By Romit Mehta
Set far from the mainland (1400 km) and closer to the tropical islands of Indonesia (150km), the Andaman cluster consists of around 300 islands. Of these, only a dozen or so are open to tourists—Nicobar is completely off-limits.
Port Blair, the administrative centre, stands as a great reservoir of India’s colonial past. It’s a good idea to start your explorations here. This is where the Cellular Jail is located. During the British and subsequent Japanese rule, political prisoners were sent here to labour hard and languish away. The sentence was called ‘Kaala Pani,’ the ‘water of death.’
Walking down the corridors of this cellular prison now a national monument is a humbling experience. The morbid and often inspiring history of the place and its inmates are bound to linger in your mind long after you have left. There are light and sound shows as well, which some find to be of interest.
From Port Blair, you can take short day trips to other islands such as Ross and Viper.
Ross Island, which used to be the British administrative centre, is dotted with old opulent Victorian architecture. It was abandoned after the massive earthquake of 1941, followed by the Japanese invasion. Today the Victorian architecture and remnants of the colonial past are overrun by jungles, akin to the ruins of Angkor Wat, taking you on a bittersweet trip down memory lane.
For those with little interest in history, Port Blair offers dazzling sunsets, pristine beaches and blue waters. A 20-km ride on a local bus or a taxi takes you to the incredible Chidiya Tapu. Hugely popular with tourists, the place is renowned for the show nature puts out every day through the brilliant hues of its glorious sunsets. Trek two km up the hill through the popular beach, and you will come upon a great viewing point and an empty lighthouse (if you are willing to climb a steep ladder!) offering spectacular 360 degree views.
If all of this sounds too touristy, take a trip to Wandoor, a tiny village to the south of Port Blair. It is close to the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park and houses some tranquil and beautiful beaches.
Those interested in mangroves and local flora and fauna must visit the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team (ANET), a research institute with passionate Indian ecologists offering comfortable forest cottages and tours such as mangroves and sea krait walks. A visit to ANET will definitely instill in you a sense of admiration for the biological diversity in Andaman. A stay with them could also allow access (with the ecologists) to a few reserved islands in Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Reserve.
All in all, Port Blair is a perfect appetizer for the rest of the pleasures that await you on the Andamans. With lots of backpackers and family-friendly accommodation options and a bustling bazaar, the island makes it easy for you to stay in comfort. It is when you step out of your comfort zone and start exploring the islands beyond Port Blair that you discover some hidden gems.
Little Andaman, a small island to the south of Port Blair, reached by a 10-hour ferry ride from Port Blair, offers some of the best surfing sites in Asia with pristine, unexplored beaches.
Those who find the journey too long or intimidating can take a relatively easier eight-hour trip on the main highway cutting through the Jarawa tribal reserve to reach the town of Diglipur in North Andaman.
There is nothing to do in the town as such, but local buses take you to Kalipur, famed to be the only beach in the world where four species of turtles can be found nesting from December to March. Alex, the friendly owner of Pristine Beach Resort will ensure that you have a comfortable stay.
There are many exciting things to be done here, such as swimming to Craggy Islands off the Kalipur beach. You could also check out the sunrise at the pebbled Lamia Bay. However, I would especially recommend making a day trip to the wonderful Ross and Smith Islands, a wildlife sanctuary. You need a permit to enter, and once you have it, take a speed boat to get there.
The unique feature of these islands is that they are connected by a white sandy isthmus. It allows you to walk from one island to the other. And what a walk it is! You get to pass by a calm blue shallow lagoon on one side and the emerald green sea on the other. Dense green forests line the shore. It is a magical experience. There are sights in the Andamans that you will run in your mind like a beautiful album forever. Ross and Smith Islands is one of those sights.
Are you simply looking for a laidback, technology-free experience? I suggest you visit Long island in Middle Andaman for at least two to three days.
Board a ferry from Yeratta jetty near the quaint town of Rangat. Both locals and tourists use this ferry which takes you through the backwaters, crossing countless uninhabited, densely forested islands. As twilight approaches, these islands turn into silhouettes in the distance, providing a truly ethereal sight.
Long Island reminds you of an era gone by. Its small tin-covered houses and a raised cemented platform serving as the main ‘road’ through the island. The island is a fantastic location to discover the blindingly white and pristine beaches of Lalaji Bay and Merk Bay.
You can stay at the unique Blue Planet Resort whose interiors are lovingly done up by its owners Hilary and Aftaar. It is interesting how they have made creative use of waste bottles washed ashore. The cozy main area is built around a Padauk tree. It also has books with a well-placed hammock for you to spend hours lazing, reading, and contemplating.
After a trip through the remote islands of North and Middle Andaman, you would want to soak in the popular islands here.
Havelock with its famous Beach Number 7 and Radhanagar is now a popular tourist hub. What helps is its proximity to Port Blair—just two hours by ferry. Neil Island, though relatively remote, is also fast coming up as a prime tourist spot.
If you arrive at Havelock after exploring the unseen gems such as Kalipur Beach, Ross and Smith, and Long Island, the sheer number of tourists on this island will strike you. Big resorts with delicious multicuisine restaurants compete with each other, each laying claim to close proximity to a beautiful beach. You can best explore the island by hiring a scooter. Let the winds brush your face as you go past virgin beaches and unseen corners.
You can spend a few blissful days at Havelock and Neil, meeting travellers from across the world, hearing their stories, and just unwinding after a great adventure through the Andaman. And then there is deep-sea diving—the piece the resistance! The Andamans have developed as a premier location for deep-sea diving. The beautiful corals, tropical sea, and diverse marine life make it a perfect location for amateurs and experienced divers alike.
Today, diving courses are popular at Wandoor, Chidiya Tapu, Rutland, Long, and Neil islands, to name a few. Those looking for an adventure can even dive around a sea wreck at Chidiya Tapu! A beginner’s certificate course takes merely 4-5 days, and is sure to be an amazing experience.
The remoteness of Andaman from the mainland has led to fewer opportunities for interaction between the locals and those living on the mainland. The people living on the island are extremely friendly, with a keen sense of pride in their beautiful homeland. Great conversations are easy to come by!
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