1 April 2020

Goa, Going, Gone

Joseph Kent - bloomSuites, Calangute

While the world is in lockdown, thoughts of visiting far-flung places seem almost trivial. Yet I'm reminded that this time last year I was enjoying poolside shandies, thirty-degree sunshine and strolls along a sandy shoreline. It's fair to say I'd rather be reliving 2019 than social-distancing, but at the very least I've had ample time to finish this long-overdue blog post about said holiday - a week beneath the Indian sun with one of my best friends, and a chance to revisit my origins.

I had visited Goa three times as a child, from which my memories of those holidays intertwine with one another - crashing waves, bustling streets, my grandma's apartment, dinners beside the ocean with my mum and aunties, collecting shells from the beach. In the twenty years since, I have been privileged to visit many other amazing destinations with family, friends, and once with a fashion label, but none have held a place in my heart like Goa.

Perhaps it was nostalgia or the connection to my heritage that yearned me to return. Maybe I just really enjoyed the combination of sun, sea and Goan curries. (I wasn't wrong.) But when the opportunity arose to go on my first long-haul holiday in some years, many an evening was soon spent trawling the internet for travel tips, flights and hotels, day excursions - anything and everything Maddy and I might possibly need to know ahead of travelling nearly 5,000 miles around the globe.

bloomSuites, Calangute Joseph Kent - bloomSuites, Calangute bloomSuites, Calangute

We settled on seven nights towards the end of the peak season, when costs are lower and the resort towns aren't nearly as busy. The concession is that temperatures are closer to thirty degrees celcius in March than a more comfortable twenty-five in December/January, but it was nothing a parasol and a round of cold drinks wouldn't fix. Among the perks of holidaying in Goa is that the best time to visit is during our autumn and winter months; why face sleet and gales at home when you could savour sunny days and mild evenings beside the Arabian sea? Although any later, temperatures soar beyond forty degrees, followed by months of monsoon, therefore it pays to book dates wisely.

To ensure our stay was as comfortable as possible (and remembering that many of Goa's hotels were dated even when I was seven years old), I offered we book a room at bloomSuites, easily one of the most contemporary and eye-catching hotels in Calangute, North Goa, featuring super king size beds, a courtyard pool, and all the modern holiday essentials in a sunflower yellow colour scheme. The hotel's location is more than ideal too, less than fifteen minutes' walk from the beach, and half an hour from the centre of Baga, the heart of Goa's nightlife.

With regret, however, it did take a mission to travel there. Much of our first day was spent flying, followed by an infuriatingly slow queue at immigration control. (If there's one downside to Goa, it's the distinct absence of speed or organisation at Dabolim Airport.) Tired and confused, the culture shock knocked us sideways as soon as we exited the airport, as we struggled to locate the coach that would transport us to Calangute. It would remain parked for another hour - without air conditioning - while we waited for the rest of our fellow holidaymakers. When we eventually arrived outside the hotel, it was in the early hours of the morning, and Maddy had begun to wonder if the sudden sound of mooing was a sign of delirium. Turning to see stray cows roaming freely across the road, we were both thankful it wasn't.

Sinquerim Beach Sinquerim Beach Sinquerim Beach Calangute Calangute

After a good night's sleep, we sought to forget about the previous day's drama and began our holiday in earnest. In my typical overly-organised fashion, I had an entire itinerary of things to do and places to see. But when we realised that everything we could possibly want was within walking distance, it hardly mattered if we weren't exploring a dozen different beaches, however picturesque they may have been.

It was on our second full day in Goa that we inadvertently walked three miles along the length of the local beach, where - having ignored perhaps a hundred beach bars - we chanced upon a solitary shack set apart from the rest. After a much deserved round of fresh pineapple juice and learning they had satisfactory toilet facilities (never to be taken as a given in Goa), Fisherman's Hut Beach Shack became our go-to spot for the remainder of the week, even if it were an hour’s stroll from our hotel.

Although much of our holiday was spent on the sand, Maddy and I did book one excursion with our holiday rep, comprising a trip to the famous Dudhsagar Falls, a tour of a local spice plantation, and a stroll around the historic Basilica in Old Goa, the former capital of Portuguese India. The latter were enjoyably educational, but the waterfall was a tragic disappointment in spite of its beauty, having required a forty-minute drive along a rocky jungle road that churned everyone's stomachs, only to find the pool at the base of the falls was packed with people. Whiling away our days on sun loungers seemed even more inviting after that.

Maddy Watkins - Dudhsagar Falls Spice Plantation Spice Plantation Spice Plantation Dudhsagar Falls Dudhsagar Falls

However we spent our day, a late afternoon dip in the hotel pool was guaranteed bliss. Afterwards, a well-needed shower and change of clean clothes, and we would head out again to explore North Goa's nightlife. It's true enough to say Calangute and Baga are very much catered for tourists, but the local cuisine and hospitality were exceptional everywhere we went. In one memorable instance, Goa's infamy for unpredictable power cuts left Maddy and I dining in the dark, yet the restaurant staff cooked our dishes perfectly, while a gaggle of Russian women serenaded all the diners with a tipsy singalong.

Another evening, we took a taxi north to visit Arpora's famous Saturday night markets - note there are two: the busier and more traditional market in the south of the town, and the hippier artisinal market fifteen minutes' walk to the north, where you might find European tourists drinking cashew feni (Goa's local spirit) and dancing to live music. As I enjoyed that night a warm breeze and a plate of chicken Xacuti, I was suddenly so at ease in my surroundings that I felt as if I might actually belong in Goa - not altogether surprising, considering its history is in my blood.

bloomSuites, Calangute Maddy Watkins - bloomSuites, Calangute bloomSuites, Calangute Joseph Kent - bloomSuites, Calangute

As wonderful a time we had, our seven days flew by too quickly. Part of me wished I could have stayed longer, to bask in the Indian sunshine for a few more days, to continue to breathe the sea air, and to dine out on more of that fine Goan cuisine. (Not to mention any chance of delaying a second visit to Dabolim Airport was fine by me.) It was clear I had acclimatised to the culture as much as the climate, nevertheless home beckoned, and - from a practical perspective - I had run out of clean underwear.

One year later, I still miss Goa. And with all that's going on in the world, it's even tougher knowing I couldn't go back even if I wanted to. But if and when I do return, whenever that might be, perhaps I'll pick up that itinerary I discarded so hastily. Or perhaps I'll make a beeline for the beach shack and order another round of drinks. Who knows? I wouldn't describe Goa as paradise, but when I'm three shandies deep and watching the sun sink into sea, it certainly feels like the next best thing.

Sinquerim Beach

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