The road twisted and turned around the thickly forested hills. Villages abruptly materialised from between trees and vanished just as suddenly. People, cattle and dogs darted across the road. And then we were alone again among the trees. I had to remind myself that I was in Goa, of the beaches and the rave parties. But I was driving through the state's interior, where the hills undulate and the trees press thickly. When the tourist speaks of Goa, he isn't talking about where I am. Things are beginning to change, though, with a handful of visitors shunning the coast and heading into the hills &mdash interior Goa is becoming the state's best-known secret and I was here to learn of its mysteries for myself. The government is doing its bit and has come up with a 'hinterland tourism plan', to highlight the pilgrim-centres and eco-tourism opportunities hidden inside the eternal 'fun' state.
My plan was to drive from Bicholim in north-central Goa, proceed to Chorla Ghats, located on Goa's borders with Karnataka and Maharashtra, go on to Bondla and Molem sanctuaries and then drive through the jungles to Cotigao Sanctuary in the very south of the state.
We made our way to Bicholim past somnolent villages. Goa is beautiful in August &mdash the land is freshly scrubbed from the pounding rain, and the trees and plants bristle with new life. At Bicholim I found marvels of terracotta &mdash curiously shaped utensils, garden ornaments masquerading as tortoises and frogs, elaborate fountains and figurines. If the coast is crowded with churches, then the interiors are littered with temples, many of them hidden in secluded valleys. The Saptakoteeshwara temple, rebuilt in 1688, is a fine example of post-17th century Goan temple architecture. Like most other temples built or rebuilt after the advent of the Portuguese, this temple is also laid out in the shape of a Latin cross, with many windows and a dome. A multi-storeyed lamp tower sits to the side of the temple. There was not a soul in sight when we visited, a bhajan played softly on a tape recorder inside the sanctum, and just as we were about to leave it began to rain gently.
As evening turned to dusk we found ourselves navigating the roads that lead to Chorla Ghats. Signs of recent landslides were all over the road, impromptu waterfalls cascaded down the hillsides, the sun set majestically over the distant mountains and then the mist was upon us. Visibility dropped to almost zero and the road became one vast pothole. Thankfully we reached the Wildernest resort without incident. The people who run the resort bought a large swathe of forestland, which was being eyed by Goa's powerful mining lobby. Today, the forests flourish and it is in the heart of this forest that Wildernest is hidden. One of the pioneers of interior Goa tourism, Wildernest has built up a loyal clientele. I fell asleep, in my forest cottage, to the sound of rain and the night song of tree frogs. At breakfast we were given 'bad news' &mdash it would be impossible to drive from Bondla to Molem through the forest as two rivers on the route were flooded. But Molem via Onda and Nanus sounded just as good to me.
Hussain, our driver, joyfully hit the accelerator and we zipped along past towering trees, silent four-house villages and a clearing in the jungle where small boys tumbled over a football. The 13th-century Tambdi Surla temple, the only fully preserved black basalt temple of the Kadamba era left in Goa, is located 12km before Molem. Signboards for elephant and bullock cart rides, for dormitories and eateries appeared at regular intervals as we approached the temple gates. But none of this was functioning in the monsoons they would open in October for the Russians and Israelis, who, Hussain tells us, descend annually on this remote corner of Goa &mdash they've discovered the secrets of Inner Goa, too. But for now we were alone in this beautifully kept temple's premises, located in the shadow of the hills. A frothing mountain stream rushed past the temple, the grass around the structure was freshly trimmed and the temple preened in its post-shower glory. We stopped at the Backwoods Resort &mdash birding specialists &mdash a kilometre from Tambdi Surla. They are shut for the 'off season' but the staff tells me of visitors who come to stay for days to watch birds in the sanctuary.
At Molem we met the RFO (Regional Forest Officer) after-hours and got some more 'bad news'. The ghat roads from Molem to Cotigao were in disrepair and it would be foolish to attempt them in the rains. He suggested an alternative route we would still be in inland Goa, on good roads, and would pass through a couple of bigger towns.
On the way to Quepem through Savordem, we take a detour to Chandor. The town, the capital of Goa during the rule of the Bhojas in the 3rd and 4th centuries, is known for its heritage homes dating to the Portuguese era. I had been told of Sara Fernandes, who organises heritage walks, but she was busy with the renovation of her own heritage home and we were left to our own devices. We started at the headless Nandi, the only visible remnant of an 11th-century temple. From there we walked through the Rue de San Tiago (Street of St James), admiring the beautiful old homes, many of them sadly abandoned, which flank the street. In the town centre, we stop at the palatial Bragança mansion. As Judith, a friend of the current owner, closed the door behind us, it was as if we had shut the door to the present and walked into the much more elegant past.
Quepem's Palacio do Deao was built, in 1787, on the banks of the Kushavati river by the town's founder, Jose Paulo, a Portuguese nobleman who was also the Dean of the Church. The mansion was heavily bombed in 1961 during the liberation of Goa and had fallen into disuse until Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama fell in love with it. This January the couple opened the doors of their heritage home to the public. It was a bold move, investing in a heritage property away from the major tourist centres, but the Palacio is already a hit with tourists. For the single season that they have been operational, they have had more guests than they can handle. As Celia tells us, &ldquoWe have been very lucky. Our friends told their friends, who in turn brought other friends here. We even had a former Portuguese Consul visiting us.&rdquo But this being off-season, we had the whole place to ourselves. Plastic sheets were draped over the windows and doors to keep the rain out. The couple have recreated the terraced garden. Just three years ago there were almost no trees or plants in this garden. Today it is a refuge &mdash an ideal spot to idle away afternoons reading a book in the shade of the trees.
