Go Barefoot in India

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8 February 2013

Shelley Seale escapes the grind and heads to an eco-resort in one of India’s best-kept secrets: the Andaman Islands.

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Shelley Seale

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There are places in India well-known for their beaches—Kerala and Goa spring to mind. But far off the coast, in the Andaman Sea much nearer to Thailand than mainland India, is one of the country’s best-kept secrets: the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Far removed from the rest of India—while still retaining the feel and culture of the sub-continent—this group of more than 500 islands (only 38 permanently inhabited) juts out of the ocean with emerald-green forest mountains, pristine beaches, stunning coral reefs and active volcanoes. The capital is Port Blair on the main South Andaman Island, but from there it is a two-hour ferry ride to laid-back and lovely Havelock Island—home of the eco-hideaway Barefoot at Havelock. This is where you really want to get to because, let’s face it, if you’ve come all this way to get away, you might as well do it right.

Island Life

With about 100 square kilometres, Havelock has been inhabited by Bengali settlers since the 1950s. The ferries come into Village Number 1 on the north side of the island (all towns are numbered on Havelock). Villages 3 and 5 offer a number of restaurants, shopping options from vendor stalls to nice boutiques, motorbike rentals and Internet cafes.

The Barefoot at Havelock resort, on the other hand, is located on the far south end of the island, about 20 minutes from these villages. At Barefoot, you aren’t on a beach that is dotted by resort after resort. In fact, you are on pristine beach number 7, rated as the best beach in Asia. A taxi or tuk-tuk can easily be taken when you want to go into town, or you can rent a motorbike.

Go Barefoot in India

Swimming Elephants and Coral Reefs

Barefoot is home to a celebrity: Rajan, the swimming elephant. Rajan is a 64-year-old former logging elephant that is now cared for by the resort staff and enjoyed by guests, who can bathe and feed him, accompany him on a jungle hike and even go swimming with him.

Venture out and you can kayak through mangrove creeks, and snorkel or dive the reefs; boat trips to nearby Ross and Inglis islands are big draws. The pristine and unmapped waters of the Andaman Islands are one of the last frontiers for Scuba diving (best from November to May). Corals abound with colourful reef fish, sea turtles, barracuda, tuna, sting rays and the occasional dugong. The Barefoot Scuba folks (the first and only PADI 5-star instructor development resort in the Andaman Islands) come every evening around 6 p.m., when you can make reservations for the following day.

Go Barefoot in India

Yoga and Ayurvedic Treatments

Iyengar yoga is available year-round (check in the off season). Morning lessons and longer courses run in a hilltop pavilion overlooking the cottages and cove, and you can also sign up for private or group sessions with Rajendran, who runs the yoga and Ayurveda programs. He is also a knowledgeable birding and wildlife guide, and typically leads the programs with Rajan.

Ayurvedic treatments, great for both relaxation and healing, are available in a bamboo and thatch pavilion looking onto the forest and lily pond, and are one of the highlights of a stay here. And if you fancy doing nothing, you can relax in a hammock or in the privacy of your cottage, admiring surreal forests and incredible sunsets. There are mats and towels provided for your short walk to the beach.

Thatched Cottages and Safari-Style Tents

The 19 wood and thatch cottages and villas, along with six tented cottages, are hidden among seven acres of grounds and connected by winding pathways. Their hardwood walls and conical thatch roofs are made of environmentally sensitive local materials, and blend into the tropical foliage. You get basic comforts (modern plumbing with hot water, and air conditioning or ceiling fans), a restaurant/bar and an exhilarating closeness to nature.

Go Barefoot in India

The Barefoot philosophy means a minimal environmental footprint; accommodations were built from regenerable materials such as bamboo, wood and palm leaves. The resort harvests its own rainwater and only draws minimal water from a natural spring that emerges on the premises, so as not to deprive the neighbouring village. Kitchen and shower wastewater is filtered to be used to water the grounds. About 70 percent of staff are from Havelock Island, and almost all are from the Andamans.

Barefoot at Havelock is the perfect destination for those seeking an unpretentious hideaway on one of the world’s last undeveloped tropical islands.

Shelley Seale

Shelley Seale is a freelance journalist and author based in Austin, and TravelandEscape.ca's ethical travel reporter. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Globe Pequot Press, Andrew Harper Traveler and CNN, among others. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose."