The antedeluvian islands that sprawl unbelievably lush in the main channel and tributaries of Goa’s Mandovi river are a time capsule of the original virtues that define the character and culture of India’s famously laid-back, smallest state. Though some are easily accessible by bridge (and others via short ferry rides) from the mainland, they are decidedly not on the tourist-beaten track, which is just how the ferociously loyal natives like it. Just considering writing this little introduction caused me considerable heartburn, making me feel like I am betraying precious family secrets. When I asked other islanders about what could safely be recommended, more than one told me “nothing”, and then heaped complicated curses on my head for even asking. That attitude is understandable, because these rare jewels should be treated with respect, a gracious world that has almost entirely ceased to exist. The difference can be felt as soon as you cross the water, as time begins to move more slowly, and the garbage-strewn mayhem of the beach belt fades away to open roads, paddy fields, bird-calls and bicycle speed.
This is the closest to Panaji. In the 16th century, this largest of the Mandovi river islands was home to a famous Jesuit seminary, which is credited with grafting the original Alphonso mango. Magnificent old trees in its vicinity still produce famously superior fruit of that variety. Chorao is also famous for its robust, toothsome korgut rice, a variety that flourishes in salt-heavy brackish waters. The western tip of the island is fantastically overgrown with estuarine mangroves, forming the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, a pocket-sized 1.7 sq.km area that explodes with biodiversity.
Don’t miss: After making an appointment, do visit the headquarters of Wild Otters (Wildotters.com), the only non-governmental organization in India devoted to “the well-being of otters”.
Getting there: While it is possible to drive directly on to the island from the north Goa taluka of Bicholim, it is a much better idea to take the ferry crossing from Ribandar, perhaps the prettiest of all the commuter boat rides in the state, particularly near sunset (free for pedestrians).