Port of Mormugao (Goa), India: Old Goa and Colva Beach

Colva Beach in South Goa

I decided that Goa was the Indian port where we’d go it on our own. Researching ahead of the trip, I’d read warnings about Goa port taxis (the “taxi mafia”) and local newspapers decried the state of affairs at the port and the port authority’s slow pace at installing a promised taxi stand with fixed prices that cruise ship passengers could trust. Happily, we arrived to find that a taxi stand was now in place and the system works smoothly and cheaply. Goa turned out to be fun, cheap, and just what we wanted.

Immigration booths are set up on the dock just outside the ship’s ramps. Just beyond immigration is a money exchange that takes both cash and debit cards. Right next to the money exchange is the official taxi stand. Cash is required for the taxis. Eight tours are offered in guests’ choice of a compact car or SUV. Alternatively, you can create your own itinerary and rent either a car or SUV for 8 hours with either 100, 125 or 150 kilometers. Any overage is charged at a very reasonably 14 rupees/km to be paid directly to the driver. All vehicles are air-conditioned.

Ship-side immigration booths in Goa; convenient and fast

We opted for 8 hours with a compact taxi and 100 kilometers since I wanted to see Old Goa (“Velha Goa”) and then spend time on one of Goa’s famous beaches. (I calculated distance and drive time in advance using Google Maps: We’d basically be traveling a triangle with about 1 hour of driving on each leg.) Our total cost was 1700 rupees (just under $30), an awesome deal, especially when compared to the sky-high tour prices offered by Celebrity. (For example, Celebrity wanted $109.75 each–$219.50!–for transfer to and from a beach where we’d get 4 hours free time and lunch at a beach-side restaurant. And no Old Goa included in that excursion.)

Money changing under the blue tent to the right; taxi/tour vouchers for sale under the blue tent to the left
Simple, cheap options for hiring taxis and booking tours on the spot at the Mormugao (Goa) port dock

We paid for our taxi, got a voucher in exchange with the license plate number of our taxi and the driver’s name and were directed to walk to the nearby port gate where someone would help us find our taxi.

Voucher we gave to our taxi driver (with personal info redacted)

There’s a bit of a a chaotic air outside the gate with lots of taxis and drivers milling about, but with the help of some of the drivers standing around, we quickly found our taxi.

Interesting traffic on a Goa road

I was a little worried at first when our driver brusquely shrugged off my first choice of a South Goa beach, saying he would take us to another just a bit farther on that was also on my list of 3 beaches I was interested in (provided by a native-Goan assistant waiter on the ship). Not absolutely wedded to my first choice, I went along with his suggestion. Our next point of contention came when we pulled out of the port and he seemed to disagree with David’s request to roll up the window and turn on the air conditioning. A crazy idea in the brutal heat! We told him we’d get out of the car if he didn’t turn on the air conditioning and he acceded. After those initial conflicts, I was worried we’d be stuck for the day with a surly driver, but he was fine after that and took good care of us for the rest of the day. His English was limited, so some of the subtleties were no doubted missed on all sides.

The main roads we traveled to Old Goa were in great shape and obviously newly paved and expanded. Still, it’s an hour drive from the port at Mormugao to Old Goa due to winding roads and small towns that we had to pass through. We drove through the city of Vasco da Gama, pausing for a quick visit at a Hindu temple before continuing to to Old Goa.

Hindu temple in Vasco da Gama

Our first stop in Old Goa was at the ruins of the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1602 by the Portuguese. The sole remaining tower belfry created a dramatic highlight to the extensive ruins of the church and adjoining convent.

St. Augustine belfry
A nice visual aid at St. Augustine belfry

Convent ruins at St. Augustine

Our driver waited while we wandered the ruins, then informed us that we would stop at 3 shops before continuing on to the churches that form the center of Old Goa. We weren’t thrilled about the all-too-common store detour, but quickly realized this was something our driver needed to do. We gamely looked around the first store, a glitzy place reminiscent of People’s Stores in China, offering high-priced trinkets, jewelry, furniture and more. There were some lovely things, but we had absolutely no interest. Heck, most of our belongings are in storage during this vagabond period of our life! I tried to talk our driver out of the second store, but had no luck so we made an even shorter stop. (We ran into a group cruise excursion at that 2nd store and we were more than happy to be free to leave as they were stuck until the last person had made a purchase or made their way through the long line for the toilets.) Back in the taxi, I told our driver we would go in the last shop, but only “for him.” No, he insisted, “for you.” We back-and-forthed that a couple of times, but all in good humor. David and I made one last, speedy stop in a nearly empty store–taking advantage of the clean, western-style toilets and no line–and finally we were on our way the few blocks to the center of Old Goa.

Bom Jesus Basilica
Courtyard attached to Bom Jesus Basilica

Our driver let us off near some souvenir stalls, pointed the way to the Bom Jesus Basilica and then indicated how we should proceed to the other sites and where to meet him when we were through. He left the length of our visit entirely up to us.

