From Goa’s palm-fringed coves to Tamil Nadu’s temple-adorned sands, we’ve scoured mainland India’s 6,100-kilometre coastline in search of ten brilliantly beautiful beaches you simply must visit before you die. Along the way we’ve discovered tucked-away tropical paradises, what’s almost certainly the perfect fish curry and unconquerable island forts. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.
10. Mandrem, Goa
Sea eagles soar overhead, kingfishers ruffle in the trees and crabs scuttle undeterred – in Mandrem it’s Mother Nature who reigns supreme, not the humble holidaymaker. The result is a blissfully unspoilt beach that’s equal parts white and golden, and whose surroundings are utterly spellbinding. Combined with Arambol to the north and Ashvem to the south, it stretches for 13 kilometres – and while the northern reaches aren’t exactly undiscovered, the quieter southern section remains largely untouched. This is the location of one impossibly pretty stretch, which is almost perfectly framed by a parallel creek en route to the sea. Despite the beach’s open feel, the sea here is generally calm and shallow – though things get a little rougher when the full moon’s on show. Another world from the overdevelopment of Baga and Calangute, Mandrem is perhaps north Goa’s best-kept secret.
9. Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu
Its sun-kissed sands and gently lapping waves are reasons enough to visit Mamallapuram, arguably the Coromandel Coast’s finest beach. But Mahabalipuram, as it’s also known, shouldn’t be taken at face value. Located at its southern tip is the centuries-old Shore Temple – a stone-carved shrine, set on a small rocky headland, dedicated to lords Vishnu and Shiva. It’s among 40 monuments in the Tamil Nadu seaside town, which combine to form one of India’s 32 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Located 70 kilometres south of Chennai, Mamallapuram was recently ‘discovered’ by TV chef and seafood aficionado Rick Stein in his 2013 India series. Tucking into freshly caught snapper at the beachside Sea Shore Garden Restaurant, the meal was, in his words, the “perfect curry” – quite a compliment considering he spent three months on the subcontinent searching for just that.
8. Papanasam Beach (Varkala), Kerala
Quite possibly India’s most-photographed beach, dramatic Papanasam – better known to travellers as Varkala, the town that peers over it – blends picture-postcard perfection with deep religious significance. Backed by sheer golden cliffs – their tone enhanced by the setting sun – the beach ticks every holidaymaker’s box. Golden sands? Check. Warm waters? Check. Safe Swimming? Check (but watch out for the rip tides). Chilled Kingfishers at the ready? Check. Fortunately, development here has been relatively restrained – largely out of respect to the nearby Janardana Swami Temple, which continues to draw large numbers of pilgrims every year. Many come to take a dip in the waters, while others scatter loved ones’ ashes in the waves. They believe that by doing so, their sins – and those of the deceased – will be literally washed away (which, incidentally, is precisely what ‘Papanasam’ means).
7. Palolem, Goa
Lonely Planet may have declared it “100% mainstream”, but pretty Palolem has somehow retained the charm that made it so popular in the first place. Accommodation is broadly contained to low-level beach huts – most of which are concealed by coconut palms – while the party culture that defines North Goa is largely absent. Palolem’s biggest draw is its sheltered, crescent-shaped beach, whose shallow waters make for super-safe swimming (albeit dodging the occasional fishing boat). Talking of fishing, Palolem has more beachside restaurants than you shake an oar at, so sampling fish curry and rice, washed down with a cool beer (or mango lassi) is an absolute must. As the most popular beach in Goa for independent travellers, it’s best to visit outside of the Christmas period to guarantee your own section of sand.
6. Ganpatipule, Maharashtra
Located halfway between Mumbai and Goa, Ganpatipule – with its clear waters, golden sands and coconut palms – is arguably Maharashtra’s best-looking beach. It’s certainly reminiscent of those a couple of hundred kilometres to the south, though it’s largely untouched by international tourism. Most people breeze past on the nearby Konkan Railway – that most beautiful of Indian train journeys – without stopping. It might not feel like it, but they’re missing out – not only is Ganpatipule fabulously pretty, but it’s a place of real holy significance. Smack-bang in the middle of the beach is the ‘swambhu’, or self-manifested, Ganpati Temple – a 400-year-old structure that’s frequented by thousands of pilgrims each year. Visit in the evening and you’ll witness the setting sun reflecting beautifully off the shrine’s earthy-red exterior, with barely another soul in sight.
