Visiting the state after a gap of 15 years, I have mixed expectations. A lot would have changed, no doubt – some of it, hopefully, for the better. But our arrival into Dabolim is completely underwhelming. Given all the hype the state of Goa has received as a tourist destination, and the massive influx of visitors since (some of them on chartered flights even), the airport remains a complete eyesore and an all-round shit show!
The ride to our hotel is almost an hour long, but over the course of it, our disappointment with Dabolim wanes. The Ramada‘s vaulted lobby is grand in appearance and wears a festive look for the holiday season. As the light begins to change, a walk through its sea-facing, sun-kissed property is at once invigorating, banishing any residual thoughts of the D word…
25 of us have managed to make it to Goa, for what is to be our 7th annual Derawal reunion. It is also the furthest our clan has dared venture out of Delhi!
Day 1 passed in a blur, what with our contingent trickling in through the afternoon, from points near and far. Its slim pickings at breakfast this morning, with the Russians having already made good with the buffet offerings. Given that this is the only free meal for us, we vow to beat them to it tomorrow! In the meantime, we look ahead to lunch…
Martins Corner, a culinary bastion of South Goa, lies about 10-km north of the Ramada property, in the village of Betalbatim. For over two decades, Martins has been serving up fantastic Goan food in a quaint setting, replete with artwork by the legendary Mario Miranda. The seafood is finger licking good, the service is fantastic, and a friendly saxophonist plays along, as we Derawals carve out our own little nook within the charming restaurant. It is a truly memorable meal and a real Goan welcome for us!
Blessed by Merces
There are certain things about Goa, I had secretly hoped would never change. Its laid back nature, for one – the Portuguese hangover, if you will! This, I am happy to report, remains by and large the same, and our drive back from Martins more than confirms so.
On the narrow, winding 2-lane road, we pass colourful 2-storey homes, old colonial structures, lovingly kept Churches, Christmas decorations that have lingered well into the New Year, and plenty of coconut palms for shade. Traffic is calm, and there is nary a soul to be seen out and about. Siesta – oft brought on by an accompaniment of Feni at lunch – is evidently in session. And mind you, this is a weekday! There’s something to be said about Goa – despite all the years that have elapsed, the magic persists…
In Dominic We Trust
Dominic, a courtly Goan man of significant girth, runs the show at Varca Beach. A crew of 4 lanky lads, all of them extremely agile, aids him. The morning and evening hours are his busiest, the rest of the day being much too hot for adventure sports. Even though they make up a bulk of the Ramada clientele, the Russians, he informs us, will never bite his bait. Instead, he has to rely on Indian customers to sustain his trade.
The sheer size of our group is music to his ears, but he is woefully naive about our decision-making abilities. An hour passes and eventually only two in our group get some inertia going, hire one of his jet skis and set off. The rest of us spend our time gaping wide-eyed at parasailers, who continue to drop down like flies, against the backdrop of a lavender sky.
The long road to Zeebop
Ordinarily, the drive to Uttorda Beach shouldn’t take more than 30-minutes from where we are, but we do end up taking an hour! Correction, the first three vehicles in our caravan end up taking an hour. The fourth is hopelessly lost somewhere in the back roads of Goa!
The decision to go with King Crabs or Tiger Prawns is left to the NRI boys from London and Chicago, and as that process continues unabated in the background, I decide, after a few determined sips, that there is absolutely no love lost between Feni and me!
Speaking of lost, vehicle #4 does eventually make it to Zeebop, just in time for dinner! As we proceed to partake in the single most unifying group activity – stuffing ourselves – the enthusiastic crooner’s dedication to us goes completely unnoticed! Despite the cribs and complaints, the long journey to Zeebop-by-the-Sea has been worth it – the seafood is impeccable and the setting, truly fabulous!
The soft sands of Varca
Although not exclusive to the Ramada, Varca is a sparsely trafficked beach, giving one the feeling of being on a private strip of sand. And a very wide strip of sand it is! Just like the hours favoured by Dominic‘s business, the early mornings and late evenings are the best to enjoy the soft, silver, and remarkably clean sands of Varca. The early hours of the day draw in the morning walkers, occasional runners, the meditators, and the few Russians who have forfeited a fifth helping of breakfast to savour the sun!