From Quepem we hit the National Highway for the first time. Canacona is the southernmost taluka of Goa and is the least touristy of all the regions. We were headed to Cotigao, surely the most organised sanctuary I have visited. The eco-tourism complex consists of a handful of cottages, most of them with shared bathrooms. But they are almost always fully booked, even in off -season. The RFO tells us of wildlife photographers who spend days in one part of the forest photographing a tree frog, or of a Mumbai resident who drives down on his Harley Davidson for days of angling. We spent the morning inside the sanctuary. We walked to a waterhole, listened to the forest humming and breathed in the freshest air anyone can find. Later we went on a night walk outside the sanctuary. The range officer had promised to show us some luminescent fungus. It turned out they were impossible to miss. In the middle of the night, I stood for long minutes on a carpet of light.
At the end of my trip, I reflected that I had barely seen any other travellers and certainly not a single white-skinned person. But proprietors, managers and forest officers everywhere spoke of the new breed of travellers, who are willing to look beyond the beaches. These are not the backpackers who come to party. In the interiors, it is the more conscientious traveller who comes calling. The ones who would rather attend a formal dinner organised in a heritage home, or study the architecture of a 13th- century temple, or wait for weeks to catch a glimpse of an elusive bird or just build towers of pebbles in a jungle stream.
Cotigao Night Walk Go on a night walk in the forest just outside the Cotigao sanctuary. The forest seems more mysterious at night. If you're lucky you'll see the luminescent fungus. It is an otherworldly sensation to stand on a glowing jungle floor in an otherwise pitch-dark forest.
By air Delhi to Goa by IndiGo will cost you Rs 3,374, while Mumbai to Goa will cost Rs 1,874.By rail You can take the Delhi to Vasco Goa Express (leaves 3pm, arrives 6.30am Rs 1,455 on 3AC). A number of trains connect Mumbai and Goa. Konkan Kanya (leaves 11pm, arrives 12.30pm Rs 796 on 3AC) is one of the more convenient trains.
Day 1 Vasco-Bicholim-Sanquelim-Chorla Ghats (96km)
Day 2 Chorla Ghats-Sanquelim-Onda-Nanus-Surla-Molem (82km)
Day 3 Molem-Savordem-Chandor-Quepem-Cancolim-Cotigao (111km)
Day 4 Cotigoa-Mangal-Cotigao (roughly 50km)
Renting a vehicle
Not many car rental agencies are willing to send a driver overnight. But we finally managed to rent a Qualis from Vailankanni Auto Hires (0832-2489568, www.vailankanniautohires.com). The daily cost comes to a minimum of Rs 1,000 (8hr and 80km) plus Rs 200 night charges for the driver. You have to pay for the food and accommodation of the driver as well. Every additional kilometre will cost Rs 10 and an additional hour Rs 50. They provide self-drive vehicles as well.
Where to stay
Chorla Ghats Wildernest (9341112721, www.wildernest-goa.com) has forest cottages and valley-view cottages. The tariff is Rs 3,200 (off-season) and Rs 6,000 (season) for the forest cottage and Rs 4,200 (off-season) and Rs 7,000 (season) for the valley-view cottage. This is inclusive of meals and activities. They have opened another resort nearby, called Swapnagandha. This has eight cottages, all with views of the valley. The resort will be functional from October. The tariff is Rs 4,200 (off-season) and Rs 7,000 (season).
Molem We stayed at the Dudhsagar Resorts (from Rs 450 for rooms and Rs 100 for a dormitory bed 0832-2612319) close to the Forest Office. Alternatively you can stay close to the Tambdi Surla Temple at Backwoods Resort (98221-44939, www.backwoodsbirding.com), located just 10km from Molem. This is a seasonal resort, run by passionate birders. They offer a 2N/3D package for Rs 5,500, which includes accommodation, meals and guided tours inside the sanctuary.
Cotigao The best option is to stay at the Eco-Tourism complex (2639265) run by the Forest Department at the sanctuary. The Peacock cottage (Rs 500) sleeps four and has an attached bath. There are three more cottages (Rs 250), with common bathrooms. Simple but delicious Goan meals are provided at a nominal cost.
What to see and do
1. Visit a pottery studio at Bicholim's Industrial Estate. Zilu Art (2362087), run by Zilu Dattaram Harmalkar, has a number of unique terracotta pieces. Visit the serene Saptakoteesh-wara temple.
2. At Chorla Ghats, go hiking and spend time in Chorla village.
3. Visit the Tambdi Surla temple located 12km from Molem. Molem National Park is out of bounds during the monsoon, but from October the forest department organises hikes and you can also see Dudhsagar Falls.
4. Take the heritage walk in Chandor with Sara Fernandes (2784245), who owns a heritage home on Street of St James. She charges Rs 100 per head for the two-hour walk. Let her know you're coming at least three days in advance. Also visit the Bragança mansion (2784201) in the town. The tour will cost you Rs 100.
5. Checkout Quepem's Palacio do Deao (2664029, www.palaciododeao.com). Stay for the Goan-Portuguese lunch, which is served in the belvedere. The tour and lunch costs Rs 450 per head.Go on a safari inside the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. You can also visit the nearby Mallikarjun temple or a 600-year-old banyan tree.
Where and what to eat
Food is not a problem in Goa. You'll find a number of meals-ready-eateries en route. For breakfast stop at any teashop for the Goan pao-bhaji. Do try fish curry-rice for lunch or dinner. It is the tastiest meal you'll find in Goa. The Canacona region is especially known for this dish. Also try the prawns in ground coconut curry and the rava fish fry. It is difficult to find fancy seafood like lobsters and crab in the interiors, but you'll not go wrong if you stick to the simpler dishes. There are numerous vegetable and coconut dishes for vegetarians. End your meals with solkadi, a well-known digestive drink made of kokum.