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Issue 61 / Exploring The Wild Things Above And Below Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Exploring The Wild Things Above And Below Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Sep 04, 2016


    The Serai is one of India's most eco-sustainable luxury hospitality brands. From the exotic archipelago Andaman and Nicobar to a Southern wildlife resort, it strings a vacation together featuring lush slices of paradise above and below the water.

     
    Like that "eureka!" flash in a relationship when you realize you’re in love — hooked for a lifetime — there’s sometimes a moment of awakening during your travels. A particularly memorable moment caught me unawares one bright, sunny morning at Port Blair. I’d flown in from Chennai for the first leg of my "Above and Below" experience curated by The Serai, a hospitality brand from Coffee Day Global Limited. (If you live in India, you probably already don’t have a relationship with the group, which operates more than 1,500 "CCD" coffee shops across the country.)

    Stuffed with Hakka noodles, I slept at The Nest, a no-frills B&B run by the spiffy team at Barefoot Holidays. The sun rises early throughout the archipelago, and by the time I’d opened the balcony, a small fleet of dungis (local motor boats) had docked by the promenade to deliver the day’s catch. As every Andaman-obsessed soul could tell you, the scene felt like Goa at least a decade ago. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but that "aha!" moment happened right then and there: love, inexplicably.

            

    Good morning, Port Blair! You look swell today.
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar 


    The privately operated Makruzz ferry does Port Blair to Havelock Island in two hours.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar 

    Island of Plenty

    A little of that love flew out of the Makruzz catamaran ferry from Port Blair to Havelock Island, packed with big, fat Indian families and honeymooning couples from Chandigarh to Dibrugarh. Two hours later, the crowds magically vaporized at the jetty as I headed out to my island hideout, Barefoot at Havelock.

    The sprawling eco-resort is a blissful no-television, no-wifi zone and that rare combination of beach and forest access. The area was dotted with A/C Nicobari cottages, thatched tents and Andaman villas. My villa bore a proprietary handwritten sign on the patio: "Miss Aparna’s Residence." The property — distinctive from The Serai's flagship resorts — has a long, independent history dating back to before Coffee Day Resorts took over. But it also fits in with the group's au natural luxury philosophy. It headlined their expansion outside Karnataka — and, while I’m not spilling any beans, next year could roll out the big reveal for new operations up north.

            

    My jungle home, one of the Andaman villas within Barefoot at Havelock.
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    No distractions mean you can lean back, relax and soak in the islands' history.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Like the rest of the accommodations, the fan-cooled Nicobari villas are made of local materials.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    The brass lotas and handas outside each villa exemplify Barefoot's homegrown philosophy.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

     

    The unplugged, relaxed atmosphere went a long, long way in calming any fraught nerves for my maiden diving experience. The evening before, the resort's resident guide, Karthik, gave me a sneak peek into Havelock. Engage this former Chennai corporate-rat-turned-intrepid-islander in a conversation on travel and cinema (throw in a crocodile encounter or two) and he'll lead you via a secluded forest pathway to Kala Patthar, a beach many tourists mercifully ignore.

    The tsunami that ravaged Nicobar before heading on to Andaman for less destruction has left a mesmerizing landscape of tree wrecks. Hermit crabs crawl in the white sands and snakes lurk in the deep pools between rock formations.

              

    Kala Patthar beach — far from the madding crowds.
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Massive tree wrecks form the most stunning natural patterns.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Across Meetha Pani, a sweet water stream near the beach that makes for a great trekking destination.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
     

    The Plunge

    My maiden diving adventure the next morning was another wonderful awakening. Barefoot offers terrific one-on-one diving experiences for beginners, especially non-swimmers like me. After briefing, a medical questionnaire and donning my wetsuit at the Barefoot Scuba Centre at Govingnagar, I was driven to Beach 5 with my instructor, Meer, for a signature Nemo Dive.

    To my surprise, I breezed through the preliminary instructions: always breathe through the mouth under water, equalize ear pressure by pinching your nose and blowing out, and clean water from the face mask. While learning the ropes, I bobbed excitedly as Meer fitted me with my cylinder, regulator, weights and fins. 

          

    The site for pre-dive briefings and post-dive omelettes with residential facilities.
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Minutes before the underwater adventure.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Meer, my instructor, so identifiable under water.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

    Once we set off under water, descending to 12 meters, that alien world felt instantly like home. A cerulean and sea-green large chap shimmied on the reef while large shoals of buttercup-yellow fish leisurely swam across and back and again, just an inch from our faces. Something orange unfurled to the left while something striped darted to the right. I couldn’t remember how long we stayed down there, but I know I’m definitely going back.

            

    Elephant Beach: how many shades of blue can you count?
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Still counting….