With the Indian school summer vacation (April-May) in full swing, most of the tourists to the basilica appeared to be Indian families, although we spotted some fellow cruise ship passengers inside. We joined a line to file to the right of the main altar and to a back section of the church that held a holy relic, a large excessively-bloody crucifix and other religious items. We circled an inner courtyard before exiting the basilica to head across the road to the main grounds of the Archeological Survey of India, which consists of a manicured lawn area surrounding seven churches, cathedrals, the basilica and an archeological museum. We opted to skip the museum, but took in the grand Se’ Cathedral and the smaller, but beautifully-painted Church of St. Francis of Assisi (both free-of-charge).

Archaeological Monuments of Old Goa: Se’ Cathedral and the Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi
Detail of ceiling painting from Church of St. Francis of Assisi
Interior of Se’ Cathedral

Walking the short distance back to the road, we met our driver and started off on the approximately 1-hour drive to Colva Beach. I’d originally wanted to visit the smaller, less-visited Betelbatim Beach which is adjacent to Colva, but at our driver’s suggestion/insistence, Colva it was. At first, I was worried that he’d steered us to an over-crowded, cheesy touristy beach, thinking that was what we Westerners must want. The area just around the main access to the beach is dotted with tourist shops and little dive-y cafes. Lots of people milled about, too. Hmm. Not looking great. At least they were locals and we weren’t stuck in a Western-style resort. We walked over a small footbridge to the beach and saw that a string of casual waterfront restaurants spread out to our left along a naturally wide white-sand beach.

The beginning of restaurants along Colva Beach near main entry road

Happily, we could see that the throng thinned out pretty quickly further away from the main access road. We took off our shoes and strolled through the delightfully warm water to the last restaurant, Luke’s Place, attracted by both the look of the place and the location in spite of the uninspiring and less-than-exotic name.

Lots of free lounge chairs in front of Luke’s Place

Noticing another Western couple on two of a string of otherwise-unoccupied lounge chairs under an umbrella in front of the restaurant, I asked if they spoke English and discovered they were English and had been staying near this beach and frequenting this restaurant for two weeks. The woman was wearing a bikini and assured me I’d get no odd looks or hassles for wearing my bathing suit at Colva, despite the fact that all the local women were wading into the ocean in full saris. (I couldn’t believe how casually they treated those gorgeous dresses!) We did have the usual people wanting to take photos with us pale-skinned foreigners. I told David that in our “skimpy” Western bathing suits, it must be for them like Victorian travelers posing with topless natives! The Brits also informed us that the restaurant made excellent food, the large (strong) Kingfisher beer was a good buy, and that the owner would watch our things if we used the lounge chairs and they’d had absolutely no problems. Proving their point, they wandered off for a long stroll, leaving their belongings. This sounded perfect and turned out to be just that.

Luke’s Place, empty on an early afternoon on a weekday

We enjoyed a good, made-to-order Indian food meal (only Indian rupees accepted) with a great view, then planted ourselves on the cushioned loungers to sunbathe a little before swimming in the ocean. I lost my sunglasses to some great body-surfing and stupidity, but oh well. It was high time I retired those anyway…and I felt pretty sure I could find a cheap pair in India to tide me over until I got back home where I had a good pair waiting.

The ride back to the ship was about another hour and we rolled into the port parking lot, using all but about a half a kilometer of the 100 km we’d paid for. Not bad!

Lovina, Bali: Black sand beaches, Dolphins and Scuba Diving

Early morning with dolphins at Lovina

Lovina, in the north of Bali, is famous for its black sand beaches and early morning boat rides among large schools of dolphins. Wanting to try something different from our other destinations, I booked us 4 nights at the Starlight Hotel, a cluster of small cottages on the beach owned by a Dutchman. We enjoyed our stay, but found the location to be lacking in much to do outside dolphins and diving. Our hotel restaurant (open-air like every single restaurant we found in Bali) was hotter than most and sadly lacking in ocean breeze or ceiling fans although the food was good, service very friendly (and their frozen “welcome drink” the best we had on the island).

Beautiful view from and of Starlight Hotel restaurant

Our cottage also sported an inadequate a/c, even after a repair attempt so we moved to one adjacent to the lobby area; not as secluded, but cooler. The cottages were identical inside; pretty if simple with mosquito netting draped over the bed and a high Balinese-style ceiling. We had a small flat-screen tv I only glanced at, a coffee/tea pot set up, a small fridge and a nice little porch.

Starlight Hotel cottage

The grounds are lovely and well-maintained with the many fruit and flowering trees labeled, a nice touch. The property, like most we saw in the area, is long and narrow with beach front on the narrow end, obviously a precious commodity. The beach was quaint with the black sand and dolphin boats looking like oversized water bugs with their thin pontoons, but it is narrow and not groomed so sea refuse makes it not overly appealing for spending any time there. The Starlight Hotel does offer a nice pool, though and we made good use of that.

