Flying into Diu is a great way to size up your island destination. The plane passes over the eastern end of the island, just left of the Fort of Diu at the edge of Diu city. From this height, the unique ship-shaped Portuguese Fortim do Mar — the Pani Kotha, or water fort — is easily spotted in the creek between the Diu citadel and the Ghoghla peninsula. As the plane circles around the island, the great creek that cuts Diu off from Gujarat comes into view before you are out over the ocean again, turning around to land within a few metres of waves crashing against cliffs.
As the plane taxies into the tiny airport, I spot palm trees whose trunks keep branching skyward. The Portuguese, who did a lot of gardening in their colonies, brought Diu’s hoka palms here from Mozambique. The tree remains a unique icon of Diu, apparently found nowhere else in the world outside Mozambique and this little spit of earth at the base of the inverted triangle which is Kathiawar.
Diu holds a few more impressive remnants of its time under Portuguese rule. I’ll briefly throw a little light on the colonial presence in Diu, only because, like me, you won’t find this history adequately explained anywhere on the island. In the very early 16th century, Diu island was ruled by Mahmud Begada, Sultan of Gujarat. At that time the Portuguese, moving northward from their base in Kerala, were searching for little footholds along India’s western coast from which they could control the spice trade in the Arabian Sea. They wrested Salsette, Bassein, Daman and Diu from Mahmud Begada. Diu sat on the Arabian Sea at a point where entry to the Gulf of Khambhat, and on to the great spice markets of Gujarat, could be patrolled and controlled. The small island then became a pivotal Portuguese tool in the spice wars. From here, they broke the monopoly of seafaring Arab traders over the lucrative Gujarat spice trade. For this, they invited the wrath of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the Sultan of Egypt who supplied the European market with spices through the merchants of Venice and Ragusa, and Mahmud Begada, of course. All of them sent a great fleet to Diu in 1509 and a battle broke out, which the Portuguese won. Another attempted siege by the Ottomans in 1538 failed and the Portuguese stayed on, building fine churches, controlling trade and planting hoka palms. Independent India took Diu back in 1961, along with Daman and Goa. And the sun set on Portugal’s Estado da India.
Driving out of the airport onto Bunder Road — Diu’s sole highway, which cuts across the island from east to west — towards my resort in Nagoa barely five minutes away, I was treated to a gorgeous welcome. The road moves along an empty stretch of sand, running as close as 50m to the road at one point. In the near distance, speedboats raced out into the sea. The lovely Bunder Road is a pointer that, grand welcome to the air traveller notwithstanding, arguably the best way to get to Diu is by road. Save for the last hundred kilometres before Diu, the road surfaces in Gujarat are excellent and, among my fellow guests at the resort, was a family that had driven down here all the way from Gurgaon.
That’s hardly unusual for Aditya Dogra, who runs the Resort Hoka at Nagoa, where I stayed. He has been in Diu for several decades and in that time has biked, driven and cycled his way to Delhi numerous times. Just as I reached his resort, a tracker drove past. Gujarat’s much-loved vehicle — a motorcycle with a gaily painted cart fixed on—is a frequent sight in Diu. This one held about two dozen women in saris as colourful as the cart. Even before checking in, I was already well charmed by Diu.
Over a delicious crab curry lunch, Aditya gave me some all-important Diu tips. Briefly: it’s a small place, with much to be discovered beyond the obvious sightseeing points, is perfectly safe if you don’t enter deserted places after dark in the vicinity of inebriated people, has excellent roads and hence is best discovered by bike. Riding on empty roads, birds on every wire and tree running alongside, gives real meaning to Hero Honda’s Pleasure, the vehicle of choice in Diu.
Since a fair majority of holidayers are looking for little more than partaking of the water of life without fear of having to share it with the police, the island is largely left to the intrepid explorer. It is home to distinct ecosystems — the tidal creek and salt marshes, a tiny freshwater lake, the coast, a hoka forest, a reserved forest with nilgai and sambar — all of which offer a highly visible variety of bird-life. I set out to explore Nagoa, following a lane leading down from Bunder Road to Diu’s touristy beach, with a very calm sea full of families in the water on weekends, with dhabas serving Gujarati thalis, sandwiches, tea and hoka fruit, beach vendors selling coconut water, I heart Goa T-shirts and beachwear. A lot of hyperactivity surrounds Pappu, who operates watersports both here and at Ghoghla Beach. I tried the hoka fruit at a dhaba. It’s about the size and shape of breadfruit but with a smooth, beautiful rust red coat. The orange pulp has a lovely fruity flavour which you want more of, but is very dry and hard to chew.
