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.
Panjikaran first came here on holiday eight years ago. At the time she was working in finance but she ditched that career and moved to the islands. She has immense knowledge about the area's unique flora and fauna, and explains the Andamans are as much about the forest as they are about the water.
"We have a range of forests here, from littoral to evergreen, as well as mangroves," she explains. Of more than 2000 plant species that live here, at least 1300 are found only in the Andamans. On a forest walk she shows us the Andaman pudauk, just one of the many trees with buttress roots. Drum any one of them and you will get a different pitch. The locals developed drumming patterns using different trees that helped them communicate over distance.
Another who has fallen head over heels for the Andamans is the resort's general manager, Abnash Kumar. He is proud of the fact that, of his 150 employees, 60 per cent are locals. "We had to talk with the senior people in each tribe and ask them if they would be willing to have their people work for us," he explains. He has also built sustainability into every aspect of the resort, from its biogas plant to its zero plastic policy to the massive reforestation project. "We have already planted 1500 indigenous trees across our property," he says.
The islands' unique geography is reflected in various ways across the resort. At the tranquil spa, treatments are inspired by the islands' various neighbours including Thailand and India. The resort's main restaurant, Shoreline, takes a similar approach. One of its menus draws on the cuisines of regions bordering the Bay of Bengal, including Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, while the other focuses on the cuisines of the Andaman Sea, including Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. Occasionally, the chefs go off menu. When I come in for dinner one night, my server asks me if I feel like lobster, as the chef had a good catch that day.
Then there is the resort's degustation restaurant, Settlers which, as the name suggests, draws on the cultures that have settled in the Andamans. Our impressive meal includes everything from a peppery pineapple broth inspired by Andra cuisine to a flavour-packed mud crab, caught in the mangroves and done with a selection of Bengali spices.
One peculiarity of the islands is that although they lie in the same time zone as Bangkok, they operate on Indian Central time, which means the day starts super early. For our second snorkel, Panjikaran suggests we head out at 6am. That will give me time for a yoga class and a spa treatment later in the morning before we go kayaking through the mangroves in the afternoon.
Over drinks, however, some other guests tell me they are going for a midnight kayak. I decide to join them, even though it means getting up at 2am because the start time has been shifted because of the tides.
The nocturnal kayak is nothing short of dazzling, with our guide, Tanaz Noble, pointing out the various planets and constellations above. Even more entrancing than the stars is the bioluminescent plankton that lights up every time we dip our paddles in the water, making the water glitter as brightly as the sky above.
After watching the sunrise from our kayaks, we head back to the resort for another astonishing snorkel. We spy a pair of lionfish, as flamboyant as flamenco dancers; a moray eel and a giant lobster; large schools of batfish and no fewer than four turtles, including an astonishing two-metre long specimen.
As we head back to the shore, I am convinced nothing could make this day better. I am wrong. A number of people are clustered together on the beach, looking down at the sand. It turns out that a nest of turtles hatched just before dawn, and the last hatchling is making his way to the water. We put our snorkels back on and watch from a safe distance as he heads into the turquoise water, off on his own big adventure.
A number of airlines offer direct flights to Port Blair from Indian cities including Chennai (90 minutes) and Calcutta (2.5 hours).
The best time to visit Taj Exotica Resort & Spa is between October and May. Banyan Tours' seven-night package, including five nights at Taj Exotica Resort & Spa and a night either side in Chennai, costs from around $5030 for two, including bed and breakfast in the Andamans, transfers, return flights between Chennai and Port Blair and ferry transfers in the Andamans. See tajhotels.com; banyantours.com
Ute Junker was a guest of Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Andamans and Banyan Tours.