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    These boys waded with us through waist-deep water in the mangroves.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Back at the resort, Radhanagar — once voted Asia's best beach —  is an addiction.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Pom-pom martinis and a great paperback from the guest-maintained library make for an ideal evening.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Shhh! One of the resort's best-kept secrets is its small but perfectly executed Italian menu, thanks to an itinerant Italian couple who taught the local cooks. My Quattro Stagioni Pizza was the stuff of dreams.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Sanjeev (centre), the resort manager, Rakhi  (the accommodation manager and Sanjeev's wife) and Karthik's hospitality and professionalism, along with the rest of the staff's affability, make the resort feel like home.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
     

    Next on the itinerary was a Sunday morning trek to the gorgeous Elephant Beach. Usually a site for water sports, it was serene and secluded when we got there, save for some local boys who waded with us through the marshes on high tide for a party of their own.

    Fuelled by some completely unexpected gastronomic discoveries at the resort, I embarked on a refreshing stroll on Radhanagar Beach. The beach was once voted by Time Magazine as Asia’s best beach, and it's just a minute from the resort with private access. I chatted with the staff about Barefoot’s erstwhile mascot, the world’s most famous diving elephant, Rajan, who passed away less than a month ago at the age of 68.

    Pre-departure, a few hours of heartwarming tall tales — including those of Rajan chasing his mahout through the jungle and playfully kicking guests who got too frisky — made for the sort of memories that guarantee a return to this enticing island.


    In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

    I spent a night in Bengaluru, via Port Blair and Chennai, and met up with Samit Sawhney, managing director of Barefoot by Havelock. It's always nice to meet someone who cracks open eggs as the daily breakfast for resident monitor lizards at his resort. Anand Menon, the general manager of marketing, also joined us at CCD Square on Vittal Mallya Road.

    This brief urbanity was highlighted by a rousing cup of single-origin coffee from the Kathlekhan (Dark Forest) estate at Barefoot's
    flagship Chikmagalur property.

    The next morning, accompanied by Advithi Kumar from the marketing team, I set off for part two of the Above and Below Wildlife Experience at The Serai’s Kabini resort, 250 kilometres from Bengaluru.

    Travelling with a chatty Dubai-returned Mangalorean girl has its perks. We stopped before Mysuru for a dosa-wada breakfast and exchanged rapid-fire foodie notes until we reached our destination.

          

    Paddle-boats at The Serai let you cruise the Kabini.
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    A pair of chital are silhouetted against the afternoon sun, spotted on safari.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
     

    While Barefoot at Havelock offers rajan, The Serai at Kabini offers Bagheera himself! Black panther or melanistic leopard (Panthera pardus) sightings have increased over the past few years in the lush, dense forests of Karnataka — especially here, at Nagarhole National Park, part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

    But just as we can't summon elephants at will, amber-eyed prowlers aren’t known to catwalk in the forest upon request. On our afternoon safari the next day, we saw neither tigers nor panthers. We did, however, glimpse several langurs with serene haloes shadowed in the afternoon sun as well as elephants, chital, sambar, serpent eagles and plenty of other birds.

             

    Looking out of The Residence, you see a hammock and the river.
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Whether in the jungle or in the Residence, the boss rules.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
     

    Make Mine a Triple Whammy


    The catless safari brought down our spirits, but we immediately revived them by prowling around the 10-acre resort. The rest of the 70 acres are all wilderness. I had a waterfront residence with a private garden, jacuzzi and interconnected apartment all to myself. After drowning our sorrows in mutton curry and neer dosas, there was light sport to indulge in if we didn’t choose to snooze under the palm trees.

    A spot of kayaking on the placid Kabini — with Bandipur Forest on the horizon to the left and Kerala just 90 kilometres away on the right (the Kabini originates in Wayanad) — was just what the trainer had prescribed. After a relaxing foot massage at Omã Spa (tip: try their signature Coffee Scrub, which I thoroughly enjoyed at Chikmagalur several years ago) it was time to swap jungle stories with other guests around the bonfire over cucumber martinis from The Outpost bar.

              

    Smiley, happy faces: the Serai's community outreach initiatives extend to a local primary school.
    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar


    Fam bam! The Bheemanakolli temple is just a five-minute boat ride from the resort. It's a treasure trove of
    mythological tales.

    Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
     

    While cycling around the resort, I spotted a machaan, a sterling perch for a romantic evening with sundowners before the resort whips up a candlelight dinner in a covered gazebo on the lawn. There couldn’t be a dreamier setting for a pair of wildlife and nature lovers — but you don’t need to check in as doubles.

    That thing called love, it’ll sneak into your heart — above or below, anywhere, anyway.

    Main Image Photo Credit:  Aparna Pednekar

      Aparna Pednekar

      Aparna Pednekar

        Author

         Aparna is an India - based travel writer for leading lifestyle and fashion publications. She's also a gemologist and jewelry designer. New cities, new food, cats, dogs, snakes, hours of walking and driving fuel her incurable ADD.

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