It's the mix of Mediterranean and Indian culture is what makes this southern state so captivating and diverse. A Portuguese outpost for almost 500 years, the colonial influence can be seen throughout the landscape of Goa, and in more ways than one, with the cuisine combining coconut and chilli with Mediterranean cooking techniques and flavours, the crumbling turquoise-and-white architecture echoing back to that era and the residents even partaking in a siesta or two.
There's something for everyone in Goa, drive inland to one of the many friendly villages (like Assolna and Mollem) and envelop yourself in the green countryside, which is dotted with Portuguese churches as well as Hindu temples, visit the capital of Panaji, considered one of the most beautiful cities in India, and find yourself immersed in preserved heritage areas - don't miss the Latin Quarter! - then hop aboard Casino Royale, a yacht, and India's only casino. Or head to the coast, where, although you will find beaches jam-packed with tourists wearing polyester football jerseys, you can also find secluded shores, glamorous beach clubs and much more. You just need to know where to look, and that's where we come in…
True, Goa has developed many tourist traps over the years, but what many forget is that the area is so large and diverse that you can visit the state and lounge by the sea without a package tourist as far as the eye can see.
Calangute Beach in the north of Goa is one of the most popular and busy beaches, however, avoid the crush by booking into boutique hotel, Pousada Tauma. It's about 10 minutes away from the beach in a quiet part of Calangute, and the room rates include breakfast and dinner (lobster masala!), there are beautiful gardens to relax in and even an ayurvedic centre (try the transfixing shirodhara treatment - which involves oil slowly dripping onto your forehead). The best bit, however, is that the hotel has its own private patch of beach, which they will happily drive you to. A day spent here means you're close to the action if you want to be, but far-removed enough that you won't suffer from crowd-induced panic attacks (rooms are from around Dh1,000 a night, including half-board for two people, see www.pousada-tauma.com for details).
Another location to try even further north is Ashvem Beach, which is known for its laid-back vibe and the fact that Jade Jagger has her own jewellery boutique there. The 13km uninterrupted stretch of white sand is bursting with beach huts and Zen energy. If you want to lie back during the day but go large at night, Ashvem isn't known for its nightlife - but the equally beautiful Arambol beach is only a five-minute rickshaw ride away, and it most certainly livens up in the evenings. Do venture inland from these beaches to find lush landscapes, coconut groves and welcoming villages. If you want to truly channel Gwyneth and Jade then book in for a yoga retreat at the much-adored Yoga Gypsies; they offer beach huts, Portuguese cottages and even teepees as accommodation, and they take their sun salutations very seriously (www.yogagypsys.com; teepees start from Dh35-a-night, while cottages are around Dh100-a-night).
For an entirely different, more European-style experience, try Marbela Beach Tents. A favourite of Bollywood celebs, the white-washed resort is true luxury, and word has it that South Indian star, Trisha, stayed there over the New Year. Most people lounge on the white beds and listen to chill-out music during the day, but then glam up for the famous parties come sundown - so stay here if you're planning to pack heels as well as kaftans (www.marbelabeach.com, rooms in the gorgeous beachside villa, where Chef Michael from Austria will cook up feasts for you, cost from Dh700 a night). And Marbela Beach tents are on Morjim beach, known for its tranquillity and for being the breeding spot for Olive Ridley turtles - you can see them hatching from November to March.
Life's not just a beach
If you want to do more than tan and lounge during your holiday, Goa also offers a major cultural grab-bag. Don't leave without visiting Unesco World Heritage site, Old Goa, which is in the north - constructed in the 15th century, this town served as the capital of Portuguese India from the 16th until the 18th century, but was then abandoned because of the plague. During its peak, the population exceeded that of Lisbon and London - but now all that remains is the architecture and atmosphere. Opt to go on a weekday rather than a weekend so you have some elbow room, and while there, visit the Tomb of St Francis Xavier, which was completed in 1698 and was commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
If global retail therapy is your thing, don't miss Anjuna Wednesday flea market in Panjim for a shopping kick - it's a hippie institution set up in the early 1970s and remains a bustling spot, full of expats and locals selling their wares (Anjuna beach is also known for its full moon parties). If you're after an even quirkier market (some claim Anjuna is too touristy now) then head to the Saturday night bazaar in nearby Baga where you'll find handicrafts, tarot readers and Goan cuisine, as well as live music playing in all the surrounding bars.
Whether it's a beach holiday or lush greenery and cultural expansion that you seek, Goa is where you can find it - and at less than three hours away from Dubai, it's the perfect long-weekend destination.
Luxury: Nilaya Hermitage
Kate Moss, Jade Jagger et al love this dreamy, effortlessly cool ‘shack'. Meaning Blue Heaven in Sanskrit - the organically curved architecture, the cosmic vibe, the ayurvedic spa and the private 65-foot wooden dhow all make this place rough-luxe at its best. Staying here will almost feel like existing on a dreamy movie set - and you never know, Gwyneth may just stroll past in fisherman pants. Rooms from Dh1,400 a night - including breakfast, a three-course dinner and access to all wellness facilities.
A private guesthouse nestled in a quiet hill not far away from bustling Baga and Calangute, Capella has the look of a high-design boutique hotel. The gardens are beautiful, you may spot a peacock or two while lounging by the infinity pool, and the staff are happy to arrange excursions for you (Old Goa is 40 minutes away), although we'd find it hard to tear ourselves away from the property. Scrabble and a cold one on the terrace? Yay! Rooms from Dh350 a night.
Budget: Casa Tres Amigos
This quirky guesthouse in Assagao Village, North Goa, epitomises the Goan spirit; it's a few kilometres from the beach, but just hop on a scooter and you're there. Run by people who love what they do and want to make sure you love being there, the food is delectable, the monkeys provide an afternoon chorus and the pool overlooks verdant rice paddies. Book the bamboo tree house for extra atmosphere. Rooms from Dh130 a night.
Filmed there: Casino Royale, The Bourne Supremacy, Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey
Fly there: Air Arabia flies to Goa direct from Dh1,300 return. See www.airarabia.com for more.
- Twenty-nine kilometres from the Goan capital of Panaji, this city was once the safe haven for Hindus during clashes with the Portuguese and is home to the state's most beautiful temples.
- Dudh Sagar Waterfall, the highest waterfall in India, is in southern Goa and stands at 306 metres tall. The name translates as ‘Sea of Milk' - as it looks like frothy milk as it pours down the rock face.