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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. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we planned to first spend a few days on the resort island of Havelock. On the way back, we would spend 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 realized that there were lots of resorts and restaurants close by. We decided that we would try to have every meal (besides the complimentary hotel breakfast) at a different hotel place. And we did a pretty good job of it too. We used our our hired scooter to head up and down the island, eating wherever we felt like. We only had to have dinner in our resort once, when a sudden downpour stopped us from going out.
A rainy ride
Annoyingly enough, that downpour lasted the entire night and most of the next day. So by lunchtime, we became adventurous (read claustrophobic) enough to take our scooter and head out into the rain. Our destination: Barefoot Resort, then the only resort near the spectacular Radhanagar beach on the east side. 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 towering rainforest trees; warming ourselves with 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 just one… such an adventure!
A snorkeling expedition
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, neither of us wanted the packed lunch the boatmen had brought along. But we still carefully stepped 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, we became more comfortable. I even managed to do an entire circuit of the island without noticing. I was completely absorbed in looking at the magnificent corals attached to the island’s 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 new 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 only 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 are the eerie old ruins almost completely swallowed by strangler fig trees. And understandably so! They’re quite eerie.
After we spent some time looking at the more popular creepy ruins, we took a small trail off the main path. We were rewarded with no crowds, more creepy ruins popping up every now and then, and a brilliant view of the old lighthouse. The island is also home to a large number of tame chital (spotted deer), and peacocks, and we saw quite a few of those, too.
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, one can apply for this this on arrival at Port Blair airport. 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.