Nagoa has a few other interesting attractions. The lesser of these are two spots hidden between the beach and Bunder Road. Tiny Nagoa lake is a peaceful spot accessed from the Krishna temple, a short way down the road towards Vanakbara. The second is a gigantic ‘Rukhda’ tree, behind the Krishna temple. Watch out for the sign, then turn into the coconut plantation and you’ll see it — a giant baobab. It has an enormous girth. If you wanted to make a garland of arms to go around it, you’d need at least four companions to succeed.
The two prize sights of Nagoa lie further west down the Bunder Road. Continue riding and you’ll come to a thick forest on your right. A sign in Gujarati tells you that nilgai have been spotted in this forest. I parked and ventured in, walking along a thin trail on a soft forest floor, my ears filled with birdcalls, barely able to see the sky through the treetops. I must have walked about 500m when I came to an empty hut and stopped to wonder at the generosity of this island, which offers a first-class forest walk like this within a few kilometres of the speedboats on Nagoa Beach. As I turned to continue, I found myself looking at a huge sambar deer. It was sitting in the grass about 200m away, ears up and staring back. I took a photo and a few seconds later it got up and ambled off. I left then, for it’s unsafe to be deep in a forest alone. Back at the resort, I boasted to Aditya about my prized sighting and he was impressed both that I ventured in and that I had the sense to come out. A few years ago, a leopard made its way here from Sasan Gir and caused havoc among the dogs and cattle till it was caught.
Near the forest entrance is a Saudwadi Panchayat signboard. A path shaded by casuarinas leads from here to the eastern entry to Gomtimata Beach, a large and inviting swathe of sand on Diu’s southwest coast. As you emerge from the trees, the massive sea is dead ahead, framed by a cliff and the beach. Park here and make your way down to Gomtimata, which offers the best swimming on the island. There is no stall or hotel here and you’ll have the beach entirely to yourself. From your parking spot, a curious sight appears on the cliff to your left—a tiny and apparently uninhabited village, with dozens of huts painted in all colours. Clustered together on this windy cliff, the quiet village looked like a painting. Aditya told me later that these are memorials for nearly a hundred fishermen who were lost at sea in a terrible cyclone. The locals built these for the fishermen who could not be cremated, for their bodies were never found.
It was time to see the main item. I turned my bike eastward on the Bunder Road towards Diu City, a ride that takes about 20 minutes. Past Nagoa and the airport came the Sea Shell Museum. Don’t let its nondescript exterior prevent you from going in and thus missing the treasures inside. I spent a fascinated hour gazing in through the tops of jars with their specimens of ghost crabs, abalone, lobsters and so much more within. Just past the museum, you’ll pass the hoka forest. I sat beneath the palms, watching ducks swim without a care in the world. You can follow nature trails through these forests, getting closer to the birdlife it holds.
Onward towards Diu, you’ll come to Fudam. Here, the salt marshes begin on your left, with the small Gandhipara lake on your right. Beyond the lake rise the steeples of the church of Our Lady of Fatima, a short detour. The old Portuguese church was deserted. I pushed the door open to a curious sight. Clearly worship doesn’t take place here anymore, yet nothing has been removed from the church. The pews, the statues of Our Lady holding the child Jesus, the holy water fount, all remain intact, heavily decorated by pigeon droppings.In the stillness and silence, I cheekily walked right onto the altar to get a close look at Our Lady. Suddenly a pigeon came blasting out from behind her like a cannon ball, giving me the shock of my life, and I meekly got off the altar.
Back on Bunder Road, I continued eastward to Diu. I stopped briefly to watch as locals threaded their way through the salty marsh. It would be foolish to try to follow them in, for through experience, they can trace out paths invisible to me, which protect their calloused feet from being burned by the salt. Shortly, I reached the Panch Otla circle and continued past the cricket stadium to enter the city of Diu. The imposing city wall here is a breathtaking sight. Once within, you are in a maze of small streets lined with houses and shops, bars and markets. Every so often you will come across a beautiful ageing mansion taken over by pipal plants, with a faded Portuguese coat of arms or stained-glass windows still intact. Just a few of these, like the Ecole Feminin and the Dwarakdas Haveli, remain in good shape through continued use. Driving through these tiny streets is a lesson in Parsi, Gujarati and Portuguese architecture.
