Shedding some light on mysterious Lakshadweep

In January 2017, my wife and I got back from our vacation to Lakshadweep (read about planning, booking and costs here), and we can now shed some more light on what it’s like visiting these islands, considering there’s hardly any information to be found on the internet.

Overall, it was a great vacation and an incredible experience, one that you will not have anywhere else in India—arguably, not even in the Andamans. But, as with all travel in India, nothing really goes exactly according to plan or turns our exactly the way you want, so tempering your expectations will go a long way towards making sure you have a good time. Also, just to avoid confusion, the Lakshadweep tourism department is called SPORTS (Society for Preservation of Nature Tourism and Sports), so if someone says ‘sports’, this is probably what they mean.

To start with, here is a list of major pros and cons that we figured out during our vacation, and while the cons outnumber the pros, I think the pros carry much more weight.

Pros

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The almost artificially blue waters at Agatti pier
  • The islands are picture-perfect, each surrounded by a lagoon of crystal-clear shallow water.
  • Spectacular diving and snorkeling opportunities abound everywhere you look, and lots of watersports can also be had.
  • The weather in early January is lovely, even turning slightly chilly at night.
  • Tourism (SPORTS) staff and locals are friendly and helpful.
  • The views of island silhouettes, sunrises and sunsets are incredible.
  • Mobile connectivity is good on all islands, though data service is 2G and erratic.

Cons

  • All activities on islands are extra, unless you are part of a cruise. They are also expensive, and need to be paid in cash.
  • Everything seems a little disorganized and, while things eventually get done, the laid-back ‘island’ attitude may take some getting used to.
  • It seems like what one pays upfront for is mainly for the privilege of being on the islands, rather than for the accommodation and food, which are somewhat basic.
  • Alcohol is permitted only on the island of Bangaram, and even there, it wasn’t in stock when we visited.
  • The beaches that are not directly in front of the resorts are piled with plastic rubbish washed up from the ocean or tossed about by careless Indian tourists and locals (this is not an assumption; we’ve seen it happen).
  • The food on each island reflects their main segment of tourists, with ‘local’ flavours generally being in short supply.

Kochi, Agatti and Kavaratti


In Kochi, the Flora Airport Hotel is a nice place to stay if you need to spend the night in the city, with nice rooms and a food court next door. Agatti island is a small spoon-shaped island that hosts the airport and a village of local islanders. While it is beautiful, accommodation is not currently available on Agatti, and it mainly serves as a transport hub for air and boat traffic. Long-distance ferries to Kavaratti and Kadmat ply to and from here three times a week, while smaller boats make daily trips to closer islands. Tourism department (SPORTS) staff will take you to the airport to your ferry or boat, and back.

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Agatti island from above

Kavaratti is the administrative capital of Lakshadweep, and has between 12,000 and 15,000 residents. It also sees a lot of ship traffic, and the resort is not-so-perfectly placed right next to the pier. It is one of the stops that form part of the cruise packages, and is visited by a few hundred tourists—mainly from north India—once or twice a week. The food served in the resort mainly caters to these tourists, but local eateries also exist, with local cuisine dominated by various forms of tuna. The beach at the resort offers snorkeling and water sports, and a few other beaches, as well as a museum and the island lighthouse, can be visited on request. Supposedly, at low tide when there is a new moon, the tide goes out so far that one can walk among the corals nearly to the edge of the lagoon.


Our flight from Kochi to Agatti was scheduled at around 10:30 in the morning on a Wednesday. We had earlier discovered, however, that there was no flight from Hyderabad  to Kochi before that, so we had no choice but to fly in the previous evening and spend the night in Kochi. We stayed at the Flora Airport Hotel, which was a little expensive, but comfortable and right next to a no-frills 24×7 food court that, nevertheless, served great local food.

The next morning, the hotel transport dropped us at the quaint Kochi airport, where we caught the flight to Agatti on schedule. After about two hours of flying, and as we descended to land, we got our first glimpse of Agatti: a small, spoon-shaped island surrounded by light blue-green water, and the handle of the spoon forming the airstrip. Agatti turned out to be bigger than we expected, containing not just the airstrip but also the small airport building and lots of houses belonging to local islanders (the pictures of the island on the internet were a little misleading regarding its size, it seems).

