Travel Special: Ilhas de Goa
Hidden in the embrace of the Mandovi, Goa's river islands have escaped the notice of visitors
The antedeluvian islands that sprawl unbelievably lush in the main channel and tributaries of Goa’s Mandovi river are a time capsule of the original virtues that define the character and culture of India’s famously laid-back, smallest state. Though some are easily accessible by bridge (and others via short ferry rides) from the mainland, they are decidedly not on the tourist-beaten track, which is just how the ferociously loyal natives like it. Just considering writing this little introduction caused me considerable heartburn, making me feel like I am betraying precious family secrets. When I asked other islanders about what could safely be recommended, more than one told me “nothing", and then heaped complicated curses on my head for even asking. That attitude is understandable, because these rare jewels should be treated with respect, a gracious world that has almost entirely ceased to exist. The difference can be felt as soon as you cross the water, as time begins to move more slowly, and the garbage-strewn mayhem of the beach belt fades away to open roads, paddy fields, bird-calls and bicycle speed.
This is the closest to Panaji. In the 16th century, this largest of the Mandovi river islands was home to a famous Jesuit seminary, which is credited with grafting the original Alphonso mango. Magnificent old trees in its vicinity still produce famously superior fruit of that variety. Chorao is also famous for its robust, toothsome korgut rice, a variety that flourishes in salt-heavy brackish waters. The western tip of the island is fantastically overgrown with estuarine mangroves, forming the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, a pocket-sized 1.7 sq.km area that explodes with biodiversity.
Don’t miss: After making an appointment, do visit the headquarters of Wild Otters (Wildotters.com), the only non-governmental organization in India devoted to “the well-being of otters".
Getting there: While it is possible to drive directly on to the island from the north Goa taluka of Bicholim, it is a much better idea to take the ferry crossing from Ribandar, perhaps the prettiest of all the commuter boat rides in the state, particularly near sunset (free for pedestrians).
Just across a narrow channel is Divar, home to the renowned Saptakoteshwar Temple as well as two particularly interesting churches. The Nossa Senhora da Piedade is a stunning little jewel, with an especially superb interior, which is widely considered one of the finest examples of the mature Indian baroque architectural style. At the far end of the island, the chapel of Our Lady of Candelaria has a decidedly un-churchy aspect, which many scholars attribute to the possibility that it was a Jewish synagogue that was taken over and adapted by the Portuguese in the earliest years of their occupation of the island, in the 16th century. In the middle of the island is the famous Marietta Bakery, where you can try a range of authentic Goan breads and snacks, including the dense jaggery-laced bol which is a traditional wedding speciality.
Don’t miss: Bonderam, the colourful and unique festival of flags which is held on the island each August, has become a major tourist attraction, with a parade of floats and much merriment.
Getting there: Divar is best accessed by ferry from Ribandar and Old Goa.
Further down the river past Old Goa is exceptionally pastoral Santo Estevao, traditionally famous for its vegetables, especially okra (the villagers proudly identify themselves as bhendekars). This is the ancestral home of Angelo da Fonseca, the prodigiously talented painter and protégé of Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan in West Bengal. His artworks often returned to the scenes and themes of his riverside childhood. Among Goans, the island is known for its fiercely loyal sons and daughters (who famously seek to marry each other rather than look elsewhere for partners).
Don’t miss: Nice views of the surrounding valley are available from the pocket-sized, beautifully restored (by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) little fortress which is the main attraction on this otherwise sleepy island.
Getting there: It has recently been made accessible via a new bridge from Tiswadi.
On the Mapusa river which feeds into the broader Mandovi, and much closer to the raucous neon-lit attractions of north Goa, is Corjuem. It has another superb little fortaleza, which marked the border with enemy territory (mostly controlled by the Marathas) for over two centuries. The island is also home to pioneering graphic artist Orijit Sen and his wife, the designer Gurpreet Sidhu. Sen is developing an artists’ residency on his property, and has already hosted an international workshop headlined by Khoj, the Delhi-based international artists’ association.
Don’t miss: Ask the locals in a wide arc of surrounding villages, and they will tell you the island’s newest claim to fame is the spectacular pork ribs served at Phil Rock restaurant, which is also a fine place to test the finest no-label cashew feni available in this part of Goa.
Getting there: Corjuem can be approached by an impressive little suspension bridge from Aldona.