After my Tiger Safari I'm heading back to Goa for Christmas. It will be the third time I've spent the Christmas season here. Or maybe not. There's a huge row on the plane about who is going to sit where. It takes fifteen minutes for all the passengers to play musical chairs. I suspect that the happy check in clerk is behind it.
Goa is the smallest state in India, tiny tucked in on the west coast. But it has the best quality of life and the highest GDP per capita in India. And I'm here, along with many others, for the white-sand beaches, nightlife and historic architecture. As well as Indian temples, there's the strong Portuguese influence. The Portuguese conquered Goa in the sixteenth century and it remined a Portuguese Overseas Territory for about 456 years, until it was annexed by India in 1961.
On my last trips here I was on singles holidays at Baga. We spent most of the time on the beach, lazing on sunbeds at Tony's Bar. There's along stech of sand here, which narrows considerably at high tide. The bars behind the beach here are dismantled during the summer, monsoon season, and re-erected every winter, to try and avoid storm damage. We sample the restaurants - Indian and Portuguese and make trips to the markets, especially the Wednesday Flea Market, up the coast at once hippy hang out Anjuna. It's now become Nightclub-land. Curlies Bar, on the beach is the place to go after all the shopping.
At night, there's dancing in the clubs behind the beach at Baga. They're full of Indian men - the women don't come to these. In the morning we have breakfast at Leila’s Swiss Café, nestled alongside Baga Creek. It's a peaceful wander alongside the paddy fields and fishing boats before heading back to our sunbeds.
The capital of Goa is Panjim, a port on an estuary, more commonly known as Panaji. It's small (the largest city is actually Vasco da Gama, where Dabolim Aiport is situated), but it has some interesting architecture, churches, temples and art. There's a UNESCO heritage section with churches and convents, to the east of Panaji. The shopping is good. There's even a small department store called Blooming Dales. And there's a great partially covered market.
Just to the south there's an attractive little bay called Dona Paula. The locals flock here. One of the attractions is a whitewashed statue perched on the rocks near the ferry jetty. It depicts the figures of Mother India and Young India, one looking to the East and the other to the West.
A trip to the beautiful beach at Palolem, in the south of Goa, for one night, staying in stilt houses. Here it's relatively quiet. They even have silent discos where everyone wears headphones.
Calangute this time, a little south of Baga, but on the same long stetch of beach. It doesn't really feel like Christmas. There are large illuminated paper stars hanging in the trees around the brownstone old style Portuguese pousada where I'm staying. The pool has cascades and is also beautifully lit, surrounded by tastefully planted palms. But no Christmas trees. Or presents. The sky is unrelentingly blue and it's lobster on the beach for lunch (the boys wear Santa Hats), followed by curry dinner at the hotel with an American and his daughter. We are the only guests at the moment. I have been upgraded to a huge suite and it's like having my own private villa, with servants on tap.
My hotel might be quiet but Goa is rocking, very different to my last visit five years ago. The Hispanic architecture, huge churches and narrow stone walled lanes, with wrought iron gates and intricate bell towers remain. But the streets and beaches are thronged with Russians, huge bellies, ape like arms and teeny swimsuits too small even to smuggle budgies. They say there are three hundred flights from Moscow a week. The sunbeds and gaudy umbrellas stand ten rows deep on the wide yellow sand and even the billboards have Russian subtitles. The lifeguard careers up and down the beach in a van, extorting the crowds to get out of the water on his tinny megaphone. There are strong currents and drownings are common. But no-one takes any notice.
The days merge into a pattern of swim, massage, breakfast by the pool, transfer to a sunbed at the hotel's beach restaurant (a comfortable hotch-potch of mock Greek temple and fishing nets) set back from the main drag. Back to the pool and dinner. The hotel owner is anxious that I do not venture out alone - the traffic is too bad he says. And every day brings a new story of violence or rape. The Americans depart and a family of 13 Portuguese arrive. They ignore me. It's a good job I have a lot of reading matter.
There is a diplomatic row escalating between the USA and India; this might be why one of the headlines on the BBC today suggests that condoms don't work effectively in India as the standard size is too large and they fall off. Apparently 1200 volunteers were measured 'to the nearest millimetre’.
Just to the south, at the bottom of this stretch of beach is Candolim. The sturdy walls of Aguada Fort, built in the early 1600s under Portuguese colonial rule, surround a nineteenth-century lighthouse. It allows for good views, but the beach is not at its prettiest here. It's overshadowed by a huge wrecked ship.
The traffic in Goa is now terrible, Partly because the vehicles have to navigate round stuffed guys, displayed along the lanes, Guy Fawkes style, complete with collecting tins. These are the ‘Old Men of the Year’. They will be burned so that there can be a new beginning. This is the only state in India that has late night clubs and the only one that celebrates Christmas and the New Year.
I eat dinner on my own at the pousada and then catch a taxi down to the Taj Resort and blag my way in. I sit in solitary splendour on the decking above the beach drinking a martini whilst Bollywood parties the other side of a curtain. There's a great view of the locally made fireworks and bonfires all the way up the beach on New Year’s Eve, most bars have their own. Spectacular, if not entirely health and safety conscious
A last day at the beach. A couple of very small clouds drifted past today. Tomorrow's journey home could be hairy. The first leg is via Air India, notorious for cancellations and delays. And I only discovered when I arrived in Mumbai that the domestic airport is 10 kilometres from the international terminal. There are dire warnings on the Foreign Office Advisory about women not taking taxis alone, let alone at night. There are also tales of taxis being hijacked in the early hours on the Mumbai airport road. I'm told that there is a free coach every hour- if I can work out where it is in the usual Indian airport chaos and provided my Air India plane does the necessary. At least they will check my baggage all the way through so I don't need to worry about that.
Good news. The plane is going to land at the international airport, so I won't have to worry about being transferred. Bad news. They won't check my baggage through, as it's a different airline and the plane is delayed an hour. I queue at the immigration desk, only to be told that I have to go back, as I need an exit form filled in. When I try to pick one up I'm told that don't need it (and can’t have it), as I'm only on a domestic flight. Then I'm told that I can't go through security yet anyway, as my plane is late. Wunderbar!
Another great holiday - this is my sixth visit to India.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.