x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Where love is in the air

Feature The Lakshadweep Islands off the coast of Kerala are a magnet for Indian Honeymooners and it is easy to see why.

Couples at Bangaram Island enjoy boating, snorkelling, and diving among the area's well-preserved reefs.
Couples at Bangaram Island enjoy boating, snorkelling, and diving among the area's well-preserved reefs.

Minutes after the seat belt lights flicker off on the journey from Cochin to Bangaram Island, we see something you'll almost never see in conservative India, and certainly not on an aeroplane. The quiet couple from Tamil Nadu across the aisle of the small propeller plane begin to cuddle up to each other with a steadily increasing passion. "It's the Smooch Express!" hisses my considerably less amorous companion.

It's only when the first of the Lakshadweep Islands comes into view that the honeymoon couple turn their eyes away from each other to look out of the window. Landing at Agatti Island must be one of the most breathtaking beginnings to a honeymoon anywhere in the world. A speck in the endless blue ocean grows into a leaf-shaped green island, the propellers change pitch, the plane dips and swerves to bring into view a thin landing strip jutting far out into the ocean, a sandy beach surrounding it on each side. The arrivals hall is little more than a shack, then it's a short 40-minute thud over the waves to the two and a bit tear-shaped square kilometres of Bangaram Island.

Bangaram Island, a palm-fringed coral atoll set in an immense lagoon of shimmering turquoise, 320km into the Arabian Sea from the Indian coast, is not a place for the single traveller. Even the resort's friendly manager, Radhakrishna Shenoi, refers to "couples" rather than "guests". The luxury bungalows here were even built for a couple. India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had them made for his private holidays with Sonia Gandhi back in the mid-1980s, years before the resort was opened to foreign tourists.

The island appears completely uninhabited until the boat chugs around the lagoon to show an arc of sand bleached almost white, three boats moored in the waters in front, a few low thatched buildings, and a collection of hotel staff standing awkwardly around a banner saying "Welcome Back". Compared to the five-star-studded Maldives to the south, the accommodation at Bangaram Island is basic - much more basic than you'd expect for the prices, which surpass US$400 (Dh1,470) per night in peak season - although you'd struggle to find anything as exclusive for this price in the Maldives.

There's no television, air conditioning or newspapers. The electricity is solar-powered, and, most disconcertingly for those expecting Maldivian comfort levels, the showers in the 30 tile-roofed beach huts are cold and smack of the natural sulphur dissolved in the island's groundwater. Also, only the three luxury bungalows stand alone. The others are set in terraces, so you can hear the voices in the next-door rooms, which presumably inhibits the resort's many honeymoon couples.

"Here the luxury is in the nature, the space and the peace, rather than the hotel itself," Mr Shenoi reminds guests in his introductory briefing as they sip tender coconut water from the shell. "We get responsible, educated people who understand what we are trying to do here." Fortunately for him, as you paddle into the pristine waters, understanding this isn't all that hard. There's an hour or so in the late afternoon when the sun turns the lagoon's waters to the exact same shade of pale, glimmering turquoise as the sky above. The horizon vanishes, and Tinakkara, Bangaram's twin island across the lagoon, appears to hang suspended. There's no sound but the rustle of palms, and the world beyond seems impossibly far away.

A spit of shallow water curls and twists deep into the centre of the lagoon, so you can bob in warm, shallow water, midway between the islands. At night, thousands of phosphorescent plankton are washed onto the beach, glimmering under feet during your night-time strolls. If you are looking for a genuine sand and coral version of the idealised desert island, it doesn't get much closer than Bangaram. You don't have to amble very far along the beach to feel you have it to yourself: there were only 30 guests on the island when I was there three months ago; there are 60 at peak season. The only other people are the staff, a few of their wives and children, and the occasional villager from Agatti, over to tend to the coconut groves. Staff manage to be both attentive and unobtrusive: you never feel watched, but rooms are always tidied and refreshed minutes after you leave for a swim or meal.

To be fair, CGH Earth, the hotel group that runs Bangaram and a handful of boutique resorts in mainland Kerala, has little competition. All but five of the 36 Lakshadweep islands are off limits to tourists (several private island resorts are reserved for Indian government officials). Only three islands are open to foreigners and the resorts on the other two - the Agatti Beach Resort and the Kadmat Island Beach Resort - are still government-run and even less luxurious than Bangaram. The islands are inhabited, though, so they are perhaps a better option for those who want more of a taste of the unique Muslim, matrilineal island culture.

