Top 10 Beaches of Our Sabbatical

We wrote this list while lounging around on the beach in Zanzibar, just to make you hate us. The criteria are totally subjective and not documented anywhere, but involve some combination of most beautiful setting, best food, best amenities, and best overall vibe.

In order from most to least amazing:

  1. Mandrem, Goa, India – we spent a week on Mandrem being beach bums at the end of our stay in India.
  2. Nai Yang, Phuket, Thailand – Nai Yang was so beautiful we had to go twice, first at the beginning of our Southeast Asia jaunt in January, and then for a long weekend trip with Seema and Mark in April.
  3. Galu Beach, Mombasa, Kenya – an extremely laid-back spot to kite surf – or not – and enjoy beautiful water and endless soft sand.
  4. Long Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam – we spent four nights on Long Beach in February, before we started our volunteer assignments in Thailand, and we ate chili lemongrass shrimp every day.
  5. Khlong Nin, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we spent four nights at Khlong Nin beach on Ko Lanta in January, directly after our stay in Phuket. It was a beautiful setting, but not quite as amazing an overall package as Nai Yang.
  6. Kendwa, Zanzibar, Tanzania – it wasn’t easy to get there on foot from Nungwi, but it was worth the trek, as it offered a beautiful stretch of relatively-secluded beach.
  7. Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania – we spent four nights on Nungwi, in a hotel room with an incredible ocean view. Unfortunately there isn’t much beach to speak of at low tide, but Kendwa and East Nungwi, nearby, offer good swimming opportunities.
  8. Khlong Dao, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we finished up our January visit to Ko Lanta with two nights at Khlong Dao, which was nice but not as secluded or as pretty as Khlong Nin. We did find one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the world at Khlong Dao – Thai Is-San.
  9. Nha Trang, Vietnam – the beach was not as nice as we remembered it from our first visit in 2007, but the tropical fruits are still the best I’ve ever tasted.
  10. Matemwe, Zanzibar, Tanzania – fascinating tidal flat landscape at low tide, pretty (but skinny) stretch of beach at high tide. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a place to stay, but it’s certainly worth a day trip.

If it makes you hate us any less, our tans will most certainly have faded by the time we arrive back in Seattle on September 22, and we do not have any more beach time scheduled between now and then.

Ketan

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Next door to the Dunes is a cute little family-run guesthouse and vegetarian restaurant called Ketan. At Rs100 (about $2), their vegetarian thali is the most expensive, but also one of the most delicious, I’ve had in India. It’s also large enough that Kenny and I can share one for lunch or dinner if we order a couple of extra chapatis.

We dined at Ketan three times during our week in Goa, and each time the thali featured a different combination of vegetables and curries. My favorite thali items were the dal and the delicious pumpkin sabji. Everything was a winner though, including cabbage, beets, and gobi curry.

There was always a very cute little boy running around the restaurant and sharing his toys with the guests. He looked great in my sunglasses. His older brother, Ketan, apparently inspired the guesthouse/restaurant’s name. We also befriended Keshav, who I believe was the patriarch of the family. He gave us a ride down to Anjuna for the weekly market, and also offered a good rate on a taxi to the airport at the end of our week.

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Ketan
Junes Wada, Mandrem Beach, Goa
+91-832-2247943
+91-942-1257616
ketanguest@yahoo.co.in

Well Garden

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As Kenny mentioned, Sean’s good friend Josh planned our Goa trip for us. One of the places he emphatically recommended was Well Garden, a hidden little restaurant behind the mini-mart in Mandrem. One of the common features of Josh’s recommended restaurants seems to be that we can’t find them on our first try; on our first night in Goa, we tried to dine at Well Garden, but after a bit of searching gave up and ate at Dunes. The next day, we had better luck, and we enjoyed a lunch of homemade fettuccine with pesto and a delicious salad of beans, celery, apples, and onions. We learned that the famous wood-fired pizzas were only available at dinner time, so we planned to return the following evening.

On our second visit, we just had to have the delicious bean salad again. We also ordered a pizza with eggplant and capsicum, which was thin and crispy, and featured tomato sauce, cheese, and veggies in just the right proportions.

When Sean and Freeman arrived on Friday, the first item on their agenda was pizza at Well Garden. So back we went, and we also enjoyed a farewell dinner there last night. Unfortunately, after our first two meals, the bean salad was never available again (maybe we consumed all of their beans?), so we tried a few other salads which ended up being much less exciting. The hummus was equally uninspiring. But the pizzas and pastas were reliably good, and we never minded that they were out of chicken so that Sean couldn’t corrupt us while we were in detox mode (no alcohol or meat for a week). The big surprise hit was the chickoo cake, which we enjoyed on two visits in a row, and even ordered a second slice of on our last night.

If you’re headed to Goa, I’d definitely recommend Well Garden, but stick to the pizzas, pastas, bean salad, and chickoo cake. Trust me, I’ve tried most of the menu. ;)

Eggplant and capsicum pizza
Eggplant and capsicum pizza from the wood-fired oven

Bean salad
This delicious salad had beans, apples, celery, and onions. I will certainly be trying to replicate this one at home.

