A penal colony in the time of the British Raj, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands were once known as kalapani: “the black waters.” The bitter irony of that misnomer becomes clear to anyone who ventures off the mainland for the two-hour, 740-mile flight to this remote archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. As your plane descends, the low green islands angle into view, each trimmed with white sand and surrounded by patches of aquamarine sea. It’s a scene of uncommon tropical beauty, a deserted-island dream made real.

Except for five fragile populations of tribal aboriginals, the Andamans are culturally and politically Indian. But the tree-lined beaches and clear-water seascapes here are closer in distance and ecology to Thailand’s western islands. Resort-saturated Phuket is only 280 miles from the Anda­man capital, Port Blair, and direct flights linking the destinations have been planned for years. Environmentalists fear those connections will explode tourist volume, spurring intense resort development that could threaten the biodiverse islands’ wealth of rare and endemic species and its astounding 86 percent forest cover. And without better infrastructure, extra traffic could strain a delicate ecology already plagued by water shortages and waste-disposal problems and still recovering from the 2004 tsunami.

The disaster eroded beaches, severely damaged portions of the islands’ coral reefs, and left 3,513 dead and thousands more homeless. For now, though, you can only reach the Andamans from mainland India, and relatively few make the trip. Just 146,000 tourists visited the islands in 2007 (compared with more than 5 million who headed to Phuket), and most of those were domestic tourists taking advantage of a civil-service benefit program. The Andaman administration is trying to draw more foreigners, but with an eco-sensitive approach. Rules already in place mandate low-impact coastal construction and restrict plastic in sensitive areas. And recycling and better waste-disposal sites are being developed. Officials have also quietly discussed focusing development on high-end green resorts, limiting tourist numbers by pricing out all but the wealthy.

Whatever scenario unfolds, more tourists are definitely coming. The islands are just too deliriously beautiful to remain obscure forever. Even in and around Port Blair, a city that most visitors pass over for more beach time, there are singular experiences to be had. Ross Island, once the Andaman seat of the Raj, is now a surreal living museum where peacocks and a herd of spotted deer roam amid the overgrown ruins of churches and officers’ clubs. An hour away, the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park is a massive permit-only aquatic biosphere with excellent snorkeling; officials have banned plastic bags in the park and visitors pay a deposit on each plastic bottle they bring.

From Port Blair it’s just a two-hour ferry ride to Havelock Island, where the promise of that first in-flight impression is realized. On the island’s undeveloped western side, Barefoot at Havelock is a perfectly secluded eco- friendly retreat with access to the island’s best beaches. Eighteen elegantly furnished huts and cottages are nestled between a verdant hill and a forest of hundred-foot mahua trees. The woodlands give way to Radha Nagar Beach, a stunning mile-long stretch of powder-soft white sand that slopes gently into roaring, glass-clear surf. Evenings at Radha Nagar are sublime—the sun sets behind the trees, firing the sky above the sea with colors that linger in the clouds even after dark.

Barefoot is also the eco-resort tourism officials consider a model for future development. Founder Susheel Dixit refuses to light footpaths, instead providing flashlights in each room. There are no televisions, few air conditioners (soon to be removed, Dixit says), and only low-flow toilets and low-pressure showerheads. Basins substitute for spigots for washing sandy feet.

The resort arranges guided tours of Havelock’s beaches and hiking trails, but a better way is to rent a bike and explore. Up the road, Elephant Beach lives at the end of a rough trail that winds through a flower-dotted meadow and then past huge prehistoric-looking palms. Partially submerged  by the tsunami, the sand now appears only at low tide, emerging before your eyes as  the water recedes. The reef here, home to starfish, sea cucumber, and an assortment of other brightly colored sea life, offers some of the best snorkeling on the island.

A pleasant seven-mile ride past lush forests and rice paddies brings you to Havelock’s east side. Stop for lunch in tiny, oddly named Village Number 2; you can make your own with fresh produce from the market. You’ll also find sundries and souvenirs, and if you’re desperate, a sometimes-working Internet connection.

A little further on are gorgeous beaches Number 3 and Number 5. Most of the island’s tourists stay here, in one of a string of low-key resorts that lines the shore. One of these, Emerald Gecko, is the island’s sole source of nightlife, hosting weekly parties with DJs and fire dancers. For a quieter evening, head back to Radha Nagar for dinner at Mahua. This unexpected gem serves delicious organic Italian cuisine made with herbs and vegetables from the expat chef’s garden.

For now, development hasn’t spoiled the Andamans’ natural charms, but how long that will remain true is unclear. Everyone here agrees change is coming; the questions are when and of what kind. An optimist, Barefoot’s Dixit believes his and his partners’ version of eco-tourism can take hold. They’ve bought up land around Radha Nagar to prevent further development, plan to expand elsewhere in the islands, and are working with American nonprofit Seacology to provide environmental education to locals. “If we do it right here,” Dixit says, “the rest of the Andamans can follow.”

By air

Air India, Deccan, and Jet Lite. These three airlines fly several times a week between Chennai and Kolkata, and Port Blair. Go to cleartrip.com for schedules and booking.

By sea

Two or three ferries run every day  between Port Blair and Havelock Island; check Phoenix Bay Jetty in Port Blair for schedules.

By land

Port Blair and Vicinity

Annapurna Cafeteria Aberdeen Bazaar, 091-0319-223-3319

Superb South Indian cuisine.

Fortune Bay Resort

Marine Hill, 091-0319-223-4101

fortunehotels.in

It’s overpriced but still the nicest hotel in town; pleasant balcony bar over­looking the sea.

Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park

ANI Tourism Office, Kamraj Road 091-0319-223-8473

Explore this massive marine biosphere where the government runs snorkeling trips. Plastic bags are banned, jute bags are lent for free, and you pay a deposit for plastic bottles. Get permits and tickets at the tourism office.

Ross Island

Four ferries a day, 8:30 am–2 pm

Tickets at Port Blair Jetty

This former seat of British admin­istration is now an open-air museum; peacocks and spotted deer amble through ruins eerily over­grown with banyan trees.

Havelock Island

Barefoot at Havelock Radha Nagar (Beach No. 7)

091-0319-222-0191, barefootindia.com

The Andamans’ premier eco-resort.

Yoga classes, Ayurvedic massage, and bike and moped rental are available on-site.

Hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and diving trips can also be arranged.  

Elephant Beach

Partially submerged and reachable only by a 20-minute walk through a tropical forest crowded with lizards and butterflies; features some of Havelock’s best snorkeling.

Emerald Gecko

(Beach No. 5) emerald-gecko.com

This affordable resort is the island’s major offering in the way of nightlife, with live music and DJs. Run by the owners of Wild Orchid (see below). 

Mahua

Radha Nagar (Beach No. 7)

Sample delicious organic Italian—cooked by expats—in the forest next to Barefoot; 80 percent of the produce is grown in the restaurant’s garden.

Radha Nagar Beach (Beach No. 7)

Take in gorgeous sunsets on a massive white-sand beach.  

Vijay Nagar Beach (Beach No. 5)

The water here is so clear you can follow rays of sunlight beneath the surface; home to high-end resorts, including Wild Orchid.

Wild Orchid

Vijay Nagar (Beach No. 5)

091-0319-228-2472, wildorchidandaman.com

Thatch and hardwood structures amid beautiful tropical gardens; the resort arranges ex­cellent scuba, snorkeling, and fishing trips.

Story by Dave Zuckerman. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008