Exotic Andaman Islands
The name Andaman conjures up images of freedom struggle and political prisoners suffering at the hands of the British rulers. Andaman derives its name from Hanuman (the Hindu Monkey God) and it was nicknamed Kaala Paani or Forbidden Land. Andaman Islands, does not immediately strike to us as a tourist destination, which could give the Maldives or Pattaya or Mauritius a run for its money!! Maybe we should start calling it The Great Coral Islands for the pristine clean coral beaches…….
I had planned the journey from Chennai to Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, by Indian Airlines (now called Air India) flight at 6am on 27th of September 2009, little realizing that the strike called by the Pilots would play havoc with the flight schedules. Just the previous day, the flight to Port Blair could not land due to bad weather conditions. At the check in counter, we got some good news that the flight to Port Blair would be operating that day, albeit delayed by about 90 minutes. I opted for seats at the left side towards the tail for better view of the Islands during landing.
Andaman and Nicobar islands are located in Bay of Bengal spread across the total distance of 800 kms approximately. The Andaman archipelago includes almost 200 islands but only about 40 islands are inhabited. The nearest country is Burma or Myanmar, which is just 300 kms to the North and the nearest country to Nicobar is Sumatra in Indonesia at a distance of 150 kms. The nearest Indian cities are Chennai, Vizag and Kolkatta at a distance of about 1300 kms. Daily flights are available from Chennai and Kolkata. Ships ply weekly once from Chennai, Vizag and Kolkata.
As the flight began its descent, the view of the Islands through the misty white clouds, is just breath taking. The journey time to Port Blair is just 2 hours and we landed at the Veer Savarkar International Airport under perfect weather conditions. We were fortunate once again. The journey from the Airport to the Resort took us through some of the busy streets of Port Blair, which is the capital city of the Islands. I always take a closer look at roads to judge a city and I was not disappointed here, maybe due to low density of traffic.
We checked in at Megapode Nest Resort managed by Andaman Tourism Board. The Resort is located over a hill and offers a splendid view of the Sea below. The Nicobari cottages are really worth the stay. Despite being a Government run Resort, the service level was very good and the courteous staff members ensured a very pleasant stay.
We had a day to ourselves and since the weather was pleasant, we decided to plan a trip to the Cellular jail, which had our Indian freedom fighters imprisoned from the mid 19th century till about 1940s. The guide explained the history of this Jail, which can soften anyone’s heart, after hearing the hardship endured by our great freedom fighters. Hardship included extracting oil from kernels taking the place of bulls and cutting trees to make furniture. Any refusal met with stringent punishment from the jailors. Veer Savarkar’s cell is a landmark in this complex. He had spent 10 long years in a small cell, most of the time chained. His brother was also jailed at the same time but both brothers never met during those 10 long years. In the evening a special light and sound show is organized in the same complex. We opted for the Hindi version and must say, we were all left speechless after hearing the gory history narrated by Bollywood actor, Om Puri. It was one of the highlights of this Tour.
Since the Islands are to the East, the sunrise is at 5am and by the time it is 5:30pm it is pitch dark. So we cannot plan any outdoor activity after 5pm here. Next day we visited Chatham saw mill, which is the oldest and biggest saw mill in Asia. It is managed by the Government and here we could see huge trees brought from the forest reserves converted to processed wood.
Later we took an hour’s cruise to Viper Island. Main interest in this island is the open space jail which was constructed before the Cellular Jail. Viper Island, named after the ship wreck event of a British trading ship named “Viper” in 19th century. The ruins of an old discarded jail, built by British in 1867, with yellow colored bricks and the gallows are seen in this Island. The island is not inhabited by human population but one can see cattle grazing in the lush green meadows. Tsunami 2004 had destroyed most of the Island.
The other important place to see is the Ross Island, which was the capital of Andaman And Nicobar islands during British rule. The British occupants had constructed some marvelous buildings here including a water treatment plant and hence this place was known as the Paris of the East. This island is now under the Indian Navy and is just 20 minutes by cruise from Port Blair. This was occupied by the Japanese army during World War II and Netaji Bose had unfurled the Indian flag at this very place in 1942. However the Japanese had bombed this place before occupying it and he hence we see only ruins now. The Earthquake in 1941 took its toll on the Island. Tsunami 2004 had also left its mark by destroying what was left of the Island.
