Although we were told that September may not be the best time to visit the haven of the cleanest virgin Islands, of India’s rich historical past and home to some of the oldest Aboriginal tribes, we did not dilly dally over the best tourist seasons.
We had heard wonderful stories of the different colours of water near the shores, the fun-filled activities on some islands, the remains of British colonisation, the mouth-watering sea-cuisine and the horrifying ‘Kala Pani Jail’.
Well, Andaman and Nicobar Islands is where you can go to just relax on the beach or fill your days with back-to-back activities.
Reaching Port Blair from New Delhi
Our non-stop 6 AM, Air India flight from New Delhi touched down smoothly at the Veer Savarkar International Airport, Port Blair, at 10.30 AM. The view from the aircraft was breathtaking as the Islands of Andaman and Nicobar, drew closer. My thought immediately went to the dreaded Tsunami of 2004 that had hit these tiny pieces of Islands sitting proudly in the middle of the vast ocean. How could anything have survived here in the face of the tidal force, I wondered…
The airport was small but neat and soon we were being driven towards our modest Megapode Resort (Rs 4000 [USD $60] / night) at Haddo, an hour away from the airport. The lush green, the clean blue sky and the non-polluted air of islands have their own ‘feel-good’ factor and we were already glad we hadn’t postponed the trip, waiting for ‘perfect’ weather.
The chatty driver filled us on a few useful details about the Island. Because of the rains and strong winds, the water along the coast is not the clearest and one may not get to see the wonderful shades of blue and green colours in the water. Also, tourists should be prepared for cancellation of boat rides or any activities at the last minute, at this ‘eco-destination’.
We were handed pamphlets printed by the Government of India, advocating the use of registered sites for the different aqua activities. The driver warned us not to carry back any items related to the sea, such as, shells or corals with us, which didn’t have a receipt. Simply put: Do not just pick up shells etc from the beech or elsewhere as most of us are accustomed to. Instead buy from the shops.
There’s nothing much to see in the city as such. The market is small, things are expensive since practically everything is imported from mainland India here. The local produce, other than fish, is betel nut. There is no language problem and people speak both Hindi and English comfortably. In fact, many Bengalis and South Indians are settled here and since September was the ‘puja’ season for Bengalis, there were lots of ‘pandals’ erected here and there with plenty of interesting food stalls.
The easiest way to move around the Islands is by taxi and ships.
National Memorial Cellular Jail (Kala Pani = ‘Death in Water’)
Our resort was just about 4 kms away from this dreaded prison. We had to make this our first place to visit, just to get it out of the way. We had booked our entry tickets online for a guided tour of the jail and for the Sound and Light (Son-et-Lumiere) show in the evening. Do book for the show in advance or you could be wasting your time standing in a queue.
Since the jail is a National Memorial, the upkeep is good with greenery all around. But as the guide started telling us about the atrocities committed by the Britishers on the Indian freedom fighters, we were horrified.
His spine-chilling stories about how the cells were constructed so that no prisoner could see the other (The name Cellular comes from the fact that each prisoner is in solitary confinement in his tiny cell), they were given sack as clothing, a mug to be used both for drinking water and for passing faeces (they were required to empty the mug once a day during the half hour break they got) and were made to slog like mules for the better part of the day.
The bodies of frustrated prisoners who ended up hanging themselves, would simply be thrown into the sea.
We went down some 15 steps to the dingy area where prisoners were hung. The rope still hangs there as mute testimony to the atrocities committed on the prisoners. In the compound, a Grand Old Peepal tree has been witness to the suffering and anguished cries of the martyrs.
A round of the museum leaves one quite heavy hearted. What happened to humanity, is a thought that doesn’t leave your mind!
The Sound and Light show reiterates the fact that freedom does come ata price. (Do remember that the show is not held daily).
Discover the Chatham Island
To get back into a cheerful mood, we decided on checking out the one of the biggest saw mills in Asia. Andaman and Nicobar Islands are known for its excellent timber and the Britishers were quick to capitalise on it. It is interesting to see the still functional 19th Century mill. It has its own historical value as the Japanese had bombed part of this establishment during the WWII. It was also occupied by the Japanese for a few years before the British re-occupied it.
We bought some small souvenirs made of wood from here.
Meals are no problem in Port Blair as you have varieties of fresh fish and other sea food in every other eating joint at a very reasonable price. Vegetarians also don’t face any particular problem.
Ross Island – Island in Andaman
The next day, after an early breakfast, we set off by taxi to Aberdden Jetty, to catch a ferry to Ross Island. The ferries leave every hour, the first at 8.30 and the last at 14.30 hrs. It took almost half hour by normal boat to reach the Island and the fun of Andaman is all about these ferry rides. They just add to the excitement — the cherry on the cake! If you want to reach faster, pay double and take the speed boat. Tickets are easily available at the counter there.
