Goa versus Kerala
Goan beach life is neatly separated into every scene you might desire and many you might not. There are the rave enclaves in Anjuna and Vagator along with massive beaches if you don’t mind body-shaking bass at sundown; the crowded charter-holiday region of Candolim, Calangute and Baga; the luxury resorts and empty sands of Varca and Cavelossim; the laid-back, less-developed fishing villages to the far north such as Chapora and Arambol; and in the far south spread Palolem and Patnem beaches, where neo-hippies escape into a purple haze. Score: 7/10
Palm-fringed and attractive, the beaches are not exactly manicured, be prepared for flotsam and jetsam.
Resorts in the north form ragged crescents around rocky headlands, with Arambol best for kicking back day-long and Vagator boasting one of the prettiest beaches. Backed by blocky concrete hotels, Baga and Calangute are packed with beach shacks and sunbeds. The more exclusive Bogmalo beach has pricier restaurants and bars, but is worth it for the sunset views, swimmable waters and clean sands.
Choose with care and make sure you select accommodation with an on-site safe as security can be an issue.
Package-holiday resorts are inevitably charmless and ethnic-free though clean and convenient. The thatched beach huts of Palolem and Arambol have rustic appeal, and cost as little as $8 a night with shared bathroom or $20 with a private bathroom; you’ll get the best rooms if you arrive mid-week in the morning as previous incumbents are checking out.
In the mid- to high-end bracket, there’s some charm and character to be found. Siolim House in Siolim offers doubles with breakfast around from $65. It’s is a quaint, colonial-style boutique hotel set back from the coast. Fort Tiracol has doubles at $130 for half board. It’s an old Portuguese fort in the northern Goa with a private beach. Nilaya Hermitage in Arpora does doubles from $300, half board, complete with sinuous pool, in-house yoga master and clifftop spot views.
The fly-and-flop brigade, largely unaware they’re in a conservative country, have created a parallel tourist industry of bikini-spotting men, with Anjuna being particularly notorious. Women should avoid nude or topless bathing. There’s considerable overdevelopment despite an injunction against beachfront building in the 1970s, so much of north and central Goa is despoiled with concrete blocks.
Overall score: 7/10
There’s masses of atmosphere in Kerala, from crude fishermen’s huts in coastal forests to foreign bohemia. Kovalam resorts, like Goa’s, has moved on from backpacker retreat to package-holiday destination and with the change came souvenir touts, crowded sands and erratic accommodation.
Varkala, a Hindu pilgrimage attraction, is sleepy but fast-developing, especially the clifftop guesthouses and palm-thatch cafes.
At Samudra beach, just north of Kovalam, small resorts mix it with fishing villages.
Further north still, at Pulinkudi and Chowara, smaller family resorts offer a low-key alternative. Pozhikkara beach, for example, home to fishermen and coir makers, is a world away from headlong-holiday culture, though not suitable for swimming or stripping off.
Kovalam consists of four very different beaches. Lighthouse, the half kilometre strand at the centre, is the most popular with wide sand and relatively calm seas, though the beach touts become a pain in high season; Hawah beach in the north is the province of local fishermen; Kovalam beach is enjoyed by Indian tourists, many in saris; and little Samundra (not to be confused with the Samudra resort) is largely cut off at high tide.
North of Kovalam, Varkala is a grey-gold beach at the foot of a red-rock cliff wall, lapped by brisk currents. Wake before the yoga fans to stake your claim to a space on the best sand. With a steep drop into boisterous waters, Samudra, while pleasantly less busy, isn’t suitable for swimmers.
Kerala has a better selection of interesting beach resorts at acceptable prices than Goa.
Surya Samudra offers doubles from $110 with breakfast. It’s 12km south of Kovalam, a pristine spa hotel with incredible views and tranquil but exotic feel.
Neeleshwar Hermitage has doubles from $130 with brekky. It’s hidden in a coconut grove north of the coast, with India’s most dramatic infinity pool, and a spa specialising in modern ayurveda.
New in 2011, Vivanta has doubles from $110 with brekky and stretches from the beach across acres of of palm-studded hilltop above Kovalam.
Time your trip with care. Shallows are subject to dramatic undercurrents (rips), especially in monsoon season from April to October; Varkala, in particular, becomes unusable at this time. Visit in February if you’re keen to swim and try the Lighthouse beach at Kovalam, or go for Pulinkudi or Chowara beaches, where lifeguards are on watch.
Overall score: 8/10
Lighthouse Beach, one of several beaches in Kovalam, Kerala, at the southern tip of India.