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The runway at Agatti airport

We landed with the sea a stone’s throw away on both sides of us, and walked goggle-eyed to into the little air-conditioned arrival hall.We spent about half an hour there while our luggage arrived and a breathless SPORTS official segregated everyone according to which island we were traveling to next. When everything was sorted out, we were driven to one of Agatti’s two jetties, from where we were put into a small boat that took us out to the catamaran-hulled ferry waiting a few hundred feet away. On board, we found ourselves seats in the air-conditioned cabin, got handed packed lunches and bottles of water, and settled down for the two-and-a-half-hour journey to Kavaratti. I made the mistake of eating my lunch immediately, but luckily, the sea wasn’t very rough so I only felt mildly nauseous.

When we got to Kavaratti, we were a bit disappointed that the SPORTS resort was right next to the pier, which meant that there were lots of not-so-lovely ships around whenever we looked out to sea. Also, it turned out that a group of VIPs (a parliamentary committee, no less) was having a party at the resort that evening, and a cruise ship packed with day-tourists was scheduled to arrive the next day, which meant that we only had a few hours of peace left. We made the most of these by taking a short nap and then heading out for a nice afternoon of snorkeling out in the lagoon. That evening, we were served dinner in a little cane hut separate from the revelers and, luckily for us, the party wound down just as we decided to go to sleep.

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Fellow tourists at Kavaratti

The approximately 200-strong group of day-tourists arrived early the next day, and we realized why we were being served non-spicy north Indian food all the time. It seems most of the tourists on the cruises in Lakshadweep are from north India and, understandably, the food at all the cruise stops is tailored to them. Those hoping for some local flavours need to look elsewhere. Luckily, Kavaratti being the main administrative center of Lakshadweep and home to between 12,000 and 15,000 people (depending on whom you ask), local eateries are not scarce.

To help us get away from the crowds, some of the resort staff arranged for a short trip to another beach near Kavaratti’s naval base, on a narrow strip of the island called the ‘chicken neck’. We made the short drive in an open pickup truck, sitting in cane chairs on the cargo bed with the wind in our faces while the truck navigated Kavaratti’s narrow roads and superfluous traffic lights. The beach itself was small and private, and with the usual clear water.

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The beach at Kavaratti island’s ‘chicken neck’

We first took a short walk and met a local who told us that, during low tide at the time of the new moon, the water is so low that one can wade out almost to the edge of the lagoon and walk among the corals. To prove his point, he enthusiastically whipped out his phone to show me photographs of the last time this happened, and proceeded to show me so many that I had to politely make my excuses after a few minutes. After this, we snorkeled among the corals out in the lagoon for an hour or so, before heading back for another north Indian meal and a nap.

That evening, our coordinator Shah Ali took us to see the lighthouse. After some confusion about which vehicle to take, we got there just as it was closing (i.e. just as the grumpy lighthouse keeper decided that he had had enough visitors for one day), so we scurried up the many stairs while Shah Ali sweet-talked the keeper into letting us stay a while. From the top, one could see the whole island, covered by a thick canopy of palm trees. From up there, with everything hidden beneath the palms, the island looked almost uninhabited. The sunset, of course, was beautiful.

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The view of Kavaratti – Lakshadweep’s most populous island – from the lighthouse
Kavaratti - Lighthouse sunset
Lighthouse sunset at Kavaratti

On the way back, we asked to be dropped off at the beginning of the beach road leading up to the resort, because we had seen a nice-looking restaurant there that morning, and we were itching to try some Lakshadweep cuisine. As we strolled down the road, we saw some tuna fishermen unloading and cleaning their catch. We were amazed to learn that each of the huge fish (they had caught about 20 of them) had to be caught individually with a rod and tackle, and that tuna was so plentiful around there that the fish would be sold for as low as Rs. 30 per kg! Still shaking our heads in disbelief, we strolled down to the Café de Saina restaurant, which was across the road from the beach.

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Cafe de Saina on Beach Road, Kavaratti island

There, we sat and sipped fruit juice on beach chairs helpfully placed on the beach, until it got quite dark. At the restaurant, we sat outdoors and ate our dinner. It turned out, to our surprise, that the place was run by Bengalis and not by locals. This also meant that the most ‘local’ thing we ate was a simple—but very nice, fresh and soft—Malabar parota. Dinner done, we strolled back to the resort (encountering some interesting road graffiti along the way) and turned in for our last night on Kavaratti.

