Water sports take off in Goa
The southern Indian state is reinventing itself as a water sports paradise, writes Pavan Shamdasani
GOA WAS ONCE ONE of India's most popular destinations, offering a mildly diluted version of the exotic country: clean beaches, cheap drinks, safe food and all the pseudo-spiritual chat you could handle.
But things have changed and the rise of similarly gentrified, less expensive states has meant Goa has had to reinvent itself. The area has always been known locally for its water sports, but it is only recently the Goan government used this incentive to attract tourists.
Less than a year ago, the government approved white-water rafting in the northern part of the state, along the 77 kilometre Mhadei River. Couple this with Goa's already crowded assortment of other water-based thrills - diving, jet-skiing and kayaking among them - and one can easily see how the old party town has made a comfortable transition into an adventure sports fan's idea of heaven. Here's our top five water sports to try in Goa:
Who's it for? Partying thrill seekers who would literally risk life and limb for a rush.
Why do it? While the sport is available at many beaches around the region, the draw in Goa is the lack of rules. There are no instructors, no tandem drivers, no safety needed. Just strap on and go.
Two types of the sport are available: jet skis and waterskis. The latter has you wearing a massive pair of ski boots to skim the water on the back of a motorboat, the former is just a fast-moving machine.
The excitement of lapping the Indian waters is immense; the 150-horsepower engines raging ahead like a Ducati on the ocean. While the lack of safety means there's the occasional close call - maybe a loss of power here or a collision with a canoe there - the exhilaration has you soon forgetting about life, death or any kind of logic. And, in Goa, that's probably as close to spiritual enlightenment as you're going to get.
Who runs it? Prince of Sal (princeofsal.com) offers jet-skiing. Prices average about HK$150 for 10 minutes.
Where to stay Fahrenheit Hotel and Resorts - just steps from the uber-popular Calangute beach, this hip boutique hotel alternates between being a party-friendly property during peak season and a much more relaxed family escape during monsoon. fahrenheitgoa.com
Who's it for? Early birds with a passion for discovering hidden spots.
Why do it? The serene Indian Ocean makes it the slow-boat of adventure sports. When entering the one-man vessel, you are immediately struck by the calm and clear waters of the early morning. You have never truly seen a sunrise until you do so while floating down a quiet river - the light emerges through the pre-dawn darkness and, as it does, the lush, untouched landscapes of West India begin to shine.
Sailing through the area's mangroves, coves and bays reveals a different side to party-friendly Goa: fishing villages with old men trapping their catch in nets, coastline churches offering a reminder of the state's Portuguese past and endless flocks of fearless birds just inches away.
Who runs it? Goa Kayaking (goakayaking.com) offers a number of rental options, including single-day trips, six-day safaris and night-time jaunts. Prices are about HK$300 for a single-day trip.
Where to stay Vivanta by Taj, Panaji - a chain of business hotels it might be, but the Goa location is the most idyllic hotel in the state's small capital. It's five minutes' walk to the city's shopping and dining areas, and the famous Se Cathedral. vivantabytaj.com
Who's it for? Lazy beach-going couples in need of some respite from the sun.
Why do it? You can see them from afar: parachutes moving through the air and raging speedboats below. It doesn't seem all that exciting and it is often reserved for the tourists. But in Goa, the appeal is in the unrivalled bird's-eye view: the enticing sight of India's unheralded landscape, of course, but also the boundless ocean below.
You sit in the harness, legs stretched and backside floating in the water. The speedboat starts to gun its motor and soon the cool air lifts the parachute up, taking you with it.
The experience is brief but breathtaking: floating freely with the endless horizon to the right and tourists lazing on the warm beach on the left. When the unbearable sun has you longing for a breeze of any kind, you could do far worse for a couple-based activity.
Who runs it? Prince of Sal (princeofsal.com). Prices start at about HK$150 each for a five-minute sail.
Where to stay The Leela Goa - with 30 hectares, the Leela has a 12-hole golf course and a mostly-private beach. Many of the Portuguese-style rooms have sea-facing balconies. theleela.com
WHITE WATER RAFTING
Who's it for? Adventurers looking for something new.
Why do it? Rafting isn't easy to come by in Asia so a trip to Goa is worth it for the state's thrilling rivers - especially during the sport's season, from late May to mid-October.
The most popular expedition is set entirely on the Mhadei River, on a 10-kilometre stretch within the local wildlife sanctuary. It gives both beginners and casual rafters an exciting experience and allows them to take in the unique surroundings.
For more advanced rafters, there is an 18-kilometre run that takes place on both the Mhadei and the neighbouring Surla rivers. It only happens when the conditions are ideal - when monsoons have flooded both rivers to the perfect level and all passengers meet the class four standard.
Each trip has its charms, but it is only the latter's stormy waters and high speeds that have been compared to the raging rapids of the Amazon.
Who runs it? Southern River Adventures (goarafting.com) is the only official rafting company within Goa. It organises two trips on behalf of the local government. Prices are about HK$350-HK$500 for the 10 kilometre journey.
Where to stay Amarya Shamiyana - in this four-suite property, every room is designed to be as immense and luxurious as a Mughal-style tent. It's also located just steps from the beautiful Ashvem Beach. amaryagroup.com
Who's it for? Underwater lovers with a hint of Indiana Jones in them.
Why do it? Some of the best diving in the world is available just a short budget-flight ride away from Mumbai. And while Goa's initially murky views might not seem all that enticing, the state offers something a little more hidden: deep-sea diving opportunities, including the Grand Island's two shipwreck sites.
The first is the SS Rita - or "Suzy's Wreck", to its modern visitors - a British ship built in the 1930s that sank in a storm. Its 130 metres of dilapidated metal acts as home to both soft and hard coral, as well as an ever-changing number of rare sealife, include puffers, batfish, lionfish and rays.
The second is Davy Jones' Locker, a former metal steamer that only exists on the map as an immense stern and propeller. The site is home to as barracuda and banner fish, but more interesting to adventurous sorts is the mysterious location of the ship's main section. It is said to be so deep underwater that only a few daring divers have chanced upon it, and it's never officially been placed on the map. Good luck hunting.
Who runs it? Barracuda Diving (barracudadiving.com) is a popular diving centre in Goa, with SSI and PADI available. Daily dive trips start at about HK$600.
Where to stay Alila Diwa Goa - a blend of luxury and rural styles, it has rooms that overlook the rice paddies and an impressive optical-illusion pool. Lie on the shallow side and sip away the day with their variety of cocktails. alilahotels.com
How to get there
Cathay Pacific flies twice daily to Mumbai. From there, at least 14 daily flights to Goa are offered by several budget airlines, including Air India, GoAir, IndiGo and Jet Airways, with advance return bookings starting at HK$700.