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Travel has a habit of springing surprises, all kinds of unexpected encounters and experiences – some better forgotten – and some worth celebrating

A recent visit to Goa brings a smile to the face. It was a sold-out weekend. There was no room to be had for love or money. I was straitjacketed between a deluge of never-ending work and must-be-finished-last-month deadlines. Burnout or was one or the other.

The hospitality industry is tight-knit. I called up friends, but it was difficult. Finally, I more or less gave up and was going to be another long working weekend.

Late evening, a call came through. “Book your flight. We have a room for you.” It was Farhat Jamal (friend, colleague and rescuer) and Senior Vice President (Operations West) at The Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces. The first Ah-moment! Glee, anticipation, and a bucket of cold water. You’ve got to be kidding...flight tickets to Goa for this weekend? Technology to the rescue. A search unearthed a pair of tickets on a hopping flight...costing a week’s salary, no less. A toss between common sense and the irrational...and the tickets were booked.

Buyer’s remorse? I found myself making a call to the hotel...did the room have a sit-out? Had I traded my sealed air-conditioned office cabin for another sealed air-conditioned room? My query was answered with an assurance of ‘Yes,’ — a sit-out existed.

Anticipation thrives on a bed of thorns...we arrived at the airline check-in the next morning amidst a throng of talkative holiday makers attired in shorts, Hawaiian shirts, beach bags, sandals and sunglasses. The counter attendant informed us with a smile, “Last row available...two seats...on either side of the aisle. We are sold out.”

The promised land was 4 hours ahead (remember the hopping flight)... and we had the last seats. Not much needs to be shared in terms of how high frustration levels can shoot. A harassed gentleman approached us with a wailing baby in his arms. “If you don’t mind, can you exchange seats with us? My entire family is here in the last two rows...and we have been given two odd seats in the first row.”

It was the second outright Ah moment! We were all smiles through the entire bumpy four-hour flight. The arrival at Goa airport was smooth. It was a short walk across the tarmac. The sea breeze could be smelt...two deep breaths and we were in the airport. Baggage in hand, we stepped outside. The courtesy pick-up car was waiting. An hour later, having absorbed our annual quota of greens through Goa’s intense green paddy fields stretching lazily all the way to the horizon, and a wealth of sub-sets of greens in groves of coconut, cashew nut, and fruits like pineapple, mango and banana...we swept into the imposing gates of the Taj Exotica in Benaulim, South Goa.

The fresh flowers and refreshing fruit spritz welcome were pleasant. But, we were surprised by the personal welcome from the Area Director, Taj Goa and General Manager, Taj Exotica Goa, Ranjit Phillipose, who came forward after the initial formalities and sat with us in the sunlit Mediterranean-style atrium of the hotel. Certainly, a thoughtful touch on the part of the General Manager, who runs his day on extremely tight schedules. Soon after, we were seated in a golf buggy, being driven to our room.

We could see vistas of green all around. Goa in the monsoons glows like an emerald. Our Guest Relations Officer pointed out that the Taj Exotica offers 56 acres of lush gardens. I wondered, as we passed by the 9-hole golf greens, neat tennis courts, Jiva spa, Ayurveda centre, the horticulture section, the spice garden, the scented foliage lining the path along picturesque villas...where are our rooms? Are we facing inwards or with a little luck...a room with a view? The golf buggy stopped at an arcaded bungalow. It looked beautiful, with a charming old-world patio ensconced in a riot of flowers... I guessed that we were being shown some of the prized villas and suites.

We stepped down to accompany the Guest Relations Officer to see one of the villas, which read Presidential Villa. We disembarked to view the luxurious, chandelier-lit dining and living room overlooking a large private garden that exuded pure relaxation. I eyed the hammock under a shady tree in the personal lawn with interest.

I liked what I saw. Tiled roofs, textured walls, spacious interiors and warm and earthy colour tones understated the ultra-luxurious, so the ambience was one of invitation to another world.

We walked from one room to the other...impressed with the two immaculately appointed king-sized bedrooms, each with en-suite bathrooms (I noted a Jacuzzi tub apart from a rain shower stall) and deep verandah sit-outs, complete with wall mirrors, loungers, sofas and tables overlooking the enclosed garden – perfect for VIP guests.

I wandered into the lawn and was in for a surprise. Tucked away discreetly was a personal plunge pool with a waterfall, a straw-thatch patio with cane chairs, two orange cushioned loungers and a garden. Oh yes, certainly an epitome of the good life.

The villa sported what I consider another good asset...a private, attached kitchenette with its own entrance, microwave, coffee maker, refrigerator, large sink, crockery, et al.

We were finding our way out when we bumped into the valet bringing in our luggage. “Not yet,” I said, “We are only being shown the Villa. We have still to go to our rooms.”

