( First appeared in SpiceRoute, July, 2013)
When you touch down at Port Blair’s Veer Savarkar airport, you are in Indian territory that is farthest from the mainland. Geographically closer to half a dozen countries, the strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar is evident in the special care and attention this Union Territory receives. Result: subsidised, tension-free life in a crime-free region (fire arms are banned) that approximates a welfare state. There are no beggars. And the auto rickshaws do not loot. People are tourist-friendly and multilingual and one can get by with a mixture of English, Hindi, Bengali and Tamil.
Port Blair is the gateway to the islands of Havelock and Neil islands which present nature in its most pristine form. Capital of the Union Territory, the town also has enough to fill three days: the two days one has to wait for getting seats on the ferry to one of these islands and one day on return. A visit to the Cellular Jail will fill every patriot with nationalistic fervour. Their isolation by design and the torture and insult failed to break the spirit of the political prisoners. The light and sound show has a powerful script. Tip: Seats on the left flank of the open auditorium offer an unhindered view of the dynamic lighting. Another listed attraction is the Chatham Saw Mill, the largest in Asia. While inside, watch out for logs on the assembly line – there are no protective fences.
There are a few islands worth a day trip. The Joly Bouy Island (one hour by road to Wandoor and then a one and a half hour cruise) is a favourite, thanks to its fine, white sand, shallow waters and corals, making it ideal for snorkelling. Joly Bouy is plastic-free, thanks to sensible and strict restrictions well enforced. Then there is Ross Island (fifteen minutes by boat), erstwhile British head quarters, where deer and peacocks roam fearlessly among the crumbling ruins, now held together by tree branches and roots.
The best of Andaman holidays Havelock and Neil Islands hold the most unforgettable days of Andaman holidays. The sun rises early, around 4.30. Thankfully, most resorts have their waterfronts – and dogs that accompany you to the beach by natural instinct. They are welcome company in unfamiliar territory, as in dim light the mangroves, the floating logs and the partly submerged rocks momentarily cue prehistoric to still-active reptiles. Soon the magic of daybreak plays out. Every sunrise is a unique work of art.
Each day here is made up of repeating action-relaxation cycles. There are no monuments to visit, just beaches for sunbathing and bathing. Jog or walk the beaches, cycle on the roads, hit the forests where, literally, you make your own road. There are no murderous wild animals but one needs some company or lots of courage – ideally both. Wandering on the islands, walking the foot paths is to become aware of the chirping of birds, and recognise a variety of plants and flowers that urbanization in the main land has swallowed up. On the beaches, children can watch fleet-footed sand hoppers tattooing delicate patterns on the sand. Children also build castles with wet sand, secure in the knowledge that no neighbourhood bully will smash it. Families enjoy their private space, in the safety of numbers on the beach.
The adventurous make it by boat to Elephant beach, for water sports galore. A ride on a glass bottomed boat, watching the corals within touching distance and a variety of fish, is a primer on the undersea world. It is an appetiser for snorkelling. Floating with the help of a life buoy, you bite on the snorkel, breath through the mouth and dip your face in the water. Soon, the magic underwater world unfolds itself. It is a serene world where life goes on unhurried. It is a beautiful scene of multi-coloured corals lit by the sun rays that filter through crystal clear waters. The variety of fish seen, the dull to the vivid, some cute and slim, some intimidating, some in shimmering shoals, some loners – no aquarium visit is a substitute for this experience, which is also an eye-opener to the amazing biodiversity (and food bank) hidden under the waters that cover 72% of earth’s surface.
Snorkelling is for the beginners, whereas scuba diving is more serious, involving training, certification and levels of proficiency. Scuba divers typically describe the underwater experience as “fantastic”, “unbelievable” or “unforgettable”.
Exhausted bodies can look forward to Nirvana on hammocks, as they are treated to the soothing combo of sea breeze and refreshing sips. The serious minded can be seen on the beach, under the mangrove shade, lost in their own world, with iPods or books. Time is told by just two needles – the sun and one’s hunger. It is life close to its basic, original form and hence cleansing in a holistic and most natural way. Immersed in unadulterated nature, what follows is an involuntary suspension of workaday responsibilities. Nature erases mind’s RAM. It frees the mind to introspect and seek the meaning of life.
Neil Island can be a one-day affair whereas Havelock is worth more idyllic days of guilt-free existence. Most of the resorts in Havelock are along the eastern coast, well served by the main road connecting the ferry point on the northern tip with Kala Pathar down south, past villages and thick woods. The second major road links with the western coast and the Radha Nagar beach, ranked Asia’s best by Time magazine. Havelock is ideally explored on motor bikes, gearless scooters (daily rental Rs 350), or bicycles. When was the last time you rode a two wheeler without honking? You can do it in Havelock. You can also feast on authentic – yet reasonably-priced – sea food.
Caution: Do not promise to call home: cell phones also take their holiday here. And, along with mosquito repellents and sun cream, pack in a tube of quick fix glue. There are no cobblers In Havelock. In case the sole of your shoes come off, that will be handy, as it was for me. Thank God!