Our Favourite Tropical Islands: Part 1 Asia

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Is there any image that suggests indulgent relaxation more powerful than that of an tropical island?

The idea of a calm, turquoise sea lapping gently at a white sandy beach edged by tall palm trees seems to stir something in most people’s souls – a life of carefree leisure spent enjoying the quiet serenity that only this kind of scene seems to offer.

It’s been almost 5 months since we were at our last beach, and Argentina’s chilly winter has us longing once again for the feeling of warm sand between our toes. We’d like to share with you our reminiscences about some of these little slices of paradise that we’ve discovered on our travels. In this post we have details of our favourite islands in Asia, while Parts 2 and 3 explore Fiji and the Cook Islands.

Havelock Island, Andaman Islands, India

Sunset at Beach No 7, Havelock Island

The Andaman Islands are located in the Indian Ocean about 1000km east of India. They are actually nearer to Thailand, but are part of India and can only be reached from there. Most people haven’t heard of them, unless they’ve visited India where rumours abound about these perfect islands.

We stayed on Havelock Island which was utterly gorgeous with pure white beaches and the clearest ocean we had ever seen – at bath water warm temperatures. Development is very low key – with just a single track road around the coast and minimal traffic. There’s a few upmarket hotels but mostly you’ll find basic palm-thatched shacks.

Things To Do

Scuba Dive
One of the best things about the Andamans is the scuba diving. It’s still in its infancy here but is some of the best in the world. We were lucky enough to learn to dive here and on our very first dive, still close to the shore, we saw a turtle. We were instantly hooked. The really amazing dives take a bit more effort to get to though. There are only two dive operators and neither of them have motor boats (at least when we were there two years ago) so getting to dive sites can take quite a while in the basic converted dunghi fishing boats. When the sea got rough being in such a small boat was rather worrying and my sea sickness made me reconsider my diving career.

It’s worth it though when you reach dive sites such as Minerva – an immense garden of beautiful coral teeming with colourful tropical fish. With visibility at 30 metres it was an other worldly experience.

Laze on the Beach
The most famous and beautiful beach on the island is Beach No 7 – a long and wide stretch of white sand backed by forest. Most of the budget accommodation is located around the lovely but smaller beaches number 3 – 5 on the east coast, but you can take a rickety bus across the island to visit No 7. The journey is lovely through peaceful farmland surrounded by enormous trees of the dense jungle.

Simon’s shark sand sculpture

The beaches are wonderful to relax on and we could float in the warm turquoise sea for hours, but if you get bored like Simon then there’s always sand sculpting.

Along the way to No 7 beach you can stop of at Elephant beach for one of the best snorkelling spots. The bus will drop you off by the side of the road and then it’s a bit of a trek through the jungle to get there, wading through knee deep water at some points (wear sandles).

Although far from the mainland, on Havelock you still feel like you are in India (especially when tasty potato samosas and spicy chai are your diving snacks), but with a much slower pace which reminded me of Sri Lanka. It’s blissfully chilled out and the perfect antidote to the chaotic subcontinent.

When To Go

It’s hot year round but the driest season is January to April. We visited in February and the weather was perfect every day and the water deliciously warm.

How To Get There

First you’ll need to get to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. It’s possible to take a four day ferry from the mainland but it’s much easier to fly from Chennai or Kolkata. Port Blair isn’t the most exciting place so it’s best to get on a ferry to Havelock Island as soon as possible.

Unfortunately these get booked up quickly, and we were told we’d have to wait two days in Port Blair. However, in India Everything is Possible so after hanging around the ferry for a while we managed to wangle our way on deck, and didn’t even pay more that the other passengers. The journey takes about four hours and we didn’t have seating. I think advance reservations may now be possible so this is worth looking into.

View from our beach hut, Havelock Island

Where To Stay

We stayed at Pristine Beach Resort at Beach No 5. We looked at a lot of beach shacks and these ones right on the beach were the best, although expensive (compared to the Indian mainland) at 900 rupees (US$19) a night. You can find cheaper places but they will  be very  basic – just a bed in a palm-thatched hut. Pristine has a sociable restaurant and bar which is a good place to meet people without being too noisy or full on.

Perhentian Besar, Malaysia

Sunrise on Perhentian Besar

In South East Asia we decided to skip the Thai islands as we aren’t fond of overdeveloped party beaches (although we have since heard of these quiet Thai islands) and instead head to Malaysia. Although the Perhentian Islands are popular with backpackers the scene is more low key than in Thailand, and we headed to the quietest beach on the most chilled out island: Teluk Dalam on Perhentian Besar.

We found more of the white sand beaches and crystalline waters we’d grown addicted to on Havelock, against a backdrop of jungle covered hills. There are no roads or even paths on the island and the only way to get around is on foot or by taxi boat. This means the pace of life is wonderfully slow. We stayed for two weeks and only wore shoes twice: to trek through the jungle to the other side of the island. The rest of the time we were barefoot as the only place to walk to get to one of the simple restaurants is along the beach, where we’d eat with our toes in the sand.

Things To Do

Scuba Dive
We love to spend time at beaches but get bored lying in the sun all day. Having an activity for part of the day is a perfect compromise. We loved our first diving experience in the Andamans and as the Perhentians are a very cheap place to dive we decided to get our advanced diving certificates.

Although not quite as spectacular as Havelock the diving here is still very good, the boats are faster and we saw moray eels, lionfish, stonefish, barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and lots more. A highlight was our first wreck dive – seeing nature take back this old, humongous cargo ship was incredible. The bright colours of the coral and fish contrasted with the ghostly, decaying hull.

Even if you don’t want to dive you can see a lot by snorkelling. We swam out to Shark Point thinking that is was probably rather optimistically named. We were excited to see our first shark (a reef shark measuring 1-2 metres long, but a shark nonetheless) and were amazed to end up seeing nine of them!

That is until three of them started circling us…

Jungle Trek
You can technically walk between all the beaches but some of the paths are quite difficult to find. We walked a few times on the jungle path between Arwana Resort on our beach and Watercolours on the other side of the island. It’s a sweaty, buggy hike but you’ll probably have it all to yourself and it’s good to get some exercise if you’re feeling a little guilty after too much lounging.

Kayaks are available to rent and the water is calm, though we made the mistake of heading out mid afternoon under the burning sun and, as a result, didn’t get very far.

When To Visit

March to October to avoid the monsoon season.

How To Get There

You can take the approximately one hour ferry or speedboat from Kuala Besut, a small town which is reachable from Kota Bharu on the east coast of Malaysia. We took an overnight train from Bangkok to the border, spent the night in Kota Bharu and continued to the islands the next day.

Where To Stay

After six months of Asian travel and a long and difficult journey from Bangkok we were in need of a holiday. We treated ourselves to the best hotel on the beach: Arwana Resort. It cost us US$60 a night but we got a very comfortable room and a large swimming pool, which we mostly had to ourselves. There are a number of beach huts for much cheaper prices around the island.

Update: We have now visited the Thai islands and loved the quiet islands of Koh Mak and Koh Jum, and found the perfect balance between quiet beaches and amenities on Koh Lanta.

For more tropical island ideas check out our posts on off the beaten track islands in Fiji and the Cook Islands.

We are tropical island fiends, so if you have any recommendations for islands like these in Latin America, then please leave a comment and share them with us!

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