The new Maruti Dzire, launched in May of this year, is barely six months old and has already become a bestseller, so when Maruti asked us to hop into a brand new Dzire and drive it up the Karwar coast, the only possible answer was “Yes”. There aren’t too many urban areas in India that can claim to be temperate and pleasant all-year round. For the most part, us city rats have to endure several months (or more) of positively sweltering weather. No surprise, then, that our winter months are ideal for the odd road trip. Like so many migratory birds, India’s urban middle class is waking up to the beauty of the south, and our leg of the Dzire Coastal Trail stretched between Mangalore and Goa, by way of the NH66 through Udipi, Karwar and Gokarna, a picturesque and certainly interesting way to spend a few days on the road. The itinerary included several stops for coastal cuisine, and since our photographer Kartik and I don’t mind consuming the odd bit of marine life, this was set to be a fun trip.
On the rare occasion that we’re able to take an on-time flight at a reasonable hour, we make it to our destination in good humour, smelling civil and using parliamentary language. Thankfully, the kickoff of our coastal tour was on one such day. We got into Mangalore just in time for lunch, gave our new wheels for the next few days a friendly pat and settled down for some coastal fare at “Machali” restaurant.
Let us set this up for you. We got several recommendations for this Mangalorean cuisine restaurant, but we weren’t prepared for the unique vibe. It’s a simple “lunch home” sort of place, but spotlessly clean and straight to the point. The menu is a hand-written sheet of paper behind clear plastic, and you get the sense that you should have done your homework before getting there. Thankfully, we had, and two fish thalis, fried prawns, surmai ghee roast and two local fizzy drinks were ordered forthwith. Suffice to say that it was all spectacular – and cost a meagre Rs 615. It was also our introduction to the uniquely chilled-out, affluent, educated residents of the lovely town.
A short drive away is the famous Pabba’s ice cream parlour, which will be a bit of a shock if you’re a Mumbaikar. It’s a 2000 sqft parlour, at least, and was well-attended on a weekday afternoon. Both these facts made us simultaneously envious and awestruck. We picked out two names from the extensive menu: “Gadbad” and “Chocolate Dad” (because we live for danger), and you’ll easily guess what happened next.
Getting around Mangalore in the evening is easy enough, with the Auto Gear Shift in our petrol-engined Dzire making things easier still. For one thing, it’s a really lightweight car, and the AGS is definitely a class apart, feeling like something midway between a standard and dual-clutch automatic. It makes the car fairly zippy to get around town with. Onwards to Mangalore’s first and only microbrewery: Spindrift.
Unlike its more trafficked neighbour, Bengaluru, Mangalore is new to craft brews and pub culture. Spindrift is the city’s only microbrewery, set in its first mall. It’s tastefully laid out, with both indoor and outdoor seating, and the entire brewing machinery right there on display. Chetan Shetty, the operations manager, explained that the setup was imported and installed on the top floor of the mall, ready to brew. Again, the sort of crowd that this microbrewery attracted was interesting. Couples, office-goers, even families turned up for a quick snack, if not a brew. But we had other fat to chew, quite literally, so we were out of there as the glasses ran dry.
Our next destination was a late-ish dinner at Mangala Restaurant, known for its pork and burgers. This suited me fine, being as I am on an endless quest for the best burger ever. Lean fried pork and a chicken ‘Freddie’ burger ordered, it was time to tuck in. It’s a quiet place, frequented by young and old, and despite being a bar, it had a friendly atmosphere and a nice mix of folk catching their last drinks and bar food. Our food tour of Mangalore was definitely a resounding success – these folks know how to eat.
Having eaten our way through Mangalore, we headed north on our coastal trail, stopping by the famous Albuquerque tile factory, in operation since 1868 and still with the same family. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to photograph the inside of the structure, but suffice to say that there’s more aged teak in the front office than in some parts of Burma. Mangalore tiles are iconic and make up a great deal of the developed landscape of the Konkan coast. We only wish we had more time to explore it.
