“GOA is like a fridge because everyone just chills here,” the sign read.
I could not reconcile this ironic statement with the hordes of frenzied tourists already waiting at the Dabolim Airport when we arrived on the weekend before Christmas. No one looked chilled.
The pint-sized former Portuguese territory of Goa on India’s south-west coast has been a holiday destination since the colonial days.
Today, its golden, palm-fringed beaches, spread along the state’s 125km coastline, draw over four million tourists annually.
Oh, what views!
And what beaches they are! Around two dozen stretches of spectacular white sand with shallow waters indent the verdant coast, from spectacular 25km sweeps to small, secluded palm coves.
The level of development varies a great deal; while some have modern Western-style resorts, many others are undistinguished palm-leaf shacks.
You can pick the beach depending on the mood you are in — Calangute, Baga and Colva for quiet solitude; or Anjuna, Vagator and Chapora for partying.
Young and old tourists from Russia, Israel, Europe and India come here to soak in the sun and enjoy water sports. Every beach will treat you to the wonderful warm waters of the Arabian Sea.
In the evenings, the spectacular sunsets will take your breath away.
The state capital, Panaji, overlooks the broad Mandovi River.
Here, the pristine white Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception sits atop a small hill providing vistas over the town and river. Sailors from Lisbon would offer their thanks for a safe crossing at this church.
The town itself has a colourful and busy city centre, where Portuguese-era architecture stands tired and worn, and each lane and building tells a rich story.
Nowhere is the Portuguese influence felt more strongly than in the warren of narrow lanes in the old Latin Quarter.
In the late afternoon, the sun lights up the yellow houses with purple doors.
On every corner, impeccably restored gaily coloured mansions with terracotta-tiled roofs, balconies and arched windows will transport you to a bygone era.
There are walking tours led by guides to visit restored Portuguese houses.
Something for everyone
Near Panaji lie the ruins of the former Portuguese capital at Old Goa and other Portuguese settlements.
There is a sprawl of forts and majestic Catholic cathedrals, including the beautiful Basilica of Bom Jesus. The cathedral, one of the oldest in India, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and holds the remains of revered St Francis Xavier.
Other convents and churches, such as Reis Magos Church, draw crowds of Christian pilgrims from all over India, especially during Christmas.
Anjuna’s Wednesday flea market and Arpora’s Saturday Night Market are popular excursions.
These are places to people-watch and shop for interesting souvenirs — take your time to browse through the shops and be prepared to haggle.
The bustling night market at Arpora has live music, food and drinks kiosks and a warren of stalls. Good-natured banter between stall holders and shoppers adds to the wonderful atmosphere.
If you do have additional time, a lazy day along one of Goa’s nine rivers, their tributaries and lakes will show the destination in an entirely different light — an unhurried tranquil oasis with warm welcoming people where time slows down.
Take a river cruise or simply drive to a shack along the river, sit and watch the world go by for an unforgettable day of serenity.
Food-wise, you can enjoy a traditional Goan meal with fish, seafood and meats and wash it down with beer or Feni (the local arrack brewed from cashew or coconut).
Goan food holds a special place in India’s spectacular culinary art as it fuses Portuguese cooking with the rich cooking tradition of western India to offer food that is mouth-wateringly unique.
My favourite restaurant is charmingly called Fat Fish, located in a basic shack with a wonderful kitchen. I had a Goan Chicken Thali featuring three styles of chicken and Feni mixed with Sprite.
Its signature dish is the Goan Fish Thali, which will satisfy any cravings for seafood.
Goa was everything I expected it to be — busy and raucous at the tourist hot spots, pious in the churches and the countryside, and tranquil and languid in the places by the rivers.
Truly, Goa is a fridge where one can chill out, or enjoy the heat of the compressor. It has something for everyone.
And as a bonus, almost every day, you have free ringside seats to some of the most amazing sunsets in the world!
There are no direct flights from Singapore, but Goa is well connected to the rest of India by air, train or road. I flew on Singapore Airlines to Mumbai and took a Jet Airways flight to Goa.
There is a wide variety of accommodation,from luxury hotels to shacks. During the peak season, from mid-December to the end of January, and particularly over Christmas and the New Year, finding accommodation can be difficult and potentially very expensive. Book well in advance.
The best time to travel there is between November and mid-March with its warm, sunny weather, cool evenings and calm seas, perfect for swimming and diving. During the monsoon season (May to September), expect heavy rain and very few tourists.
■ If you plan to visit churches, dress modestly.
■ Goa is generally safe, but travel in groups where possible. Be aware of your belongings, especially in crowded areas and markets.
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