Varun Kutty smiles with a concierge’s cunning. The moustachioed manager of Jalakara walks towards the hotel’s make-shift library and pulls out a book.
“This is the best thing ever written about the Andamans,” he says, with an endearing India-by-way-of-Eton accent. The author, FAM Das, was from Mangalore, he adds, explaining that he was known for his swashbuckling, brilliantly overwritten prose. It certainly is florid.
“The islands are very picturesque,” opens a paragraph in Chapter One. “Marvellously bewitching, and not a little awe-inspiring. Their beauty maddens the soul like wine. They invite a Wordsworth, a Spenser or a Tagore to celebrate them in immortal verse; a Macaulay or a Thackeray to praise their striking beauty in glorious prose; a Michelangelo to depict this ‘fairy land’ in glowing colours.”
That was in 1937. Eighty-one years later, these islands are still waiting for their Wordsworth. The Andamans never did get a Tagore to bring them to international attention. But that could be about to change. The opening of the archipelago’s first five-star hotel this year has seen Havelock hit the 2018 go-to hotlists of titles like the Sunday Times and Condé Nast Traveler. Still, unlike the Seychelles (another buzz beach escape on the list), no one, it turns out, has really heard of the Andaman Islands. “Oh, you’re going to the Andamans. That’s in Thailand, right?” asks a friend, ahead of the trip. “Where they filmed The Beach, right?”
Well, yes and no. But mostly no. In theory, any island in the Andaman Sea, to the west of Thailand, could quite reasonably call itself an Andaman island. And many do (especially in southern Thailand, where the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film was made). But this group is the definite article. And even though they’re around 1,000km from Chennai, the official Andaman Islands are part of India. No wonder they’re described as one of the most remote, most sparsely populated archipelagos on Earth: only 30 of the 572 islands are inhabited, just eight open to tourists.
The main point of entry is the capital, Port Blair. From there it’s a two-hour ferry to Havelock, the most tourist-friendly of the islands. Not much bigger than Manhattan, it was, for a long time, only known to the odd backpacker. And it might have stayed that way were it not for a freak wave in 2004. Or so says Qutab Asgar, who first arrived in 1996 to run a lucrative fishing business. “I had life all chalked out: five years max, then I’d leave,” he says, in his small shopfront near Havelock jetty.
So what happened?
“The tsunami. We got something like 500 aftershocks in the six months after that. So the fishermen wouldn’t go out. The business collapsed.”
Still, paradoxically, 2004 would be a kind of year zero of Andaman tourism. “From virtually nothing in 2005, the next year, we started to see a dramatic increase in the number of visitors.” That year, he founded Captain Hook’s, now the Andamans’ most successful game-fishing business. His brother, Ali, also stayed, and runs night-kayaking tours around Havelock’s mangroves.
“The government investment helped, of course,” says Asgar. “But, after the tsunami, there was so much press coverage, it was like the world realised, ‘Oh, there’s this place called the Andaman Islands.’ And tourist numbers went up. We haven’t seen a dip since.”
London entrepreneur Mark Hill was part of that initial wave of tourists. His first visit to Havelock was in 2007. The island had him at hello. “I felt like I’d been let in on a secret. I couldn’t believe, in the internet age, that a paradise island as perfect as Havelock could be as undiscovered and unknown as it was – I was blown away.”
The next year, he bought the land to build Jalakara, the Andaman’s first proper destination boutique hotel, which has won consistent rave reviews since its first season in 2016. “The coolest new hotel on the planet,” said the Times. No wonder. The place is brilliant: set on top of a hill, surrounded by jungle, all seven of the stylish suites are so different it’s like staying in a giant, nicely lived-in tropical mansion. The tower room has its own roof terrace, the villa its own pool. But it’s not just the hardware: the tone of service nails it, too. None of the staff have been to hospitality school, and it shows – in a good way. Career Clefs D’Or concierge-manager Varun Kutty says he wouldn’t have it any other way. As he sits in the hotel’s bar, the sun sets over the jungle and he says Havelock has been his kind of mental happy place ever since his first visit in 1997 as a kid.
