The best way to get to the Andamans is to fly into the islands’ capital, Port Blair, via Chennai – and the good news is that, now, no prior permit is needed for Port Blair; on arrival, someone merely writes down your passport details. You then take a 90-minute ferry from Port Blair.
On arrival at Havelock Island, hundreds of fellow travellers quickly disperse to backpackers’ and beach-lovers’ hostels. I had actually already been to the island, but that was before its unique Taj Exotica opened. Now that this luxury resort is up and running, it was time to go back and see why, for instance, international Munich-based travellers had already discovered it. (“We stayed three nights, four would have been better and seven even better still,” said my new neighbour.)
From Havelock ferry port, the Taj 4WD winds through local villages and, after half an hour, you arrive at the property’s main gate, in my case to be met by GM Abnash Kumar, the epitome of a boy-scout character who has, with Pramod Ranjan, made this resort a reality. At an arrival pavilion, we all listened as some of the 150 staff sang a song they have composed for all guests:
“We welcome all of you today, As you step into our paradise, Taj is a place to rejoice. Our land was small and unknown, Now we are known to all. Here you can see waves, beach and enjoy experiences of a boundless nature, Once you are here to experience, you will be mesmerised and fall in love with this place”.
Last time here, I found no connectivity, full stop. This visit I was able to sit outside on my terrace writing, oh so creatively, in this gorgeous environment. Trees, by the way, have been left in situ: they are named (the tallest are white chuglam, reaching 30 to 50 metres). Two trees, by the way, go right up through the ground-floor Technogym, emerging above at the side of the outdoor pool.
This is indeed a unique property, designed and overseen during the construction stage by co-owner Pramod Ranjan. He based the 150-square-metre villas on traditional houses of the local Jarawa people. Eventually, there will be 75 villas on the 20-hectare site, running alongside the island’s most beautiful beach, Radhanagar, named for Lord Krishna’s wife.
There are so many memories of this amazing hotel. The infinity pool is a staggering 50 metres in length. Swim up and down looking up and out at elephant rope trees, Indian butter trees and other living statues. and look out, too, at the gorgeous white-sand beach, which comes to life at the sunset hour.
My German neighbours, by the way, seemed to spend their too-few days in and around the pool, on the beach, taking nature walks and dining. Even in my short stay, I loved my dining experiences. Lunch was pool-side. Dinner was at The Settlers, a 10-seat, single-table chef-interactive restaurant honouring dishes brought by immigrants to the islands. Asa preamble, we were shown some of today’s harvest from the resort’s own organic garden. Tonight, our menu is inscribed on brown paper rolled in elaborate silver filigree knife holders set at each place, next to bespoke ceramic or glass plates. I sit looking through to the working kitchen: to my left is a wall entirely fashioned of sculpted mangrove wood. I nibble on divine pumpkin crisps, or chips, and deep-fried baby sardines. This will be a memorable dinner.
Abnash Kumar, who already had a food background, spent six months eating up and down the East Coast of the USA to identify what today’s foodies might want. If they want one-off wine dinners, he can do it here, but, any night at The Settlers, you might well start with Jacob’s Creek Pinot Sparkling and possible go on to Jacob’s Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. The gym is 24/7, but after so many exhilarating experiences, I do not wait until sunrise.
Breakfast, a buffet, was also a delight, especially as I sat outside on an upper terrace looking out at the sea. I am told, by the way, that the first guest checking in here, on Valentine’s Day 2018, was so impressed that now, back at his Los Angeles base, he has already made his fourth return reservation, for a month over this Easter. This is indeed a unique luxury hotel, and the highlight is its people: jack-of-all-trades Soumaya, for instance, is a young man who is equally at home singing in welcome, driving a buggy and confidently dealing with travel queries. No wonder people want to come back to this authentic natural retreat.