The islands of Andaman and Nicobar are one of the two main island groups of India, the other being Lakshadweep. This Union Territory comprises around 500 islands, scattered like green gems in the Bay of Bengal. This is what gives it the name, “The Emerald Islands”. The name Andaman, is derived from the name of the Hindu god, Hanuman. Over ages, the name was corrupted and evolved from Hanuman to Handuman to its present name Andaman. The Andaman islands are inhabited by people indigenous ethnic groups and people from the Indian mainland , mainly Bengalis and Tamilians . The Nicobar islands, comprise of mainly tribal people, of Burmese and Vietnamese origin. Unlike the Andaman group of islands, outsiders have restricted entry to Nicobar islands, due to the government policy of protecting the native tribes. Both island groups are rich with natural beauty, and have pristine beaches, forests, and warm, welcoming people.
Port Blair, the capital, was on our radar for a long time, and finally when we got the chance to go, we grabbed it with enthusiasm. Air India, Spice Jet, and a few other airlines operate flights from Chennai, Kolkata, and Bhubaneshwar to Port Blair. We chose to fly by Air India. Having like minded friends on this trip can really make the trip enjoyable. We had with us another family, who made our trip memorable.March is a good time for visiting the Andamans as it is not too hot.
There are a host of options for visitors to these islands. With one week of vacation time, we tried to include as many activities as possible in our itinerary. Before going to the Andamans, one should carefully and meticulously plan the trip. This is essential for a fruitful trip.Vacationers will have to catch ferries, note monument timings and book hotels way in advance to have a smooth holiday. One should also note, that since these islands are to the extreme east of the mainland, sunrise and sunset both, occur very yearly. In fact, the sun sets by around 5:30 in the evening.
Day 1- Port Blair
We left Delhi for Chennai on the eve of Holi, 26th March. After boarding the flight at around 8:30pm, we reached Chennai by 11 pm. We stayed overnight at a relative’s house before boarding the connection flight to Port Blair, early in the morning. Visitors may also opt to wait out in the airport. Since the Chennai airport is being upgraded, transit passengers may find it difficult to locate seats to rest. Flyers should definitely try to get a window seat. The aerial view of the green islands, with sand bars receding in to the turquoise blue waters instills a sense of calm and enthusiasm as you look forward to the trip.
We landed at the Veer Savarkar Airport at 8 in the morning. We had booked our accommodation in a government guesthouse, right next to the Cellular Jail. Port Blair has lots of options to stay, and you can choose one based one your budget and reach.
To make most of our time, we quickly left our baggage at the guesthouse and left for our first activity- underwater seawalking. Seawalking is conducted by an agency called Sealink Adventures. It is one of a kind in India, and you do get to walk on the sea bed with professional divers. In Port Blair, seawalking is conducted near North Bay(which is better than the the one at Elephanta beach). Boats leave regularly from the Phoenix Bay boat jetty to the seawalking site. When we reached the pontoon, we were briefed by the staff on what to do and not to do when walking underwater. When you go underwater, a helmet with a glass opening is placed over your head. As you climb the ladder to go down, the pressure exerted by water does get to your head, and it can get painful. This pressure should be counterbalanced by holding your nose and blowing tight . Gradually when you reach the seabed, you will feel comfortable again. The overwhelming experience compensated for the momentary discomfort.
The view from underwater is breathtaking. Corals, oysters, sea weeds, colored fish and the surrounding blue water is mesmerizing. Touching endangered species such as corals are not allowed. The best part of the sea walk actually came when we fed pieces of bread to the fish. As soon as you hold up the bread pieces, fish of different colors gather around you and it does get a bit ticklish but it is definitely a wonderful experience. After 20 minutes of “seawalking”, the divers escorted us back up to the pontoon. When you climb up, one is likely to experience the pressure factor again . At the end of it, the whole experience leaves you spellbound and the sparkling blue water always tantalizes you to go back underwater.
We returned back to the guesthouse quite satisfied, but still, tired. The connection flight, and then the seawalking had taken its toll on us. It was Holi too, because of which all the other places were closed. We decided to catch up on our sleep until the evening.
In the evening, we set out for one of the most scenic locations in Andaman- Chidiya Tapu. It is also called the “Sunset Point”, and as the name suggests, is home to a a zoo, or rather, a biological park. It is an hour’s drive from Port Blair, and we reached the place at around 5 pm, just in time for the sunset. However, we could not see the zoo as it closed at 4 in the evening. Chidiya Tapu is set in an idyllic location, facing the sea, and hills in the distance. In 2004, the tsunami had ravaged the place, uprooting many trees. Most of the tree stumps still lie on the sandy beaches, and adds a rustic charm to the place. Seeing the rust coloured sun set over the distant hills is a glorious sight. It is an opportunity for even the amateur photographers to capture portraits.