This is about the time that our half-tank of remaining fuel began to run low, so we tanked up before leaving the city. Our next stop was Mulki, where we visited India’s first surfing school. A short 35km north of Mangalore city, Mulki is on a well-surfaced highway that gave us the chance to stretch the Dzire’s legs and see how the AGS responded when prodded for performance – the answer is very well. The sewing machinesmooth 1.2-litre motor has a nice roar when the transmission kicks down a gear for overtakes, and you even have the option to shift manually if you feel like it.
The folks at the Mantra Surf Club call themselves the “Surfing Swamis”, after the original swami, Jack Hebner, who came to India in the early ‘70s on a spiritual path. It’s a voluntary organisation, and run like an “ashram”, in that there is no smoking, alcohol or non-vegetarian food on the premises – just surfing instructions and classes. The club can only accommodate a few people at a time, so unless you’re living off-site, you need to plan well in advance.
The Mantra Surf Club is an inspiration to us all in cynical times. They’ve been at it since 2004, and have spawned other clubs and schools across coastlines. The local children come in to learn how to surf and swim, and the club enjoys wide support amongst local businesses and bureaucracy. They sponsor scholarships for deserving students and promote an appreciation of nature that even residents of these idyllic coasts sometimes lack.
The Mantra Surf Club is located near the mouth of a river, which makes it an ideal spot for them to ferry their students out to the gentle waves of the nearby sea, via their own backyard jetty. It doesn’t get better than this. We’d have loved to stay and chat endlessly about surfing across India, but we had time to make up and a special lunch to have. Next stop: Udupi.
Driving down the coastal highway is fraught with beautiful distractions, such as the diversion we took towards Kapu beach and the nearby lighthouse. Off the highway, the road surface can get a bit dodgy, but our Dzire coped like a champ. It’s something they’ve got very right in this car, with zero crashes through rough roads and good comfort.
Udupi, as the name may have tipped you off to, is known for its eponymous cuisine. We were told of a specific masala dosa at Mitra Samaja hotel, within the Shri Krishna Temple complex. Here, you must have faith and persevere, for only then will you find the true Mitra Samaja masala dosa. You see, there are three similarly-named restaurants on the way, and by lunchtime, the one that serves the dosa is shut. Still, we treated ourselves to an incredible vegetarian meal at the “meals” Mitra Samaja restaurant, for the grand sum of Rs 60 – spotlessly clean and absolutely delicious (this coming from a committed non-vegetarian).
Fast-forward (quite literally) an hour and a half north, and we were upon another beautiful distraction in the form of Marvante beach, which I’ve heard of only once before from a fellow motorcyclist, in glowing terms. He was not wrong. It’s a short stretch of pristine sand with a brand-new road right alongside. It was still being laid as we got there – a perfect time for a dramatic coastal picture.
Marvante beach appears to be in the process of a makeover, with a full promenade under construction. It will likely still be beautiful, but not entirely deserted soon, and we were fortunate enough to see it. Our final halt for the day was Gokarna, which is the “new Goa” for the backpacking tourist. It’s a solid 130km north from Marvante, and takes you into narrow country lanes via not-so-great highway stretches, so it’s best to get in early. With our distractions and meals, we managed to get in well after sunset. Gokarna, despite being solidly on the tourist map, feels quite deserted after dark. It’s also worthwhile getting the challenging roads done with before dark, just to be safe. We settled into a resort on Kudle beach in time for an early dinner.
Gokarna is a temple town that just happens to have some pristine beaches. Om beach has been popularised by western tourists, and is the most well-known, but almost every other beach you might discover is likely to be as beautiful and less crowded. Kudle, for instance, was the perfect place for a morning stroll while we were there. Despite being ringed by tourist-friendly beach shacks and eateries, it’s still reasonably clean, as it is inaccessible by a vehicle – you have to trek down a small mud path.