The valet followed us out. As we moved towards the buggy, we found the Guest Relations Officer handing us a set of room keys with a, “Welcome to the Presidential Suite. We hope you will enjoy your stay with us. Some hot tea is just being served.”

“Excuse me?” I asked, looking back at the sun-lit living room reflecting specks of sparkling cut glass, gold and ochre. No harm asking the lady to repeat. She might be so used to showing Heads of State to this Villa that it was pre-set conditioning. Obviously, I would never live it down if I heard wrong.

There was no response. I looked around for the lady. She was busy laying out the tea with the butler. First things first. I decided to take that extended hot cup of tea. The Guest Relations Officer went out of the Villa only to return with the valet who carried in our bags. No confusion here. She brought me the check-in folder and I did the needful. It took several sips of tea to seep in before the ‘Aha’ moment actually registered. What an out-of-this-world surprise! It was a perfect combination of the entirely unexpected with the totally delightful. It was ironical as well. Here I was, not getting a room in the first place, enquiring of the hotel if there was a small sit-out...and as it turned out – what an upgrade! I had three private verandahs, each with its own sit-out view, style and ambience. Amazing grace.

I met Ranjit, next afternoon over lunch. “If I say it was a would be a gross understatement. I’m blown away,” I confessed. Ranjit was gracefully nonchalant. “Let us continue to surprise you,” he said, as Executive Chef Bhasker Kargeti served up a delicious Wild Mushroom Cappuccino, drizzled with truffle oil, followed by a perfectly sautéed Pan-smeared Fish...catch of the day. The final oeuvre was a signature dessert delivered on a glass sheet half the size of the table, with all the artistry of a painter. Several flavours invaded my senses – lemon, berries, Butterscotch, all piped onto the glass along with small bits of delicious pastry and layered mousse with pate de fruit. The Chef lovingly placed a circular glazed chocolate dome on the glass and cracked its surface with a single flourish... the aroma filled the air as the soft creamy flavours of Tiramisu and pure chocolate oozed out. It was a visual delight. We clapped in appreciation and then dug in... picking up pieces of choice selection. Satiation at its best... served up with theatrics, flavour and panache.

Just feeling the sea breeze and dappled sunlight on your body while you read a book in your hammock (lapping waves and bird song included) therapy as far as I am concerned. But, the hotel had other ideas. A consultation with the Ayurveda doctor, followed by a traditional Indian therapeutic spa treatment at the Jiva Spa brought alive a sense of joie de vivre.

For someone who loves the outdoors, time spent with Ramchandra Patil, the Horticulture Manager is gratification indeed. With immense knowledge and passion, Ramchandra took me on a horticulture tour of the sprawling resort and introduced me to several local plant species, along with his much-loved nursery with Ayurvedic, aromatic, and spice plants, and a special “multi-vitamin plant”. Other interesting information on indigenous flowers, plants and scented shrubs were shared, with Ramchandra crushing leaves to release fragrant oils. No wonder the breeze here wafts scents and smells incredibly fresh.

But, what became my very special ‘Aha’ moment was a 2-hour curated meal by the legendary Chef Urbano De Rego, Taj Group’s iconic Corporate Chef for Goan Cuisine, who came in from his home just to showcase a typical Goan meal. I doubt if there is anyone with a liking for Goan cuisine who has not heard of Chef Rego. He has been with the Taj since 1970...and served virtually every Head of State who has visited the country.

We were singularly honoured to watch the master debone the fish, shell and devein shrimp and prawn, clean the crabs and crack the lobster with dextrous strokes that made it look deceptively easy. He created masterpieces with the salad, with simple cuts in tomatoes and vegetables. Fresh kokum, palm vinegar, Goan parboiled rice, fresh toddy, coconut milk, and the masalas to make a Xacuti or Vindaloo, were the main ingredients, with, of course, the fish, fowl and meat.

Chef Rego cooked up a storm literally, with his signature dishes...Tiger prawns in Coriander Sauce, skewered Semolina-fried Prawns, Boneless Chicken marinated in toddy vinegar, black pepper and green masala and Diced Pork cooked in spicy toddy vinegar, in a red masala gravy, with Goan rice.

Course by course, each dish cleaned, prepared and served right there, in front of you by the Master Chef. What made the meal so special? Chef Rego’s simple love for the food being made, total attention and masterly skill that felt like heaven in every mouthful.

The elements conspired to create a perfect interlude – great weather, long walks by the ocean front, happy tête-à-têtes over iced sundowners, the rustle of leaves, wafting scents, the fresh sea breeze and orange sky above, al-fresco meals and deep slumber in total peace. One longish ‘Aha’ moment, I suspect.

I’ve come to believe (with good reason) that if you are at the Taj Exotica Goa, just allow Ranjit and his dedicated team to take the lead in creating an itinerary for get to be the winner every time.

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