Whether it's a barge, a lifeboat or a dhoni, just go with the flow, says Kate Thomas

Fringed by the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, Kerala's network of tranquil backwaters has been opening up to tourists by means of touring houseboats. The Taj Garden Retreat on Vembanad Lake offers stays on luxurious rice barge conversions that have travelled Kerala's rivers, lakes and canals for centuries. The crew guides guests to remote villages, temples and paddy fields, providing home-made Keralan cuisine in between stops, before returning for treatments at the hotel's Ayurvedic Centre or visits to local tea and spice plantations.

Taj Garden Retreat, Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kerala, India (00 800 4 588 1825; www.tajhotels.com). Houseboats start at $275 (£153) per night, including breakfast; sleeps two or four.

Lilla Marras, The Netherlands

For 30 years, the Lilla Marras rescued sailors from the North Sea. Now moored in Harlingen harbour, she has been revamped and turned into a stylish hideaway. The interior is mahogany, and there's a giant water lily-shaped bed and a wooden two-person bath. The outdoor cabin is now a cosy breakfast lounge. For a change of scenery, the captain also offers two-hour sailing trips.

'Lilla Marras' Reddingsboot, Harlingen, The Netherlands (00 31 515 540550; www.vuurtoren-harlingen.nl). Rental for two from €229 (£164) per night, B&B.

Dhoni Mighili, The Maldives

Explore the Maldives onboard a luxurious version of the traditional fishing boats, or "dhonis", that have long plied the archipelago. With their billowing ivory sails, the six boats all come with elegant interiors and Frette bedlinen. By day, there's snorkelling and swimming; by night, your butler-cum-chef will turn the deck into a dining-room under the stars. Dhonis sleep two and are paired with a bungalow on terra firma.

Dhoni Mighili, Ari Atoll, The Maldives (00 960 666 0751; www.dhonimighili.com). Dhonis start from $1,886 (£1,048), full board. Seasons in Style (01244 202000; www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk) offers seven nights from £7,550 for two, all-inclusive with return flights from Heathrow and transfers.

River Dream Boatel, Australia

Part of a new wave of techie hotels, the Boatel utilises more than 80 computers and resembles a scaled-down Sydney Opera House. It's also one of the most glamorous ways of exploring the Murray river. Bathrooms feature cascading showers and windows with panoramic views. A sweeping staircase leads up to the sky lounge, with wrap-around windows and huge armchairs to sink into. There's also a cinema and, of course, a giant barbecue.

River Dream Boatel, Mannum, South Australia (00 61 8 8223 3030; www.dreamboatel.com.au). Rental from A$180 (£77) per person per night, sleeps 10.

Alouette, France

Barges are rarely synonymous with opulence, but the Alouette, owned by Orient Express, is. And she can navigate the Canal du Midi's narrow locks. Built in 1908 and retaining many of her original features, she winds through a portion of the sleepy, leafy Provençal artery. Onboard, there are three en-suite double bedrooms, all above water level. The crew of four includes a personal chef and sommelier. The ultimate in unhurried luxury, you'll soon be singing her praises from the sundeck. All together now: "Alouette, gentille alouette..."

'Alouette', Béziers-Carcassonne, France (0845 077 2222; www.orient-express.com). Six nights from £1,820 per person, full board, with transfers and excursions.

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