Hummus
Hummus

Chickoo cake
Chickoo cake

Well Garden
Behind the mini-mart
Mandrem, Goa, India

La Plage

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Before we left Bangalore, our friend Josh gave us a few Goa recommendations. He said:

Go to Mandrem. Stay at the Dunes. Have dinner next to the Dunes at a place called Well Garden that makes awesome wood-fired pizzas. Aswem, the next beach south, has a fancy European restaurant called La Plage. You can walk there or take a short cab ride.

OK, you could say that he planned most of our Goa trip for us. The first day on the beach, we tried to find La Plage for lunch. We walked down the beach for about a half-hour, fording a knee-high river formed by the tides and scrambling over rocks along the way. We asked a few people we passed, both tourists and touts, none of whom had heard of La Plage. Ultimately we turned back and had lunch in Mandrem. Our hosts at the Dunes told us that we had gone the right way, just not far enough. They said we would be able to see it from the beach and to just keep going.

The following day we left around 11AM for our lunchtime adventure. We passed the river, the rocks, and a long stretch of beautiful beach with nothing but sea creatures and waves to keep us company. Finally we spied a line of red beach chairs under the waving palm trees, and a little bit beyond them was an enormous sky-blue sign signaling that we had arrived at La Plage.

The food at La Plage is about 3 times the price of your average restaurant in Mandem (which puts the dishes at $4-$7), but it has the nicest atmosphere in town and delicious food. The two vegetarian dishes we had for lunch were fantastic. The chilled avocado soup would have made the grade in a top California restaurant, and their tomato tart was flaky, buttery goodness. The “grilled spicy chicken” just reminded me that I should stick to vegetables and seafood in this part of the world (though the accompanying green papaya and peanut salad was yummy).

The next day we went back for more, and discovered our two favorite dishes. The first was gnocchi with porcini mushrooms. The gnocchi were homemade, deliciously chewy, and topped with real parmesan cheese and a porcini mushroom sauce that was rich without being heavy-handed. The second was the “La Grande Salade de La Plage”, which we had spied earlier on another table. It’s a collection of dips, cheese, and vegetables served with fresh baked bread.

We had a few more lunches there, and dinner with Sean and Freeman last night. Dinner was a bit of an adventure. Lauren and I again walked along the beach, but there were a few differences. It was dark, which we had planned for with our headlamps. However, when we got partway through the river crossing, we realized that the tides were much higher in the evening! Fortunately it was still warm enough out for our shorts to dry on the other half of our walk, and we joined Sean and Freeman for a dry cab ride home.

The other dinner hiccup was the food coursing. All of our dishes, from appetizers to main courses, arrived simultaneously. This meant that there was not enough room on the table for everything, and that much of the food got cold before it was eaten. The staff let us linger over cards for hours afterwards, but it was a shame to have such a rushed eating experience.

Overall the food at La Plage is delicious, especially the vegetarian dishes, and the lounge-y beach setting is paradise. If you’re in north Goa, it’s worth the journey (by cab or river crossing) to check it out!

Arriving at La Plage
The big blue sign beckons you from the beachfront to this oasis

Chilled avocado and apple soup
Chilled avocado and apple soup with lime leaves and pomegranate

Gnocci with porcini mushrooms
Gnocci in porcini mushroom sauce

La Grande Salade de La Plage
The famous Grande Salade de La Plage

Tomato tart
Tomato tart with basil and arugula

La Plage
Aswem, Goa, India
+91 982-212-1712

Daily: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Letting Go in Goa

We have spent the past few days on the beach in Mandrem, North Goa, eating delicious food and not doing much of anything. It’s hot here, but the water is clear and warm and just steps away from our beach hut. The beach stretches in both directions as far as we can see. It’s a rough life, really.

Mandrem is almost a two-hour drive from Goa’s only airport, and hasn’t seen nearly as much development as the easier-to-reach beaches. There are no fancy resorts or towering hotels, just a smattering of beach hut complexes and a few small guesthouses. Nor is there any hint of the Israeli rave party scene that made North Goa famous (although it seems that even Vagator and Anjuna have calmed down over the past decade).

In spite of its small size, Mandrem actually has a few great spots to eat – our favorites so far are Well Garden for wood-fired pizzas and delicious salads, and Ketan for huge vegetarian South Indian thalis. When we get bored, we can walk north to Arambol or south to Aswem. Arambol is a huge backpacker hangout, with lots of shops selling hippy garb, trance CDs, and kitschy souvenirs. I’ve dubbed it “Kathmandu on the beach.” Aswem is much smaller, just a cluster of a few hotels, but one of them – La Plage – features a very good, if somewhat expensive, Euro-inspired restaurant.

