On the face of it, jetting off to an eco-resort on beach number seven doesn’t carry quite the same cachet as flying to Copacabana, say, or Parrot Cay. But when you find out that this particular stretch of shoreline – so coyly named, it gives nothing away – has been voted the seventh-best in the world and the finest in Asia, you may decide your search for paradise ends here.
Running out excitedly from the warm tropical waters with our snorkel masks still on, we’re reeling from the fact that we’ve just swum over a huge leatherback turtle. It got so close, in fact, we could almost have touched it.
We cross the pristine white-sand beach to the giant oversize hammock we left our stuff on. That second – out of nowhere – a man in a crisp white uniform appears and hands us fluffy towels and cool coconut water served in whole coconuts on a gleaming silver tray.
‘Paradise’ is an overused word in our trade, but in this case we don’t hesitate – paradise it most definitely is. The natural beauty of the place is mesmerising. The untouched tropical two-mile swathe that is Radhanagar Beach Number 7 slopes into calm crystal-clear waters rich in marine life, such as manta rays and the leatherback turtle we saw before. It’s a total no-brainer why this was recently voted Asia’s best beach. It feels as if we’ve stumbled upon a secret castaway island and, like the characters in Alex Garland’s The Beach, our initial instinct was to keep it to ourselves. But it’s a secret we’re letting you in on, as well as that of the magnificent Taj Exotica.
We’ve been eagerly awaiting the opening of this, the latest resort in the Taj family, situated on Havelock, in the lesser-travelled and greatly untouched Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Though they lie off the coast of Myanmar, they’re actually part of India. Havelock is the second largest of the 572 islands that make up the far-flung archipelago. Only 38 are populated and just nine open to tourists.
The islands’ origins are the reason for the unusual appearance of the landscape in this part of the world. The mountains were once the peaks of a submerged range that runs from Myanmar to Indonesia. Thanks to their remote location, six indigenous tribes still live here. Some can be fiercely hostile and the Indian government has prohibited all contact from the modern world so that they can continue their age-old hunter-gatherer traditions.
Hostilities are far from our minds at Taj Exotica’s beachfront. Wandering around the 46 acres of grounds, we find ourselves hypnotised by the whistling of the soft breeze through the gently swaying coconut palms. Accompanying us is Jocelyn Panjikaran, the hotel’s resident naturalist and sustainability manager, her presence testament to the Taj’s commitment to respect and nurture this island paradise.
Staring upwards at the giant trees, we’re reminded of California redwoods. Jocelyn tells us they’re Andaman padauk trees, which can grow up to 120ft tall, but they’re often called Andaman redwoods – so we’re more astute than we know. They’re part of the ancient protected rainforest that covers 85 percent of the island (development in the populated other 15 percent is strictly controlled).
We follow the small winding paths that lead us towards the beach, passing more giant trees along the way, each with a small wooden sign telling us its name. The staff are busy harvesting papayas destined for the dinner table that evening. All of a sudden, the path appears to peter out at an impenetrable wall of palms, yet we watch as another guest mysteriously disappears into it, intent on making it to the beach.
A crucial part of Taj Exotica’s design came from the resort’s undertaking to build around the existing flora infrastructure and not cut down a single tree. If that sounds like a planning and architectural nightmare, it’s one that paid off. Thick trunks and buttress roots rise from the ground like a natural cathedral, bursting into a canopy that shades those below from the scorching midday sun.
The resort’s villas were inspired by an architectural form adopted by the indigenous Jarawa people, which allows the structures to nestle in the lush, green landscape. The subtle, understated exterior of each one is in stark contrast to the luxurious space inside. We fell instantly in love with our Grand Luxury Two Bedroom Pool Villa, a stilted structure spread over nearly 3,000 sq ft, with a private pool overlooking perfectly landscaped gardens from a private deck. From the pool, through a wall of sliding glass doors, we stepped in on to a floor of polished coconut wood that kept us connected to nature throughout the space. And the fragrance… Everywhere we ventured in this sprawling villa, we could smell the forest. We often talked about bottling it and taking it home with us.
The modernist interiors enhanced the feeling of calm. Leaving the sumptuous comfort of our heavenly four-poster bed each morning was a challenge and showering in the luxury en-suites that were attached to both the villa’s bedrooms felt like being at one with nature.
But the biggest luxury for us was the knowledge that our comfort was not at the expense of the environment – all amenities here are biodegradable and the toiletries organic. In fact, everything you see is ecological and renewable. So, too, are many of the things you don’t see – the Taj has its own glass-bottling plant that eliminates the use of plastic bottles (plastic is nowhere to be seen), as well as a sanitation-treatment plant that limits the carbon footprint and a waste-disposal system that converts wet waste to compost for the hotel’s orchards. And the lush grounds are more than just a tropical backdrop – they provide the vegetables, fruit and spices that become ingredients for some of the resort’s food and beverage delights. They also feed the 150 on-island staff.
Nestled in the cultivated forest within a forest is a seductive, Olympic-size infinity pool. Shaded by the natural canopy, it’s set on a sprawling elevated deck that looks out to the beach and is home to the Turtle House bar and grill – a great place for poolside meals and cocktails.
For a more intimate meal, The Settlers is a private dining experience that took our tastebuds on a gastronomic tour of the Andaman Islands and the diverse populations that have settled here over the years. The menu features dishes from Tamil, Bengali, Bihari and Keralan cuisines, as well as some influenced by migrants from Burma and Indonesia. Even the food here is experiential, it seems.
Our favourite place of all was the shoreline restaurant, set on a deck with views out towards the ocean. Fish curries from the Indian mainland, shellfish so fresh it tasted as if it had just been caught and desserts made from fruit grown in the garden are all served up with a generous helping of refreshing sea breeze.
At the time of our visit, a private scuba school for Taj guests was being built. Once complete, it will have a pool dedicated to scuba diving, where guests can build up their confidence before heading out to the open ocean to view the coral-rich reefs that surround the island.
For those looking to be less active, the resort’s spa offers a range of indulgent treatments, including many traditional Ayurvedic options. Whether you go for an individual or a couples treatment room, each is a shrine dedicated to wellness. There’s also an in-house yoga teacher, who’ll be happy to come up with a one-to-one course that suits you.
Our advice is to get to the Taj Exotica before everyone else does. It’s undoubtedly going to put this magical archipelago on the map for luxury travellers. In fact, we’re sure that’s what it’s counting on. But, for once, it won’t be at the expense of Mother Nature.
Swaraj Dweep bazaar – also called market number three – is definitely worth experiencing and provides a snapshot of local island life. As you wander around, pick from the array of street-food, then wash it down with sweet chai.
Photography by Tereshchenko Dmitry, Candid View, Chris Caldicott, Nickolay Stanev and EB. Photos