Continue on to the massive and imposing Portuguese Fort of Diu, which cleverly uses the creek itself as a moat. Joined to Diu by a small bridge, its bastions on three sides fall precipitously to the sea. Standing on one, its cannons still in place, gazing out at the church steeples, Pani Kotha and Ghoghla beyond, I could imagine the small but numerous Ottoman craft being blasted by the huge Portuguese galleons in these waters ages ago, and could picture the Indian Navy’s INS Delhi firing the salvos that dislodged the colonials in 1961.
From here I made my way in the direction of the church steeples. St Paul’s Church is the only one still fully dedicated to worship. It is a large and impressive whitewashed church, fronted by big banyan trees, with aged paintings of the Last Supper adorning the entrance. The Church of St Francis Xavier has been partially converted into Diu’s main hospital and services are held here once a month. The rest of the time it remains locked. I could view it only from outside, with its impressive staircase leading up from the road. I’m not sure if St Francis would approve of the little hospital van advertising Nirodh in loud colours parked beside the church wall, but he would definitely disapprove of the careless treatment of blocks of stone bearing inscriptions by those who built this monument. They lie scattered outside the church wall, going to seed.
The next church, St Thomas, holds Diu’s Museum. A broad flight of steps leads up to the edifice, the entrance graced by a bull and two cows. Here too lay blocks of Portuguese-inscribed stones, which are a priceless record of history, slowly becoming part of the earth. The exhibits within the old church are chiefly private wooden altars, statues of saints, Our Lady in her various avatars and, at the apex, where the altar once stood, lay a simply astounding robed Jesus lying in a coffin. Who has made this unusual representation of Christ? Was it sculpted in Diu, or brought here? Surely it shows the time between his crucifixion and entombment? I know of none other like it in India, but there is no explanation in the museum. Time changes places and if you fail to preserve your history, you won’t know who you are. Is this the legacy the administration of Diu wishes to leave?
The last place I visited was the Ghoghla Peninsula, accessed by the Ghoghla bridge across the astonishingly wide mouth of the creek. I rode through the fishing village of Ghoghla, past its beach with fishing boats and nets. I turned into a massive gate—the Portuguese Porta de Gogola, which affords entry into the main village. The street beyond was lined with old and still beautiful Gujarati havelis. I rode past them slowly, then turned back in search of the legendary Ghoghla sands further east. I pulled into a sweet, shady park that leads to the beach, and walked down to the sand. What a gorgeous stretch of beach this is. With just three resorts here, there were just a few other people around. They were paragliding with Pappu’s men. Curiously, three women municipal workers were sweeping the sand. Birds walked along the shore and the ocean stretched out forever. I took in the reverse view of the Diu fort and the skyline punctuated by church steeples. I will unhesitatingly declare Ghoghla to be among the finest beaches in India; just the spot for a dreamy holiday. Diu, and my journey, ends at the checkpoint after Ghoghla, where Gujarat begins. Hide whatever tipple you are carrying.
Autos, not taxis, are the common transport in Diu. Keep one waiting when you’re visiting the quieter parts away from town, where it’s hard to find a ride back. The best option is a gearless bike, which your hotel can arrange for you.
What to See & Do
The ‘caves’ in Diu are remains of quarries, from where stone was excavated to build the fort and residences. Of these, only Naida is definitely worth visiting. Go in a group and walk along the path down into the cave, which makes a great picnic spot.
Along Diu’s southern coast is the rocky Jalandhar beach attached to Diu City. There is no swimming here but the little shrine is of Diu’s own deity, Jalandhar. Past the ruins of the city wall is the lovelier Chakratirth beach, with storks walking along the sands. No swimming here either.
Further down from Chakratirth is a memorial to the INS Khukri, taken down by a Pakistani submarine during the war of 1971. The memorial offers stunning views of the Diu coast and of the shimmering sea beyond.
The Gangeshwar temple houses five lingams set in rocks beside the sea; at high tide the sea ‘worships’ here. Follow the trail to the two abandoned Parsi towers of silence.
The Sea Shell Museum on Bunder Road is the perfect place to pick up a Diu memento. Another essential visit is the Diu Museum (entry free; 8am-6pm), which has a range of artefacts and antiques on display.