By Chris Biggs
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” wrote Charles Dickens in his famed A Tale of Two Cities. Luckily, unlike the great Dickens novel, everyone enjoying this blog post is a winner: we’re talking exclusively about sun and sea in two unique Indian coastal areas.
In particular, we’re taking a closer look at two popular beach spots on India’s west coast, Alleppey and South Goa, both of which Lori and I had a chance to visit at the start of our sprawling Asia trip in January 2017.
However, despite the presence of sand, the locations themselves couldn’t be more different: one, Alleppey, is largely underdeveloped but flush with tropical backwaters in a sleepy southern hippie refuge, while South Goa, colonized by the Portuguese and known for its nightlife, parties on 500 miles to the north.
Both beaches are popular on the tourist circuit, and each has its relative merits. So if you’re going to India and only able to see one, how do you decide which one to visit? Start here:
Now let’s get a little deeper, starting with beautiful Alleppey:
Overview: Alleppey is a destination with two faces. The tourist heart of popular Kerala, a southern Indian state, you can spend your time exploring Alleppey’s backwater canals, kicking it on the beach, or a little of both. When you think Alleppey, think GREEN - the city is enveloped in lush foliage - but know that we’re talking about a city that’s relatively new to the tourism industry. In this case, that means that Alleppey doesn’t have the same tourist infrastructure (lodging, good restaurants, fun activities) that other, more mature cities might have.
Lodging: I’ll keep this short: stay near the beach. It’s quieter, has less traffic, and is more accessible to some of the city’s newer (and in my opinion, better) restaurants. We stayed at the Sea Breeze Beach Home Stay, and I’d recommend either staying there (or finding somewhere nearby) for solid budget accommodations.
Food: In general, the food is inexpensive but not impressive (you can spend $2-5 per person, or splurge for more). While there were no real standouts here, your best bet is to head either to Dreamers Cafe and Restaurant or Cafe Catamaran - both are near the beach and got the job done.
Best Things to Do:
Cruise the backwaters: There’s a wide range of prices that travelers pay to spend time on Kerala’s backwaters. Besides being beautiful, they’re also often overpriced - so be sure to obtain multiple quotes before making a decision, either for a day trip or an overnight stay on a houseboat (which can easily cost you over $100/night). If you want to get the backwater experience on the cheap, you can take a page from Lori and me: show up at the public ferry station by 11:30 am (in Google Maps, search for “KSWTD Boat Jetty - Alleppey” for the exact location), where you can hop on a 5-hour round trip boat to Kottayam. The experience will be inexpensive (15 Rupees per person - each way, or about $1 USD for a couple round-trip) AND authentic - look forward to hanging with Indian families and adorable schoolchildren.
Walk the beach: Pretty simple. You can walk about an hour in each direction on the main strip of beach, and once you’re done with a backwater tour, it’ll be one of your best options. There are a handful of restaurants along the beach, although you’ll probably see way fewer commercial offerings there than you’d expect. The beach itself is really quiet and serene, but trash - mostly plastic bottles and empty snack bags - line the beach and mar the scenery.
Surprised the list of activities is relatively short? Don’t be. Alleppey is a great place to spend 2-3 days - but unless you plan to hunker down and really get a deep feel for the city, I’d recommend moving on to your next stop sooner rather than later.
And if your next stop just happens to be Goa? Well then you’re in luck! Lori and I made the 13.5 hour overnight train ride from Alleppey to Goa, and while I’m not going to sell you on the experience (summary: I wasn’t a germaphobe before the train, but I might be now…), it definitely is an eye-opening experience - and likely the cheapest way to get between the two cities. For a true expert’s overview of the Indian railway system, including how to book tickets, take a look at The Man in Seat 61, an excellent blog on train and bus travel around the world.
Overview: Goa is a well-known party spot, and tourists visit primarily from the UK and Russia. In North Goa, the beaches cater to a younger crowd, and there’s a greater concentration of restaurants and bars than in South Goa, where the pace of life is more relaxed and (slightly) less commercialized. As a 32-year-old man with the disposition of a 52-year-old, I pushed for South Goa’s Benaulim Beach - a nice piece of beachfront property perfect for taking it easy.
Lodging: If you stay in the Benaulim Beach area, consider booking at (or near) Mistral Holidays, a nice, clean guest house that’s close to restaurants - and about a 15 minute walk from the beach itself. There’s a decent inventory of guest houses and small hotels, so you should be able to do well for yourself at a bargain price.
Food: Like Alleppey, it’s tough to find a special meal here. To meet your basic culinary needs, check out Dinha’s Restaurant for breakfast (an ex-pat hot spot), Roger’s on the beach for an afternoon beer, and Hotel Satkar for a vegetarian thali (small portions served alongside rice and bread) at dinner - perhaps not in the nicest environment but a steal at less than $3 per person.
Things to Do:
Get a tan: Unlike Alleppey, going to South Goa’s beaches in swimwear is not only culturally acceptable but also expected. Stock up on suntan lotion.
See dolphins: Jet skiing and other water sports are accessible for visitors in South Goa, but the real treat is going on a dolphin cruise. For those in South Goa, consider Betty’s Place, which has a good reputation and gives you a lot for your money - about $15 will get you a five-hour tour PLUS lunch and an open bar. Let’s just hope you’re sober enough to spot a dolphin when it swims by you.
Goa (and Alleppey) are special places. Tourists can visit beaches around the world - from the Dominican Republic to Florida to southern Spain - but rarely can you work on your tan while also getting to know one of the most interesting, poorest, most culturally-rich nations in the world: India.
I wouldn’t encourage most people to head to Alleppey or Goa as their only destination(s), but if you’re already planning to visit India to experience its great size and diversity, they’ll definitely give you a different vantage point from which to see the country. And you might even have enough time to read the aforementioned Dickens classic while you’re laying on the beach.