From snorkeling around the spectacular corals of South Button island and sitting in the still water of Wandoor beach to wandering around creepy Ross Island, here is how we lived the island life for a few days in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India.
Our first real beach holiday was in the Andamans in the beginning of December, 2009. We’d heard a lot about these islands that are part of India, but are actually closer to Myanmar and Thailand, so we decided to take a look for ourselves. Not having a lot of time, we planned to spend a few days on the popular resort island of Havelock, and on the way back, a day exploring the capital Port Blair and its environs.
Havelock Island—A haven for beach lovers
Our flight into Port Blair from Chennai was a little late, so we had to hotfoot it to the pier to catch the ferry for the two-and-a-half hour ride to Havelock Island. Catch it we did, and that was when I discovered I was prone to seasickness! Luckily, the crew let us sit on deck. Even more luckily, the weather was lovely, so the hours passed quite quickly. Once at Havelock, we disembarked at the crowded jetty, befriended a local policeman who was thrilled that I could speak Hindi, and were whisked to our nearby hotel—the very nice SeaShell Resort, with its cottages set between coconut palms, its stony beach, and its beachside hammocks.
Once we had checked in, settled down and explored a bit, we found that there were a whole lot of resorts and restaurants in the vicinity, so we made a firm resolution that we would try to eat every meal—besides the complimentary hotel breakfast, of course—in a different hotel or restaurant, if possible. We did a pretty good job of it too, using our hired scooter to head up and down the west side and eating wherever we felt like. We only had to have dinner in our resort once, when a sudden downpour stopped us from going out. Annoyingly enough, that downpour lasted the entire night and most of the next day as well, so by lunchtime, we became adventurous enough—I’d like to think claustrophobia had nothing to do with it—to take our scooter and head out into the bucketing rain. Our destination: Barefoot Resort, at that time the only resort next to the spectacular Radhanagar beach on the east side of the island (we figured, since we were going to get soaked anyway, we might as well make it worthwhile). It turned out to be great fun—riding through the warm rain past the towering rainforest trees in the center of the island, warming ourselves with a hot rum in Barefoot’s brilliant two-level cane-and-bamboo bar, and sitting on the floor in their restaurant for a simple but humongous thali that we couldn’t finish—even though we shared a single one!
Another day, we got talking with the manager of the Wild Orchid resort, and he organized a private snorkelling trip for us to the minuscule South Button Island the next morning. After a two-hour ride in a tiny boat on rough seas to the island, neither of us had the stomach to touch the packed lunch the boatmen had brought along, but we still—albeit with slightly dampened enthusiasm—jumped overboard for our first snorkelling experience. Though both of us are strong swimmers in the pool, this was our first deep water swim, and we were a little cautious. Once we realized that one floats much better in saltwater than in freshwater, though, we became more comfortable. I even managed to do an entire circuit of the island without noticing, completely absorbed by the magnificent corals attached to its rocky base. The only dampener was that it was overcast, with only a few passing rays of sun to make the corals glow in their brilliant colours. That, and the occasional pinprick sting from the tiny jellyfish I would swim into without noticing. They didn’t really hurt, but were annoying enough that I was thankful I was wearing a tee shirt and long swimming shorts.
Ross Island—Creepy, both then and now
After a few pleasant days on Havelock, it was time to head back to Port Blair. This time, though, we took the more expensive—but faster and much more comfortable—catamaran ferry. Given the rough seas and rainy weather during the journey, it turned out to be a wise decision. In Port Blair, we checked into our nondescript hotel, and then headed out for dinner with a German couple we had chatted with on the ferry. Though we were on the lookout for a good local seafood restaurant (this was before we turned vegetarian), our friends were concerned about hygiene, having had a bad bout of Delhi belly on their last visit to India. We ended up going to the rather posh Fortune Bay Island hotel for a nice evening that was slightly spoiled by a quite ordinary buffet.
Our last day was reserved for sightseeing, and the two of us decided we didn’t want to see the famous old colonial-era Cellular Jail. We were intrigued by what we had heard of Ross Island, a prison island for political detainees during the days of the Raj, so we hopped on the ten-minute ferry there instead. The most famous thing about Ross Island is the eerie old ruins that are almost completely swallowed by the strangler fig trees, and understandably so. They’re quite creepy. After some time spent looking at the more popular creepy ruins, we took a small trail off the main path, and were rewarded with no crowds, more creepy ruins popping out at us every now and then, and a brilliant view of the old lighthouse. The island is also home to a large number of rather tame chital (spotted deer), and peacocks, and we saw quite a few of those as well.
Wandoor beach—Nature’s bathtub
Late that morning, an auto rickshaw driver we had befriended took us on the 45-minute drive to the beach near the village of Wandoor, supposedly named after the tall wandoo trees that line that side of the island. Along the way, he told us horror stories of the 2004 tsunami that devastated the islands, and how he and his friends only escaped with their lives because they were on the first floor of their local church when it hit. The road we were on passed fields and homes that, even five years later, were still flooded with seawater because the sticky soil wouldn’t let it drain away. We even saw a lone house sitting in the middle of what looked like a lake, but had actually been the owner’s fields!
We were a little depressed by the time we got to Wandoor beach, but the sight of the calm water, soft sand and tall trees lifted our spirits a bit. A few beers and a simple lunch at a ramshackle little beach restaurant, and we were alright again. After a bit of relaxation, we got two locals to take us snorkelling in the reef a few hundred meters offshore. The corals weren’t as colourful as at South Button, but the sun was out, the water was as still as a lake, and the speedboat ride along the majestic trees was great fun. Once we got to shore, my wife wanted to take a look at the souvenir stalls near the beach, while I thought it would be a crying shame not to sit in the water drinking beer, so we both did what we had to do and were happy on our ride back to the hotel.
- Once can fly to the islands from either Chennai or Kolkata, or one can travel by ship. Flights are a little on the expensive side.
- Non-Indian nationals need a permit to enter the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Luckily, this can be applied for at the airport on arrival at Port Blair. If travelling by ship, the permit needs to be applied for beforehand. There are certain islands and areas that are off limits, though, and neither Indians nor non-Indians are allowed in the tribal reserves.
- If you can, take the private catamaran ferry between Port Blair and Havelock, and back. The quicker journey and added comfort make up for the extra expense.
- The beginning of December is a great time to visit, where the islands are readying themselves for the tourist season, but prices are still relatively low. Expect a few rainy days, though.
- Most of the resorts on Havelock are on the west side of the island. If you want fewer crowds and don’t mind paying a little extra, book into one of the few hotels on the east side.
- Radhanagar beach on Havelock is exquisite and supposedly one of the best beaches in Asia. Unfortunately, most people know this, so the beach can be a little crowded at times. A 10-minute walk up the beach will take you away from most of the crowd, though.
- When visiting Ross Island, try and take a path off the main trail that circles the island if you want some privacy and a few nice views.
- Wandoor beach has the calmest water I have ever seen. Visit if you want to know what it’s like to sit in a bathtub that stretches to the horizon.