10 Indian Beaches With Stories + Surprises

A beach you can drive on to, a shore with a shrine for shipwrecked sailors and plenty more.

A beach you can drive on to, a shore with a shrine for shipwrecked sailors (read that aloud!), and a strand with a mythical bridge. Buzz off Baga, here are beaches that offer a lot more than just bums and shacks.

ST MARY’S ISLAND | Karavali Coast, Dakshin Kannada A geological wonder A two-hour boat ride from Malpe harbour, six kilometres into the Arabian Sea, is a volcanic palm-fringed island with feral goats, pristine water and a crunchy-underfoot seashell beach. In 1498 Vasco da Gama dropped anchor on the northernmost islet, erected a holy cross and rechristened the place El Padron de Santa Maria, now famous as St Mary’s Island. The 300m long and 100m wide isle is composed of striking hexagonal basalt rock columns in varying shades of red and black that form a surreal backdrop. Because of its geological and ecological importance, St Mary’s is a National Geological Monument.

LAXMANPUR | Neil Island, Andamans Sea-life at your feet Turquoise waters fringed by white sand, 4,000 varieties of corals and a shimmering underworld of marine life; welcome to a paradise called the Andamans. Only 32 of the 572 islands are inhabited, and Neil Island in Ritchie’s Archipelago is a hidden gem: a scenic village road leads to Laxmanpur-2 Beach, which is dominated by a natural rock bridge.

Bengali refugees who resettled on these islands after the Bangladesh war dubbed the geological marvel Howrah Bridge, but the real show unfolds every morning at low tide, when the waters recede and the fringing coral reef unlocks its secrets. On a guided walk, you can see colourful fish dart around in salt pools, stealthy eels peep from their rocky lairs, seemingly motionless sea cucumbers, and clams wedged in rocks quivering their purple clown-lips. Marvel at staghorn corals, stubby finger corals, boulder corals and magical colour-changing corals; all minus the hassle of scuba, snorkelling or glass-bottom boat rides.

TRANQUEBAR | Coromandel Coast, Tamil Nadu Fresh air and old bungalows A gust of sea breeze can be invigorating on any beach, but Tranquebar is special because it is India’s only ozone-rich beach. The uniqueness doesn’t end here. It is also happens to be the only Danish trading outpost in India. When the Danes acquired a small coastal village from the Thanjavur Nayaks, Tharangambadi or Land of the Dancing Waves was transformed into ‘Trankebar’.

Stay at the erstwhile summer residence of the British collector renovated as Neemrana’s stunning Bungalow on the Beach and watch catamarans bob on the surf at sunrise from your verandah while staying in Christianus Septimus, Princess Louise, Countess Moltke and other period rooms named after the Danish ships that docked at Tranquebar. Located between the crumbling Masilamani Nathar Temple on the left and the stunning Dansborg Fort to the right, the bungalow is the perfect base for heritage walks around the coastal town.

MUZHAPPILANGAD | Malabar Coast, Kerala The drive-in beach Centuries ago, it was the lure of pepper (known as black gold) and the Spice Coast that drew traders to Kerala. Today, it is Kannur’s Muzhappilangad Beach on the Malabar Coast. The name may be a tongue twister but the beach is straight as an arrow. Touted as India’s longest drive-in beach, the five-kilometre stretch of compact sand offers visitors a chance to zip along the surf in a vehicle. Watch golden sunsets, wait for fishing boats to empty out the day’s catch or gaze at Dharmadam Island in the distance. Rocks dotting the shoreline offer protection against currents and the shallow waters make it ideal for swimming and adventure sports like paragliding, parasailing and micro-light flights. Traditional Moplah cuisine like pathiris (meat crepes), arikadukka (mussels stuffed with rice), unnakaya (banana fritters with coconut filling) and the signature Thalassery Biriyani will leave you craving for more. (You may want to beach-proof your car before you go here)

LAND’S END | Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu One end of the mythical bridge Once connected by rail to Rameshwaram and ravaged by a cyclone in 1964, Dhanushkodi was a bustling fishing hamlet; today, it is a ghost town. Accessed by four-wheeled drive vans that tackle a cross-country course over sand and surf, the bumpy safari from Mukundarayar Chathiram is worth the 10km ride. It’s a surreal landscape of ruined railway tracks, weatherworn boats and marshes dotted with sandpipers and curlews. The wild Indian Ocean and the calmer Bay of Bengal merge at Land’s End, the eastern extremity of the Indian peninsula. It is said that Lord Rama built his famous rama setu (Adam’s Bridge) to Lanka 30km away from this point. On the way back, vans halt at the small temple in Dhanushkodi which enshrines a porous rock (most probably volcanic pumice) believed to be a relic from Rama’s floating bridge.