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‘Dangerous levels of happiness ahead’ – road graffiti on Beach Road

Bangaram


Bangaram is a resort island that is a 45-minute boat ride from Agatti, and whose clientele is mainly foreign tourists. Probably because of this, it is the most expensive island to visit in Lakshadweep. The accommodation is tasteful but slightly run-down, the food is a mix of western, north Indian and south Indian, and service is quite professional. Sadly, despite being completely safe, the tap water smells extremely unpleasant because of its sulfur content. For drinking, mineral water is provided, and bottles of purified rainwater can also be had. The beach is steep, with corals just a few meters away. Dinner service is magical, with a buffet and candle-lit tables on the beach. The scuba diving is expensive but a great experience for beginners, and the snorkeling is brilliant. The island also has a large, interesting sandbar at one end that is reachable at both high and low tide. Bangaram is the only island in Lakshadweep on which alcohol is permitted, but it might be a good idea to bring your own—with permission—in case the resort is out of stock.


Early next morning, we were put on another catamaran-hull ferry and sent off on the two-and-a-half hour trip back to Agatti, from where it would take another hour or so to Bangaram in a smaller boat. This time, the seas were rough, and my seasickness kicked in with a vengeance. Luckily, the crew allowed us to sit outside on deck instead of being cooped up inside. That helped me, but a few other passengers who tried it still needed to stay within reach of the not-too-clean washrooms for the entire journey.

At Agatti, because the seas were rough, they decided to send the ferry on to Bangaram instead of transferring us to a smaller boat. This meant that the journey lasted barely 15 minutes. Sadly, this also meant that the ferry couldn’t enter Bangaram’s shallow lagoon, so once we got there, we were picked up outside the lagoon by a boat that needed another 20 minutes to reach the Bangaram floating jetty on the other side of the island.

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On approach to Bangaram island

Bangaram island itself is uninhabited except for the resort staff and a few locals from Agatti that visit to collect coconuts and to fish, and our experience there was very different from Kavaratti. First off, the resort has a much more typical ‘island paradise’ feel to it, with tastefully made (if slightly run-down) cottages and shacks. We were greeted with coconut water at the reception hut, given a map of the island and a rate card of the activities on offer, and given a short talk on what to expect from our stay. We were also warned that the water in the bathrooms would take some getting used to because it contained sulfur and smelled like rotten eggs, but were also assured that it was not harmful and that everyone on the island used the same water. When we got to our rooms, the water was the only unpleasant thing, and everything else was comfortable and clean. The room was surprisingly cool, too, and we didn’t even think of turning on the air cooler.

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The beach in front of our room on Bangaram island

We decided to take a quick dip before lunch, and found that the beach at the resort was surprisingly steep, the water going from a few inches to ten feet deep in the space of a few meters. Thankfully, both of us are strong swimmers. We also discovered an advantage to having deep water so close to the beach: there were lots of corals to be seen just a few meters away! Dip done, lunch was a nice buffet at the dining hut, with a mix of north Indian, south Indian and western cuisines, and lots of fresh fruit and salad to be had.

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Sunset beach near the Bangaram island helipad

After lunch and a nap (yes, we take our afternoon naps very seriously!), we headed to the other side of the island to catch the sunset, and were depressed to see the expected litter, even here in the middle of the ocean. What was worse was the number of empty soft drink cans that were lying about, evidently left behind by visitors to the beach. We decided to not allow the rubbish to spoil the mood, and strolled along the beach with the sun setting off to the side. The rising tide soon forced us to abandon the beach, though, and using the map we were given, we found our way back to the resort along paths strewn with more rubbish, and past the ‘lake’, which was really not much more than a swamp.

Dinner was a pleasant surprise, and lifted our mood somewhat. Candle-lit tables were placed on the beach near the water, as was the buffet, which featured a live grill and tandoor. The overall mood was magical and romantic, only slightly spoiled by the teenagers on the next table playing music on their phones, and a private party that had set up their own bar a little further up the beach.

