to spot wildlife, when many species of migratory birds visit the sanctuary from as far away as Siberia.
Spice of Life
Indian cuisine is a highlight for most visitors to Goa, so a day trip to the 130 acre, organic Sahakari Spice Farm is a great way to find out more about the pungent spices that go into making an aromatic curry. On arrival, visitors are served lemongrass tea before being led through rows of tropical jackfruit, guava, papaya, mango and pineapple plants, whilst guides tell the story of how cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and curry leaves are grown and farmed. The plantation is very family-friendly but it can be humid and the walks can be a little long for very young children. The on-site shop sells oils and fresh spices which make for unusual souvenirs and gifts for those back home.
Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary
With a zoo, botanical garden and a wide variety of animal life, Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary packs a lot of sights into its modest eight kilometres. There’s even a collection of mythological Hindu sculptures on-site that were mysteriously discovered when the gardens were being constructed. The sanctuary itself is home to over 100 different bird species as well as Sambar deer, Indian bison, Black Giant squirrel, Indian Peafowl and plenty of snakes. In the afternoon, elephant rides are available and there are nature trails to wander through. Located in the foothills of the Western Ghats, 52 kilometres from Panaji, the sanctuary is easiest to reach with your own hired transport. Note the deer park and some other attractions within the sanctuary are closed on a Thursday.
A Tour of Ancestral Goa
Inland Goa is home to a plethora of colonial mansions, some of which date from the 17th century. One of the best places to experience historical Goa is the village of Chandor, just 15km from Margao. The most attractive example here is Braganza House, whichis open to the public and offers an interesting glimpse at the luxurious lives of colonial landowners. With Italian marble walls and flooring, Chinese porcelain and Belgian chandeliers it is easy to imagine its former glory days. There are guides here who will happily show visitors around for a small contribution towards the upkeep of the house.
Continuing the theme, head a few miles north to Loutolim. Here, you’ll find an open-air theme park called Ancestral Goa. A project by Goan artist, Maendra J. Alvares, the park showcases old Goan houses and culture, and is a essentially a miniature Goan village. Architecture aside, there are a couple of additional weird and wonderful highlights here, including the auspicious giant footprint which is believed to bring good luck for those who stand upon it and the sculpture of Saint Mirabai, which is listed as the longest laterite sculpture in India. Easily accessible from Chandor in a taxi.
Meanwhile, further north, not far from Panaji, and somewhat bizarrely positioned in the middle of a traffic island, is the Houses of Goa museum. This interesting museum features a quick round-up of Goan history, whilst showcasing sections of traditional colonial-era houses, as well as European design. Created by local architect Gerard de Cunha, there are superb old doors and oyster-shell windows, all of which showcase the changes in style throughout Goa’s history.
Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary
Established in 1969, Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary was set up to protect this isolated strip of jungly forest. Located 10km east of Chaudi, and spread over 85 kilometres, it is Goa’s second largest sanctuary and easily manageable as a day trip. The thick vegetation can make it difficult to spot some of the more timid, and rare, animals (flying squirrel, slender loris, Indian pangolin, mouse deer, four-horned antelope to name a few) but children will love spotting frogs, hornbills, woodpeckers and monkeys. Goa’s tallest trees are found here, some stretching to 30 metres, so to spot wildlife it is best to head to the sanctuary’s forest watchtowers for a good view. The best way to visit is with a pre-arranged taxi there and back, and if you can visit in November or December you'll increase your chances of sightings and avoid the worst of the heat.
For the ultimate winter sun combination of beach, culture and wildlife, visit Virgin Holidays who offer tailormade Goa holidays with hotels in both north and south Goa.
Photos: Statue of Jesus in Old Goa © Marina Pissarova | Dreamstime.com, black drongo © Psipc | Dreamstime.com, Braganza House © Aleksandar Todorovic | Dreamstime.com, Macaque © Alukashenkov | Dreamstime.com
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.