The beach was empty. A lone dog with sad beady eyes trailed me up and down the sand. The sea was slumbering but the calm, I knew, was deceptive &mdash the Arabian Sea can be treacherous in the monsoon. The fishermen grouped together on the far side of Sindhudurg&rsquos Tarkarli beach know this well and, on days like this, do not venture out to sea in their tiny wooden boats. Today, like every other day in the wet season, they must have let out their nets from the beach early in the morning. I watched at noon as they hauled the nets back, inch by painful inch. I had spent an idyllic morning at Tarkarli &mdash studying rotten logs bobbing on the waves, inspecting the superbly located (almost on the beach) but unimpressive MTDC resort, admiring the rain clouds regrouping over the horizon and, of course, watching the fishermen draw in their catch. But my trip to Sindhudurg, Maharashtra&rsquos lush southernmost district, had begun on a rather different note two days before.
The rains greeted me at Goa&rsquos Dabolim airport and did not let up even when I crossed the border into Maharashtra. My destination, Sawantwadi, was just 10km away on the national highway. But in the nondescript town of Banda, our progress was stilled by a flooded bridge. The stream that was supposed to flow under the bridge was a raging torrent over it. I sat in the car. Minutes turned to hours, and the downpour got heavier. We had reached Banda in the morning and by four in the afternoon the call of nearby Goa was too loud to resist. Just when I had lost all hope, a group of idling policemen informed us that an alternative, albeit longer, route might be in better shape. We retraced our tyre marks to the Goa border, took the state highway, sailed over a bridge that was about to go under and reached Sawantwadi and Amrutha Padgaonkar&rsquos Nandan Farms &mdash my home for the next four days.
Amrutha greeted me like a long lost cousin, fetched me a steaming cup of tea, organised hot water for a bath and made me very comfortable. Amrutha&rsquos farm is one of the homestays promoted by Culture Aangan, an NGO that supports the arts and crafts of Sindhudurg. At the moment three homestays are operational, with at least two more likely to take in guests from December this year. My cottage at Nandan Farms was a restored outhouse with ancient solid wood beams supporting the sloping tiled roof, with a large covered verandah that could be used as an extra room. While I ate my dinner of tasty prawns-in-coconut gravy, fried fish, beans and coconut fry, rotis and the kokum and coconut milk digestive, sol kadi, and, later, when I went off to sleep that night, the incessant pitter-patter was my only worry.
Next morning, we drove to Amboli, the district&rsquos British-era hill station. As we ascended, the rain, which had refused to stop, was joined by a swirling mist. As we drove through the town, buildings appeared and disappeared in the mist. In waterlogged fields, paddy saplings did the Mexican wave in the wind. We reached Nagartas waterfall, a stunning cascade of thundering water that plunged into a deep ravine. A viewing bridge here lets you stare right into the abyss. The Hiranyakeshi shrine, which marks the spot where the Hiranyakeshi river emerges from a cave, is another must-see in Amboli.
Later in the day, Amrutha accompanied me to the Fruit Research Centre at Vengurla. Sindhudurg is fertile country, covered with rice fields and numerous fruit orchards. The best alphonso mangoes are said to come from here. The area is also known for its cashew, jamun and kokum produce. The grounds of the Research Centre are covered with specimens of these trees and much other local flora. At sunset, we made our way to the town beach, Sagareshwar. We had the powdery sands almost entirely to ourselves. The lighthouse, located on a spur above the jetty beyond the beach, winked at us. With our backs against the wind, we ate bhel puri by the light of the chaatwalla&rsquos hurricane lamp. The MTDC resort skulked among the trees bordering the beach. We made our way in the dark to the tiny Shiva temple near the beach. I prayed for the rain to please, please stop.
The next day the sun was out, the rains had stopped and I thanked the gods profusely. We sped past charming villages to the town of Malvan. Another stream had turned into a raging torrent and had swamped large swathes of land. I had scanned the Marathi newspaper that morning and, though I couldn&rsquot read the news, the images of flooded villages told the sad story. The floods were an annual affair, I was informed. That morning and the day before, we had made several anxious calls to figure out which roads were cut off, revising our itinerary accordingly. In this government designated tourism-only district, the government&rsquos contribution seemed to be restricted to putting up signboards listing the attractions at town entrances and spoiling beautiful beaches by constructing ugly concrete structures on them.
Malvan is a pretty little town of pretty little shops and a surprisingly large number of restaurants. Sindhudurg Fort lies on an island off the coast, a five-minute boat ride from the town. For the first time I regretted coming here in the monsoon &mdash the 17th-century Chhatrapati Shivaji-built fort was off-limits, as no boat would ply on the rough seas. We headed off to Tarkarli beach instead, where I made my acquaintance with the aforementioned sad-eyed dog. I returned to Malvan for lunch. Good decision. The region is noted for its delicious coconut-based Malvani cuisine. And the eponymous town is the best place to sample some Malvani delicacies. Chaitanya was an excellent restaurant. I chose a prawn thali with a side serving of surmai fry. The mildly spiced, subtly sour small-prawn curry with a generous topping of chopped coriander was to die for.
