Natural beauty and national pride merge seamlessly in the Andaman Islands, which together with the Nicobar Islands form the floating part of India, a group of 572 islands, islets and rocks, which lie to the south eastern tip of the Bay of Bengal.
Innumerable shades of blue tussle with the open greens, the outstretched whites and sandy browns. The view is picture postcard perfect. And cameras go trigger happy!
Tourists have begun to flock to the Andamans recently. A lot of tour operators still do not offer Andaman packages. Which is why we had an entire Kingfisher flight chartered by a travel website that had a strong network in place in the Andamans.
The islands are all about putting your feet up. For the adventurous, there is snorkelling and scuba diving. But for those of us, who like to take it easy, the amazing corals are on view, if you crouch in the glass-bottomed motor boat and peer through the emerald green waters. Smile at the boatman and put a little baksheesh in his hands and he’ll take you further down the waters, where the marine life is at its turquoise best. We even caught Nemo swimming away happily with his friends, oblivious to the bulging eyes on the other end of the glass.
Port Blair, the capital city of the Andaman Islands and the place where the three-hour direct flight from Bengaluru lands. As capital cities go Port Blair too is alive with hustle and bustle. There are shops, government organisations, and offices jostling for space in this small area. History reigns in Port Blair. Particularly that of India’s freedom struggle. The most important shrine to this period is the magnificent Cellular Jail that was built by the British and that housed over 600 inmates [the most distinguished among them being Vinayak Damodar Savarkar aka Veer Savarkar]. Indian freedom fighters were sent here as punishment—saza-e-kaala paani—and it was one of the most dreaded sentences. A light and sound show organised here in the evening, takes you back to the darkest periods of India’s fight for independence to give you a glimpse of the atrocities meted out to prisoners.
A short 30-minute cruise takes you to the Viper Island, which houses the gallows where freedom fighters met their end. Another short cruise takes you to the Ross Islands, the capital of Port Blair during the British era. Now, only dilapidated buildings remain. The ruins of the bakery, press, swimming pool, barracks, church and chief commissioner’s house are but a hollow reminder of the times gone by. When the sea breeze blows through these now lifeless buildings, you somehow get the feel of being in another age. The deers cavorting freely around eating sugarcane out of your hands—adds to the surreal experience.
The show stealers of these islands are still the pristine white beaches that extend into emerald green [and sometimes turquoise blue] waters. Swaying palms provide just the right shade for you to nestle under and put your feet up. In 2004, the tsunami had hit the islands, leaving devastation in its wake. Somehow, the destruction has made Andamans even more beautiful [if that’s even possible]. The trees felled by the natural disaster look like magnum opus of some master sculptor. Sit on them and take home pictures with the most beautiful sea as backdrop.
Few beaches on the islands can be reached by road. The Elephant Beach and Corbyn’s Cove are among them. The drive to both these is as breathtakingly picturesque as the destinations themselves. Soaking in the sun, sea, sand and surf at these beaches is an unforgettable experience, but for a major grouse: there are no toilets or changing rooms on site. As a result, people are forced to attend to nature’s calls behind bushes and change behind makeshift curtains made by hanging a pieces of cloth to creaking wooden poles. And, as things go, there are no dustbins, which result in tourists littering the beaches.
The Radhanagar Beach on the Havelock Islands is a welcome exception. Ranked the best beach in Asia by the Time magazine in 2004, the beach lives up to its reputation. Interrupted only by the golden and turquoise waves, miles of soft powdery sand invite you to sink your feet into it. The sun sets here as early as 5 in the evening and is almost a spiritual sight. It’s with reluctant hearts that we had to dust the sand from our backs and head back to the hotel.
This is really not such a bad thing; hotels at Havelock Islands are straight out of postcards. Cosy cottages set amidst swaying palms open their windows to the salt spray and the sea mist. Lazy hammocks dot the meandering lanes that open out directly into the sea. Though the Andamans don’t have a winter [the tsunami changed the weather of the islands, say the locals], and it is humid, even in December, the sea breeze makes up for the balmy days.