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Scuba diving off Bangaram

We got our first taste of scuba diving the next morning after breakfast, starting with a detailed briefing by Mr. Aman, the dive master, progressing to a bit of practice with the breathing apparatus (with which I had no end of trouble before finally getting used to it) and culminating in a half-hour long assisted dive among the fish and corals just off the beach. Because we were beginners, we really weren’t allowed to do much more than breathe and admire our surroundings as our instructors propelled us around, but it was still great fun. If it hadn’t been so expensive, we would have loved to accept Mr. Aman’s offer of a more advanced dive later in our stay!

After the dive and some rest, we decided to explore a large sandbar at one corner of the island that we had been told was very nice. We thought it best to explore it towards midday, when it would be the most easily accessible at low tide. Armed with caps, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen, we headed off. The sandbar turned out to be everything we had hoped for: a beautiful stretch of pristine white sand, separated from the island by clear, knee-deep water. We spent the better part of two hours wading through the water, exploring the sandbar and admiring the different shades of blue the water took on, depending on its depth, and got back just in time for a late lunch. We decided we had done enough for the day, and spent the afternoon snoozing, and the evening lounging on various beach chairs.

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Towards Bangaram’s sandbar

We got up early enough the next day to catch the sun rising out of the sea in front of the resort, and found, to our disappointment, that it didn’t look very different from a sunset. After breakfast, the morning went in snorkeling at a coral reef halfway between Bangaram and its neighbor, Thinnakara. That was one of our most enjoyable hours in Lakshadweep, swimming alone over and between massive mounds of coral, accompanied by lots of fish. Some of the coral was so close to the surface that we had to stop kicking our feet while swimming over it for fear we would hit it (which I eventually did, scraping my foot a bit). That evening—our last on Bangaram—we headed back to the helipad on the other side of the island to take in the sunset again.

Thinnakara


Thinnakara is a small, very peaceful resort island, 10 minutes by boat from Bangaram, and 45 minutes from Agatti. Accommodation is a number of tents with fans and lightbulbs, with an attached ‘green toilet’ that combines shower and WC, and tap water that is as unpleasant as on Bangaram. The food is good, simple south Indian cuisine, with one token western dish per meal. The electricity supply may be turned off for a few hours during the day if one of the generators is under repair. At low tide, one can walk to two tiny neighboring islands through ankle- and knee-deep water. One can also snorkel at a small shipwreck, and watch turtles swimming in the lagoon. On clear days, the sunsets are spectacular. Sadly, the beach on the windward side of the island is piled with a few years’ worth of plastic rubbish.


The next morning, we were to do the 10-minute trip between Bangaram and Thinnakara after breakfast. We were told that there was a boat from Agatti carrying guests bound for both Bangaram and Thinnakara that would pick us up. When, after some waiting and a few revisions to the timetable, we decided we were tired of waiting and booked ourselves a speedboat ride to Thinnakara (at extra cost, of course). It was worth it, though, because the scheduled boat finally arrived close to lunchtime.

We found the accommodation (‘resort’ would be too grand a word) at Thinnakara to be basic, but still charming. It was a number of steps down from Bangaram, consisting of an open, thatched-roof structure containing a tent and a single fiberglass ‘green toilet’ that served as both WC and shower. A single switchboard hung from a pole in the tent, connected to a ceiling fan, a stand fan, and a bulb each in the tent, the toilet and the sit-out at the tent entrance. We were also told, on arrival, that one of the generators wasn’t working, so there would be no electricity supply in the late morning and early evening.

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Hammock in front of our tent on Thinnakara island
Thinnakara - View from the room
The ‘resort’ as seen from our tent

Despite all this, we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly at Thinnkara. The food had an almost exclusively local flavor, with the odd western dish thrown in. Also, it was the most peaceful place we had been to so far, with usually the only thing to be heard being the put-putting of the generator in the background.

After we got there and checked in, we decided we wanted to explore a bit, so we headed off along the beach. Again, we were greeted with the depressing sight of a few years’ worth of plastic detritus piled all along the high-water mark. This was the most rubbish we had seen so far, and it seemed like no one had ever thought of cleaning up (unlike in Bangaram where, we learned, the island’s other beaches were cleaned once a month). So we trudged along, looking out to sea instead, and admiring the soothing shades of blue. At some point we realized that there were two more islands (Parali One and Two, we were told later) visible just off the main island’s edge and, as we got closer, we were amazed to see that the water between all three was extremely shallow (again, thanks to low tide at midday). Despite the heat, we decided to see if we could wade over, and after 15 minutes of walking through a foot of water, we were at Parali Two!

