What is it? The Malabar House is a boutique hotel in Fort Cochin, in India's Kerala state, that was once a grand 18th-century home to spice traders, tea traders and bankers. The hotel was the first property in India to become a member of the Relais & Chateaux restaurant and hotel group and the first in India to be certified by Green Globe, the global environmental certification programme for travel and tourism. What's the decor like? The Malabar House's German owner and his Spanish wife have successfully melded Kerala's heritage feel with contemporary design. Antiques, art and exotic fabrics decorate the open-air reception area, restaurant and bar. The inner courtyard is a tropical oasis of stone pathways, trees and sun lounges, and there's a plunge pool and a small open-air stage. How about the rooms? The best of the 17 rooms and suites are located upstairs; the others are off the colonnaded front veranda or the frangipani-filled courtyard. All have smooth stone floors and high ceilings, brightly coloured feature walls, planters' chairs and teak or rosewood beds. Many are decorated with carved figurines. The in-room air-conditioning is a feature to be thankful for in steamy Kerala. What's there to do? Explore Fort Kochi on a hired bicycle, which are free for guests, or there are auto-rickshaws lined up outside the hotel for a bumpy but fun tour of the sights. Don't miss the curio and antique market at Jew town, which is about three kilometres away. The onsite spa offers Kalari ayurvedic oil massages based on the Kalarippayat martial art form indigenous to Kerala - one of the oldest martial arts in Asia. Lake Vembanad is a one-hour drive away. Here, visitors can board a houseboat to cruise Kerala's vast network of waterways. Parent company Malabar Escapes owns a residential houseboat, Discovery (below), which stands out among the many rice barges that cruise that rivers and canals. Discovery has contemporary lines and eye-catching turquoise paintwork. Onboard, there's a luxurious air-conditioned suite and a crew of four to take you cruising in style through the backwaters. What about the food and drink? The funky Divine bar offers tapas plates and wine. Malabar Junction serves spicy south Indian fare as well as continental dishes. Specialities include tiger prawns in fresh mango and coconut sauce and vegetarian or seafood thali, served with a side dish of appam (traditional rice hoppers). The evening degustation menu is often accompanied by a classical dance performance in the courtyard. What's the bottom line? Rooms at The Malabar House start from Euro150 (HK$1,640) a night, with breakfast. A three-night cruise on Discovery costs from Euro800 for two people. Kalari massages start from Euro20. The Malabar House is at 1/268 Parade Road, Fort Cochin, Kerala, India (tel: 91 484 221 6666; www.malabarhouse.com ).