This time of year, there are favourable winds for some powered paragliding, which is offered near Kudle beach, should you get adventurous. I, for one, prefer my internal combustion engines to be driving wheels, not propellers, so off we went in search of breakfast. Being frequented by western tourists, it shouldn’t be surprising to find tiny tea stalls and cold drink houses serving all manner of crepes, muesli and juice, but it still feels a bit incongruous in a temple town in Karnataka. A quick dosa later, we were off to explore the Mahabaleshwar temple in town.
Technically, the streets are motorable, but as you get around the temple complex, they get increasingly narrow, to the point that we kept asking passing rickshaw drivers whether the car would make it. Their self-assured head-wags gave us the mojo to carry on through. The temple complex itself is ancient, dating back to the 4th century CE, and is a point of pilgrimage for Hindus. It is known as “Dakshin Kasi” or Kasi of the South, and legend has it that the Shivalinga was placed here by Ravana himself, who brought it down from Mount Kailasa. Don’t miss the massive rath as it stands, as well as its dismantled old structure, dating back centuries. Its awe-inspiring size is quite something.
A quick stop at yet another pristine beach – Gokarna – and we were off to Karwar, home of the INS Chapal war museum, and a large naval base. The roads get better north of Gokarna, and we once again managed to stetch the Dzire’s legs, this time playing with its up-to-date infotainment system. Kartik is an iPhone man, and I’m a recent convert to Android, so we had the best of both worlds. Google’s navigation worked a treat, while Kartik’s iPhone provided the soundtrack (not at the same time, in case you were wondering).
The INS Chapal is a surreal sight. Clearly visible from the long avenue along the coast, it’s a missile boat on stilts, converted into a museum. The friendly caretaker let us in despite it being very near closing time. Living quarters were tight for its sailors, but the authorities have done a commendable job maintaining the museum for the public. Just go in with a companion or two and try not to be freaked out by the mannequin crew members strategically going about their endless days.
By this time, it was solidly lunch hour, and a quick call to a Karwar local sorted our lunch. Next stop: Amrut Restaurant. This is a local and visitor favourite, having had its fair share of TV and press coverage. By this stage in our trip, Kartik and I had settled on our coastal cuisine rhythm. Keep it simple, do the rice/curry/thali, order about 75 per cent more than needed and watch Kartik finish it with ease. As expected, the recommendation was solid and the spectacular meal came with the very real threat of what Bengali-speakers know as “bhat ghum”, which translates to “rice sleep”. Thankfully, my reedy build is impervious to such afflictions, so off we went to our final destination: Goa.
Goa is just about 60km from Karwar, which took us another hour and a half to reach. The difference in road surface is a stark contrast. It’s night and day the moment you cross the border. However, there’s a lot of road work going on in and around NH17, so be prepared for some long north-south commutes. We decided to end the day at Cabo-de-Rama fort, which has some spectacular views of the sea, and makes a dramatic sunset photo opportunity. There’s just one hotel here, set into the side of the cliff, which should be quite an experience.
Our final day of the Dzire Coastal Trail was spent around Goa, where (finally!) the fuel indicator dipped into reserve. At this point, we had driven the Dzire hard across the coastal highway and through some pretty painful traffic within Goa. We had a vast menu of places we wanted to take the car to, but we had to hand it over to the next team taking the Trail forward. We did manage to visit the well-known Mangeshi temple in Goa, which happens to be Kartik’s family temple. Blessings sought and donation made, his goodwill kitty is currently overflowing (this will be useful for future arranged marriage discussions, and sundry family negotiations).
The Dzire had been a genuinely capable roadtripper, much more so than I expected. The suspension is well-sorted, and 12-hour driving days don’t leave you exhausted, despite our hectic shoot schedule. The AGS is definitely the one to get and will even keep the enthusiastic driver occasionally entertained. Next year: eastwest, Maruti?
Photographer: Kartik Sadekar
2017 Maruti Suzuki Dzire
Engine 1.2-litre VVT petrol/1.3-litre DDiS diesel
Transmission 5-speed manual and 5-speed automatic