Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Goa Revisited- Anecdotes of the #OYOXplorer

"Are you sure you want to do this?"- Dad catechized. We were on our way from Nainital to Kausani, the most beautiful stretch of our entire journey, when the news arrived; the news was very exciting to say the least. 
"Yes Dad, I always wanted to become a travel blogger...and now that I have started, I want to make this count"- I proclaimed.
"It's going to be super hectic you know..."- Mom pitched in as we rode through those mushy patches along the silk route, she was concerned- "From the mountains down to the seas...don't you think it's an outlandish idea? We are already in the middle of a trip...are you on a ZNMD patch?"
"Mom look outside...it was bright and sunny when we started our journey from Nainital, it rained mid-way and now it's rather smoggy, that is indeed divergent...rather a diverse behavior isn't it? I don't mind travelling from the hills to the seas...I love the undulating trajectory, Mom"- I smiled at her. She had, by then, cornered herself towards that extreme end of the window-seat, trying to express her resentment...I wonder how would somebody be vexed at the prospect of this wondrous opportunity. I was already contemplating the prospect of flaunting my cowboy hat bought from the Lakeside store in Nainital while rambling on the Candolim Beach- 'trend-transfer' from the crystal clear lake to the limitless sea...it was an exciting "forecast". 
A few minutes' silence followed and she broke the trace. This has always been the case with my mom; she has can never hold on to her indignation.
"What about your leave? You had to fight so hard with your boss and the client to get a week's break...going to Goa means that it gets extended by a couple of days. How are you gonna manage?"- She investigated. She was right on the money with this one though...our car crawled along the hair-pin bend as her pinpointed words took me by surprise. Oh yes...honestly speaking, it's was quite a herculean task to grab hold of these annual leaves, I had to send multiple email requests to my boss and spend more than 100 minutes over the client call to get an approval prior to our vacation....the "perks" of being a consultant; and now it was pretty much evident that I would need a 2-day extension to attend the blogger's meet in Goa. The call changed it all. Let's roll back then.

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: That's how it started, from the mountains to the seas...
We had just about finished our breakfast when the call arrived. I know that my readers are already hitting the Ctrl+F button, expecting the word "dreaded" in semblance with the episode, but fortunately the scenario was just the reverse. The syrupy-toned lady on the other end of the call intimidated that I had won the twitter contest organized by OYO Rooms in association with Indiblogger, the reward being an all expenses paid trip to Goa including an exclusive two-day stay at one of the most exquisite OYO properties (OYO Premium), the Ruffles Beach Resort very near to the Candolim Beach in North Goa. The news came as a copacetic shocker to say the least as I had literally rushed through my entries (in form of tweets) prior to completing the work in hand and setting an "out of office" notification, absolutely glad that I got through. The competition, in itself was a visionary one...the contestants had to tweet about the craziest that they could do in their own city, the theme that tickled the "explorer psyche" and brought out the best aspects of their 'nest'- it goes without saying that browsing through the #OYOXplorer hashtag was another compelling exercise. Tweets flew in from all parts of the country and I'm sure it was a very tough job for the creative team at OYO Rooms to arrive at a final list of 4 grand prize winners who would be flown down to Goa from their base-location for an experience of a life-time. It goes without saying that all of us, Ragini, Manjulika (both from Delhi) and Sujata (from Mumbai) were elated to know that "we were the chosen ones". I had been to Goa for more than four times before this, but the prospect of being christened as an "Explorer" was certainly stimulating enough; as a kid I always wanted to traverse miles into an unknown territory and dig out new places...how about doing it now? Furthermore, I had closely observed the exhilarant reaction of the Delhi, Gurgaon, Bengaluru and Mumbai based bloggers who had got a chance to spend a cosy weekend at the OYO Rooms properties in their respective cities, just about a week before our Goa tryst...the reaction was just prodigious. The bloggers also had to perform certain fun tasks in their respective cities, just to spice up their weekend...and let me confess, I was expecting something similar to happen in Goa...but then we were the winners already. Err, confused? Even I was. Want to know what happened next? 

