SWELTERING in English winter clothes in the arrivals hall at Goa's Dabolim airport, I waited patiently for our luggage to appear on the carousel. And waited...and waited...
Just as I was about to write off our first trip to India as a total disaster, I realised that a local porter had picked up our cases 30 minutes earlier and had been waiting to escort us through Customs.
This summed up perfectly our Goa holiday experience. In India, nothing quite happens when, where and how you would expect. You have to take a deep breath and relax in the knowledge that everything will eventually work out perfectly, with del ight ful - and sometimes spectacular - results.
Goa was a colony of Portugal until 1961, and its mixture of Eastern and Western culture, make it an ideal destination for first-time travellers to India like myself and wife Eleanor.
We were staying in North Goa, which is livelier than the south, at the Sun Village in Baga, an all-inclusive four-star resort. Unlike past experiences of allinclusives, the food and service was great - and so was the booze - with a choice of Indian and Western dishes and "proper" (not just local brand) drinks included, which made lying by the pool even more relaxing.
OUT AND ABOUT
HOWEVER, you can lie by a pool anywhere and after an easy first day doing just that, we set out to explore the area. We chose to go on organised excursions, although taxis are very reasonable and it is possible (using your best haggling skills) to set your own agenda. First stop was the incredible Dudhsagar Falls in the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, where we were greeted by monkeys waiting to be hand-fed with the nuts and bananas we had bought in the nearby village of Colem. The pool at the bottom of the 600m high falls is known locally as "the sea of milk" due to the foam thrown up by the water. In the 90F heat, the cool dip was very refreshing and made the coach journey worth every moment.
On the way back we stopped for a late lunch in Tambdi Surla and had the opportunity to ride and feed an Indian elephant, which was an incredible experience.
The following day we went in search of crocodiles - yes, Goa has them too - and booked a boat trip along the backwaters and canals that feed the Zuari river. After an hour or so gently cruising through the mangrove-lined waters, we spotted an enormous 12ft croc.
The journey continued along the river to a cashew nut plantation for lunch and a meeting with another croc - this time a 3ft-long adolescent.
Our guide, who had been proudly showing off his scars from nine previous crocodile attacks, jumped into a pit to pick it up for a photo call. Unfor tunately we witnessed at tack No 10 as the crocodile took a sizeable chunk out of his finger. After being bandaged up, he casually took us home.
Our final excursion was a trip by taxi. We started off at the Basilica of Bom (baby) Jesus to see our first genuine miracle, the remains of St Francis Xavier, a 16th Century Spanish missionary who converted 30,000 people. Although he died in 1552, his body has been strangely (and some say miraculously) preserved without mummification.
After this Catholic spectacle we were transported to the blissful calm of a local Hindu temple where we bought flowers to offer to Lord Vishnu.
AN extra suitcase is advisable if you want to take advantage of some remarkable bargains in Goa. On every street you will see a jewellery shop or a tailor - where a formal suit can cost as little as pounds 40 and can be made in a day. Similarly, gems are much cheaper than in the UK.
However, you must learn to haggle. So don't try my technique. When shown an emerald the size of Hampshire all I could manage was: "Wow! How much? That's fantastic, I'll take it." Needless to say I didn't get much off the price, but the jeweller made it into a lovely ring for about half the price it would be in the UK.
THE liveliest beach in North Goa is at Baga, which is packed with inexpensive restaurants and bars. Vagador is quieter and is THE place to watch the sun go down over the Arabian Sea. Anjuna is another beautiful beach to visit.
THERE is no escaping it. Many of the population of Goa are extremely poor and hawkers and beggars will approach you regularly, particularly on the beaches. They are always polite, friendly and non-threatening and the goods they are selling (mostly t-shirts and bangles) are incredibly cheap. Bartering is a way of life in India and expected.
WHEN TO VISIT
THE best times to visit are from November to March when the weather is at its mildest - around 80F. In April/May it becomes oppressively hot, and the monsoon season lasts from June to October.
EATING AND DRINKING
GOAN food is based on its local produce, particularly coconuts and fish. Try the local drink feni, which is made from cashew nuts, but be warned it is very strong. Food and drink is cheap. A bottle of Kingfisher beer costs about 60p and a main course in a good restaurant pounds 5. Try the Casa Portuguesa on Baga Beach for traditional Goan cuisine.
OUR TOP TIPS
TO visit Goa you will need a tourist visa from the Indian High Commission (see www.hcilondon.org/visa.htm) at a cost of pounds 30 per person. If you make an application in person, be prepared for very long queues. Some travel agents will make the application for you for a fee.
LOCAL CURRENCY cannot be taken in and out of India - you may want to bring some small change in addition to your spending money for tips (porters/drivers) before you get the chance to go to a bureau de change in Goa.
VACCINATIONS and anti-malaria precautions are recommended but not compulsory. Always consult your doctor at least two weeks before travelling.
TAKE plenty of suntan oil, insect repellant and medication for upset stomachs.
NEVER drink tap water, always stick to bottled water with unbroken seals and stay away from drinks with ice in them, and salads and fruit if you are not sure whether tap water has been used in the preparation.