5. Agonda, Goa
Sandwiched between Cola and Palolem – two of Goa’s other best beaches, though for entirely different reasons – is affable Agonda. Hawkers are banned here, so its three kilometres of golden sands – backed by beach huts both ramshackle and upmarket – are blissfully quiet. Aside from dolphin-spotting boat trips, there’s very little to do here besides strolling, swimming or sunbathing – which is exactly why it’s so appealing. Agonda is so peaceful, in fact, that’s it’s just one of two beaches in the region where olive ridley turtles come to lay their eggs – their procreation period coinciding with the October to April holiday season. Visitors wishing to learn more about the creatures can visit Agonda’s Turtle Protection Centre, located approximately halfway along the beach.
4. Lighthouse Beach (Kovalam), Kerala
Vying with Varkala for the title of Kerala’s premier stretch of shore, Kovalam’s Lighthouse Beach forms part of India’s southernmost seaside resort. While an excursion to Kanyakumari, India’s (far more interesting) version of Land’s End makes for a worthwhile daytrip, it’s entirely excusable to remain firmly plonked in front of the placid waters of the Arabian Sea. There are four stretches of sand in Kovalam, but sheltered Lighthouse Beach is certainly the most spectacular – thanks, largely, to the red-and-white-striped tower from where it takes its name. Built on a rocky outcrop on the beach’s southern tip, visitors are welcome – for a small fee – to climb Vizhinjam Lighthouse’s winding staircase for some spectacular views. Attracting a slightly more mature holidaymaker than Varkala, Kovalam may have succumbed to greater development than its northern rival, but its charm remains largely intact.
3. Murud, Maharashtra
With darker sands and a relatively large tidal range, Murud is something of a wildcard entry – and while it may not be the most beautiful beach on this list, it is among the most compelling. Located 150 kilometres south of Mumbai, it isn’t the beach per se that’s fascinating, but the island fort directly opposite. Padmadurg, also known as Kasa Fort, was constructed in 1676 by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as a base to launch an attack on nearby Janjira Fort, a Siddi-built island enclave that remains one of India’s most spectacular coastal attractions. Both are easily accessed by boat – your hotel can arrange a private visit to deserted Kasa, while (somewhat rickety) ferries sail to Janjira from Rajapuri jetty, a couple of kilometres down the road. Murud beach itself, meanwhile, is a superb spot to join in a game of cricket with picnicking Mumbaikars.
2. Om Beach, Karnataka
Just 95 kilometres south of Palolem, across the border into Karnataka, is the holy coastal town of Gokarna. While pilgrims descend during the annual Ganesh Chaturthi and Maha Shivaratri festivals, a steady stream of sunbathers head a little further south to its four nearby beaches – Kudle, Halfmoon, Paradise and Om. Each is immaculate and unspoilt – reminiscent of Goa before its discovery – but it’s the latter that’s arguably the pick of the bunch (and, indeed, the most accessible). Roughly 15 minutes from town in an auto rickshaw, Om is so-called because its two semi-crescents resemble the ubiquitous religious symbol. Its sands, where shade is readily available, are a sun worshipper’s dream, while the beach’s sheltered waters make for sublime swimming. Despite the tranquillity, there’s also the option for thrill seekers to try parasailing and water skiing.
1. Cola, Goa
Your driver stops his four-wheel drive at a gravelly opening surrounded by palms. He turned off south Goa’s Chaudi to Canaguinim road, somewhere north of Agonda, a few kilometres back. Having spent the last 15 minutes traversing a rough dirt track, journey’s end has been reached. The surroundings, you think, are a little anticlimactic. Where’s the beach? Where’s the view? With a knowing look, he beckons you down a narrow path. After barely a minute, you find yourself at a bamboo bridge stretching across a flawless natural lagoon. The path continues around the water’s edge to the cliff-backed beach, where the sun is beginning its red-and-yellow descent into the Arabian Sea. Ah, Cola. The scene is sublime – almost ridiculously so when a pod of dolphins begins frolicking close to the shore. “Welcome to paradise,” someone says, “Just remember not to tell anyone about it.”