Our motor boat slowly sputtered along the Souparnika River in Maravanthe, gently making its way through the hundreds of lily pads that blanket the backwaters. The bank to our left was cloaked in bristly young grass, coconut fronds swayed above, and near the water’s edge inquisitive mangrove roots peeked out of the water like little periscopes. Everything unmoving was covered with moss. The water was refreshing, almost matka-cooled, as it rushed over my feet dangling off the boat’s edge. I could get used to this, I thought, and wondered if we could continue long enough for me to take a nap.
We had arrived in Mangalore earlier that day from muggy, electric Mumbai and though it had been only a few hours since landing in Karnataka, I was already quite besotted. My travel companion, photographer Neelima Vallangi, and I were on a four-day curated excursion to explore the region’s coastal towns, hike through its ghats, and acquaint ourselves with its coconutty cuisine.
The Karnataka coast, largely ignored for Goa’s more popular beaches, is blissfully free of tourists. Sandy coves are lined with casuarina groves, perfect for picnics in between dips in the ocean. Roads are in great condition and highways are often flanked by the ocean on one side and broad, jade rivers, still as glass on the other. Puppies drag bits of seaweed along empty beaches, young boys try to catch crabs along the river, and there are fish markets every few kilometres, brimming with mussels, clams, and shrimp. An hour-long drive can easily take twice the time if you make as many stops as we did, but that is the allure of road trips. You can linger where you want.
Our first culinary lesson was at Shetty’s in Kundapur. On the surface, Shetty Lunch Home looks painfully ordinary: Standard-issue upholstered seating, waiters in blue-tinted white uniforms, and a menu with a maroon faux-leather cover and laminated sheets. But it’s not the ambience that draws customers from as far away as Bengaluru to this no-nonsense restaurant. That distinction goes to its life-affirming chicken ghee roast, flecked with curry leaves and slow-cooked in a coconut-chilli paste with enough ghee to erase bad memories. We polished off two plates and miraculously found space for some fish masala, Kundapur chicken curry, and an order of kane fry: slender lady fish smacked with red chilli and shallow-fried in coconut oil. We finally threw in the towel about an hour after we had neatly laid out Shetty’s maroon napkins on our laps, and made our way to Shiroor, our base for the next few days.
At Shiroor we stayed at the Wild Woods Spa Resort, a clutch of laterite stone and bamboo cottages and villas, on a sprawling property in the Western Ghats. The holistic resort is run by the enterprising Mr. Shetty (unrelated to the good folks at the lunch home), a keen collector of medicinal botanical specimens from around the world. His bountiful gardens host plants from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Africa, Dubai, and across India, many of which find their way into guest’s meals. Breakfast one day, featured juice made from betel leaves (a digestive and good for diabetes, he told us earnestly) and star fruit (a powerful antioxidant) along with aromatic green idlis steamed in hibiscus leaves. Another morning, we tucked into paniyaram (like pan-fried idlis) with vitamin chutney, made from ground coconut and the bark of the Arjuna tree. Extracts from this tree, the chatty owner believes, can reverse heart disease. It was all the encouragement we needed to eat ourselves silly.
Dinners were even more elaborate affairs that included bonfire-roasted cashew (still encased in its shell), fried fish, neer dosa, prawn masala, and kori-roti: a Mangalorean classic that comprises chicken curry poured over crisp shards of rice flour roti. Regional food was undoubtedly a highlight of the trip, but my favourite meal wasn’t really Mangalorean at all. Smoked fish, as Mr. Shetty called it, was made from lady fish smeared with Bedgi chilli powder, wrapped in banana leaf parcels, and cooked on stones heated in a bonfire. The fish was caught less than 10 kilometres away, the banana leaves were from a tree just outside the kitchen, the wood came from the property, and the palm-sized pebbles were picked from a stream a few minutes from where we were seated. When the pebbles were red-hot, the fire was doused with sand from the river bed, and the parcels of fish cooked in the residual heat. It was clean, simple, hyper-local food, with flavours that cannot be replicated on a stovetop.
Hoping to work off the extravagant meals, we explored the forest around the property on foot. The Ghats are riddled with trails both easy and hard, that lead to secluded clearings and streams with cool, crystal clear waters. This habitat is also a biodiversity hotspot so every square foot is inhabited by all kinds of unusual flora and fauna. We spent a day hiking up to Jagatkal Falls. It was a spectacular path, strewn with smooth, massive boulders, and bordered by thick jungle, and we paused frequently to examine spiky palm fronds, jewel-hued bugs, or simply to marvel at dewdrops on spiderwebs sparkling in a shaft of sunlight.
By the time we reached our destination, the sky had filled with ominous clouds, but we lingered a while, ate our squishy sandwiches while enjoying the cloud of cool mist that forms when waterfalls hit the rocks below. Since it was February, Jagatkal was a shadow of its original size, but it was still an incredibly scenic spot.
The descent was much harder. Only minutes after we left, fat, warm raindrops began to fall, pelting our clothes, hair, and daypacks. Greens became instantly brighter, but the dusty trail turned into a mucky path making the moss-covered rocks slippery. What should have been a short walk back turned into a precarious four-hour hike that involved wading through impromptu streams, sliding down flat boulders, and tip-toeing so we didn’t step in calf-deep sludge. It was hard, and my legs were reduced to wobbly jujubes by the time we were done, but it only made the Ayurvedic massage we were treated to upon our return that much sweeter. The treatment ended with a hot, fragrant herb bath, made entirely with medicinal twigs, leaves, and roots from the property.