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Rubbish on Thinnkara. The picture does not do it justice.
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En route to Parali Two

The island itself isn’t much: very small, covered in palm trees and their fallen leaves, and with a small monument in the middle. But it gave us some much-needed respite from the midday heat, and we cooled off in the shade of the palms on one of its small beaches. Our privacy was disturbed a little with the arrival of a few locals in a boat from Agatti (who seemed like they were there to hunt for sea snakes!), so we decided to head back. Once we got back on to Thinnakara, we thought it would be cooler to walk through the palms in the middle of the island instead of following the beach. We were wrong. The palm trees were too sparse to afford much shelter from the sun, but thick enough to cut off the sea breeze, so about 20 minutes in, we gave up and started following the beach again. We later realized that, had we walked along the other side of the island (the side away from Bangaram), we would have gotten back faster, because the beach there doesn’t curve like the other side.

We got back for lunch exhausted, and grateful for some shade. Lunch was simple and tasty, served in the sand-floored dining shack with its neat tables and chairs, and with a small TV playing an Indian football league match (which the staff cheered enthusiastically).

That evening, we explored the other side of the island, and found the beach very different from the one we saw in the morning: it was lined with palm trees that were on higher ground, and that were slowly being undercut by the tides. Many had consequently fallen over into the water, and some were in the process of doing so, giving us lots of interesting photo opportunities. The water was very shallow, so we decided that we would come back for a leisurely swim the next evening.

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The other side of Thinnakara
Thinnakara - Undercut palms
Undercut palms

The next day was our last in Lakshadweep, so we decided to make the most of it. In the morning, we got the staff to take us snorkeling to a small shipwreck out in the lagoon. This was another interesting experience because, even though corals hadn’t really taken hold in and around the wreck, it was swarming with fish in lots of different shapes, sizes and colours, and all surprisingly unafraid. It was also tiring, though, because the current around the wreck was very strong, and kept pushing us in directions we didn’t really want to go. This was one time we were grateful for our childhood swimming lessons!

Shipwreck snorkeling done, we were taken to see the turtles that tend to swim around in the lagoon. Sadly, we couldn’t see too much detail from the boat, but did realize that turtles are incredibly fast when in the water, despite their size! For the most part, though we spotted close to 20 individual turtles, we only really caught glimpses of each before they darted away. At one point, one of the boatmen startled us by suddenly diving overboard and resurfacing holding a turtle that must have been at least three feet long! We quickly got him to let it go, though, because it was obviously in distress, and it disappeared immediately.

That evening, we went back to the spot we had chosen for our soak the previous day, armed with camera, towel and a change of clothes. While the water was everything we were expecting, we were disturbed by little rafts of dead seaweed that constantly floated by. When the sun was close to setting, we suddenly realized that the haze that we had previously always seen on the horizon was gone that day, and we scrambled madly for the camera. What followed was the most spectacular sunset we had ever seen, with the crystal-clear sun melting into the sea like a scoop of glowing orange ice-cream!

Thinnakara sunset
The original infinity pool
Sunset for blog
Ice cream sunset on Thinnakara
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The moon on the other side

That night, because of the clear sky, I thought it might be a good idea to do some star-gazing. The only problem was that the moon was near full, and blotted out most of the stars. I realized that the best time to see the stars would probably be between setting of the moon and sunrise, so I decided to try and wake up at the right time. After a failed attempt at 3:30 AM (the moon was still high in the sky), we woke up at 5:00 to see the rust-orange moon about to set through some clouds just above the horizon. It was quite eerie, and defied all my attempts at photography. But once the moon was down, the sky turned thick with stars, and we would have probably seen more if it hadn’t been for a few lights other guests had left on outside their tents. We spent a chilly (yes, chilly!) half-hour lying on the beach and admiring the sky before the horizon started turning light in the east.