The Island has the remains of the British regime as it was once their seat of power. It boasted of a township with the Chief Commissioner’s house, church, hospital, bakery, swimming pool and even a cemetery. Prisoners from the Cellular Jail were made to do the dirty work here.
Now, all that remains, are simply ruins, which became worse after the Tsunami. The buildings are mostly engulfed by Banyan trees growing all over and into them. Indian Navy has occupied part of this Island and tourists have to register with them before entering and exiting.
Remember to take eatables and drinking water with you if you plan to spend a few hours there. There are no refreshments available here. Yes, washrooms are available.
We were back at our resort for lunch and to freshen up before proceeding to the jetty to catch a boat to Coral Island.
Snorkelling , Scuba Diving and Glass bottom boat ride at Coral Island
We were now all geared for some fun-filled activity. The beach was beautiful and we spent time relaxing on the sand. This is a great place to see beautifully coloured coral reefs through snorkelling and scuba diving. There are lockers available to keep your stuff as you go into the sea and also swimsuits on rent. We decided to go snorkelling at Havelok Island and just enjoyed the corals from a glass bottomed boat here.
We had booked a table for dinner at Andaman’s only floating restaurant, ‘Afloat’ which had an entry ticket of Rs 500/-. The ship cruises along the Port Blair harbour. We relaxed with our drinks and listened to live music while watching the lights of Port Blair from the sea. The meal was not the greatest but it was good fun.
Baratang Island – The Jarawa tribe Island
We were really looking forward to seeing members of one of the oldest aboriginal tribes, native to the Andaman Islands — the Jarawas.
We had booked online beforehand and a vehicle was at our door at 7 AM to take us to Jharwar Ghat check post. We reached the check post at 8.45 AM and passes were made for all of us before we entered the road that led through the tribal area.
There are certain rules that you have to follow when the vehicle passes through this wooded area. It is not necessary that you will spot any tribals. But if you do, the driver cannot stop the vehicle to allow you to stare at them. Visitors are neither encouraged to make eye contact or speak with them, nor take any pictures of them, or offer them any food or water.
Vehicles move onto this road in batches, never alone. And there is no question of any private vehicle going in.
Well, we didn’t come across any of them but the driver described them to us — they are short, dark and smooth skinned. Both sexes do not cover their chest and sometimes when they come onto the road to stop a vehicle, they can be appeased with the offer of betel leaves.
We drove on, a little disappointed and reached the Bartang Jetty in just over an hour. A large sailing vessel took us across the river in 20 minutes.
Limestone Caves in Andaman Islands
We had the most thrilling experience of a motorboat ride through thick Mangroove Forests on either side of the river. The branches of these trees, at places, reached overhead to intertwine and form a sort of tunnel through which our motor boat sped.
The boat finally stopped at a jetty, from where we had to walk almost 2 kms to reach the two million years old limestone caves. A most interesting walk through the unusual flora and eye-catching fauna. The caves had breathtaking different types of beautiful mineral calcite formations.
A really fascinating journey and a day well spent! Back at the resort, we rested our aching feet and splurged on more fresh lobsters and crabs!
Havelock Island – Pearl of Andaman
Staying a night at Havelock Island is a must as this place is a total paradise with beautiful beaches and water sport activities.
We caught a ferry from Phoenix Bay, which took about two and half hours to reach Havelock Island. Alternatively, one can take the fast boat. We checked into Symphony Farm resort and immediately left for Elephant Beach which was 20 minutes away by boat. If Coral Island was beautiful, this was doubly so. The sand was white, the water was clear and the corals were just a metre away in the water. We enjoyed scuba diving (Rs 3500) and Sea Walk. It is perfectly safe and does not require you to know how to swim. It’s an experience in itself to walk on the ocean floor.
After a fantastic lunch of fresh crabs and shrimps, we headed for the most beautiful beach in Asia-the Radhanagar Beach to watch the sunset.
The beaches at Havelock Island are crystal clear and there are no shacks or eating joints to provide refreshments. So, please carry your own water and some snacks. We didn’t see any wrapper or disposable bottles anywhere on the vast expanse of the beaches. You want a meal? Well, go back to where you came from, seems to be the tag line here. Most of the resorts are very close to the beaches.
We saw a lot of foreigners at Havelock Island and because of their presence there was a variety of cuisine available here as compared to Port Blair. In fact, many foreigners had even opened their own shacks here.
All in all, one can easily spend a few days here and indulge in the various sports activities or simply laze on the exotic beaches.
Also read: Our Kashmir trip: A rendezvous with paradise