We were stepping carefully through a dripping wet forest at the edge of the beach, at night. Above us, 150-foot-tall trees towered, their canopy blotting out the stars. I could hear bats chittering and waves crashing. The smell of wet leaves cut through the salty air.
Our guide, Nariman Vazifdar, was a reptile lover from Mumbai who studies nature on some of Asia’s most remote islands, the Andamans. He was wearing a camouflage T-shirt and shorts and led me and two others who had signed up for this night walk down a muddy path. The blackness was so immense that when we turned off our flashlights and stood there, listening to the jungle sounds, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces.
Mr. Vazifdar clicked his light back on and pointed out bright orange crabs scurrying up the trunks of the giant mahua trees, and lizards hiding in the saw-toothed pandanus bushes. We swung our flashlight beams to follow his, punching holes in the darkness. Suddenly Mr. Vazifdar lunged at something slithering in the bushes. “Check this out, man,” he said.
In his fist, he displayed a writhing, oily, three-foot-long snake. “Put it down, put down!” the woman behind me yelped.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Vazifdar said. “It’s an Andaman wolf snake, nonvenomous.”
Under the bluish beam of my flashlight I watched it sink its fangs into his hand, then came drops of blood. “Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked.
“A little,” he said. “But isn’t it cool?”
The whole Andamans experience is cool. And wild. This is a special place: remote, beautiful, rugged, mysterious. It’s a piece of Southeast Asia that belongs to India and it’s not easy getting here, but it’s worth it. A trip to these islands offers pristine nature, Indian culture, a glimpse of fascinating communities and some of the most spectacular beaches in the world.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the full name of this territory, are several hundred bushy islands in the Indian Ocean almost a thousand miles east of India’s mainland. Under British rule, the territory was used as a penal colony. In the past decade, tourism has taken off, and the islands are now becoming known as a diving mecca and chillaxing spot.
Accommodations on the main islands range from luxury hotels and eco-resorts to rattan-walled beach shacks. If you explore the outer islands, and there are about 30 open to tourists, you might even see some members of the Jarawa, one of the most untouched cultures in the world. The Jarawa live deep in the forest, and though their communities are strictly protected — Indian law prohibits even photographing them — I once saw a hunting party as I was driving down a jungle road. They carried bows and arrows and freshly slaughtered wild boars slung across their backs. I stared at them. The Jarawas stared back at me. The moment lasted maybe two seconds. I’ll never forget it.
But the islands are changing fast. A much bigger, international airport is being built in Port Blair, the administrative capital, and new hotels, restaurants and dive shops are popping up everywhere. It’s about to get much easier to visit, and even the hermit crabs are paying the price. One sunny morning as I walked along the beach with Mr. Vazifdar (I could still see the welts on his hand from the snake attack the night before), he pointed to a large hermit crab scuttling across the sand, without a shell.
“Look at that poor guy,” he said. “He’s naked. The tourists have taken so many shells home, these big guys don’t have any.”
I heard a similar note while having lunch (using a banana leaf as a plate) during a visit to one of the original families who were brought from mainland India decades ago to farm rice and bananas. “When I was old enough to understand my surroundings, all I could see was forests, all around,” said my host, Paresh Sikdar, who is in his late 50s and has lived in the Andamans his entire life. “But so many trees are getting cut down. It’s changing the weather. I’m worried.”
A stop in Port Blair
My most recent trip to the islands began this fall. I flew into Port Blair, on South Andaman Island. Right now you can access the Andamans only from within India. Indian authorities hope that once the airport expansion is finished next year, flights will arrive from Indonesia and Singapore.
As the islands’ biggest city, with a few hundred thousand people from all over India, Port Blair is both pleasant and scruffy. Its top tourist attraction is the Cellular Jail, a century-old prison (now a museum) where British colonizers tortured Indian freedom fighters in the run-up to India’s independence in 1947. It’s meticulously preserved, and you can stare down the interminable corridors and step into the same cells where the freedom fighters rotted away.
A lot of misery has unfolded on these beautiful islands, which suffered waves of disease and conflict in the late 19th century and were brutally occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Another place to appreciate this history is the quirky Kalapani Museum, also in Port Blair. “Kala pani” means Black Water — that’s how the islands were known in India for many years because those who went never came back.
Today Port Blair is more relaxed than many Indian cities of the same size, and the afternoon I spent there was warm and bright. I was itching for a swim. There’s a beach right in town, Corbyn’s Cove, but when I showed up with a towel around my neck and goggles in hand, the lifeguard shook his head and said, quite unsympathetically, I felt, “Closed.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Really? When was the last time you saw one?”
“About six months ago. But we haven’t caught it yet. So you can’t swim.”
I called up my buddy Roni Antony, a fellow journalist who lives in Port Blair, and we decided to go to another beach, Wandoor, about 45 minutes away, in his snazzy new Korean S.U.V. — but it took us a while getting out of town. We stopped for watermelon juice, we picked up a friend, we grabbed a biryani and some Cokes, we stopped for another friend.