In the afternoon, we left for Havelock Islands by Ship. The journey is just 2.5 hours but physical endurance is challenged due to the ship’s design that offers less ventilation. People prone to sea sickness beware. But at the end of the journey you touch Paradise. Never before I have seen such a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach, almost unspoilt, kissing the crystal clear and azure waters. We stayed at Silver Sand Resorts, which is just 4 kms from the harbor. Since the tourist season starts only in October the Resort was half occupied. This ensured undivided attention by the very friendly resort staff. The eco friendly rooms were all built using local timber and the restaurant is just near the wide and open silver beach. I have reached Paradise, I felt. The offer of a body massage was too tempting to be ignored. I required this tonic before taking a dip into the vast Andaman Sea, just a dive away from our Cottage. The place reminded me of the film Blue Lagoon. The island had very few tourists and the beach is surrounded by thick green forests all around. It’s almost like a virgin territory still unspoilt by human population.
Next day we woke up at 4:30am to catch a glimpse of the first rays of the Sun. The sun rises at about 5am but due to cloud cover that day, we could not enjoy the marvelous sight over the Andaman Sea. At sunrise on January 1, 2000, picturesque Katchal Island was in the news. Many rich and famous people from around the world had converged on it for a glimpse of the millennium’s first sunrise.
After breakfast we set out for Radhanagar Beach by road. This beach is one of the most popular beaches on Havelock and was named “Best Beach in Asia” by Time magazine in year 2004. This beach surely scores over Pattaya or Mauritius but somehow not enough marketing has been done by our Government to sell this destination as a premium tourist spot. The white silver sands and calm turquoise water can charm even a non sea lover to take a cool dive into its waters. The hilly background with a splendid green cover provides succor to every nature lover. The color of the sea water varies from early morning Sun light to evening dusk and offers a great sight. One can enjoy cool tender coconut water near the beach. After some rest we set out for Kala Pathar beach, so called because of the big black rocks dotting the sea shore. Tsunami has destroyed the beach and one can see dead trees gently swaying in the shallow waters. For dinner
we went to Wild Orchid Resort, which serves the best seafood. That day we had no power for almost the whole day at Havelock since the local generator, that supplies power to the Island was damaged. The resorts normally have their own generators.
Next day we planned a trip to Elephant beach known for its Corals and a paradise for those who love snorkeling and scuba diving. The charges per person are approximately Rs 750 and Rs 4,500 respectively for about 30 minutes of fun in the sea world. The journey from Havelock to this beach by a small boat is approximately 60 minutes although the local guide mentioned just 30 minutes to us. I can never forget the boat ride, which was very dangerous thanks to bad windy conditions and choppy sea. I thought that was my last boat trip of my life. My wife and kid who accompanied me required courage and I remained calm all through the journey. Once we reached the beach everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The Dive master arranged for my snorkeling gear, which covers the face and nose. We have to breathe through our mouth and ensure we don’t gulp in the salty sea water. Snorkeling is done over the surface of the sea and one need not know swimming since the safety ring is thrown over our body. The diver took me some 100 meters from
the shore where the water was atleast 6 meters deep. I can never forget my first such experience in snorkeling after dipping my face into the sea water. It was a fantastic experience to see the wonderful sea world that included beautiful corals and colorful species of different types of fishes. I felt as if I was in a beautiful aquarium along with the fishes. I could not resist another round of snorkeling just to see more of the beautiful world God has created beneath the sea waters. I can easily rate this as my most thrilling and enjoyable moment of my life. Never imagined that marine life could be so beautiful, hitherto seen only on television shows. I wanted to do scuba diving too but time was short and we had to rush back to Havelock Islands to catch the ferry back to Port Blair.
The 2 hours ferry ride to Port Blair was very uncomfortable since this ship was fully air conditioned and there was no way to get fresh air unless we climb our way to the topmost open deck. The facilities on board was woefully short to take care of any sea sickness kind of ailment and simple things like “puking bags” were not provided. Once we reached Port Blair, we all felt as if we touched Heaven. We were driven back to Megapode Nest Resort for a second innings but this time we were upgraded to Nicobari Cottage due to non availability of standard cottages and heavy rush of tourists. This is perhaps one of the best accommodations at Port Blair since the cottage overlooks the Sea providing a grand view of the Harbor and lush green forest cover. We could sight the Megapode birds found only in this Island and Parakeets.
Next day, we were scheduled to visit the North Bay or Coral Islands, which is about 20 minutes journey by sea from Port Blair. This island is also very famous for Corals and undersea adventure including snorkeling and scuba diving. This time I didn’t go snorkeling but opted for a trip on a glass bottom boat. This 30 minutes trip costs Rs 300 per person and it takes us 200 meters from the shore to the place where we can see corals of all sizes and colors. We could see giant mushroom corals and sponge corals through the glass bottom. Since the boat was motorized we could not see many fish varieties. Since I had already experienced the grand underwater world at Elephant beach earlier I was not too excited. But other folks on the boat were left spellbound after seeing such beautiful corals, still undamaged despite the Tsunami of 2004. No jetties or harbors are permitted near Coral islands since the concrete and steel can damage the sensitive corals. I wished these Islands remained unspoilt forever so that future generations could see such a beautiful creation.