By the way, I know that a couple of questions might be lurking in my readers' mind already. Let's cater to those before I move ahead....what are we actually talking about? Now that the perspective is set, in the of context of luxury getaways, where does OYO Rooms stand? What's their Modus Operandi? Well hang on, I have the answers. The OYO Rooms (On Your Own) forms India's largest network of branded hotels that breeds on the essence of budget travel and stay. They are present in almost all the major metropolitan's (yes, they have properties in Calcutta as well...sigh, even I wasn't aware of) as well as many key travel spots across India and promises to provide the best of amenities including air-conditioned rooms, complimentary breakfast and free 24x7 Wi-Fi to the guests at a very affordable price (starting from INR 999/- only). The basic prerequisites of a standard hotel room such as a comfortable bed, color television, air-conditioning, geyser are also provided to the guests with the personalized touch. The popularity of OYO Rooms is increasing exponentially with every passing day with the target audience ranging from college going students to the corporates, the response has been immensely encouraging. Bookings can be done through a dedicated OYO Rooms application that is available on Android and iOS platforms. OYO Rooms, in association with Indiblogger had conducted a blogging cum microblogging activity that opened up a window of opportunity for the bloggers to stay at the OYO Rooms for a couple of days and experience the awesomeness. I've been hearing a lot about OYO Rooms from my colleagues based out of Delhi and Mumbai, this was our opportunity to get a "hands-on-feeler". Yes, we were the chosen ones...hand picked by Team OYO Rooms to experience their affable hospitality.
Oh well, now that I had already made up my mind...I decided open up a few of those old travel itineraries of Goa and ticked some of those spots that I've missed in course of our last couple of visits; it goes without saying that some of the leading travel blogs have contributed immensely in this direction. But the bigger concern now was to get my return tickets done; the reason I use the term "concern" is that the average travel time, pertaining to the flights from Goa to Calcutta was approximately 19 hours...that could have been quite a challenge since I had an important client meeting to attend on Tuesday the 9th that too early in the morning; glad that the back-end team of OYO Rooms got that sorted quickly and I was all set to Xplore Goa all over again. I was a little downhearted since I couldn't complete the entire Uttarakhand trip with my parents (they flew back to Calcutta from Delhi on the same day I left for Goa) but the moment I entered the super bustling Delhi airport, the last bit of my twinge evaporated into thin air. Even the airport was sinking into the weekend mood and the rush was incogitable; thankfully I had, by then, managed to track down the two other spirited Delhi bloggers Majulika and Ragini and we blithely chatted all the way. Yeah, bloggers can be really chirpy at times, and I absolutely don't mind that. The journey was indeed memorable as we sailed through the clouds, creaming through the azure boulevard down to the 'Goan gully'- that, my friend, set the tone perfectly for an amazing weekend up ahead.
The weather was at it's best, with the Goan monsoons slowly setting in and the clear blue skies with those patches of snow-white clouds loitering here and there....greeting us with extended arms, oh my friend...this is indeed the perfect time to be in Goa. I had always longed to be here in July-August, hiring a bike and vrooming through the picturesque Goan highways...everything had fallen in place. A rejuvenating (approximately 35 Km) ride from the Dabolim Airport to the Ruffles Beach Resort near Candolim, in conversation with the fellow bloggers was engaging enough....we had been following each others blogs but this was the first real one-on-one interaction; thanks to OYO Rooms and Indiblogger that we got to know each other better- the faces behind those fantastic online blogs. We tend to form a virtual image by reading one's accounts...this was an opportunity to tally the projected "image" with that of the real person, I certainly relished it! It was quite an interesting first session of interaction on the move...!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The first look at the OYO Premium at Candolim, Goa
First look at the Ruffles Beach Resort- WOW! Impressive...perfectly in sync with the Goan mood- the best expressions to use in this direction would be compact and furbished. The first impression was made, and it was a palatable one. We were greeted passionately with a fresh dose of Pina Colada, the dossier, some sparkling goodies and of course (wait for it) a pouch of euphoria. No points for guessing, the good people at OYO Rooms had bestowed upon us a dram of their altruistic awesomeness in form of an allowance to spend during our short and sweet stay in Goa...yeah, to make it even sweeter as they say; we had the license to spend the amount as we wished to. But this came with the caveat that need to restrict our local expenses within that stipulated amount; BOY we already had the feeler of a "reality show". Also, we got to know that OYO has acquired more than 8 properties in Goa recently.