After sunset we had a quick tea, at a “canteen on the move”, outside Chidiya Tapu, before returning to Port Blair. We then retired for the night with great expectations from what was to come.
Day 2- Jolly Buoy and Cellular Jail
The name “Jolly Buoy”, might sound a bit quirky at the beginning, but it is in reality, a small island in the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. This National Park was started with the aim of protecting marine biodiversity, as well other species of flora and fauna. There are two islands in this park which are open to the public. Only one of these islands is open at a time for a period of 6 months. Jolly Buoy is one of them, the other being Red Skin Island. Reaching Jolly Buoy is a bit tedious. To reach the island, you will have to drive to Wandoor, which is 30 kilometres from Port Blair and takes about an hour by car. Wandoor is the hub of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, and it is home to a Marine Interpretation Centre. This centre provides information about the various species in the park. The most remarkable amongst them is the Great Saltwater Crocodile, which is around 15-20 feet long, and weighs one tonne. Infact, it has a biting force of 2 tonnes! This region is rampant with crocodiles and visitors need to be careful.
From Wandoor, you can take a ferry to Jolly Buoy. However, there are only 6 ferries, which operate on a first come first serve basis. They begin to operate from 9:30 am onwards. It is better to reach Wandoor by 9am, so that you can comfortably get seats.Once you are allotted a boat, the boat men take care and arrange for disembarking, coral sighting in glass bottom boat and snorkeling. As soon as you get out of your ferry, you are taken in a “Glass Bottom Boat” to see the corals. As the name suggests,it has a glass floor, allowing you to see the corals and many bright fish. Then, they drop you on the island, where you are free to play at the beach, or simply relax. The beach at Jolly Buoy is a picture perfect one, with the white sand and turquoise waters complementing each other. After playing in the beach, we decide to do snorkeling, which is conducted by the ferry staff itself. Jolly Buoy is supposed to be one of the best sites in Andaman for snorkeling, with its exotic corals.Snorkeling involves wearing a mask with a tube to breathe, and floating on the surface of the water. By putting your head in the water, you can see the corals underneath you. You can opt to do either a small round around the place, or a bigger round on extra payment. We opted for a small round first, and truly, it was a wonderful experience. You can see all kinds of corals, from the huge boulder corals, to navy blue coloured starfish, and oysters. If they take you further, you can actually see the shallow beach giving way to the deep seabed. All in all, visiting Jolly Buoy is a must in Andaman, and it is perfect for families who are out to have fun.
We left Jolly Buoy at 2 in the afternoon as we had to rush to the Cellular Jail. It closes by 5 pm and people cannot enter the premises after 4 pm.We reached Wandoor at 3 pm, after which we reached Cellular Jail in Port Blair at precisely 4pm. Barely making it through the gate, we went on to explore the dreaded prison. The prison consists of 7 jail wings, arranged in the form of a star. Visitors get to see the gallows and the areas where the prisoners laboued while incarcerated. The jail has tiny cells of a fixed size, because of which it gets it name ‘Cellular Jail’. In its heyday,Kalapani, as it was known then, was home to around 150 prisoners, all convicted for punishable acts against the British Raj. The most prominent amongst all prisoners was Veer Savarkar, a staunch nationalist. In the Cellular Jail, you can see the cell where he was held for 10 years. While you see the entire premises, you are left with a sense of awe and inspiration. It is almost impossible to imagine how the prisoners at that time toiled and resisted the British atrocities in this remote land, thousand miles from the mainland. Even people who are indifferent to our country and how it got its independence, will be touched. Visiting the jail makes you think, think about how our forefathers resisted the British rule.
After the jail closed at 5:30pm, we went to the guesthouse to freshen up, before coming back for the light and sound show. It is said to be one of the best in the country, and takes you through the story of the jail, as well as the evolution of Andaman, from the time it was known as the dreaded Kalapani. For people who do not take guides while touring the jail, the show gives in-depth information about every aspect of the jail. In fact, we got to know for the first time ourselves that Cellular Jail was even occupied by the Japanese, during the world war.
When we reviewed the places to eat in Port Blair, we managed to make up a decent list of hotels. When we asked a few contacts in the city, we were recommended to go to a place called the “Lighthouse Restaurant”.It is set in a nice location, next to the Water Sports Complex. They claimed to to be experts in seafood, so with great expectations, we proceeded to eat at the restaurant. After going there, we ordered seafood, as well as vegetarian dishes like Gobi Manchurian for our vegetarian friends. However, contrary to our expectations, the seafood was not that great. The vegetarian food was good, but not exceptional. From that day, we decided to eat in the guesthouse during our stay in Port Blair.
We were looking forward to our visit to Havelock the next day. Havelock Island, and specifically Radhanagar Beach, is one of the most scenic locations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. More about Radhanagar beach in Part II.