I had saved the northern part of Sindhudurg for the end of my stay, as part of the route was flooded earlier. The day after my trip to Malvan, I received news that the route was open and we made our way to Vijaydurg. En route, near the town of Shirgaon, is Pitruchaya, another Culture Aangan homestay. The Loke family lets out two rooms in their lovely home to tourists. We stopped for lunch, which consisted of rotis, rice, red spinach and coconut fry, a coconut-based chicken curry and a chicken masala fry. Like every other meal on the trip, this lunch, too, was delicious.
The Vijaydurg Fort was able to alleviate my disappointment at missing out on a ramble through Sindhudurg. There are a couple of abandoned buildings inside the fort, overgrown with weeds, and there is a strong bat-smell to the place. But from the highest point, you can see the sea stretching out under you. A game of cricket was in progress on the lower grounds of the fort while a man fished for his dinner from the lower ramparts. The world seemed at peace.
I visited Sawantwadi town on the last day of my trip. The town, lying in the shadows of the Sahyadris, was bustling with activity. This historic town is the seat of the Bhonsale dynasty. Today, it is also known for its lacquer furniture, hand-painted wooden crafts and the ganjifa playing cards. At the Sawantwadi Palace, a red laterite structure, these crafts are very much alive. The Palace Darbar Hall has been turned into a work area for the artists. I watched them paint ganjifa cards, examined the antique woodwork, paintings and photographs in the museum, and purchased some hand-painted lacquer finished jewellery boxes from the museum shop. Later, I visited Kanekar Toys, a shop in town selling woodcrafts of every description, from painted stools to ladles and jewellery boxes to key chains. But the shop&rsquos speciality, as the name suggests, are the toys. I gaped at extremely realistic cars, trucks, bullock carts, planes, animals of all species, Indianised babushka dolls, pencil-sharpeners shaped like colonial soldiers, figurines with movable parts and many more delightful little pieces. I returned to Nandan Farms for a farewell lunch and found a packet of dried kokum next to my bed. I had told Amrutha, a couple of days before, that I wanted to buy some for my mother and she had thoughtfully arranged it for me. My stay at Amrutha&rsquos farm, which was extremely comfortable, was made special by these small touches.
At a time when you need to travel really far to escape the tourist hordes, I had discovered a beautiful region, still unspoilt and, at the same time, easily accessible. I had missed out on a number of sites I wanted to explore the sea fort of Sindhudurg, stop at some of the tiny nameless villages that we drove past and see the underground Rameshwar Temple near Vijaydurg. As I made my way to Dabolim airport the sun was shining but I was already planning my next trip...maybe in April when the mango trees, now bereft of fruit, would be laden with succulent alphonsos. Yes, April, come she will...
BY AIR Goa&rsquos Dabolim is the closest airport. The border town of Banda is roughly 70km from the airport. There are many flights to Goa from all major Indian cities.
BY TRAIN There are two daily trains from Mumbai to Sawantwadi Mandovi Express (departs 6.55am, arrives 5.56pm) and Konkan Kanya (departs 11pm, arrives 10am). Apart from Sawantwadi, the trains also stop at Vaibhavwadi Road, Kankavli, Sindhudurg and Kudal. Note that train services can be disrupted during the monsoon.
Culture Aangan, an NGO that encourages the local arts and crafts of Sindhudurg, have helped three homeowners start homestays in the region. All homes are comfortable and the hosts friendly and helpful. The homes are Nandan Farms in Sawantwadi, Shreeyog Paryatan near Oras and Pitruchaya at Shirgaon. The all-inclusive tariff ranges from Rs 1,300 to 2,000 per person per night (depending on the room category). Culture Aangan also offers two 4N/5D packages for Rs 8,100 and Rs 11,500 (again depending on room category). The packages include accommodation, all meals, sightseeing and transport. Two more homestays are expected to open by December. See www.cultureaangan.com for more information.
What to see
The Palace museum in Sawantwadi has interesting antique woodcrafts and photographs of the royal family. Visitors can also watch artists creating ganjifa cards. The museum shop is a good place to buy lacquer woodcrafts and ganjifa cards. Do not miss Kanekar Toys in the market.
At Amboli, check out Nagartas Fall and the Hiranyakeshi temple.
In Vengurla, visit the town&rsquos market &mdash a great place to buy kokum and kokum products as well as juicy alphonso mangoes in season (March to May). Climb up from the jetty to the lighthouse. The town beach, Sagareshwar, is beautiful.
Have some excellent Malvani food at one of the many good restaurants on Malvan&rsquos main street. The 17th-century Sindhudurg Fort is a short boat ride from the town. During the monsoon, boats don&rsquot venture out if the seas are rough. Tarkarli beach is a great place to relax.
In North Sindhudurg, Vijaydurg Fort is a stunning structure. Nearby are the Rameshwar and Kunkeshwar temples. The Devgad beach is pretty and tranquil.
The Pinguli Art Complex, located near Kudal, showcases the art works &mdash paintings, shadow puppets and string puppets &mdash of the Thakar Adivasi community. They also organise shows for tourists and conduct workshops. See the Culture Aangan website for more details.
What to eat
Like most cuisines along the west coast of India, Malvani food also sees liberal use of coconut. But it gets its distinct taste from the proportion of spices ground to form the masala. The seafood is understandably very good. Vegetarians too will find an assortment of delicacies. Each meal is accompanied by the yummy kokum and coconut milk digestive, sol kadi. The region is said to produce the best alphonsos.