It's been mooted that the Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya has been trying to build a new resort on Tinakkara. But although he leased the land back in the 1990s, the project has been locked up in a court case ever since, so CGH Earth, which runs Bangaram, can for now afford to keep things simple and still attract high-end guests. Part of the reason the resort is so little-known is that the Kerala-based boutique hotel group doesn't make much of an effort to advertise itself. The Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and Richard Gere are some of those who have visited over the past decade. Abramovich came in 2007 and Lara Dutta, the former Miss Universe and Bollywood actress, was here in 2008.

This Christmas, Sonia Gandhi, the head of India's ruling Congress Party, stayed with her mother and two children. She normally brings a retinue of plain-clothes body guards, but is otherwise surprisingly low-key, says one regular, mixing with other guests and sometimes sharing the evening buffet on the beach. Mr Shenoi estimates that around 15 to 20 guests at any one time are here on honeymoon. The shock the first few honeymoon batches caused Lakshadweep's conservative inhabitants, the government claims, is the reason it has kept so many of the islands closed.

But a growing number also now come for the diving. "In the Maldives, you have such a lot of divers, and so many diving centres," complains Tobias from Switzerland, who's come to dive with his girlfriend Sara. "There's no reef where you can be alone any more." On Bangaram, serious divers can be sure that the reef will only be visited by one dive boat: the resort's. In all other respects, the reef is more or less identical to what you'll find in the Maldives. The Lakshadweep islands, the Maldives and the Chagos islands are all geographically part of the same archipelago, called Lakshadweepa, or the "hundred thousand islands" in Sanskrit texts.

Neither of us are experienced divers, and we aren't on the island long enough to justify the diving course, so we tag along, clutching snorkels and flippers, while six other guests visit the reef's cleaning station, where giant manta rays gather from hundreds of kilometres around to have their skins picked clean by tiny fish. That day, they were nowhere to be seen, so instead the six divers are circled by languidly paddling turtles, although sadly they were invisible to us snorkellers on the surface.

The diving school is run by Subin, who gets glowing reviews for his patience with first-time divers, and Mohammed, a Lakshadweep local who has been diving the island's reefs ever since the resort first opened 20 years ago. At $500 (Dh1,835) for a four-day course, and $1,000 (Dh3,670) for a two- week advanced diver course, it's not cheap, but you do get to do some of the most exclusive diving in the world.

And as the sun goes down around the thatched Beach Shack bar - apparently the only legal bar in Lakshadweep - it's the day's diving that makes up much of the conversation. Tobias is kicking himself for being too slow with his underwater camera to catch a sailfish that whipped past. "Not a bad dive, not a bad dive at all," concludes Geoff, an engineer from England who's here with his wife Nili. "You can't say it's a bad dive when you see a thresher shark." In late October, the island is still affected by the last of the reverse monsoon rains, so visibility hasn't been perfect, but everyone seems happy nonetheless.

Even if you don't want to dive, there's plenty to keep you active. You can potter around the azure waters in one of the resort's kayaks, gaze down on coral stacks from a glass-bottomed canoe, or take out a Hobie cat or windsurfing board. I also saw a greater variety and number of extravagantly coloured and patterned fish while snorkelling just 10 metres off the beach outside our cabin than I did far out on the reef.

One British couple spent so long studying and documenting the birds that break their migrations at the island's brackish freshwater lake that they put all their photographs together into a book that's on sale in the gift shop. There's also fishing. Shenoi admits with a bit of shame that he's afraid to put his head beneath the surface. Instead, he takes guests out at night to wrestle with big game like barracuda, sailfish, and yellowfin tuna. You can get dropped off at Tinakkara or Parali islands across the lagoon and stay for hours alone on an uninhabited desert island with little but crabs for company. On full moon nights, Tinakkara becomes the site of the resort's monthly turtle watch.

And of course, you may find you have little inclination to do anything at all. The conversation at the bar drifts onto whether Bangaram beats Bali, Thailand, or the Maldives for the title of the best beach holiday location. Nili and Geoff conclude that it probably does, and for them the detail that clinches its position over Bali, more even than the perfect isolation, is the food. John, who's been the chef since arriving from his home on mainland Kerala in 1989, has trawled the archipelago for local seafood specialities, which he combines with Keralan favourites, delicious barbecued fish, and some of the best salads I've ever tasted. Everything is cooked over a wood fire and served as a buffet on the beach, where the guests eat, mostly as couples, on the shore. It's very simple, but fresh and delicious.

When CGH Earth beat several much larger hotel groups to take over Bangaram Island's government guesthouse back in 1988, they won by promising to change as little as possible. It has, if anything, been a little too true to its word. The resort would be improved with the sulphur stripped from the water, and individual beach huts in place of the terraces. But you can't help feeling that if a five-star resort is constructed on Tinakkara, however low-key and sensitively it's done, something will have been lost. For now, Mr Shenoi doesn't seem too worried. "It's remained the same for 20 years," he shrugs. "So it shouldn't change now."