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Inside the OYO Premium, Ruffles Beach Resort at Candolim
A quick chat cum briefing session followed as we walked into our individual rooms; the expectation was mounting by then and I wasn't disappointed at all. It was a spacious, well designed, well ventilated room with all the basic conveniences like a comfortable king sized bed, a beautiful  and well designed cupboard, dressing table, television, mini-bar, plug-points, clean bed-sheets and towels (perhaps they could add one more three pin plug point for the guests since people these days carry multiple gadgets like smartphones, laptops cameras / arrange for extension cables to suffice) with an 'unblemished' and hygienic attached bath and a beautiful & compact balcony to complete the "satisfaction curve". The best part is definitely the active service desk that is dedicated and works towards trouble-shooting (just a call away). Honestly speaking, since we talk about "value for money", if you have to maximize in a limited budget stay...OYO Rooms would be an indisputable choice...availing such robust facilities and service within stipulated finances is certainly ineffable. We often tend to draw comparisons..even then OYO passed the test in flying colours!!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: That's my room...simple, elegant, spacious and well designed
And of course, did I forget to mention that the hotel provides 24x7 free Wi-Fi, that's again a big plus; the location of this resort is great with Fort Aguada, Shanta Durga Temple, a number of Goan Churches and a variety of signature restaurants in close proximity, not to forget that Ruffles Resto Bar (as an extension of the OYO Premium Candolim property, where we were staying) is a great place to dine as well. The wall-decor is particularly nice; there's a provision for in-house Karaoke Bar....that's a rather intoxicating proposition. After a quick shower, we had our lunch there itself; we decided to keep it simple for the first day....the Chicken Fried Rice, by the way, gets a food blogger's certificate for sure...and we were all geared up, eager to toggle between the blogger mode and the Xplorer mode as and when needed. A photo-blogger generally has a good eye for details.. ;)

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The wall art at the Ruffles Resto Bar, the quirky quote ;)
I have been traveling for the last 7 days or so; I didn't feel fatigued even for a second....I have always loved walking in the streets of Goa with so much of vibrancy around, I wanted do this yet again. It was a hot and sunny day in Goa but then the Xplorers were driven by the urge to reconnoitre, the shades and umbrellas (and sun-screen lotions :D) were out as we waded through the colorful streets of Goa. Everything around, including the banners, the street-side stalls, the dresses, the chappals, the bangles, the tees had the idiosyncratic flavor of Goa embedded in them, I have been doing street-photography for sometime now...but I decided to savor this experience without indulging in a full throttled photo-hunt; for a change I was loving the characteristic "subjects" without shooting them; that's Goa for you. And while Sujata bargained with a local cab driver for some exclusive discounts, we checked out the enterprising menu of the reputed "De Candolim Deck" and in course of the walk, we spotted the tagline "Travelers of the World Welcome!"- this is what I love about Goa, they are ready to greet the globetrotters with extended arms...!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: That's Goa for you, inviting travellers from all over the world...
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The inviting menu...so what's for dinner tonight?
We were looking for some classy seafood-centric-recommendations (though 50% of the team comprised of veggies, there's no harm in knowing, right?) and the street-side placards adjacent to the restaurants were self-explanatory; Good Lord, I wanted to feast on those "Tiger Prawns, King-fishes, Calamaris, Oysters and tender Fillet Steak" right away....but I decided to resist my replenishing appetite till dinner....believe me, being a bong, it was REALLY tough. The intrinsic love for fish surfaced inevitably.

