Reef snorkelling, midnight kayak tours: this tropical resort is simply next-level

It’s in the middle of nowhere, but this resort is worth the journey

Reef snorkelling and midnight kayaking are just two ways that this tropical resort takes is to the next level.

Words by Ute Junker

Photos by supplied

Originally published in Traveller

A herd of brontosaurus has just lumbered into view. Not literally, of course, but the creatures that are currently heading towards us are as surprising a sight as dinosaurs might be. Until now, our snorkel has been filled with the ocean life that you expect to find on any coral reef: darting fusiliers; elegant butterfly fish; baby giant clams, their lips an iridescent blue; small snappers and larger trevally. Now a school of oversized fish has swum in, each one with a bulky build and stretching more than a metre in length.

These fish are so large that the shallow waters they swim through seem to darken as they pass. At first we spot three of them, then we realise that there are another three behind. Then it’s eight, then 10, then – oh my, there’s more! It’s like running unexpectedly into a full squad of quarterbacks.

These giant newcomers – two dozen of them, it turns out – are humphead parrot fish, as different from the smaller, brightly coloured parrot fish that patrol most reefs as a Great Dane is different from a chihuahua. They are intimidatingly large, ponderous, slow-moving and utterly mesmerising. Their confidence is evident in the way that they come closer to check us out and then, in a supreme display of indifference, continue grazing among the rocks, utterly unperturbed by our presence.

This is the sort of underwater encounter that divers go to great lengths to see. Not us. We have just swum out from the beach at the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa to float above the house reef. Not 20 minutes into our first snorkelling expedition, we have been officially blown away.

It is a feeling I am going to get used to. I came to the Andaman Islands knowing only two things about them. First, that the oceans are filled with impressive marine life, and second, that a would-be American missionary was last year killed by hostile  tribespeople on one of the more remote islands. I’m confident that’s not going to happen to me; beyond that, I have no idea what to expect. So when I find one of the more memorable luxury escapes I’ve experienced recently, it comes as pleasant surprise.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to give the territory its full name, are scattered across 7000 kilometres of the Indian Ocean, starting from south of Myanmar and stretching almost all the way to Sumatra in the south. Of almost 600 islands, only 36 are inhabited. By a quirk of colonial politics, they now belong to India, which has firmly controlled access with only nine islands open to visitors. Until recently, foreign visitors had to obtain a special permit but last year that process was relaxed, just in time for the opening of the area’s first luxury resort, Taj Exotica on Havelock Island.

There are direct flights to Port Blair from a number of Indian cities and from Port Blair, the ferry ride to Havelock takes two hours. The resort sits on 46 hectares of land, fronting on to the island’s most beautiful beach, Radhanagar, more prosaically known by the former British rulers as Number Seven Beach, and fringed by verdant jungle. Its spacious stilted villas, made of sustainably-sourced wood and measuring 146 square metres each, are inspired by the designs of the Jurawa people, one of the archipelago’s six tribes.

Divers have long known about the Andamans’ underwater attractions. Four species of turtle make their home here and even nest on Radhanagar Beach. We see several turtles during our first snorkel, along with a host of rays. That’s not even the most exciting sighting you can hope for, according to Jocelyn Panjikaran, the resort’s naturalist. “A few weeks ago, we had three dugongs that hung out just beyond the reef,” she says.

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