Laura Harding discovers that the scented haven of Kerala is a part of India unlike any other.

Sprawled out on cushions on the bow of a houseboat, drifting along a river in glorious sunshine, I am a world away from the India I imagined.

The scenery is lush and green, palm trees line the banks and brightly coloured laundry flickers on washing lines.

Children clamber up to the highest branches and jump into the water while fishermen sit in peaceful vigil.

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I've travelled to India before, I've seen Slumdog Millionaire, this is not what I was expecting.

But I'm in Kerala, one of the smallest states, and dubbed God's own country by proud locals.

It's not hard to see why.

The chaos, noise, poverty and pollution you might expect from a visit to India don't seem to exist here.

Some people say they are intimidated by the prospect of a trip to South Asia's biggest country. They are worried they won't be able to handle the smells, the begging children, even the spicy food. But Kerala could not be less intimidating — from the warm and welcoming smiles of the locals to the stunning landscapes, blissful beaches and coconut-infused food.

Hill top tea and spices cultivation landscapes at Vandiperiyar near Thekkady Idukki district Kerala. Photo / Getty Images
Hill top tea and spices cultivation landscapes at Vandiperiyar near Thekkady Idukki district Kerala. Photo / Getty Images

I've spent three lovely days on the MV Apsara, cruising around the famous backwaters, breaking briefly from sunbathing, sightseeing and supping on watermelon juice for an invigorating ayurvedic massage.

But it is on this houseboat, much smaller than the boat where I have been sleeping, that really convinces me of Kerala's charms — even before the captain lets me grab hold of the wheel.

Back on the mainland, I take a stroll through Puthanangadi, the village where the floating boutique hotel is moored.

There's a festival going on and the children are lighting candles in front of the temple but they come running over when they see strange faces. The little ones hardly speak any English but can't wait to have their pictures taken or show off some basic yoga poses.

It's hard to leave such a tranquil place but fresh from my watery adventures, I head east to the spice plantations of Thekkady.

Arriving at the beautiful Spice Village, set amid eight acres of forest, the first thing I want to do is sniff everything. I am presented with beautifully aromatic mint tea as soon as I arrive and from then on all I do is soak up spicy smells.

Every seemingly normal tree is actually harbouring wonderfully aromatic spices and the place is an eco heaven. Much of the resort is self-sufficient and the whole place aims to be as environmentally sustainable as possible.

As well as the simple but spacious huts where guests sleep, the resort houses a huge vegetable garden, a place where they make their own paper, and an ever-growing expanse of solar panels.

My favourite feature is the open-air 50 Mile restaurant, where none of the produce has travelled more than that distance — meaning it's all fresh and locally sourced. After feasting on basil quail kebabs and a huge selection of vegetarian curries, washed down with Indian wine, I am ready to pledge never to eat food that has travelled in a plane again.

All this wonderful food makes me eager to join in as one of the Spice Village's cookery demonstrations gets underway.

One of the lovely chefs has abandoned his dinner preparations to teach a group of us how to whip up a cinnamon masala curry. The sight of the mirror set up above his head so we can see into the pans is completely mesmerising, as are the delicious smells quickly heading my way.

It's even better when we get to eat the curry.

Exhausted from the strain of drinking cocktails, sniffing spices and watching someone else cook for me, I zig-zag back across the country, making the five-hour journey to the Marari Beach Resort on the tropical Malabar coast.

It's hard to sum up how blissful it is here but the luxury and thoughtfulness is probably best summarised by the set-up on the beach.

Huge comfy hammocks swing from palm trees; off to the side of each one is a big red flag. Need a snack? A drink? A fresh towel? Just hoist the flag.

I'm spoilt for life and that's before I've even set foot in the ayurvedic centre.

Ayurvedic massage uses plant-based treatments to maintain the health of mind and spirit and the treatment I have involves two women constantly pouring warm oil over me while massaging me from head to toe.

Before I slide off the table and into oblivion they put me in the shower and exfoliate my skin so well it's soft and glowing for ages afterwards.

When I finally wander back to my huge beach hut, complete with outdoor bathroom, I am in such a daze I need to take a few minutes to compose myself.

An early morning yoga session brings me back down to earth.

Eating so well for so long has not made me more flexible, but my teacher, Gopal, is so warm and encouraging, I am offering sun salutations in no time.

Gopal has been doing yoga for 50 years but it's hard to imagine he's a day older than that. When he shows off his most impressive poses at the end of the class, it doesn't seem impossible to believe he's been working on them since birth.

Sprawled out on the floor watching him, I can see how 50 years spent in Kerala could do wonders for your mind, body and soul.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Kochi, Kerala, via Singapore.

Online
cghearth.com/spice-village
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