It is the pristine beach that beckoned me. The silence felt like music to the ears. The occasional vehicle whizzed past me but the melody of the waves drowned all the other sounds around it. I was in Vizag or Visakhapatnam, the largest city in Andhra Pradesh as a guest of Novotel Visakhapatnam Varun Beach Hotel and my morning started with the dawn at RK or Ramakrishna Beach located right in the heart of the city, opposite the hotel. As I walked around, watching the sky blushing with the shades of dawn, I realized how clean Vizag was. It may have gone up and down the statistics in the list of India’s cleanest cities, but it certainly remained spotless and unsullied to the naked eye. Located on the Eastern Coast of India, the city straddles the oceans and the mountains and is oblivious to its own beauty. Home to the one of the oldest shipyards, Vizag’s history is also linked to maritime trade. It is the only natural harbour in the East Coast and the port is a destination by itself. Surrounded by the Eastern Ghats, beautiful beaches dot the coastline. There are towering lighthouses and bustling markets. Markets and museums are some of the places to see in Visakhapatnam. There are several things to do in Visakhapatnam and my favourites were the visits to the Submarime Museum and the Aircraft Museum located across the road from it. Trips to Borra Caves, Araku Valley and Bheemili are included in the list of Vizag attractions. However if you are looking at places to visit near Vizag, then you must head to the ancient monasteries of Thotlakonda and Bavikonda which are in state of ruins.
Story and history of Visakhapatnam
Vizag has its own story and every place narrates a legend, starting with the name, Visakha. While some say that Visakha was one of Krishna’s Gopis, another story says that it is the name of one of Buddha’s disciples. However the local legend speaks of a temple dedicated to the deity Visakha built by a king who paused here on his journey to Banaras. The temple was eventually swallowed by the oceans over the period of time. Historicans however claim that this is just a legend and that a temple was probably built by the Cholas around the 11th century.
Vizag’s history, however, dates to 6th century BC, when it was part of the ancient Kalinga Empire. In the early days, dynasties like Vengi, Pallavas, and Gangas had reigned over it. But the city, however, emerged during the 10th-11th centuries when it was rebuilt by the Cholas and the Gajapatis and eventually by the kings of the Vijayanagar Empire. The Mughals reigned briefly but it was eventually fought over by the colonial powers. It became an integral part of British India after the decisive naval victory over the French in the Battle of Vizagapatnam, in the early 19th century . And it was the British who gave the name Vizag to the city. One of the suburbs, Waltair still retains its colonial aura.
Buddhist connection – places to visit near Vizag
My interest in Vizag is however related to the Buddhist influence that pervades over the entire region. Relics have been excavated in this region that show evidence of dynasties that embraced Buddhism. It was believed that the area around present-day Vizag was part of the ancient Kalinga kingdom which was defeated by King Ashoka. The Buddhist influence can be seen in the many ruins of stupas, monasteries, viharas, and universities that were found in the region. An excavation on the hillock near Bheemili, one of the places to visit near Vizag, called Pavurallakonda unearthed evidence of an early Buddhist settlement that dated probably back to the 1st-2nd century. Ruins of stupas built with bricks were found in villages nearby.
There are other Buddhist sites nearby called Bojjannakonda, Bavikonda and Thotlakonda, which are places to see in Visakhapatnam and the last two are located on the way between Vizag and Bheemili. At Bavikonda, one of the places to visit near Vizag , located on a small hillock, you can see remains of an old Buddhist complex which was probably built between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD. In addition to the mahachaitya, you can also see votive stupas, a massive Vihara among other structures. Bavikonda loosely translates to a hill of wells and it is believed that there were wells here which were used as reservoirs filled with rainwater. Along with Bavikonda, there is Thotlakonda, one of the Vizag attractions, where you can also see excavated remains of a stupa, a chaityagrahas, a mahastupa, votive stupas, rock-cut cisterns, a congregation hall with stone pillars, viharas as well. Spread over 120 acres, this was one of the massive Buddhist settlements as there has been over ten viharas and even a kitchen complex with several halls, including a dining area. Coins, pots, ceramics, tiles, panels, and sculptures have been discovered here as well. The Buddhist sites are one of the main things to do in Visakhapatnam.
Beaches of Vizag
The 45 kms of coastline is dotted with several beaches, of which some of them are popular and touristy, while the others are virgin and are hidden gems. While RK Beach is in the heart of the city, it leads to Palm Beach as well. Most tourists head to Yarada Beach, which is just outside the city and it feels like a private beach. It is one of the best places to see sunsets. However if you are a sunrise person, then RK Beach is the place to be in the wee hours of the morning. I would however go to the rooftop of the Novotel and see the sunrise while drinking my morning cup of coffee.
The most popular beach on this coastline is Rusikonda Beach Vizag which is almost 28 kms away. It is one of the most crowded beaches although swimming is not allowed here. Another serene beach with beautiful views is Mangamaripeta Beach, also known as Thotlakonda Beach as the Buddhist site is adjacent. There is a small Buddha sculpture on the beach here as well. Sagar Nagar beach is another beach in the neighbourhood of Vizag. Gangavaram Beach is a virgin beach near the village where the steel plant is located. There is an old temple here and the villagers have slowly been evacuated here while a port has been constructed here as well. These are some of the places to visit near Vizag.
