A trip to India during monsoon season offers cleaner air, greener scenery and fewer tourists.
Goa, come rain or shine
My first trip to Goa, one hot December a few years ago, was everything to be expected from a crowded and hectic party strip in the north: dusty roads full of mopeds, elephants and wild dogs; beaches packed with sun umbrellas and overly persistent trinket-hawkers; cliffside clubs full of dazed and manic ravers.
But the Goa I returned to during the last monsoon season is another place entirely: the fields are greener, the air is easier to breathe and the beaches are as wide open as the roads. It's as if the rains have washed the state clean, like a grubby hippie scrubbed down in a bath who emerges as a shiny and wholesome yoga fanatic.
The light rain begins before dawn as soon as we arrive at Dabolim airport, from where it is an easy and uneventful 20-minute ride to the Park Hyatt Resort and Spa on Arrosim Beach in Cansaulim, South Goa.
"Does it rain a lot here at this time of year?" I ask Thomas, who greets us with a "Park Hyatt" sign and shepherds us on to the shuttle bus.
"Sometimes it rains, sometimes it is sunny," he says, bobbing his head from side to side. I sense where this is about to go.
As we climb off the bus, the drizzle has turned into a waterfall as quickly as if someone had turned on a giant tap. Unfazed, a group of smiling hotel staff greets us with monsoon-sized umbrellas, like a chorus line from Singin' in the Rain. They usher us into the open-air lobby for check-in, then into golf carts encased in plastic tents, driving us down winding paths over canals to our villas on the 18.6-hectare property.
Cautiously, I enter my ground-floor room because I'm certain I hear someone inside. But no, it's the sound of rain pelting down on the pebbles in my outdoor shower, through a glass door in the washroom. Climbing into it, I discover there's really no need for a shower head, particularly because it doesn't have warm water. Although there is a hot shower in the room, it is a thrilling experience to shower outdoors, shielded from view only by a wall and overhanging palm leaves.
The rains subside long enough for a walk around the resort, which is well-equipped for the monsoon season. Much of it is open air, many of the walkways and bridges over the canals are covered, the staff quickly throw down sandbags and pull down curtains to prevent water from seeping over the floors and there are holders full of umbrellas at most entrances.
The hotel's general manager, Marc von Arnim, smoothly assures me that from May till October, rain is part of the attraction. "You don't get a lot of rain in the Middle East," he says, telling me they've had some families from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia staying at the peak of the monsoon season: "They absolutely loved it."
As he talks, it starts to shower again, as if the director of this story cued the rain machine. It does look rather picturesque falling down like a sheer curtain from the covered areas in this resort, but I'm not so sure how happy we'd be in one of Goa's smaller hotels.
Not that I need to care. The way the Park Hyatt is set up, as a gated village on a beach, you never have to leave. Like a cruise ship, it has a choice of restaurants (North Indian, Goan and Italian) and holds events throughout the week, including yoga classes and screenings in a small cinema. You might even spot a real-life star. I'm told by one staff member that past guests include Meg Ryan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
The main attraction is the Sereno Spa, which has itself starred on many "best spa" lists. Spread out over 3,344 sq m, it has an outdoor treatment area in a covered hut overlooking the resort's lawns, which might be rather spectacular, if somewhat wet, when the wind blows in a downpour. Unlike some spas, this one has no need for meditative water music: during the monsoon season, nature provides its own soundtrack.
Pramod Kumar, who specialises in Ayurvedic medicine, is my "wellness adviser". He welcomes me into his office with a serene smile on his glowing face. He walks me through the Ayurvedic principles, which have something to do with earth, fire, air and - you guessed it - water. Monsoon season, it is believed, is ideal for rejuvenating Ayurvedic treatments because the body's immunity is reduced.
What the diagnosis comes down to is that I'm tired, stressed and dehydrated. He recommends some changes to my lifestyle, including eating food with my hands because it's more of a sensory delight than eating with cutlery.
Kumar's prescription for me is a Pitta Abhyanga massage, to calm my fire element. My masseuse kneads my back into oblivion, using a cloth sack of herbs that looks like a big bouquet garni. I drift off to sleep on my table in my private suite, not sure if the falling water sound is the rain or the fountain in the spa's courtyard. It turns out it's both, and the soft drumming lulls me into a meditative state.
After such pampering, it's time to venture out. The hotel organises a visit to two privately run estates of a very different nature. One is the home of an elderly matriarch while the other is owned by a man with a ponytail who refers to himself as a "total anti-establishment person".
We begin at the more conventional home, a half-hour drive from the resort. Braganza House, a 17th-century Portuguese mansion in Chandor, contains the original possessions of the family that has lived in it for nine generations.
It is still lived in by the daughter-in-law of Luis de Menezes Braganza, a journalist who championed Goa's independence movement. Mrs Braganza sits silently at the window while a "very close relation" shows us through the faded ballroom, library and dining hall, pointing out generations of belongings such as the 300-year-old china set made for the family by the East India Company.
A short drive away in Benaulim we find Goa Chitra, a newer attraction that bills itself as an ethnographic museum, on the organic farm of the founder, Victor Hugo Gomes. Walking us down the pathway past an irrigation well, he proclaims that "everything here is recycled material. We don't kill anything here - birds die of old age." The museum houses a small part of his collection, a mind-blowing array of 4,000 local religious, cultural and farming artefacts, including temple doors, rice pounders, corn-fibre rope and sugar-cane grinders. "I picked up things from the rich, I picked up things from the poor," he explains.
While showing us around he launches into passionate sermons about the need to keep the old ways alive and the insensitivity of a system that is not committed to preserving them. "We are one generation of people," he laments. "We only look at ourselves."
After sunset, he invites us to sit with him in his open kitchen, where his wife serves us food grown on the farm. "You guys need to take this place forward," he says, imploring us to spread the word. It feels like a scene from a modern-day Les Misérables, and not just because the master of the house is the one-man revolution named Victor Hugo.
The next day the hotel arranges a bus tour of the state's main historical attractions, about an hour's drive away through rolling hills of palm trees. We stop at the Mangeshi Hindu temple and the Sahakari spice farm in Ponda, then Old Goa and Bom Jesus, the 16th-century basilica that contains the body of Goa's patron saint, Francis Xavier. All good to see from a dutiful tourist perspective, but if it weren't raining intermittently, I'd rather be on the beach, something you would have had to pry me from during my previous vacation in the north.
So for a brief dry period on my last afternoon at the resort, the beach is where I head, alone on a stretch of sand that looks all the more white against the looming grey clouds. Swimming is forbidden during the monsoon season, but there are lifeguards on duty nonetheless.
"Can I wade in up to my knees?" I ask one of the men on duty. "Why not?" he shrugs, pointing to a safe spot near a red flag. I walk into the pounding waves and almost lose my footing as the undertow sucks the sand from under my feet.
It's there I'm left to ponder whether I'd choose Goa in the rain or in the sun. Both are vastly different experiences, and it depends on where you're coming from and what you're seeking. But that's the beauty of Goa: there's room enough for both and more in a lifetime. Just be warned: if someone tells you to bring a bathing suit during monsoon season, it's for a different kind of soaking.