Travel: From the word Goa
It's a case of paradise found in India's tropical haven
Goa in India is a former Portuguese colony on the shores of the Arabian Sea. The chilled-out tropical paradise is a winter destination with a hippy twist, golden beaches and a reputation for parties.
This is music to the ears of a single traveller like me for whom paradise found can be a lost cause. Let's face it, the last thing singles need is the isolating experience of holidaying alone amid a swarm of swooning lovebirds, newlyweds and families.
Goa promised sun, sea, spirituality, spicy cuisine and a 60-mile coastline. Four more friends were hot to trot, so we arranged to meet on the sunny side.
Arriving into a waft of 30 degree air, blue skies and coconut palms was a seductive December welcome. A two-hour taxi ride from the airport cost €20, and dropped me to far North Goa.
My yoga teacher friend, Bridget Moriarty, was on her first visit to Goa and already in Arambol, up-skilling with an Iyengar teacher. Being easily led, I followed my friend and her flexible flock.
The holiday got off to a healthy start, with 8am yoga on a scenic rooftop. After class, it was rush hour at the fruit stall, where a little man with a big machete hacked holes in green coconuts. After we'd drunk the milk through straws, he split them open and made husk spoons for scooping out the delicate white flesh.
Breakfasting at Double Dutch cafe was a prolonged and sociable affair. Home baking, muesli, fruit salads and real coffee are popular with the eclectic clientele. Canadian astrologer Adrian and a Welsh psychic handed me their business cards.
A noticeboard jam-packed with posters promoted local services. Hula-hooping, belly dancing, drumming classes, love meditation, chakra balancing, aura healing, re-birthing and ayurvedic cleansing were among the offerings.
Cafe proprietor Lucie, from Holland, also runs the Masti children's home and welcomed volunteers. Graphic designer Anne Marie Duane from Cork was travelling alone and painting Christmas decorations, which were sold to raise money for the charity. Lots of people travel solo to Goa, and charity work is among the many ways of socialising.
Farther down the coast, another Irish friend, Charlie Shanks, has swapped the windswept Wicklow hills for sunnier climes. The former Deepak Chopra devotee lives in Anjuna, Goa's original hippy hangout.
From the colonial comforts of Charlie's restored Portuguese villa, it was a short walk through the jungle to Curlies beachside restaurant, where expats meet for sunset.
Wintering in Goa, and returning to Europe in summer to earn money, is a way of life for many. Hippy explorers first discovered Goa in the 1960s after overland trips to India from Europe via Afghanistan.
'Dangling' Dick from the UK is 65 and runs a paragliding business. He plans to pursue Tai Chi teaching once he's no longer physically able to tandem-jump tourists off the adjacent hill.
After Anjuna, I went to Benaulim, South Goa, which is popular with retired Europeans enjoying the sunshine and low heating costs of wintering in India. It was here that I had arranged to meet three more friends from Ireland, at a villa we pre-booked on Airbnb.
Clarence and Alvina, our Goan hosts, were on hand to welcome us with cool beers into the three-bedroom, three-bathroom air-conditioned property. The accommodation was located in a holiday complex and cost €350 for one high season week between Freda, Niamh, Ginni and myself. The hosts and their families were nearby and contactable at all times.
Compared with other areas of Goa, Benaulim is cluttered with modern holiday complexes catering mostly to a mature clientele. On the plus side, the beach was lovely and we were only 10 minutes from Goa's main train station, Madgaon junction.
With last-minute emergency quota tickets, we embarked on a rail adventure into the 'real' India. The whirlwind visit to the magnificent ruins of Hampi in Karnataka was an exhilarating expedition involving two 10-hour train journeys, rickshaw rides and a coracle.
Tour agencies promote travel by bus to Hampi, but the Goa to Hospet train journey is spectacular and costs a mere €10 return. In addition to the stunning scenery, the eternal stream of entertaining salesmen and colourful Indian families, there's the added bonus of a sleeper bed.
The Goan menu of day trips is extensive and includes jungle treks, markets, waterfalls, spice farms and safari parks.
We selected the Old Goa heritage tour which cost €10. Among the Portuguese churches was the Bom Jesus Basilica, resting place of St Francis Xavier whose body is taken out once every decade. Goan Christians and Hindus alike will turn out to celebrate the exposition, which happens again this December.
Celebrating is something Indians do well, and we were ready to join in. We drove through stunning hilly cashew nut plantations and tropical forests on the road from Benaulim to Palolem in the very south of the state.
The region has a noise ban after 10pm, so silent discos are popular. Neptune Point is a scenic Saturday nightclub and headphones are issued on entry. Three colour-coded DJs play live on stage while revellers switch from blue to green to red channels before dropping their headsets to chat in the quiet nightclub.
For full-noise clubbing, the hidden Leopard Valley was a rickshaw ride away, and European DJs played into the early morning. The music had its moments, but the multinational crowd from teens to 60-year-olds were a fun and friendly bunch.
The peaceful beaches at Agonda, Columb and Patnem in Palolem were perfect for an apres party chill-out. Fresh fruit juices flowed and we were spoiled for choice with excellent eateries such as Hidden Gourmet and April 20. No matter how nice the restaurant, toilets tend to be basic, sometimes awful. Although modern western-style bowls and hand basins are installed, they can lack cleaning.
Thankfully, other areas compensate, and sweet-smelling beauty salons were abundant. With manicures costing €4, pedicures €6 and facials €10, spoiling becomes synonymous with holidaying in Goa. Holistic therapists are also very affordable, and the traditional Ayurveda school of medicine is popular.
A gorgeous walk along a forest track led me to Gurukul yoga and ayurvedic centre, run by Ajay Sharma. The ayurvedic consultation took over an hour and involved a series of questions about my lifestyle, diet and relationships.
My diagnosis included dietary advice and considerable comment on my single status. Staying off potatoes and cabbage, practising yoga and regular meditation were among the recommendations, which made me wonder whether Ireland was right for me at all.
It was easy to get lured into Goa, as it had lots to offer the single traveller and groups of friends alike.
In addition to the normal holiday attractions of sightseeing and sunshine, there are yoga classes, cookery courses, holistic therapies and volunteering opportunities.
Paradise for singles was found.
NEED TO KNOW
Season: October to April.
* Vaccinations are required. See Tropical Medical Bureau clinics nationwide; tmb.ie
* Visas are compulsory.
Contact the Embassy of India in Dublin; indianembassy.ie (01-497 0843)
HOW TO GET THERE
* There are no direct flights from Ireland to India.
* Etihad Airways flies from Dublin to Mumbai via Abu Dhabi, with short connections. From €555 return.
Mumbai to Goa:
From €80 return (one hour)
* Pearl business class with Etihad Airways is the deluxe option with flat bed and chauffeur service. From €2,400 return; etihad.com
* Irish company GoHop offers packages with flights, accommodation and tours to Goa; gohop.ie
Budget: For the best possible deals, don't book in advance. Turn up and ask, especially near Arambol and Palolem.
Mid: Margaret booked an apartment via airbnb.com
Luxury: Sybarites should check out the Leela Kempinski Goa; theleela.com
Top tip: Stay safe
Arriving at night is not advisable for women travelling on their own. Taxi rides from the airport can be lengthy and via poorly lit areas.