We embarked along the sapphire route along National Highway 17 for a sun-soaked holiday. This route along Karnataka’s Karavali coast is India’s best beach and temple country. The charm of this coastal sojourn is that we seldom lost track of the deep blue sea, golden sands and acres of emerald foliage. We drove past palm-fringed beaches, lush green fields swaying in the gentle breeze, forests and rivers, tile-roofed houses, hairpin bends with awesome views, temple towns echoing with evening prayers, fishermen returning home at sunset, with the distant roar of the Arabian Sea providing the background music to these visual delights. Flanked by the soaring Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west, the Karavali stretch is a scenic treat all the way.
The first halt in our coastal circuit in Uttara Kannada district was Bhatkal, just before Murudeshwar. We explored the erstwhile trading port of the Vijayanagar empire and the two interesting temples – the Jain Chandranatha Basadi and a 17th century Vijayanagar temple with animal carvings – and the 42 mosques. Bhatkal is where Konkani begins to share space with Tulu. A 4-km drive out of town took us to the beach and the small fishing wharf. At the bazaar, we tried out the two local specialities – date halwa and a salted roti. One also shouldn’t miss the Bhatkal biriyani.
After a 14-km drive, we reached Murudeshwar. Located on the main Mangalore-Karwar highway, it is a favourite haunt of day-trippers and offers a short, low-budget holiday. It is a reputed pilgrimage centre connected with the atma linga which Ravana brought to Gokarna. Murudeshwar’s principal allure for visitors is its beaches, the tallest Shiva statue in India and the Shiva temple built with Chalukya and Kadamba sculptures in the Dravidian style of architecture. From the hilltop temple, we watched the sun setting into the vast expanse of the sea. In the distance we could see Netrani Island, which is a haven for scuba diving and snorkelling enthusiasts.
Shiva statue in Murudeshwar
Another 30-minute drive and we reached the port town of Honnavar, which had earlier hosted foreign traders. Besides Apsarakonda Falls, Kasarkode beach, which incidentally bagged the Blue Flag certification, is the main attraction here. From the coastal highway, we took a short detour to Gokarna, a nondescript town which has become the favourite of Hindu pilgrims, Sanskrit pundits, and an alternative hideaway for the beach buffs of Goa. The drive up the winding road to the town is enchanting with the Western Ghats on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other.
Gokarna is a charming little town with temples, a wide expanse of beach, two principal streets and clusters of traditional tile-roofed brick houses. The characteristic traditional feel is discernible: shaven-headed priests chanting Sanskrit verses on their verandas, while tourists on spiritual sojourns whiz through the streets with religious paraphernalia to the sea for a holy dip. You’ll also find quaint Udupi food joints, souvenir shops, and cyber cafes here. It is home to the ancient temple of Mahabaleshwara with its Atmalinga, the Venkatramana Temple, the Ganapati Temple, and the Koti Theertha, a large temple tank where pilgrims perform ablutions.
Once the ‘temple fatigue’ set in, we indulged in some sedate sea-watching. We had to do some cliff-scrambling in this coastal town. Om beach, one of Gokarna’s famed five, takes the shape of an ‘Om’, a spiritual symbol. A promontory that breaks away from the coastline divides the beach into two semi-circular halves resembling the letter OM. The road twists through alleys, past people’s houses, temple chariots and ‘Way to Beach’ signs. The other pristine beaches, wedged between gigantic cliffs that protrude like delicate fingers into the sea, are Gokarna, Kudle, Half Moon and Paradise.
The last halt in our coastal itinerary was Karwar. With hills plunging into the sea on the west and serenaded by the waters of the Arabian Sea on the east and the river Kali sweeping majestically to the north of the town, the landscape is awesome. Even Tagore has extolled the mindboggling beauty of the Karwar coast during his sojourn here in the early part of the last century.
Karwar was the erstwhile trading outpost of foreigners. It is said that even the great explorer Vasco da Gama walked on the golden sands of Karwar. Apart from the excellent harbour, four beaches that offer sun, sand, surf and sport and five islands, Karwar has much more to offer. The Sadashivgad Hill Fort with a Durga Temple, the unique octagonal Roman Catholic Church in Kadwad village, the 300-year-old Venkatrama Temple with ochre paintings, and the Naganatha Temple where an anthill is worshipped, and the famous Dargah of Peer Shan Shamsuddin Kharobat, a Bagdadi saint, are some of the must-see attractions of this coastal town.
A short boat ride away you’ll find the excellent Devbagh Beach and five idyllic islands. With its pristine beach, and an eco-friendly resort with ethnic log huts and tents tucked amidst a casuarina grove, it is a romantic hideaway offering complete privacy and solitude sans the five-star trappings.
We followed Tagore’s footsteps and took a boat cruise up the Kali from the mouth. We spotted dolphins as they gracefully dived into azure waters. From there, in the distance we saw Kurumgad Island, a tortoise-shaped island. Here one wakes up to the joyous cries of the seagulls. From the island one can have a gorgeous view of the sea, sand and the neighbouring islands, which include the Madalingagad or Sanyasi Island and the Devagada or Oyster Rock Island. As we returned from our coastal odyssey, we realised Karnataka is not short of fabulous beaches but lacks salesmen of its ravishing beauty.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bengaluru.
All pictures by Susheela Nair.