Marine Drive (renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Marg) follows the sweeping curve of sea that stretches north from Nariman Point's high-rise buildings to infamous Chowpatty Beach, located at the foot of Malabar Hill. It's the ultimate seaside promenade, where Mumbaikars come to escape the claustrophobia of central Mumbai, gratefully eyeing an endless horizon while strolling or jogging along the broad windswept promenade. In the evenings, casual, single-item snack stalls are set up for brisk trade; a stroll along here also takes in the world's second-largest stretch of Art Deco buildings (in future years, there'll be heritage plaques identifying the most significant of these). Having undergone an extensive refurbishment and general neatening-up in recent years, there's another huge beautification project on the back-burner (apparently buried under a deluge of bureaucratic mismanagement) that will, among other things, include open-air galleries and improved walkways, and at Nariman Point, a breakwater promontory will extend 280m (918 1/2 ft.) into the sea, culminating in a stepped amphitheater. Even before all that happens, this is the city's ultimate sunset spot, when -- having watched the orange globe sink into the Arabian Sea -- you can witness the street lights transform Marine Drive into the aptly named Queen's Necklace, a choker-length of twinkling jewels adorning Back Bay. The scene is perhaps best enjoyed with cocktail in hand at one of the Drive's classier establishments -- the InterContinental's rooftop lounge and restaurant, Dome, is where you should be.
Once the sun has set, catch a ride (or walk) north along Marine Drive to Chowpatty, Mumbai's oldest seafront. Chowpatty is no longer the filth-ridden extravaganza its long-acquired reputation suggests (though it's still not in any state for sunbathing or swimming), and at night it assumes the demeanor of a colorful fair. Children of all ages flock to ride the ancient Ferris wheels and tacky merry-go-rounds, and fly-by-night astrologers, self-styled contortionists, snake charmers, and trained monkeys provide the flavor of the bazaar -- and bizarre -- especially on weekends. This is where locals love to consume the city's famous street snacks, especially bhelpuri: crisp puffed rice, vegetables, and fried lentil-flour noodles doused in pungent chutneys of chili, mint, and tamarind, then scooped up with a tiny, flat puri (puffy deep-fried bread). Chowpatty bhelpuri is renowned throughout India, sold here by the eponymous bhelwallas, who now ply their trade in Bhel Plaza, where other traditional treats like kulfi are on offer at dirt-cheap prices.
Note: It's inadvisable to eat here -- unfortunately, flavor, not hygiene, enjoys top priority. However, after you've watched the multitudes gorging vast quantities of assorted snack foods, cross the street and get your own chaat (as bhelpuri and similar snacks are called) at Cream Centre (25 Fulchand Niwas, Chowpatty Beach; tel. 022/2367-9222 or -9333; noon-midnight). For close to 50 years, this vegetarian snack place has been serving up delicious food -- so good, in fact, that whenever you pass Chowpatty Beach in the evening, you'll see a queue of people waiting to get in. Alternatively, make a meal of the signature channa bhatura (spiced chickpeas and a large puri), a typical Punjabi dish that is made everywhere but rarely so well as here. When you're done, step out of the restaurant, turn left, and walk down to the end of the pavement to a hole-in-the-wall (but very hygienic) juice shop called Bachelorr's (yes, with two r's) for deliciously refreshing seasonal fresh fruit ice creams and juices -- but do make sure you ask for your juice without ice, water, or masala.
To experience Mumbai at its most exuberant, head to Chowpatty Beach for the culmination of Ganesh Chaturthi, the city's biggest and most explosive celebration. Held in honor of the much-loved elephant-headed god (here called Ganpati), the 10-day festival culminates on the last day, when a jubilant procession is held and thousands of huge Ganpati idols are immersed in the sea. Ganesh Chaturthi is held in September; for exact dates contact the Government of India Tourist Office, and to whet your appetite).
Marine Drive's pedestrian promenade flanks Mumbai's western seaboard, stretching from Nariman Point in the south to Chowpatty Beach some 3km (2 miles) north.
Touching God -- There were still hundreds of people streaming onto Chowpatty Beach for the finale on Monday, when idols of Ganpati are immersed in the sea. I had expected to see the shore where it normally is, but today it extended another quarter-mile -- thousands of people were already in the water! Trucks with 6m-high (20-ft.) Ganesh idols lined up on the sand, awaiting their turn alongside families wanting to drop their small, lap-sized idols into the sea. Engulfed by teeming masses and deafened by the sound of singing devotees and driving drumbeats, Vanessa and I locked hands so that we wouldn't lose each other. As we navigated the crowds, one of the large Ganesh idols rocked forward off its flatbed, prompting a small stampede as people standing nearby tried to escape. Luckily, the men holding the ropes managed to steady and pull the giant idol upright. Hundreds of volunteers and security officials worked to maintain order, many thankfully eager to help two conspicuously foreign women -- one official even held an entire line of men at bay. As he ushered us to a less crowded space, a giant Ganesh adorned with plastic grass and flowers passed en route to the shore. The security guard watched the two of us admiring the decorations and asked, "Would you like to touch God?" "Sure!" I exclaimed. As I reached over to touch Ganesh's feet, I wondered why every Monday couldn't include an intimate moment with the divine.