The journey from Port Blair to Havelock is an adventure in itself. Ferried, or rather flown over the waters by a catamaran—the Makruzz—two hours, a few shrieks and tummy churning somersaults later, this white and blue beauty deposits us at the harbour. What a feeling, it is!
For those in search of retail therapy, the Andamans offer its treasures from the sea: key chains, show pieces, jewellery made from shells and corals and conches that hold messages from the sea. Plus there are the usual suspects–T-shirts that declare to the world that you’ve been to the Andamans and spices that release their aroma even as you touch them.
Andamans is also about taking a perfect shot—whatever the make of your camera! Do visit Chidiya Tapu, which is a 45-minute drive from Port Blair for some amazing silhouettes and moments that the Tsunami has left behind. The drive serenades the sea as it segues to some of the best seascapes that you could have seen in this part of the globe.
Day-long excursions to Jolly Buoy Island and Red Skin Islands give you opportunities to snorkel and scuba dive—and touch marine life—the amazing corals and reefs.
Those who think that Andaman is all about beaches, Mount Harriet dispels the notion with its steep climb. The summer headquarters of the Chief Commissioner during the British Raj, this picnic spot is the highest point in South Andaman and is a vantage point to get a spectacular bird’s eye view of the islands. For hikers, it has a 6km nature trail and for the kids, a play park.
Then there are the museums that document the past and present life of the people of Andaman and Nicobar: the Anthropological Museum showcases the lifestyle of aboriginal inhabitants; and the Fisheries Museum showcases the rich and varied marine life of these tiny islands.
Ultimately, Andaman is about freedom. The open spaces, the clear air, the beckoning waters and the expanse of beaches. It is about finding a silent space within yourself as you give in to this environment of national pride and natural beauty.
- Best time to visit:October to May
- How to reach: Direct flights from Bengaluru and Chennai to Port Blair; by ship from Kolkatta and Vishakhapatnam
- Languages spoken: Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali
- What to carry: Plenty of sunscreen with a SPF of 30; swim wear; sunglasses; slippers; hats/ caps; beach toys
- Shop for: Shell souvenirs, T-shirts, spices, pearls and semi-precious stones like coral
- Don’t miss: Radhanagar Beach, Havelock Islands, and Chidiya Tapu. If you don’t mind waking up at 4 in the morning, go for the one-day excursion to the heart of the Andaman culture, where you will interact with the original tribals and also see amazing limestone caves at the Baratang Islands—an unforgettable experience.
- What to eat: The sea food is spectacular. Try the catch of the day—fish, crabs, lobsters and prawns—and have it cooked and served fresh to your table. Cuisines available are: Chinese, Continental, Mughlai and Chettinand. Everywhere coconut water abounds—fresh and sweet and a real thirst quencher.
Take a journey into history at Baratang Islands. Here you will see the ancient tribes, the Jarwahs, untouched by civilisation and living the same life for hundreds of years. They are dark, short, have red eyes, and carry spears and eat mainly roasted pig meat. Interaction with them is a strict no-no by the forest authorities as they can get dangerous.
The terrain is crossed by convoys that leave at specified times. So do check the timings before you take the trip. At Baratang Islands, you can also see Mud Volcanoes and an unforgettable boat ride through thick mangroves takes you to a fascinating glimpse of Limestone caves—scenes that are straight out of National Geographic. You need to leave Port Blair at the unearthly hour of 4am but the trip more than makes up for the lost sleep.
Get up close and personal with the fishes. Scuba diving and snorkelling hold a sea of opportunities. Hold a little bread in your hands and they will dart towards it, finishing it all before you can say see. Marine life in the Andaman is about getting adventurous. Wandoor National Park at Jolly Buoy Island and the Red Skin Islands are particularly good for these activities. Shoals of colourful fish, fascinating coral reefs and mysterious remains of ships wait in the depths of the sea to be explored. Scuba diving and snorkelling are valid options—even for the uninitiated. Carry your own equipment or rent it out—but only from seasoned operators. Don’t forget to ask them for underwater photography opportunities.
This was first published in the May 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.