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The beautiful Candolim beach,  5 mins from the OYO Property.
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Our transient footprints on the sand, lovely experience
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Our star of the day, inspired from Bob the Builder maybe?
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: That's Ragini's fancy & colorful chappals at the Beach.
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Yes, here's a fellow blogger (cum clicker) in action...
But then, the prospect of witnessing sunset at the Candolim beach was a delectable prospect. It's been awhile since I had witnessed this in the past, the vivid memories of 2011 flashed as we paddled through the thick n white sands of the Candolim. It was breezy alright and as we were struggling to get a strangle hold of our loosely attached hats, we saw a cute little kid engaging in building a sand house with utmost concentration....those salads days, sigh! Some quick-fire photo-sessions followed as we waited to witness "her" grandiose. The sight was amazing...the clouds did their best to shield the setting sun but she did reveal herself in patches, the reflection that it generated on the waves was absolutely magnificent. It was almost like a 2-3 minute trance that was broken by the grisly wind drawing the imposing curtains. It was time to head back to the hotel and enjoy a couple of hours at the swimming pool. Point to be noted, we got a chance indulge in the coziness of a swimming pool, that too in a budget stay. Commendable.

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Oh yes, we did have the amenities of a cosy swimming pool too..
We had a great time at the pool, the best way to unwind and relax with Manjulika overcoming her initial fear and joining in with the crew, Ragini showed signs of being a pro and Sujata had her first real experience of sorts. Infact, the way we exchanged views in the pool corroborated the fact that we were gelling up well as a team- much needed because we had initially decided not to work in silos but to Xplore together. We didn't even realize how fast the clock was ticking, we were still sinking in the gravity of the moment...at around 8 PM, we decided to wind up with the pool-session and head out for dinner.
Dude! The hot and happening Fisherman's cove it was...I had been here a couple of years back and nothing has changed really...the same atmosphere, the same feel, the same intoxicating music, the mesmerizing ambiance, the good old Goan food- we had the time of our lives really...what a fantastic end of what had been an eventful first day in Goa. I specifically liked the delish mocktail called "Angry Bird" and also the Chicken rinsed in Bacon, the same old dish that I tried a couple of years back, the taste is still lurking in my taste buds.
Oh wait!! Did use the term "end" already? How could I forget Ragini's cute little Birthday celebration at the OYO Rooms at midnight; yes, slowly but surely we were developing acquaintanceship, we were developing a closely-knit rapport....we had 'surged' from being labeled as co-bloggers to being called "friends". This is the beauty of a well-framed outing...it brings people together- thanks to OYO Rooms, again for being the bridge. Sujata's personalized gifts for all of us fueled the charm of solidarity and kinship; it came as a pleasant surprise when we had least expected it. What a fantastic end it was to our memorable first day in Goa and it was time to retire for the night. "Have a good night's sleep folks"- I phonated and decided to crash.

And day 2 started with the bang, almost as a logical perpetuation from where we left last night, the good people at OYO Rooms had decided to give Ragini a wonderful birthday surprise. It was fantastic to see the personal connect between a brand and it's customers, that's how you develop long-term affiliations. The beautiful bouquet of flowers and the delectable chocolate cake certainly made our day...we now had a new gang member, our hosts themselves. Talking about the personal touch, I did experience their cordiality last night itself when I requested for some re-alignment with the room furniture owing to facilitate the air-conditioning system; my request was considered and executed on a priority basis. Such small gestures take a huge impact, it creates something called brand-loyalty...let me applaud OYO Rooms for taking this initiative and putting customer-satisfaction on top of their list of prerogatives. The breakfast (complimentary) was scrumptious, the masala omelette (you get bread toasts, poha, tea/coffee for breakfast, it's a dynamic menu though) was luscious to say the least; it was just what the doctor ordered before the day of reconnaissance unwind-ed.
Soon, we were cruising along the Goan highways...flanked by the lush greens, it was such a pleasant drive considering the mundane brick-n-mortar centric association, we breathed freely...the Goan escapade had certainly gained momentum. On our way, we spotted the preeminent wafting Casino of Goa and expressed our interest to make a soaring debut provided time permits. Also on the way, we stopped at the Goa Management Institute, I'm sure that the MBA postulants would love to take a look at it's picturesque campus and angelic location; I had recently seen pictures of how the college campus looks like....my word, it looks fantastic. Future managers staying at Goa and enjoying life like never before, just to ease out with trepidation of pursuing a hard-core curriculum...that's chimerical. The environmental conditions does have a huge impact on your mind, this one is no exception.