We’ve settled into a nice daily beach routine:

  • 6:30am: Wake up and go for a jog to Arambol and back along the beach (we’re not certain, but we’ve heard that it’s 3km each way); or sun salutations and weights on the beach. If we sleep in and let our workout slip by even 30 minutes, it’s already too hot for jogging.
  • 8:00am: Breakfast at our hotel back in Mandrem (if we didn’t already break down and eat in Arambol)
  • 9:00am until noonish: Beach time
  • Noonish: Lunch at Ketan or Well Garden; or take a hike down to Aswem for lunch at La Plage if we feel like earning it
  • Post-lunch until 4:30pm or so: More beach time
  • 4:30pm: Shower and get ready for dinner
  • 5:00pm: Check out the sunset on the beach
  • 6:00pm: Early dinner at Ketan or Well Garden (are you sensing a theme?)
  • Post-dinner: Edit photos or work on the blog backlog for a while; read for a bit before heading to bed early

Sean arrives this evening to spend the weekend with us, so I’m sure our schedule will shift a bit. We’re taking bets on whether we can convince him to join our early morning jog. ;)

A few photos from paradise:

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Just a small part of a large morning fishing operation about halfway between Mandrem and Arambol

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Our breakfast view at The Dunes

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Sunset at The Dunes

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La Plage felt like a desert oasis when we found it for the first time

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We often encounter this guy in the same spot on our walks between Mandrem and Aswem

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The rocks about halfway between Mandrem and Aswem

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Twinkle twinkle little starfish

The Next Two Weeks

We have a little over two weeks remaining in India. It’s incredible how the time has flown. We had originally planned to spend our final two weeks in the north, perhaps in Rajasthan and/or Agra. However, we’ve decided we haven’t quite had our fill of the south (or its tasty cuisine), so the new plan is to defer our tour of the north until our next India trip. Yes, the Taj Mahal will have to wait, but does give us a nice excuse to come back.

This is the new plan:

  • Attend our friends Chandrika and Kirill’s India wedding in Bangalore this Saturday (we already had the honor of attending their US wedding in September). I’ll get to show off the two sarees I purchased last weekend.
  • Fly to Goa on Monday for a week on the beach. We’ve booked the entire week in Mandrem, but could potentially check out early if we decide we want to see some other beaches.
  • Back to Bangalore on Monday 12/14 for a couple of days with Sean and Archana.
  • Fly to Delhi on 12/17.
  • Fly to Seattle via Chicago on 12/19.

Then, as originally planned, we’ll have a week in Seattle, and a few days each in Los Angeles and Miami making the family rounds (including my high school reunion, meeting our new nephew, and Kenny’s stepbrother’s wedding). I’m really excited to see my family and friends – I miss everyone even more than I thought I would. I know I’ll miss India too, but it looks like we may be back as soon as June.

Nepalese Card Game

During our DIY trek in Nepal, we spent a night in a grungy little town called Chisapani, as Kenny described here. The mountain lodge where we spent the night had little to recommend itself, aside from its being less dirty than the other options, and its lively community of trekkers, guides, and porters assembled in the restaurant downstairs. We spent a few hours hanging out with this diverse crowd, during which a Polish gentleman taught us a fun card game that he had learned from his Nepali trekking guide. A Brit who joined the card game later told us that it was similar to a game he had learned in India from some Israelis, and the version he had learned was called Yaniv (in fact, the game play is similar to Yaniv, but there are some key differences: e.g. we start with only 5 cards, and a player needs 5 points or less in his hand to declare himself the winner).

The Brit taught us some important rules that the original Nepali game did not include:

  1. If a player “declares” but one of the other players has an equal point total in his hand, then the declarer loses the round (and gets a 30 point penalty).
  2. If, after discarding, a player draws a card with the same value as the one he just discarded, he can “slap” it down on top of the discard pile. He must be fast enough to slap his card on the pile before the next player discards.

We never learned the Nepali name of the game, but it will forever be known to us as The Nepalese Card Game™.

After that night in Chisapani, we forgot about the game for a little while, until we arrived in India and decided to teach it to Sean one night. Sean was instantly hooked, and the game quickly started filling many of our free hours. When Archana returned home from Germany, she was also quickly indoctrinated, and eventually became the most obsessed of all of us. Over time, many of Sean and Archana’s friends joined our card-playing parties as well.

We added a few rules of our own over time, most notably a rule involving jokers. Jokers are wild, but they come with a price: if a player has a joker in his hand when someone else “declares,” then the joker carries a penalty of 40 points. Since we usually play to 100, this is a significant risk. We’ve had a few particularly brutal rounds in which both jokers appeared in a single player’s hand. The addition of the jokers has made the game much more dynamic and fun.

Over many hours of playing the game, we also developed some theories on strategy, and Sean plans to publish the authoritative strategy guide some day. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many hours we have all sunk into this game, including most of last weekend in Kerala, where we even taught our boat captain how to play. I expect many more hours of cards on our upcoming Goa trip.

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A typical night in Bangalore, hanging out on the floor in the apartment, playing Nepalese

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Kenny keeping score in Kerala. There are piles and piles of score sheets strewn about Sean and Archana’s apartment.