Invigorated but sore, we restricted the next day’s explorations to destinations to which we could drive. At Bhatkal market, we browsed through piles of dried spices, terracotta cookware, and an astounding variety of brinjals. Though a lot of Mangalorean curries are a violent red-orange, the dishes aren’t searing on the tongue because they use the local Bedgi chilli, which is large, wrinkly, and tame enough to be used liberally without numbing the palate. I bought a bagful, some terracotta vessels, and a few packets of ghee roast masala.
Next, we set off for the temple ruins of Gerusoppa. I’m generally not much of a temple person. Some of our shrines are undoubtedly magnificent specimens of architectural genius and craftsmanship, but I have an aversion to the crowds and filth which are unavoidable at most pilgrim spots. This is also why our itinerary had so far, steered clear of the many, many temples that dot this region. But Gerusoppa was something else.
The journey there felt like a bit like a wild goose chase, as almost nobody along the way seemed to know where it was. But the views en route were so brilliantly green that none of us minded. After an hour of travelling through snaking roads, we finally saw a board with a glaring lion-tailed macaque that announced we were entering Gerusoppa. A 20-minute walk through the forest later, we were at the ruins of the Jain temples we had been looking for.
It looked like the abandoned set of an Indiana Jones film. Save for some cows ambling around and a few scruffy, friendly stray dogs, there weren’t too many people around. A few weathered boards from the Archaeological Society of India told us the complex once had over 100 shrines that dated back to the 14th century. Later research revealed they were built by an ambitious queen called Chennabhairadevi (a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I). Her modest kingdom of Tuluva-Salva, in present-day Karnataka, finds mention in the travelogues of traders from Portugal and the Middle East who came here for pepper and other spices. The queen herself was famed for her religious tolerance and for her love of the arts.
Less than a dozen shrines now remain in the complex. Some, like the stunning Chaturmukha Basti, are still in remarkable condition. A large, near-vertical staircase hewn out of rock leads to the grand temple, which sits on a granite pedestal. Inside are intricately carved walls and statues of meditating Mahaviras. One four-sided, life-size sculpture of Mahavira in particular, is stunning in its detail and symmetry. Other temples were in a state of neglect, but they all had something to offer, as did the piles of moss-covered rocks that were nestled deep in the jungle. We rounded off the afternoon with lunch, which we had sitting cross-legged in the kitchen of a Jain priest’s family that lives near Chaturmukha Basti and looks after the temples. The meal was simple—rasam, rice, amaranth-coconut bhaji, and chilli pappadams—but memorable for its homely flavours.
Later that night, after a lazy coracle ride and another fine meal, I spent time on the bench outside our cottage listening to the sounds of the forest. Frogs croaked, the stream gurgled in the distance, and the rain pattered gently on leaves. A halo of tiny insects swarmed around the lantern on the porch, drawn to its incandescent glow, oblivious to their dead companions lying on the floor. How silly they are, I thought, to be chasing bright lights when they have all the forest to explore. Much like us humans.
Coastal Karnataka spans three districts: Uttara Kannada, where Bhatkal and Gerusoppa are located, Udupi, where Shiroor and Kundapur is, and Dakshin Kannada where Mangalore lies. The geographically stunning region is flanked by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west.
Bhatkal is 144 km/3 hr from Mangalore, 223 km/5 hr from Dabolim in Goa, and 500 km/9 hr from Bangalore. Kundapur is 92 km/2 hr from Mangalore; Shetty Lunch Home is a good place to stop for a meal en route to Bhatkal. Shiroor, where Wild Woods Spa and Resort is located, is 14 km/20 minutes from Bhatkal. The trek up to Jagatkal Falls begins at the foot of a hill about a 15-min drive from Shiroor. Gerusoppa (spelled Gersoppa on Google Maps) is in the forest behind a Karnataka hydel project, 30 km/45 min from Honnavar. The ruins are 50 km/1.5 hr from Bhatkal and 195 km/4.5 hr from Mangalore.
Mangalore is the largest city in the region and is well connected to cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, and Chennai by rail, air, and bus. Bhatkal, Kundapur, and Honnavar have railway stations. Visiting Gerusoppa requires hiring a taxi.
Coastal Karnataka remains humid and warm for most of the year. Temperatures range between 25-35°C in summer (Apr-June) and in October, just after the monsoon. The rains, which extend from mid-June to Aug brings some respite from the heat (20-25°C) though trekking becomes much harder in this season. Winter (Nov-Feb) is most pleasant. Days are sunny (about 25°C) and evenings are cool enough to require a light shawl. Temperatures are always a few degrees cooler in forested areas.
Wild Woods has bamboo and stone cottages surrounded by towering trees and flowering shrubs, and a spa that gives better Ayurvedic than Thai massages. All meals are served in a common dining area and the food is wonderful as long as you insist that they serve traditional Mangalorean fare for all meals. (wildwoodsspa.com; +917760976680)
Holiday Studio organises curated trips that pack in the best of coastal Karnataka. Itineraries can be tweaked according to traveller’s interests. Architecture and history buffs might spend more time exploring the region’s temples. Hungry travellers can go on fishing and crab-catching trips with locals. For curated trips like this one contact theholidaystudio.com; ₹8,200 per couple per night, including all meals and activities like hikes, fishing trips, and coracle rides. Visiting sites like Gerusoppa requires booking a cab and costs an additional ₹3,000 per day for a car that takes 4 people.
Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “Hike for your Supper”. Updated in October 2017.
Neha Sumitran loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.
Neelima Vallangi is an itinerant freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys purposefully getting lost in the mountains and going to faraway corners where Google Maps fail. She tweets as @i_wanderingsoul.