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The Goa Management Institute, MBA aspirants take a look
The esteemed Basilica of Bom Jesus was our next stop...but before that we had to, had to find a way to quench our replenishing urge for retail therapy. Since we had sizable pocket-money at our disposal, we decided to grab a few Goan collectibles (plenty of varieties are available including fridge magnets, key chains, bottle openers, mugs, hats, accessories, junk jewelry etc.) for our near and dear ones- the street side stalls in close proximity of the Basilica has decent collection, but the price, as expected, is inflated. I have had the experience of bargaining with the New Market or the Gariahat hawkers and I put that to full use in this scenario. Yeah, even men could be good at haggling you know...I had by then managed to grab some decent discounts. The haul- 

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The souvenirs brought from Goa, the fridge magnets.
It was about time to explore the Basilica that has been rated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, my word, Goa is a copious hub of world heritage...it's a pity that people restrict their vision only to the beaches in Goa when there's so much of ancestry to explore in the city. The last time we were here, we explored the heritage buildings in South Goa; this time around I was interested in delving into Old Goa...glad that OYO made it possible- the very first spot had so much of history associated with it....!!!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The magnanimous Basilica of Bom Jesus, what a sight
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The magnanimous Basilica of Bom Jesus, what a sight
The Basilica is an imposing structure with the richness in architectural excellence built in May 1605 and contains the chassis of St. Francis Xavier, an associate to St. Ignatius Loyola who established the holy Society of Jesus together. It is also one of the oldest churches in Goa and unique in it's built, I was absolutely seeped into the imperial fabrication, photographing every possible details when we realized that even the interiors were open to public stopover. I have no words to explain how "grand" it looked from inside....I have been to the Naveh Shalom and the Beth El Synagogue in Calcutta but the Basilica was awe-inspiring, the level of architecture inside is stunning. I wish I could have sat there for an entire day to absorb the grandiosity...it was harmoniously peaceful inside, despite the visitors- the divine radiance, as if by a supernatural grace, dazzled me to the core. I was awestruck!!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The magnanimous Basilica of Bom Jesus, the interior...
We also wanted to pay a visit to the Se Cathedral, the magnificent 16th century architectural brilliance, adjacent to the Basilica but due to the soaring heat, we decided to make a move and explore South Goa in bits and pieces. It's a beautiful white structure in contrast to the Basilica and reflected the day-light in it's ravishing elegance...the sight was absolutely gratifying. The Se Cathedral is flanked by a heritage museum maintained by the Archeological Survey of India. The clear blue skies did stitch a fantastic frame!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: The sighter of the Se Cathedral...the clear blue skies...
On the way to South Goa stopped at the Goenkar Restaurant to try some local cuisines (as recommended by our conversant chauffeur), I volunteered to try the local pomfret grilled and marinated in the Goan essence...the experience however wasn't a mind-blowing one. The service was jet-lagged and food couldn't match up to the expectation. It had started raining in the mean-while and the power-cut didn't help the cause either...thankfully the rain had stopped by the time we had finished our lunch and we were all set to explore Casa Araujo Alvares (Goa's first automated heritage museum in Loutolim) and Big Foot (Goa's innovative Cross museum, also in Loutolim). Goa, drenched in rain with the generous dose of fresh air is a fantastic proffer...I wish I could snatch the steer and drive in full vigor...Sigh! "Hum jo chalne lage...chalne lage hai ye raastey...."
The Casa Araujo Alvares built on a 250-year old mansion, post restructuring presents an intriguing experience aided by audio-visual interventions (the technology being adopted from Florida)...it's a ride into history with the remnants preserved and displayed elegantly, the essence of colonial culture being depicted in it's very original flavor. It's literally a time-machine that is going to take you on a fascinating ride into the past...the furniture, the utensils, the paintings, even the bedrooms, ballrooms, storerooms, kitchen, dining rooms , dancing halls- they have a distinguishing aroma from the past. I had to draw a logical extension from our past visit to the Braganza House, also in South Goa...there a striking resemblance. Glorious is the word. Amen..!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Inside the Casa Araujo Alvares, a rendezvous with history.
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Inside the Casa Araujo Alvares, a rendezvous with history.
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Inside the Casa Araujo Alvares, a rendezvous with history.
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Inside the Casa Araujo Alvares, a rendezvous with history.
The Big Foot is more of theme based edutainment park which brought in highlights from the Goan country-side, a walk into the past. The area that is covered is huge (also reflects through the name) but the level of details covered as a result, is amicable. It also has retail stores where you can stop by and grab some local collectibles. You can even the try out the locally made Kokum juice..!!