Lawson’s Bay Beach, also called Waltair Beach, retains its old colonial flavour and is on the way to the famed Kailasagiri Hill, one of the places to see in Visakhapatnam. You get some of the best panoramic views of the city from the hillock. Kalingapatnam Beach is another lesser-known beach, one of the rustic places near Vizag and is lost amidst the idyllic landscape beyond Vizag and is at least a couple of hours by road. Another beautiful beach lost in a windswept hamlet is Bheemili beach in the village of Bheemili, located 43 kms from Vizag. I stayed in the luxurious Bheemili Resort, managed by Accor hotels right on the beach and lost myself in the hues of sunsets. There are several stories in this quaint village, one of the beach resorts near Vizag which also had a colonial past. Walking around the estuary where the River Gosthani joins the sea, I couldn’t have experienced a prettier moment.
Places to see in Visakhapatnam
I started my tryst with Vizag with a visit to the ancient Simhachalam temple, located barely 10 kms from the city. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu in the form of Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha , the temple is atop a hill and the deity is always covered with sandalwood paste and resembles a linga. While there are many ancient temples in the city, I also went to the old Kanaka Mahalakshmi Temple, the presiding deity of the city, where you can even offer prayers directly to the deity. There are many temples which are among the places to see in Visakhapatnam, but these are some of the most important shrines.
Among museums, there is the Visakha Museum which depicts the history and culture of the Kalingadhara region, which combines modern states of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. However my favourite is the unique and outstanding INS Kursura Submarine Museum, which takes you into the world of submarines and mariners exhibited inside the now decomissioned submarine. Located on the road opposite is the Aircraft Museum, which is also depicted inside a Tupolev Tu-142, an aircraft that has served almost three decades with the Indian Navy. Among the many things to do in Vizag, a visit to the museums are the most important.
My last port of halt in Vizag was the vibrant fish market near the fishing harbour of Vizag where its business as usual at any given point of time. However it was a photographer’s delight during dawn and dusk when the colours were an absolute assault on the senses. The fishing harbour is one of the most amazing places to visit near Vizag.
Places to visit near Vizag
There are so many places to visit near Vizag and I would probably need to go back to explore most of them. However my trip took me to caves, coffee plantations, tribal villages and even a windswept coastal village with a rich cultural and colonial history.
Borra Caves and Araku Valley Visakhapatnam
However my trip took me to Araku Valley, one of the places to visit near Vizag and on the way to the magnificent Borra Caves, one of the Vizag attractions. Nestled in the Ananthagiri Hills, these are one of the deepest caves, plunging to 250 feet and they are filled with staggering formations of stalactites and stalagmites.
These limestone cave formations are created by the River Gosthani which originated from the caves. The formations tease your imagination and take the form of deities to animals or even a human brain or a mushrooms. We drove along to Araku Valley, which is also home to the award winning Araku coffee. I was there for the Araku Hot Air Balloon Festival, but I would recommend at least a couple of days here.
Araku Coffee and History of Coffee in Araku Valley
While the Western Ghats were known as the home of coffee in India, the Eastern Ghats had its little share of coffee plantations as well. Besides the Shevaroy Hills around Yercaud in Tamil Nadu, coffee was also introduced in Pamaleru Valley in the East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh by the British. However it was not until a century later when coffee found its roots in the Araku Valley. Yet the story began only in the 1950s. As the forest department took over the initiative, a cooperative called Girijan Cooperative Corporation came up to the fore to engage the tribal farmers in the cultivation and production. The dormant plantations were slowly regenerated and eventually private NGOS like Naandi Foundation took over the tribal empowerment initiative besides promoting the branded Araku Coffee to a global audience.
Today it is believed that over a lakh tribals are employed in cultivating this organic coffee around the valley as different organisations are supporting the initiative. While I sipped the organic coffee, I was told that Araku Coffee, originally grown by the Adivasi farmers has found global acclaim by winning the prestigious Gold Medal for the best coffee pod in the Prix Epicures OR 2018 Award in Paris, France. The award winning brand retails in Paris in France today in an exclusive cafe but in India, one can buy it online. But the various blends of coffee from the valley is sold by different cooperatives and NGOs while you can sample them on the streets as well. There is also a Coffee Museum here which gives you an insight into the history and you can also buy coffee powder and even chocolates made from coffee.
I also spent a day at Bheemili, one of the most beautiful places to see in Visakhapatnam which is a charming windswept coastal town and a treasure house of stories.Surrounded by hills and oceans, this village , named after the legendary Bheema of the Mahabharata was once a colonial settlement. The Dutch and the British left behind lighthouses, cemeteries, churches and other monuments, mostly in ruins around the town. An old Narasimha temple, probably dating to the medieval period of 14th century stood atop a hill. Most of the hills here had been relics of ancient Buddhist monuments. However what really fascinated me was the Red Sand Hills, locally referred to as Erra Matti Dibbalu, which are located on the way to Bheemili from Vizag. The entire landscape is drenched in shades of red as you walk along the sand dunes in this region and is a spectacle by itself.
In my 48 hours in Vizag, I could not explore beyond these destinations. However I hope to go back and lose myself in the pristine beauty while savouring some spicy food. What is your recommendation for places to visit near Vizag ?