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The entire coastline of the western state of Maharashtra -- starting from the well known towns of Kihim and Alibag in the north to the town of Vengurla in the south where it merges with that of Goa -- is dotted with golden beaches, picturesque creeks, solitary lighthouses, ancient forts, stunning cliffs and charming fishing hamlets, many of them still remain the way nature sculpted them.
Untouched by the consumerism that has devoured most beaches near Bombay and Goa -- thereby driving it out of the reach of an average income earner -- these Maharashtra locales suffer from no such ruin. By contrast, they are spell bindingly beautiful. They offer what the real traveller is looking for – vast open spaces, undisturbed solitude and the prospect to do something really different. Many locals, having already sensed an opportunity, offer basic "extra-room-to-let" type of accommodation.
Languages: Marathi and Konkani is spoken. English is often understood.
Time: Five and a half hours ahead of GMT.
Climate: Maximum temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. Minimum temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius. Rainfall is up to 900 mm in the monsoon.
Best times to visit: The entire Indian coastline is situated between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator. So it goes without saying that temperatures are in the 30s through most of the year and can soar to the 40s in May and October. Humidity is always above 80 per cent. From June to about mid-September, the south-west monsoon strikes the coast. It doesn't rain, it pours.
So that leaves the period from about mid-November to about mid-February as the ideal season for rambling along this coastline. The temperatures are in the mid-20s and humidity is down to a tolerable level. The sun is lower near the southern horizon and apart from being milder, affords a good light throughout the day for some great photography. For those who simply cannot stand the heat, the period from December 15 to the end of January as the most ideal. It is also the ideal season as Goa can be included as a trip at the end of your journey in time for the Carnival which is sometime in the first week of February.
Culture and people: Maharashtra is one of the better administered states of India. The roads and public utilities are in good condition. This is true even for the smaller roads that meander off from the main Bombay-Goa National Highway and transport you to offbeat locations. There is no fear of crime even if some of these roads are quite lonely. Most of these smaller roads, especially those that run parallel to the coast, qualify as scenic drives because of the terrain that they traverse.
This region is a relatively prosperous area of the state. The people are literate and well off, living in neat and clean villages. They depend upon fishing for their livelihood and very little agriculture occurs here. However, the southern portion, in and around the town of Ratnagiri, is famous for its Alphonso mangoes. Harvesting occurs from April to May. As a result of both these lucrative occupations, this is an affluent belt compared to other rural regions of India. Don't be surprised to see garish looking 'villas' in obscure seaside villages belonging to the local rich man. But do not ask how he made his money.
History: Maharashtra is proud of its history of having stood up, initially, against the Mughal invaders from the north and then later against the British Empire. Chhatrapati Shivaji, a Maratha warrior, who harassed the invaders by occupying forts on hill-tops all over the region and adopting tactics that are now termed as guerrilla warfare, is a hero. He even commanded a naval fleet (that looked after his maritime interests) from the island fortress of Sindhudurg and for sometime prevented the British colonisers from establishing their hegemony in spite of their naval might.
Though most of his forts are located inland and have now become weekend tourist attractions for the locals, quite a few of them are located on the coastline and – fortunately – are not tourist attractions. Though now in ruins, they add a touch of history to a lonely stretch of coast wherever they occur.
Food: Fish and other exotica from the Arabian Sea dominate the cuisine. The fiery seafood curries may be a bit too spicy for the uninitiated. Most of the sleepy towns you encounter on these stretches only have 'eateries' or communal dining rooms, as opposed to restaurants. By and large, they are fairly clean. Food is served in a single plate, with all the courses together. A second helping may or may not cost extra.
Fresh tender coconut water is another way to quench your thirst. Unfortunately, since they are so common in everyone’s garden they are not sold at any of the markets. If you make friends with some local who has a couple of coconut trees in his garden, be sure to request him for a couple. The white flesh of the coconut, which they scoop out after you have drunk the water, is simply delicious.
Don't forget to ask for sol kadhi, a pink local concoction made from the kokam fruit, that makes your taste buds tingle. It's also a great stomach soother after a meal of hot fish curry.
Dress Sense: Casual clothing. Tank tops and skimpy outfits are not advisable.
Be wary of: Water. It advisable to buy mineral water. Avoid cold food.
Permits: You do not require permits to visit any of the coastal areas in Maharashtra and neither are these towns out of bounds to foreigners. After the Bombay blasts of 1993, it was discovered that most of the explosives were unloaded from the sea somewhere along this coastline. Smuggling of gold and banned foreign goods takes place along the coast was once common. You may still find police check posts on some roads near the coast. But as long as one has a passport with a valid visa and an international driving license, if you are driving your own vehicle, there should be no problems in moving around in any of these coastal areas.
Should the police try to harass you just be politely firm and tell them that your papers are perfectly in order and you are aware that you are not required to pay anything extra. However, the lighthouses along the coast may pose a problem since government employees man them and if you are a foreigner they may not allow you inside the precincts.
Permits are also not required for camping on any stretch of the beach. The entire area is environmentally fragile and the government has declared that no built-up structures like houses or resorts can be constructed within 500 metres of the high-tide mark. But this does not apply to temporary tents and you are free to pitch your own at any place that takes your fancy for as long as you want provided you don't create a nuisance or encroach on anybody's private property.
Even if you want to pitch a tent in what looks like a mango orchard or somebody's private garden, I am pretty sure that you are bound to be more than welcome. To be on the safe side, it is advisable to take the village headman's permission. It is not advisable to pitch camp on some absolutely lonely stretch, however pretty or attractive it may appeal to you, especially if you have female company. Be prudent and park yourself within shouting distance of the outer fringes of the nearby village. These areas are known to be safe, but why tempt fate?
The Little Extras: We are writing about mostly unchartered territory. The going can get quite rough. In fact, this is a very, rough, rough guide. But there are plenty of rewarding moments to compensate for the discomfort and sacrifice of doing away with the luxury of comfort travel.
There are chances to witness the intricate art of boat building. Watching wood as it is bent over a slow fire and then laboriously glued into place, one plank at a time.
Or bumping up with solitary skiffs near the coast looking for crabs and lobsters.
But my most memorable moment will certainly be the scene of a small school of dolphins frolicking off the beach at Devgarh. Etched in my mind is the sight of one youngster porposise, who revelled in leaping high into the air. The whole scene lasted for only a few minutes but it more than compensated for any of the roughing out we had to do to reach these moments.
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