Kerala's backwaters, a network of mangrove and rice paddy-fringed canals, rivers and estuaries, stretch hundreds of kilometres inland from the Malabar Coast and are anything but a backwater tourist destination. This green and pleasant land has become a forward-looking site for smart hotels in the past 10 years.
Yet none has been so pioneering, in style at least, as the newest address from India's design-conscious Park Hotel group, which opened earlier this year on the west shore of Lake Vembanad in the heart of the waterways. Here, the traditional aesthetic characterising Kerala's hotels (red-tiled roofs, wooden doors, colonial touches) is ousted in favour of a sophisticated style that manages to be slick and sharp while remaining sensitive to its rural setting.
And what a setting: a prime waterfront position on Vembanad Lake, India's longest body of water. The grounds, thick with seductively perfumed plants and flowers, have been gently landscaped around several pre-existing palms, crowned by an infinity pool, designed with sculptural nods to a traditional "snake boat", which appears to sail seamlessly into the lake. Surrounded by nothing but water and quiet villages, this is a real retreat. There's an ayurvedic-focused spa and yoga classes, but simply being here is an act of meditation, starting with the glorious sunrises over the lake, which brings even the most jetlagged guest into the day with a beatific smile.
Along with 10 rooms (including two suites) facing the water, the hotel is unique in that it has its own modern riverboat, Apsara ("Water Sprite") a peripatetic, floating hotel with eight rooms, done out in the same rich, contemporary style, complete with a restaurant and open-air spa. There's lots of leather and suede throughout, in the furnishings and wall panels, coloured in hot pinks, tropical greens and saffron. Indian works of art (carvings, vases, contemporary paintings) have been dotted around by the wife of The Park group's owner. Abstract silhouettes of traditional Indian dancers are depicted in the cushions; cool, grey slate and creamy tiles line the floors. Bathroom products are ayurvedic, fragrant with herbs including neroli, basil and lemon zest.
The food and drink
Chef Sinu S Vijayan (formerly with the Taj hotels) goes out of his way to make sure you return from India rounder, happier, and healthier. Food is locally sourced (fish and giant freshwater prawns and crab from the lake; exotic jack fruits, okra, green lentils and coconut galore). Sinu delights in bringing out his kitchen kit to show you: huge pestle and mortar, special dosa (pancake) pans, a hand-wound iddiyappam (rice noodle maker). The latter produces fresh, sticky noodles that are served with fish cooked in the spicy coconut curry sauce that defines the best of Kerala's excellent cuisine. If Sinu S Vijayan ever needs a British visa, I've already put my hand up as his sponsor.
The spa, currently housed in two makeshift tents, is a bit rough and ready. A more permanent structure is coming soon. Not that I noticed the setting once the treatment started. My warm essential oil massage was surprisingly blissful, even in the heat of the afternoon, followed by Shirodhara, a mind-body therapy where warm oil is poured over the forehead, rhythmically back and forth, across the "third eye". An odd sensation to begin with but even on the hard, traditional wooden ayurveda bed I was knocked out within minutes, confirming that the treatment works for, among other things, insomnia. My hair benefitted from the hot oil, too.
The five ground-floor rooms are wheelchair accessible, but the grounds are very uneven, with rough stone steps and tiered gardens.
Sarah Barrell travelled as a guest of Asia specialist, Trans Indus (020-8566 3739; transindus.co.uk), which can arrange packages and bespoke tours of Kerala. Doubles at The Park Hotel cost from £228 per night, room only.
The Park Hotel, Puthenangadi, Muhamma Panchayat, Alappuzha, Cheratala Taluk, Cochin, Kerala 688525 India (00 91 478 2584430; theparkhotels.com).