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: At the Big Foot, the imposing statue at the entrance.
The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: At the Big Foot, a vivid depiction of the rural life in Goa.
However, the best part of the journey, according to me, was the ride into Vasco in the rain. On the way, we had a brief sighter of the railway track where an engaging scene from the movie Chennai Express was shot. "Goa has been the breeding ground of many upcoming Bollywood directors, lots of shoot happen in Vasco"- Explained our chauffeur. No wonder why....we stopped by at a harbour in Vasco and the sight right in front of our eyes was just spectacular. With the gigantic waves lashing on the shore and a few stray fishermen trying their luck, that's indeed the climax for sure. By the way, I reckon we are perhaps the only travelers in the history of Goan tourism to have tried Vada Pav in Goa and believe me it was a very decent one. Snacking on Vada Pav and Cardamom tea in Goa- that's so Indian...however, that didn't rule out the fact that we were contemplating a signature shack-dinner on that particular day.
We brain-stormed during our ride back to North Goa and Baga Beach seemed to be the popular choice. Voila! Soon we were dancing on the beats of a beautiful beach song at the Brittos; the DJ was doing an impromptu karaoke session and the audience was responding beautifully. We we had almost settled when the idea of the coveted Beach Shack dinner surfaced again and we picked St. Anthony's Shack for the day. The beach looked beautiful in moon-light, the shacks were well lit up and the atmosphere was that of a carnival. It was time to relax and unwind in sync with the cosy envelope.....and finally the pack of non-alcoholic travelers ordered for some breezer, mocktails and non-veg sides. I was planning to try the hookah but then decided to park it for the next visit (we are supposed to have one really soon). Sujata, in the meanwhile, had kept us engaged with her innovative guesswork with respect to the origin of a distant mid-sea mysterious flickering ray of light...even we contributed with our hypothesis. The food had arrived by then and we pounced on it without much delay. And the photo-sessions continued. Gosh, it was such a memorable night. Nobody was in a mood to leave the shack, but then it was already late. And we headed back....

The Experience of being the #OYOXplorer: Oh yes, achievement unlocked...spotted a pink scooter in Goa
And as they say, all good things have to end...and end at a brutal pace; you know how it feels when you have to return to your hotel room and pack your bags for an early morning departure, especially after such an eventful day. The good people at OYO Rooms had been extremely cordial, jovial and treated us with utmost care and affection...it was quite a memorable stay with them. Infact, the way they had planned the entire trip...ensuring that all the 4 bloggers travel together irrespective of their base location, underscores the fact that they have been warm-hearted hosts. It was hard to bid good-bye, but then we do promise to come back real soon...and this time with our respective families. It has been a picture-perfect two-day cavalcade for me and I guess even you'll concur. Infact, mom was super happy to see the pictures, specially of those clicked inside the OYO Property. So what are you waiting for? Download the OYO Rooms App on your smartphone and book your stay with them now. In case of any queries, you can write to them on Facebook or send in a tweet mentioning their official twitter account, be rest assured your queries would be answered on time. Until next time then, happy OYO-ing.
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