In the evening we set for Chidiyatapu, about 30Kms from Port Blair towards South. This is a must visit place for Sun set viewing. However the clouds played spoilsport yet again and we could not enjoy the ethereal sight. The beach was ravaged by the Tsunami and we can see huge trees that had fallen into the sea water and the concrete wall broken into pieces. That day the Governor of Andaman Islands was at Chidiyatapu to inaugurate a new Zoo, where animals brought in from mainland India, would be displayed. The entire stretch was barricaded and I felt as if the British rulers had revisited us after seeing ordinary mortals braving the sun and the rain. The rains can come in any moment without a warning and can vanish at its own free will. But thankfully, rain did not affect any of our schedules during the entire 5 days stay.
On the Mahatma’s birthday (2nd October), we were scheduled to return back to Bangalore via Chennai. I had booked our return flight to Chennai through Kingfisher Airlines and hence was not much worried this time about the Indian Airlines pilot strike, which had just ended. With a very heavy heart and fond memories of the Enchanting and Exotic Island called Andaman Islands, we said goodbye with a promise to come back again soon.
The Port Blair airport is very spacious and less crowded. In a day there are about an average 4 flights landing and taking off. The airport is under the control of the Air Force and so night flights are not allowed.
To view the snaps taken at Andaman’s, please click on this link …..
- There is no sales tax or VAT levied in the Islands. So you will find food and stay cheaper without a levy of above stated taxes and luxury tax etc.
- Due to the length of the air routes and the small number of airlines flying to the islands, fares have traditionally been relatively expensive, although cheaper for locals than visitors
- It can rain any moment after bright sunshine, so carry an umbrella always
- Try out restaurants in Port Blair city and Havelock. They are not so expensive and the sea food is too good to be missed.
- The local people are very friendly. Tip them generously since they rely on tourists for their income. The tourist season is very short (October to March only)
- Engage a guide especially at the Cellular Jail. They can explain the historical relevance in detail and demand very less fee (average Rs 10 to Rs 20 per person only)
- Do not miss the Light and Sound show at the Cellular jail (5:30pm in Hindi and 6:30pm in English)
- Hindi is spoken widely. The Island is a melting pot of all regions (Burma, Bengal, Andhra, Punjab, Bihar, UP and Tamil Nadu). Bengalis are a majority and hence we could see Durga Puja pandals all over Port Blair
- Of the slightly more than 400,000 people that live in the Andaman Islands, a small minority of about 1,000 are indigenous Adivasis of the Andamans
- There are no taxes on food bill. So what rates you see on the menu is the price you pay
- Electricity can play truant especially at Havelock. So please be prepared for a humid day out
- It can get very humid and hot sometimes. So carry light cotton dresses with you to the Island
- Do not forget to carry swimwear and sandals. Even a non swimmer will be tempted to rush into the azure blue waters.
- Hire local travel agent for local transportation. I did not see adequate public transportation including auto rickshaws even at Port Blair.
- Port Blair has almost all the Public Sector Banks represented here including ATMs. But do not expect the Restaurants or Resorts to accept Credit Cards every time/everywhere.
- If the Islands had been in the control of US or Singapore, it would have been the greatest Holiday destination in the World today. Where else can you find unspoilt coral island and white sandy beaches not encroached upon or damaged by human population.
- We can find very less foreign tourists in Port Blair but majority of them at Havelock. The hippies have not yet discovered this place and thank God for that.
- Most of the houses here do not have locks. It is said that in Havelock there have been no police cases so far involving the locals
- Avoid traveling at night especially at Havelock. It is very lonely and street lights almost non existent.
- Wild life is very scarce in the Islands although forest cover looks very dense. Not even monkeys.
- Be prepared to tour most of the places by boat or steamer or ferry. Take an Avomin if you suffer from sea sickness and also be careful when you cross boats to embark or disembark.
- The Island gets its supplies of fruits and vegetables from the mainland. You can see lot of paddy fields, coconut trees and plantain cultivation though
- The backside of a 20 rupee note has the North Bay Island imprinted on it
- Kanhoji Angre, a Maratha admiral had his base on the island in the early 18th century. He was also called the Napolean of the East.
- Veer Savarkar who was imprisoned at the Cellular Jail from 1911 to 1921 wrote several books during his stay here.
- The southernmost tip of India is the Indira Point (earlier called Pygmalion Point) in South Nicobar Islands,
- The primitive tribals like the Jarawas, Onges, Sentinelese still exist in remote Islands. Some of the tribes are still unconnected to the outside world
- The mobile signal can be weak in some Islands like Havelock etc
- Do not look for souvenirs at Andamans. You can buy only sea shells which is not worth carrying.