Apr 14, 2021
KAYAKING THOUGH MANGROVES AT NIGHT, the world feels topsy-turvy as the phosphorescent water twinkles like shooting stars with every ripple. It’s a breathtaking sight. The only noises are my loud thuds as I clumsily collide into the primeval low hanging branches. There is a gentle rustle, and it isn’t apparent whether this is owing to a tropical, sticky breeze or to something more ominous, perhaps a curious sea snake or crocodile? It’s this kind of white-knuckle, slow-moving beauty that gives the impression I’m paddling through the waters of one of India’s last frontiers.
The Andaman Islands, floating in the Bay of Bengal, is an archipelago of 300 or so atolls, with only about 30 islands permanently inhabited by a mix of indigenous tribes and Indians. It’s no easy feat to travel there. Officially part of India but closer to Myanmar and Thailand and with no international airport, these clutch of islands—ringed by so many white-sand beaches that half of them don’t even have names—feels as secret as a pirate’s map. The capital Port Blair, having served as British penal colony and nicknamed Kālā Pānī (Hindi for ‘black waters’), was once shrouded in mystery and viewed with suspicion. Although no longer the case since India’s independence in 1947, overseas travelers seem to have only recently cottoned on to this archipelago’s sun-soaked existence.
For all these reasons and more, Marko Hill, a chef and entrepreneur from London, with his wife Atalanta Weller, a shoe designer, decided to buy a plot of land and create Jalakara, a modern-tropical hotel on Havelock Island, one of the largest of the islands. “When I was younger, I had dreamt of running away from grey London to live on an exotic tropical island, swimming with brightly colored fish and eating coconuts every day,” he says.
Originally conceived as a private villa for their family, the couple soon realized that they wanted to share the experience of Jalakara with like-minded people and turning it into a small, seven-room hotel was the best way to do that. Opened for their first season in 2016, it is a handmade hotel in the truest sense. Few places can be as cleverly imagined as Jalakara, a passion project that took seven years to build, during six months of each with the couple living on-site, responding to the landscape with their construction and preserving as much of the natural environment as possible. In favoring analogue techniques, they wound up building an eco-conscious hotel. “We didn’t set out with a list of sustainable rules, regulations and practices. Rather, everything unfolded quite organically,” Hill says.
“Being in India, where old-world craft techniques are still very much alive, we wanted to celebrate this and produce something handcrafted,” Hill says. Heavily influenced by the principles of wabi-sabi and vernacular architecture, a style informed by local building practices, craft techniques and the use of nearby natural materials, the hilltop property has been instilled with the kind of intricate analogue details rarely seen outside of this hand-powered country.
The result is a kind of thoughtful and discreet luxury. The colorful walls and floors throughout the hotel were hand-plastered then polished with coconut oil, while the tiles on the roof are salvaged from villages in south India. A modern approach to old-world crafts such as block printing, indigo dyeing, mud printing and embroidery can be seen in the curtains, which are fashioned out of old white saris, and in each room, you’ll find hand-dyed and printed kimonos. Together with their architect, Hill and Weller built most of their furniture, much crafted from raw tree trunks and bamboo from the Andamans. Everything else is sourced from their travels from around the world: “Everything was either made by us or found by us, and every item has a story behind it,” Hill says.
Built like a villa, no two rooms are the same. Some have private gardens, others have mezzanines, private plunge pools and outdoor showers. All are fabulous: Rich in details with an emphasis on bright colors, light, shadow, form and texture—four-posters, ceiling fans, claw-foot copper tubs, vintage hardware, trunks and knickknacks—and splashed in joyous shades of mustards, teals, gun metals and indigos. The property, backed by dense rainforest, may seem like a surprising location given the endless rings of beaches available, but as I fall asleep half-hidden in the stubborn jungle of coconut, betel nut and banana trees, and wake to the chorus of early birdsong, the location makes perfect sense.
Each room, at different heights and scale, offers its own view, light and perspective, so much so that it’s not unusual for barefoot, kimono-clad guests to swap rooms with each other mid-stay to experience the different sides of Jalakara. With an aim to go beyond mere aesthetics, the couple wanted the hotel to be a multi-sensory experience. “The floor being a thermal mass and hand-applied gives it a slight undulated feel which is fantastic to walk barefoot on,” Hill says. “The water is heated by fire not just to conserve energy but to have the slight smell of wood-fire waft throughout the property.”
People often speak of the Andaman Islands and its undiscovered beauty as if they themselves had unearthed the islands. But it’s more in comparison to, say, the swarms of hippies in Goa or the crush of mopeds in Kerala. Here on Havelock Island, with its population of 5,000, you’re more likely to spend most of your days face-to-fin with the underwater locals—fishing, snorkeling and diving—or canoeing, trekking through dense forest, or scooting from village-to-village, beach-to-beach.
Even the food takes on a go-slow, sustainable form with most of the island restricted to a farm-and-boat-to-table menu, not because it’s fashionable but, without any form of chilled distribution to the island, most of the menu has to be hyper-local and plucked, grown or caught by local fishermen and farmers from the surrounding sea, neighboring farms or rainforests. “We use banana flowers, honey from the rainforest, tropical fruit, spices from our farm, chickens and eggs from a local farmer,” Hill says.
The real bonus is the spectacularly fresh seafood, such as fresh tuna, prawns and lobsters, which translates into a loosely Anglo-Indian style menu like black lobster momos and papaya and coconut curries. The menu is a love letter to this region and a showcase of what can be cooked up with a little imagination. Guests can go foraging with chefs, have cooking lessons or, if they catch any fish, barbecue it themselves.
Days can be filled with as much adventure as you want, or none at all and finding this one-point-oh way of life in such a switched-on modern age is rare. And I realize, after a few days cut from the noise and clutter of the mainland, that perhaps it’s not the past that Jalakara is celebrating—maybe it’s the future.
Doubles from Rs13,500 per night. jalakara.info
The Andaman Islands can only be accessed from mainland India.
There are daily flights to Port Blair from Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai.
Havelock Island is approximately 90 minutes by ferry from Port Blair.
It is strongly advised to book transfer services via Jalakara to make the trip from Port Blair Airport to Havelock Island as smooth as possible.
For more detailed and bespoke travel itineraries, visit Jalakara Concierge Travel.
THINGS TO DO
Explore the island by bicycle or scooter. Jalakara can also book private rickshaws and taxis.
The hotel also operates a daily complimentary beach shuttle service to Radhanagar beach.
All activities such as fishing, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, beach picnics, barbecues and treks can be booked and organized for you by the hotel.
All photos courtesy of Jalakara