Goa…The Garden of Eden? Maybe.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I’m not a photographer. Since I’m a writer, I’ll have to try to give you a feel of Goa through story-telling. That’s a difficult task when describing a place as unspoiled and contradictory as Goa. It is at once rugged and refined, relaxing and exciting, dangerous and healing, casual and glamorous — the perfect blend of jungle and ocean, city and beach.

The Indian Ocean is the star. Sparkling in the sunlight, its crystal clear water is the perfect temperature, and the waves are just the right size. You slowly wade into the water, and then sooner or later, you forget to be an adult, and you start splashing in the waves like a little kid on summer vacation. It’s fun…really fun. The southern beaches are pristine and undisturbed. There are very few tourists in South Goa, so it feels almost deserted this time of year. Walking on the soft, warm, white sand of those beaches make you feel as if they are yours and yours alone.

The people are kind and loving, and the level of pampering is among the highest of any place I’ve ever been. We stayed at the Taj Exotica in South Goa. It feels kind of like an old plantation house in Africa: low ceilings, hardwood beams everywhere, almost no walls along the outside of the main building. The floors are all marble, and the furnishings look like something Ernest Hemingway would use in his den. You can almost picture him there…sitting on one of the sofas, scribbling on an old legal pad. It’s a masculine hotel, but comfortable, and the people that represent the hotel cater to your every need. They are sympathetic and kind, and they go out of their way to make you feel at home.

There was a huge international summit descending on the hotel the week after our visit, so the construction noise was considerable. Indira, the sales manager for the hotel, was simply wonderful at navigating the difficulties of that situation. She made us feel utterly cared for and listened to, which was hard for her I’m sure, with all that banging and sawing going on day and night.

We were lucky enough to book a villa with a beautiful little back garden and private pool, and Indira made sure it was overlooking the golf course, far away from the noise at the main house. Thank God for her…She saved our vacation. We watched the sun set into the ocean from our little garden paradise, and thanked God for letting us have this weekend away to recharge and reconnect. Mumbai is busy and crazy and loud. Goa is none of those things. It is the perfect antidote to chaos, and we needed it.

To help us relax, we booked massages at the Jiva Spa at the Taj Exotica for the first and second day of our stay. The massage therapists were absolutely wonderful. The stress of the last six weeks just melted away onto the floor as we trusted Jenny, Grace and Lids to take of us. They started the spa treatment the traditional Indian way, with a ritual foot bath in oil and rose petals, warmed in a water-filled brass basin. Yes, it is as beautiful as it sounds. While massaging in the oil, they explain that in India, guests are considered equal to gods, hence the ritual foot bathing. Then came the massage, perfect pressure, long strokes, complete relaxation and muscle repair. Then, at the end, they gift you with a garland of white flowers. As they hang the blossoms around your neck, they tell you that the flowers are to honor and respect the divinity within you. I’ll admit, I cried when they said that. It’s been quite a while since I have felt like any part of me was divine. (Sometimes, God tells you exactly what you need to hear EXACTLY when you need to hear it the most.)

We rented a car for the day to get away from the construction at the hotel. An interesting thing about driving around Goa, there are cows wandering literally everywhere, on all the streets and highways. Why? A law was passed that has forbidden farmers to slaughter cows for meat, so rather than continue to feed them, all the farmers just let them loose. As you are driving along the winding roads, you’ll see three or four cows lying on one side of the street, just catching some sun. You’ll see dozens of them walking leisurely along, nibbling on the grass that grows along the side of the road. They tell me it’s very dangerous, but I thought it was kind of wonderful — like a mass pardon of execution, where all the cows are just free to roam around all day…doing what they like…eating what they like. I loved it.

For the most part we avoided the jungle. King cobras like to live there, so we gave them a wide berth. Instead, we drove to the Sahakari Spice Farm for a private tour and lunch that was so much fun. On the tour, you see how peppercorns grow on climbing vines, crawling their way up different trees. You pick fresh allspice leaves from their bushes and bite into them, getting that heady taste of “everything, all at once.” You nibble on raw turmeric and see large, cocoa pods hanging from trees. You bite the leaves of a clove plant and taste that wonderful memory of Christmas — oranges decorated with cloves, just like your mother used to make. Leon even ate a peri-peri pepper off a bush. It was wonderful to see so many of the spices we use, blooming on the vine in their natural state. And the lunch was delicious. All in all, a really fun morning.

The highlight of the spice plantation was getting to spend time with the gorgeous elephants that lived there: a mother and her daughter. (The father died last year at the age of 75.) I know that some touristy places abuse their elephants, but these seemed very happy. We saw the mother getting a spa treatment in the river from her handler. She looked just as blissed out as we did at the spa in our hotel.

We fed her, petted her, then nuzzled up and took photos with her. There is something so special, so spiritual about being that close to that large an animal, looking in their eyes and feeling the intelligence and kindness of them when you’re only inches away. It was a tiny, perfect miracle to have that moment with her, and I’ll cherish it forever.

Of course we saw Old Goa with its beautiful cathedrals and churches. I think the most powerful part of Old Goa is Saint Augustine’s Tower. It’s a breathtaking ruin of a cathedral tower, convent and hospital that has since been reclaimed by the earth on which it was built. When you are walking through the ruins of Saint Augustine’s, you realize it’s a place lost in time. Everywhere you look, long grass has overtaken the walls and tower. Tiny, white flowers push their way right out of the bricks. Moss blooms over every remnant of the structure. It feels as though you are in Nature’s Cathedral, and you are so grateful for having been invited in.

Having seen the best of Old Goa, we went to see the most sparkly part — the jewelry stores. Oh my…There are no words. We went to Exotic Gems near the Leela Hotel, and I tried on some of the most gorgeous jewelry I’ve ever seen…Mogul gems that would make a princess blush. I fell in love with a HUGE emerald, lotus-style ring, surrounded by diamonds. I still think about that ring and smile.

Our visit to Goa was short, but full. We listened to live music while we ate lunch at the Fisherman’s Wharf. We played in the Indian Ocean and kissed under the stars. We got to pet and hand-feed the most beautiful elephant I have ever seen. We walked arm-in-arm through the beautiful ruins and sipped cocktails in a gorgeous open lounge over the river surrounded by beauty…just listening to the rain on the water while we talked and talked. There is so much to love about this place. I beg you, if you are ever visiting India, give yourself the gift of time in Goa. You will be changed forever by the rugged beauty of this place. I can hardly wait to visit again…and again…and again.

* For more information on the Taj Exotica hotel:
* For more about the Sahakari Spice Farm: http://www.sahakarifarms.com
* To take a peek at what Exotic Gems has to offer: http://exoticgems.org
* To learn more about the Leela Hotel in Cavelossim where we had cocktails with a view of the river: https://www.tripadvisor.in/Hotel_Review-g775971-d481825-Reviews-s1-The_Leela_Goa-Cavelossim_Goa.html
* And finally, for more about Goa in general: http://www.goatourism.gov.in

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