“You watch Narcos? For an entire season, everyone always talks about finally running away to some beautiful island. Well, Havelock was always that place for me. My kind of fantasy getaway.” So, when Hill offered him the job, “it was Sunday afternoon, and by evening the tickets were booked. I didn’t have to think about it. I was here in a month.”
Still, Jalakara now has company: enter, the long-touted and terribly attractive Taj Exotica. Opened in February, it’s the Andaman’s first-ever five-star resort. And, even beyond the giant, stilted villas and the Olympic-length jungle pool, it has a seriously strong draw card: Radhanagar Beach. Havelock’s star attraction is not just the best stretch of sand on the island but the whole of Asia, according to Time magazine. And, while the Philippines might have something to say about that, it’s definitely up there. If for no other reason than, on my first visit, it’s totally, utterly empty.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” says Jocelyn Panjikaran, the guide for the morning. It is. Beguilingly so.
It’s more like the big, misty, jungle-backed beaches of Brazil than anything else in Asia.
Originally from Pune, Panjikaran has lived here for seven years and recently left local environmental non-profit ANET to become Taj’s in-house conservationist. Her nature walk stirs deep and instant urges to Google: a species of crab, apparently, can climb trees and harvest coconuts; spotted deer, she says, introduced by 18th-century British colonialists as game, can swim between islands; oh, and goats on Barren Island have evolved to drink seawater. The list goes on. Still, it’s not just the fauna that makes the islands unique, she says.
“They call it ‘Mini India’, because we have everyone here: Malayalis, Bengalis, Tamils, Punjabis… There’s no predominant community. So food, culture, it’s a real mix. There’s really nowhere else like it in India.”
We stop for a water break and Abhishek Singh, a hotel staffer who has accompanied us, gestures at the pristine beach. “I have two colleagues,” he says, “both from Goa, and they both say, ‘This is what Goa was like 30 years ago.’”
Panjikaran smiles politely. Until she cracks: “These beaches are way, way nicer than Goa! There’s no comparison!”
My first time in Havelock, I couldn’t believe, in the internet age, anywhere could be as unknown
Of course, the question is, for how much longer? With a growing number of tourists, planned airport expansion and new, less classy developments in the works, what’s to stop Havelock going the way of clumsily overdeveloped Goa? Just about everyone I ask on the island finds the prospect laughable, including Captain Qutab.
“Havelock will never, ever be Goa,” he says.
“Logistics! They’re a nightmare.” The only way to get any supplies to Havelock, it turns out, is via doonghy, the wooden boat of the islands, sometimes driven by cannibalised tractor motors. This has put a stranglehold on development. Jalakara, for example, took eight-and-half years to build; even with all its clout and capital, Taj leased its land in 2009 and is still partly unfinished. Part of the reason is also strict environmental controls, says general manager Abnash Kumar.
“On a 46.5 acre site, not a single tree was felled to build this hotel. We built everything around the trees. Even now we’re open, if the forest rangers so much as find a broken branch, they want an explanation.”
Panjikaran isn’t worried about the islands either. “The isolation means they’re are not as easy to exploit as mainland beaches,” she says. “You see other places explode and become these big monstrous resorts, but somehow that doesn’t happen here.”
Why? She replies tactfully: “Well, you have to have drive if you want to be Goa. And many islanders here are pretty content with their lot.”
The other reason: for all its untapped beauty and wild, un-Wi-Fied wonderment, not everyone can hack it on Havelock.
“People from the mainland don’t stay long. And I can understand that. Life isn’t always easy here. It’s beautiful but so remote. Especially in the monsoon. The longest time I’ve done here is 11 months straight. And then I thought, ‘OK, I need to go home, I need to reconnect.’ You need a break from everything once and while,” she says, looking across the beach. “Even Paradise.”
Greaves Travel (+44 20 7487 9111) offers tailor-made tours of India. An eight-night trip to the Andaman Islands costs from 11,000 AED per person and includes flights, transfers and eight nights’ accommodation including three nights at Taj Exotica and three nights at Jalakara Boutique Hotel