The ungroomed beach didn’t inspire us to linger there
Starlight Hotel grounds with Bali “cannonball tree” in foreground and pool in the distance

Quite a few dolphin boats anchor along the narrow stretch of beach in front of the Starlight so it was easy to book a 6am trip for our first morning. The hotel offers to book these trips for 100,000 and our boat “captain” made us the same offer, but quickly came down to 75,000 rp each. The ride out to the dolphin-spotting area is short, and visible from shore. In no time, we counted right at 100 small, motorized pontoon boats milling around and darting after the numerous dolphins. It’s certainly not a tranquil moment with wildlife, but the whole event was fun in its own way. (While I sort of assumed the dolphins were always there, we met a Hungarian couple a few days later in Munduk who made the pre-dawn trip down to Lovina to see the dolphins and saw none.)

We had a great day scuba diving Menjangan Island, part of West Bali National Park, with Arrows Dive Centre. They picked us (and 4 snorkelers from different hotels) at 8am and drove us in an air-conditioned (seatbeltless) van the 1.5 hours to the park where we boarded a small, ratty dive boat–one of many identical boats docked there–for the island. We were back at our hotel around 5pm.

Not the swankiest of dive boats, but functional

We saws lots and lots of dolphins on the way out to the island. (Sadly no pics due to a camera glitch.) Apparently, this is unusual as our guides were very excited about it, whistling to call the dolphins closer. Pairs and groups swam right up to and under our boat. With no other boats in sight, it was that tranquil moment with wildlife that the previous day was not. Wonderful!

The diving itself was good, but not great only because the visibility was just OK. The coral was lovely and the fish abundant. We didn’t see anything too unusual: a lone barracuda, a grouper in a small cave, lots of small lionfish which we’re sadly familiar with from the Caribbean where they are an invasive species. Still, we really enjoyed the 50+ minute dive and moderate depth. I get cold on long dives even in warm water and was happy with a long wetsuit, but David was content with his shortie. Both suits were in excellent condition and well-fitted as was the other equipment. Yay for Arrows!

Good-condition Scubapro equipment at Arrows Dive Centre

Lunch was a nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) picnic affair (packed from a restaurant near where we boarded the dive boat) on a remote little dock on the island we shared with a few other boats.

Stopped for lunch on Menjangan Island

I spotted one of the island’s sacred deer near a small cliff-top temple nearby. Unafraid, he followed me back to our little group at the lunch spot.

Small temple on Menjangan Island
Sacred Menjangan Island deer

A few other boats docked near ours, but there was no crowd at all and no one already on the island itself in this area. Our second dive after lunch was much like the first and we enjoyed it thoroughly. We ran into a few other divers briefly down below, but there was no crowding. All in all, I highly recommend Arrows Dive Centre and our divemaster, Wayan (“Yani”) who David and I had to ourselves.

We used Arrows again for muck diving the following day. Muck diving is an unusual form of diving and some of the best spots in the world are in north Bali. I really wanted to try it while in Lovina. We chose Puri Jati as our dive spot, a mere 30 minutes from our hotel. Yani and a driver picked us up at 8:30am and we at the beach site in no time, a pretty spot with a Hindu temple and Hatten vineyards adjacent to the beach.

Temple, rice fields and vineyards at Puri Jati (beach is behind photographer)
Black sand beach at Puri Jati where we waded in to muck dive

This was a beach dive, i.e., we waded into the water rather than take a boat out to a remote location. As opposed to the more usual coral reef or wall dive, a muck dive is a shallow dive over silt or “muck” where you search for often tiny and unusual bottom dwellers that live in this environment. It turned out to be spectacular. We saw a mimic octopus in action, ghost bone fish, thousands of a type of white sea urchin, thousands of live sand dollars and several oddities I can’t name. The few bits of flotsam we saw formed mini-reefs with colorful coral, tropical fish, an eel, and shrimp of various kinds.

Mimic octopus, Puri Jati muck diving
Seahorse at Puri Jati

I highly recommend Lovina for the dolphins and local diving opportunities (or snorkeling, if that’s more your speed) and I’m glad we went. As a place in and of itself, though, the city and adjoining little towns don’t offer a lot. Also, way too many roaming dogs lead to a lot of barking at night that mingles with the ubiquitous Bali noise of crowing roosters.

____________

We paid  Arrows Dive Centre 1,400,000 rupiah (about $102) each for the 2-tank day of diving at Menjangan Island and 750,000 rupiah (about $55) each for the 2-tank muck diving half-day. Both dives included all equipment and transportation to and from our hotel. The Menjangan day also included entrance to the national park and lunch. Yani was an excellent divemaster, respectful of the environment, and very good at spotting camouflaged sea life.