Sunday, 4 March 2012

Festive Fun with Friends

Christmas is a time for treats and even though Chris and I were on the other side of the world and after a more low key affair than usual, we were determined that this year be no different. After several weeks of non-stop travelling around India we were looking forward to having friends come out to celebrate the festive season with us, and to a self-declared 'holiday' from our day to day travelling adventures (I know, it's a hard life, but someone has to do it!). Our plan was to meet Charlie and Phil in Rajasthan for some palacial luxury before heading to Goa on Xmas eve to beach it up. Things didn't quite go to plan with Charlie and Phil who sadly missed out on the Northern part of the trip (who knew you needed a visa!?!) , but the Neemrana Fort Palace certainly lived up to expectations!

The Neemrana Fort Palace hotel is a magnificent place nestled away in the the Aravalli hills just off the Delhi-Jaipur highway. I was first introduced to it by my aunties, Jenny and Claire, when we spent a family Christmas there a few years ago, and have always wanted to go back. Neemrana was once a little village with this impressive palace at its head. Now, thanks to it's strategic position between two of India's largest cities, the village itself has sprawled into an industrial centre of sorts, but the seclusion and magic of its palace remains.

The Neemrana Hotel Group are known for taking beautiful heritage buildings and turning them into luxury hotels whilst preserving their charm and historical features. This palace was their first hotel and remains one of their finest. Unlike other 5 star hotels which can tend to blend into one another, whose focuses are perhaps more service lead, often catering to the business traveller,  meals here are served at set times (buffet) and places in carefully selected venues around the palace grounds, there is no room service, no phones in the rooms, no robes and slippers...instead you get to step away from real life for a while and live in a spell-binding piece of history. That is not to say that it is not luxurious. The staff are attentive, the facilities polished, each bedroom is unique and retains quirky features from a bygone era. The food is also absolutely delicious and renown enough to draw lunchtime visitors from Delhi. It might be a buffet but everything is freshly cooked and the choice is outstanding. Perhaps not an ideal place for young children (there are no health and safety rules and the grounds are littered with steep, open stairwells), it is something of an adventure playground for adults with hundreds of nooks and crannies to explore and scenic lookouts at every turn - they even have a flying fox circuit which takes you gliding over the surrounding hills and the ramparts of the palace. We spent two days there eating ourselves silly, lounging by the pool(s) and exploring the hills around the hotel.

Next and final stop on our Indian adventure...Goa. Palolem beach in South Goa is literally one of my most favourite places on earth. Every time I visit it feels less like going on holiday and more like going home. As someone who sometimes finds it hard to relax, there is something about the place, and 'The Nest' in particular, that just makes me breathe easy. Years ago I explored the Goan coastline from North to South by scooter and found this little gem of a beach. It had already been found, don't get me wrong, but it became my personal paradise, my home from home. A crescent beach lined with palm trees, Palolem is one of the only beaches in Goa where local law prohibits permanent structures to be built on the sea shore. Instead, Palolem is a town of bamboo huts that are constructed every year in around October time and dismantled again come April/May. This ruling seems to safeguard (so far at least!) against the fate of package tourism that has struck many of the region's more northerly beaches and Palolem has managed to retain it's laid back vibe despite being very firmly on the tourist map these days. The accommodation is basic; bamboo huts on the beach front, with bed, mosquito net, and cold water bathroom if you're lucky! With some of the best food in India, it is simply idyllic - the perfect beach holiday and you will find many holidaymakers here who regularly come back year after year to their very own piece of paradise.

Christmas and the run up was just as we wanted it, greeted warmly to beach life by Mohan and Raj who thrust beers into our hands as we stepped out of the taxi, a few days spent shopping and gearing up for the gang from the UK and a mish mash of random presents bought in the beach side shops made for a perfect kick start to the festivities. We three kings, otherwise known as Hayley, Chris and myself, saw Christmas in in style at the silent disco, followed by singalong carols and cooking of turkeys until the early hours in the Nest. This made for rather a subdued Xmas morning but by the evening we were ready for the best present of all- Charlie and Phil turning up just in time for a Christmas dinner on the sand surrounded by exploding fireworks, with bottle of wine and spray in conditionner in hand....fantabulous.

A few days later Chris and I were woken up by loud banging on our hut door at 7am....Sarah, Conor, Katie and James had arrived!! It was SO wonderful to have everyone there together and our next 10 days were filled with beach frolics, ridiculous amounts of eating and drinking and lots of catching up on each others lives. As Charlie said while she was out there with us, it is hard in our day to day lives to really catch up with meet up for dinner and drinks a few times a month perhaps, but you rarely get beyond the surface stuff, the fairly shallow updates, before it's time to go home again. Spending some quality time with friends, on holiday, is such a wonderful way to properly catch up and remember what made your friendships so strong in the first place. those of you who have yet to come see us...please do! We would LOVE to have more company on our adventures and to spend some quality time with you! We happen to have a sofa bed going spare in our teeny tiny studio apartment in Whistler for 11 nights if any of you are keen and don't mind squeezing in with the two of us!

New Year was perhaps the best ever, quite literally. I am not usually a New Year fan and almost always find it a disappointment, but there was something so laid back and effortlessly fun about this one which made it perfect. We spent the day on Agonda, a neighbouring beach which sees less tourism than Palolem mainly due to its strong rip tides. It has big waves and we had lots of fun body surfing the day away, finishing off with a locals vs. Brits game of cricket as the sun was setting. After a tuk-tuk ride back to the growing crowds on Palolem and a freshen up, the entire beach lost power....and water! Speculation was rife that this was down to the local police who had been bribed to support the NYE party at Neptune's point, strangely the only establishment with power on that entire stretch of beach. Whatever it was it served only to turn the beach into even more of a tropical paradise. The only noise was the waves crashing, people chatting, the bang of fireworks going off and the odd guitarist singing songs around the campfire. We settled down into the nest for an evening of drinking and eating by candle-light, oh and glowing boobies, devil horns, and flashing shot glasses!

As we neared midnight James got out his trusty box of fireworks and he and Chris joined the throngs of Indians lining the beach front to set them off. We saw in the New Year amid the bangs and crackles of countless fireworks going off all the way down the beach as far as the eye could was a real spectacle (not to mention potentially life threatening!). To be on my favourite beach in the world, with such wonderful friends, seeing in what is going to be a wonderful year of adventure and discovery was very special indeed. Here's to many more New Year's like this one and thank you to the gang for making it such a memorable couple of weeks.

The best bits (supported by photographic evidence where possible):

  • James' fireworks box of joy
  • Phil's bat and ball marathon...although he never did quite beat Mumford's childhood (mythical?) record of 1000!!
  • Sarah's wonderful playing Clive Grylls at his own game! (who knew he was actually telling the truth!)
  • Katie's drunken gin rummy teaching...I blame Mohan's caprioskas!
  • Our joint efforts as a group to over order and over eat at every single meal time
  • Phil's militant love for beach cricket...the locals loved the banter
  • Conor's see through swimming shorts! :) (sorry photos though!)
  • Sarah's bag of Cadbury joy - saved Chris from chocolate despair

James' maniacal dancing 
Conor's awesome photo posing
Conor's awesome photo posing...again!

Charlie's flashing boobies
Pointy Santa hats! - hours of hilarity!
The boys' super successful
fishing trip...hmmm...
General silent disco exploits

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