By the time we reached Wandoor it was 4:15 p.m. The sun was about to set and I was even more desperate to jump in. Because India is nearly 2,000 miles wide on a single time zone and these islands lie in India’s far east, the sun rises and sets here extremely early. I hustled into the water; no lifeguard to stop me. Within a few yards of shore, I was floating above a magnificent coral garden. A two-foot-long grouper glided past; brightly colored reef fish darted in and out of sea anemone; an enormous school of silvery minnows burst toward me and then split apart, right before touching me. The water was 90 degrees. I could have floated there for hours.
“I had no idea,” I said, as I finally stepped out and met Mr. Anthony and his buddies on the beach. “The snorkeling here’s spectacular.”
“That’s nothing,” Mr. Anthony said. “Jolly Buoy Island is even better.” It was only a 15-minute boat trip but we were out of time. We consoled ourselves: next time.
The perfect beach
Port Blair has more to offer than I expected. But the real draw of the Andamans is Havelock Island. Named after the British general who helped stamp out India’s first nationalist rebellion in 1857, the island was officially renamed Swaraj Dweep a few years ago, though few people, even officials, use that name.
Call it what you want, this island has become a diving magnet and Indian honeymoon hot spot, and its beaches are superb. Several ferries a day make the 90-minute run between Port Blair and Havelock, and when I arrived, it was, again, late afternoon. A driver was waiting for us at the jetty and we drove across the island, passing tin-roofed kiosks selling curries and sticks of fragrant incense. Through our open windows we caught the smells of India floating on an island breeze.
At a sign that said “Barefoot at Havelock,” we turned down a bumpy road. Barefoot opened nearly 20 years ago, when there was almost no tourism, and it still maintains a rough-luxe feel with 31 tents, cottages and villas in a rainforest. As soon as we arrived, the resort manager, an extraordinarily kind man named Hari Kalappa, politely asked us to remove our shoes. “We are, literally, barefoot,” he explained.
I was desperate (again) to get to the beach. Hari motioned to a path through the trees. I raced down it, awed by the size and beauty of the great mahua trees around me, trunks 10 feet wide. But when the forest opened up and I arrived at the water’s edge, that’s what stopped me. I was standing on a perfect beach, miles of white sand in either direction, gentle, glassy waves crashing down in pools of white foam.
I’ve traveled to the Maldives, the Seychelles, the Caribbean, Thailand, Bali, the South Pacific and beaches up and down Africa’s coast. But this one, called Radha Nagar, after a Hindu goddess, was more beautiful than any other. I dove in. A few strokes later I was swimming in water above my head but still clear to the bottom — the perfect swimming beach, not too shallow, not too deep.
Perhaps the greatest view was not from the beach but of the beach. Treading water I gazed back at the jungle. It looked prehistoric. All that foliage — the towering mahua trees, the coconut palms, the pandanus bushes and so many other trees and plants I’ll never be able to name — blended into one towering wall of green that rose up from the edge of the land and captured the last rays of the sinking sun. The tree bark glowed almost orange. I was overwhelmed with one intoxicating sensation: I am far from home.
That night, after a dinner of fresh shrimp and fish, accompanied by a stack of soft rotis and washed down with a lime soda, I climbed into bed in my bungalow. As I drifted off, a soft rain began to fall. I could hear the cicadas and the bats, the rain washing through the trees. I woke up 12 hours later.
The next few days I explored Havelock’s hiking spots and beaches, all excellent though none quite as stunning as Radha Nagar. One afternoon I went to the settler family’s house for lunch, which Barefoot arranged, and we sat on the floor and talked.
As Mr. Sikdar, dressed in flawless white, told us about the rapid development on the island, his wife laid out the meal: eggs soaked in coconut milk, stewed eggplant, fish marinated with mustard oil and spices and wrapped in plantain leaves and then cooked over a low flame, and sweet vermicelli pudding. We ate with our hands, and I left stuffed.
Havelock is just the beginning. During a previous trip, I explored the Mayabunder area, an eight-hour drive north of Port Blair. The road wends through a reserve for the Jarawa people, who remain hunters and gatherers.
Mayabunder offers more untrammeled beaches and landscapes of rice paddies and rainforest. Up here, the most interesting place to stay is the Koh Hee Island Home, run by a gentle soul named Saw John, an elder of another community, the Karen, who originally hail from Myanmar but came to the Andamans a century ago to farm.
Beyond Mayabunder, there are more remote and exquisite beaches, like Ross and Smith Island or Long Island.
Flying back to the mainland from Port Blair, after a week of bliss, we passed over one island that stood alone: North Sentinel. I’ve read a lot about this place. Down there live a small group of hunter and gatherers, maybe only 50 or 75 people, who have no contact with the outside world and survive off the jungle and the sea. The few people who have tried to step on their shore, including a young American missionary in 2018, have been killed.
Now this is truly a fiercely isolated place. But as I stared down at that drop of green surrounded by bright blue, I wondered: For how long?
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