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On the yacht from Bangaram to Agatti – the best seats in the house

Later that morning, after our last breakfast, we were shuttled back to Bangaram at around 9:30, where we boarded a little yacht for our journey to Agatti, along with the other guests who were flying out that day. During the 45-minute journey, we were allowed to lounge on the prow of the yacht as long as we didn’t obstruct the pilot’s view. Along the way, much to our excitement, a pod of dolphins suddenly appeared, and some even accompanied us for a few minutes before going about their business. Once at the Agatti pier, we were hustled off to the airport again. We waited in the tiny waiting lounge for passengers to arrive from other islands, and after the usual check-in and security formalities, we took off at around 11:30. On the flight out, we were give one last look of Agatti, as well as glimpses of Andrott, Lakshadweep’s largest  island by area, driving home just how tiny and isolated these precious islands really are—tiny jewels in a vast, shining expanse of blue.

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The startlingly blue waters around Agatti

Conservation and research in Lakshadweep

Lakshadweep’s low-lying coral islands and their surrounding marine ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to the influences of environmental events and local communities, and the need for conservation efforts has been recognized by both the government and conservation organizations. The Nature Conservation Foundation, an organization that works to study and conserve wildlife and ecosystems across India, conducts research and conservation programs in Lakshadweep, and in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Their efforts are leading to a better understanding of how the reefs and their fish respond to external influences, and how they can be protected. You can learn more about the NCF’s oceans and coasts programs here, or make a contribution to their efforts here.

Top tips

  1. You must have a printout of your SPORTS-issued permit with you whenever you travel into and within Lakshadweep. You will not be allowed to travel otherwise, even from Kochi to Agatti. We heard from a Swedish couple how they had almost not been allowed to board the flight to Agatti because their travel agent had told them their permit would be waiting for them at the airport.
  2. For the best view of Agatti island while flying in, try and get a seat on the right side of the aircraft, but make sure the engine isn’t in front of your window.
  3. Make sure you carry enough cash along to pay for the activities on each island. We spent around Rs. 12,000 on activities, mainly snorkeling and scuba diving. We saw an ATM at Kavaratti, but none on Bangaram and Thinnakara.
  4. The long ferry rides between Agatti and Kavaratti (and probably Kadmat too) are not pleasant for anyone prone to seasickness, though one can ask the ferry staff if once can sit outside on deck. Carry anti-nausea medicine with you, and take one an hour or so before your journey to stave off the worst of the nausea. Eating immediately before or during the ferry ride is not a good idea.
  5. Kavaratti, Kadmat and other islands are visited once or twice a week by hundreds of tourists taking the island cruises. If you want to avoid the crowds, you can take a look at the cruise schedules on the SPORTS website and plan your schedule around them.
  6. Lakshadweep is not as quiet and unexplored as you would think, so don’t expect to be the only tourists around wherever you go. Thinnakara was the only island we visited that was really peaceful.
  7. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff if you are looking for something beyond what is on offer. They may have forgotten to mention it, or may just not have thought of it yet.
  8. On Kavaratti, not much ‘local’ food is on offer at the SPORTS resort. Explore local eateries for a better idea of Lakshadweep cuisine.
  9. On Bangaram and Thinnakara, the groundwater (which they pipe into the bathrooms) contains sulfur and smells like rotten eggs. If it bothers you, use mineral water—or on Bangaram, purified rainwater—to brush your teeth.
  10. At Bangaram, make sure the staff gives you an electric mosquito repellent in your room. We heard from another guest that he was plagued by mosquitos all night because they had forgotten to give him one.
  11. Take along a cap, a pair of sunglasses and some good waterproof sunscreen. The sun can be unforgiving, especially when you are in the water.
  12. If you plan on doing lots of snorkeling, it might make economic sense to bring your own mask and snorkel, because just renting them will cost you Rs. 300 each time.
  13. If walking around at midday to take advantage of the low tide, it might be a good idea to carry an umbrella (if you can find one!) and a bottle of water. The heat can be terrible.
  14. If you can see Agatti from Bangaram or Thinnakara, it means you will probably have a spectacular sunset. Keep your camera ready!
  15. The best time of the day to star-gaze in early January is probably between 5:15 and 5:45 AM, between moonset and sunrise.
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Parali Two awaits

Take a look at how we planned our trip in A piece in the Lakshadweep puzzle

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