But even at other times – when the heat and humidity have kicked in – the Arabian Sea offers respite, its calm waters providing the perfect balm to escape the harsh outdoors. This is, by far, my best experience of a beach in India, and my fellow Derawals seems to share that sentiment. We’ve all spent more time in the ocean than we have at the Ramada’s pool – despite the lure of its island bar!
Late lunch at La Plage
Back in the day, when I first visited the state, there was just one Goa. Today, however, if you happen to mention you’re headed there, you’re more than likely to be asked, ‘North or South’? Akin to Nor Cal and So Cal, one would think! The division isn’t merely geographical though. The north today represents the hip, and the south, the not-so-hip. So, not wanting to miss out on the hip quotient of this enchanting state, our caravan sets off north.
Its artwork-laden entrance is an instant giveaway, and French is spoken freely under its thatched roofs. Wrapped in a grove of palms, draped in colourful muslin curtains, and with soft sand serving as its floor, La Plage redefines the ‘Goan shack’ experience. Run by a French couple, it is as much a haven for the expat set as it is for throngs of tourists from Western Europe.
Regardless of the hype, and the hordes waiting to be seated, they’ve graciously held two large tables for our group, which has casually shown up an hour late! For a busy eatery such as this, service is top notch and our dishes arrive promptly. The food is exemplary too, but doesn’t quite cater to every Derawal‘s palette. We all concur though, this establishment is unique – in menu and ambiance – and besides, we’ve also checked off the hip box on our reunion bucket list 😉
The village of Morjim, located on the north bank of the Chapora River estuary, lies a few km south of La Plage. By the time our tribe of late lateef‘s shows up there, the tide has already receded, meaning that we will have to be ferried to our boat in a smaller vessel, making at least two round trips.
For the more chivalrous amongst us, who stay behind and wait for the shuttle to return, it’s a chance to admire Woof Woof, a party boat that we’ll call home for the next few hours. At first glance, she looks like a glorified fishing trawler. On closer inspection though, she is a handcrafted, all-wooden, ocean-worthy craft, with a decidedly red and white theme – an attractive vessel all around!
Magic on the Chapora
The Chapora is the northernmost of Goa’s three major rivers, which begins its journey in neighbouring Maharashtra, meeting the Arabian Sea just west of Morjim. It is probably the least known of the three, which also makes it incredibly serene. Sure, there are a handful of Kerala-style houseboats that we pass along the way; the occasional poser speedboat, and a modern construction or two, but for most part we see a very different side to Goa – one that is far removed from its beaches, chic resorts and fancy restaurants.
Rows upon rows of graceful coconut trees line its banks, the green cover broken only occasionally to reveal a lazy fishing hamlet, a colourful temple or a quaint old church. Locals row past in a wooden canoe, as the light gradually begins to fade. We watch on from the fore, aft and rooftop of Woof Woof, beer in hand, feet tapping gently to our favourite beats. Life along the Chapora couldn’t be more idyllic.
As we coast towards the mouth of the ocean, in the final moments of daylight, the local fishing fleet has dropped anchor for the night, and a large flock of birds is headed home, marking the end of a typical day on the river. Seconds later, the sun dips behind the clouds, leaving behind a breathtaking array of colours in an ever-changing sky, and 25 awestruck Derawals. This could well be the set of Life of Pi, but in reality, we’ve just had the good fortune of experiencing one of the most dramatic sunsets ever…
A last dip
Day 4 and we still haven’t managed to negotiate a better rate with Dominic! It’s little wonder then that the Russians don’t partake in anything remotely hectic. If we Indians can’t drive a hard bargain, what chance do they have? They simply watch the fun from the comfort of their loungers, as we struggle to get a fair deal!
Since we’ve had our fill of jet skiing, and some in our group have even claimed to spotting Dolphins while at it (!), we try our hand at Dominic‘s other offerings – parasailing and banana-boating. Each one of these has been a first for me. As exhilarating an activity as jet skiing is, it does take a while getting into your comfort zone. Parasailing, on the other hand, can best be described as tranquil. But Banana-boating – as basic as it may seem, does one thing really well – it ensures you get a ‘real taste‘ of the ocean! And that, all said and done, is precisely the reason we’ve come this far to Goa 😉
A full set of pics from our Goa trip can be found here.