Kudle beach, Gokarna, Karnataka state, India
Goa beaches versus Kerala beaches
India's best beaches line Goa's coast on the central-west side of the country but there are a few good ones elsewhere. Just an hour south of Goa's border is the Gokarna shorein Karnataka state, probably India's #2 best beach spot and a traveller favourite 450 kms (280 miles) from Bangalore.
South of Gokarna are increasingly popular Kerala beaches, such as unspoilt Marari (near Allepey; 60 kms from Kochi, best December - April, currently one hotel), Beka Fort (no facilities) and busy Kovalam on the tip of India. These beaches are less crowded than most in Goa, but less spacious too, as well as being more difficult to reach.
Mumbai's Juhu Beach is well known and lively but few foreigners would want to test the bacterially suspect waters. Over on the east coast in the rough waters of the Bay of Bengal are two famous beach resorts, Orissa's Gopalpur-on-Sea and Chennai's Marina Beach - a fine, wide, 12 km stretch of golden sand. The seas of both beaches are reported to be dangerously polluted and swimming is forbidden.
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Om Beach, Gokarna.
Om - due to its reverse 3 shape - is the best of four excellent beaches in Gokarna and accessible by car, unlike the other three, Kudle, Halfmoon and Paradise. These three require a boat or a 20 minute walk to reach.Take care when swimming as the Arabian Sea can produce surprise currents.
Gokarna beach is best in the winter months from October to March, with high temperatures around 32C (90F). April and May get unpleasantly hot (up to 40C) and June to August is the monsoon (rainy) season.
Beach huts near Gokarna town
Typical low-end traveller beach huts near Gokarna town, with restrained bonfire/ home-grown music parties commonplace at night, but no wild events - this is a religiously controlled area. Hotels in town are dull and Hindu pilgrim-oriented so most kids stay right on the beach, though there are a handful of up-market resort hotels in the vicinity.
Getting to Gokarna
Goa's Dabolim, 4 hours drive away, is the nearest airport. The nearest rail station is Gokarna Road, 15 minutes away, or Kumta or Ankola, about 40 minutes out. Buses are the most frequent transport services, as usual, with plenty running from Goa, Mangalore and Bangalore.
Gokarna temple town
Gokarna temple town, Karnataka, one of the south's most sacred Hindu towns, with several gorgeous temples - especially the Mahabaleshwar - and masses of pilgrims visiting, but no entry for non-Hindus. Alcohol is forbidden in town but discreetly available on beaches.
Varkala Beach, Kerala.
Varkala 's spectacular setting encompasses the only sea cliffs in lowly Kerala, a 900 year old temple and some popular beaches. The top of the cliff is where hotels, guest houses, restaurants, cafés and shops line a paved pathway with steps down to the beach. Varkala is about an hour north of Kovalam beaches (picture below).
Bekal Fort Beach, Kerala (8kms from Kanhangad or 50kms from Mangalore).
Unspoilt in this context means no facilities except a massive, 160,000 sqm fort.
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.
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