ARAMBOL BEACH | Goa A freshwater lake, yes Originally named after Veer Harhar Mahal, a local ruler who performed a sacrifice in the 12th century to mark a victory, Harmal became Arambol under the Portuguese. The key attraction is a freshwater lake past the cliffs to the right—just off the beach. Set against a thick forest and fed by springs, the freshwater lake is lined with sulphurous mud. One often finds mud-smeared hippies basking in the sun here. The forest patch behind the lake has a nice trail leading to a waterfall. Arambol cliff is a good vantage point for paragliding and bears a sacrificial pit where the warrior-sage Parasurama allegedly performed a penance to reclaim India’s western coast from the sea.

OM BEACH | Gokarna, Uttara Kannada A hippie haven Karwar’s scenic coast may have inspired Rabindranath Tagore to write his first poem, but the world can’t stop singing praises of Gokarna’s pristine beaches. Once a quiet pilgrim town that sprung up around the Atma Lingeshwara Temple, it became a hippie haven ever since someone discovered a beach shaped like a giant Om. Its remoteness and inaccessibility only added to its mystique. A short coastal hike from the main beach at Gokarna leads to Kudle and a 30-minute walk farther south leads to Om Beach. A rocky promontory jutting out from the shore divides the beach into two crescents. Walk past shacks and fishing boats bobbing on the waves to the hill on the far side for a view of the ‘Om’ beach. The trail winds through a small forest patch along a narrow path to smaller beaches like Half Moon and Paradise.

KUNKESHWAR | Konkan Coast, Maharashtra For the bizarre story A region known for its divine Alphonso mangoes and Malvani cuisine, Kunkeshwar lies 16km from Devgad in Sindhudurg district. Situated on the edge of the sea and lashed by waves is a 400-year-old Shiva temple that earned the town the epithet ‘Konkan Kashi’. According to legend, there used to be an old Shiva lingam on the shore. Once, an Arabian vessel was caught in a terrible storm. Fighting against an imminent watery end, the sailors saw a light in the distance and prayed fervently for their lives, vowing to build a shrine to the local deity if they survived. The Arabs landed safely and built a laterite temple in thanks. But rather than return and be labelled as heretics, they jumped from the top of the temple and dashed themselves against the rocks below. Their samadhi (resting place) can still be found here.

NAGOA BEACH | Diu Gujarat’s watering hole As a Portuguese colony from 1535 to 1961, Diu has lots to show for 426 years of colonial rule. Besides churches and forts strewn around the landscape, the most visible imprint is the hoka tree (Hyphoena indica), a branching palm brought from Africa by the Portuguese that is not found anywhere else in the country. Nagoa Beach, Diu’s most popular seaside hangout, is a horseshoe-shaped beach with wind whispering through the hoka trees. Enjoy water sports while staying at Resort Hoka nearby or the luxurious Azzaro Resort. Thanks to its location on the southern coast of Gujarat, Diu has a Kathiawari touch, but as a Union Territory it enjoys liberal liquor laws, much to the relief of those from the dry state. Relish seafood and enjoy rides in colourful chhakdas (local fatfatiya-type transport).

PURI BEACH | Orissa Where the sea vanishes Orissa’s coastline is blessed with great diversity: Bhitarkanika ranks among the largest mangrove ecosystems in India, Chilika Lake is the biggest coastal lagoon, Gahirmatha is the largest breeding ground for Olive Ridley turtles in the world and Chandipur-on-Sea is one of the few beaches where the water recedes up to five kilometres every day at low tide. As the sea retreats, tourists chase the waves in exhilarating jeep rides. However, Puri is Orissa’s most popular beach because it offers the complete package. Pilgrims visit the Jagannath Temple in droves. Tourists throng Marine Drive Road, which is lined with hotels, restaurants and souvenir stalls. Priests perform oblations to the sun while foreigners linger at the funeral proceedings at Swargadwar. Internationally acclaimed artist Sudarshan Patnaik fashions sculptures out of sand. Local fishermen in triangular straw hats serve as boatmen and lifeguards. And all are bowled over by the unique spectacle of sunrise and sunset on the same beach. Puri Beach Festival in November is a great time to visit with Odissi performances, local crafts and cuisine.

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Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy

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