Sailors once swore that a blind man could steer a ship to the Malabar coast, guided by nothing more that offshore winds heavy with the scent of Kerala’s fragrant spices. This is a coastal idyll that once lured endless flotillas for its black gold and now draws travelers to indulge in some of the subcontinent’s most restful, laid-back pleasures.

India’s most verdant state — rated by National Geographic Traveler as one of the world’s 50 must-see destinations and also one of “ten earthly paradises” — is a seamless landscape of palm-lined beaches rising to meet steamy jungles and plantation-covered hills, watered by no less than 44 tropical rivers. Once visited by merchants clambering to trade for spices, today the coast is often bustling with visitors who come here primarily to unwind and indulge.

This is, after all, where one can experience therapeutic Ayurvedic massage aboard a slowly drifting kettuvallam, or sipping coconut water under a tropical sun before taking in a ritualized Kathakali dance. Eastward, the spice-scented Cardamom Hills and wild elephants of Periyar beckon, while a short flight west takes you to the little-known but sublime tropical reefs of the Lakshadweep islands. All of which make Kerala not just a must-see on your southern India itinerary, but a major destination on its own.