Date of the trip: 21st Nov 2013 to 27th Nov 2013
The first thought while going through the photographs of our trip to Andaman Islands was ‘out of the whole wide world, how did we ever decide on this destination?’ It was our honeymoon after all, our first adventure together after the roller coaster ride of a big fat Indian wedding. We had not travelled together before, and everyone who has travelled with companions knows how important their roles are in making or breaking the trip. For both of us, this was when we really realised that we had chosen the best companions for the longest journey of life and would love to be beside each other in all the future adventures of our lives and around the world. It all had to start from the beach! …Always the beach…
Inexperience and lack of time had been the reasons for us to book a package holiday from ‘Make My Trip’, a reliable tour operator. My cousins had been to the islands a couple of years back, and since then I always dreamt of visiting the Andaman islands. I did not want to go to a crowded honeymoon cliché, it was wedding season in India at that time and many popular honeymoon destinations would be overcrowded and overpriced. Sunny wanted to have a relaxed time and was not comfortable with low temperature locations at that time. So mountains were a no! – Oh, How he has grown into his glove since then! He was always inclined towards nature and wildlife but never had any close encounters nor got around to photographing them much. These were the hobbies which were yet to develop. On top of the list at that time was only spending quality time and trying to understand the new changes in our lives, strolling romantically on the beach and enjoying cocktails & beers! A tour package was perfect for this kind of holiday and I am glad now that we did not do a DIY stint. We literally did not use any brains during this trip and it was perfect!
‘Make my trip’ took care of our flights, accommodation, transport, food and a couple of activities during the trip. Our group was a small one, with 2 more honeymooners and a middle aged couple with a baby boy and a 10 year old daughter. They gave us enough time and space at every site so we could easily soak up everything and never felt rushed.
According to our one week itinerary we were to land at Vir Savarkar International Airport, Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Islands. After a night’s stay, we were to visit the Ross Island (now known as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island – longest name ever!) and then proceed to Neil Island (now known as Shaheed Island) where we were booked for only a night. The last destination was Havelock Island (now known as Swaraj Island) , that is where we were to spend the rest of the week, coming back to Port Blair only to fly back to Mumbai.
Andaman Islands are all rounders in every sense. They truly have something for everyone.
Andaman Islands are an important part of Indian history, holiday paradise for history buffs!
We tend to leave behind our sense of patriotism somewhere in our busy day to day life. A visit to the Cellular Jail (Kala pani) is a jolt to remind us of the freedom struggle and the rock strong will of our freedom fighters who stood up time and again against the mighty British Empire. ‘Make My Trip’ had arranged a guided tour to this site and it was a very informative one. It was the most depressing place we had been to by then. The guide did try to cheer us up in the end by taking us on the roof from where we could get a breath-taking view of the blue ocean in all four directions. It didn’t help though when he added that the blue ocean all around was in fact the reason this spot was chosen for the jail, any prisoner who tried to escape would die of exhaustion while swimming before he reached the nearest land.
The “light and sound show” at the prison is a must see. Spoiler alert! If you are like me, you might leave teary eyed.
Even a half day visit to Ross Island is time well spent. It has a very long and intense history. Most recent contribution to Andaman Island’s history is that it was the barrier saving Port Blair when the December 2004 tsunami hit the Andaman Islands devastating most of the islands. Port Blair and its high density population owns it to Ross island for blocking and breaking the wave’s wrath so it did not hit the city in full intensity, wiping it out completely. The eerie ruins of the old township covered in roots make excellent photo ops. A short hike up the hillock where the town church was, is a good way to scan the whole island. The huge gothic style walls and arches may not be that pretty in the evenings when they look like a set for a spooky exorcist movie. Most of the tourists only walk around the base of this hillock. That is where the eateries are and visitors can feed the number of spotted deer and peacocks.
Drooling at that magazine photo of white beaches of Maldives and Mauritius? It’s closer (and cheaper) to home than you would think!
Early morning flight meant sleeping like an ogre till the destination, but we were wide eyed during our second leg of the trip from Chennai to Port Blair. We were flying over Bay of Bengal and could see small green islands spread across the vast blue ocean. That’s when we knew we had made the right choice and this is going to be an outstanding trip!
All through the trip the ‘Make My Trip’ rep took us to many beaches and each one was more beautiful and dazzling than the other. Port Blair itself has only one tourist beach, Corbyn Cove . We reached there around sunset, it was like all tourist beaches with water sports, snacks and shell jewellery and handicraft stalls. We found our bliss in just sitting on a side wall and looking at the families having fun. It was our first day on the islands and the only beach we had seen in our lives before this was Juhu Beach back in Mumbai, it did not look much different and unfortunately was disappointing. It got us a bit worried if all the islands are going to be as overcrowded and full of pushy water-sports salesmen as this one. We couldn’t be more wrong! all the islands had their own beaches with white sand and water with all colours ranging from emerald green to turquoise blue and the peace and calm overwhelmed us.
Even while walking on the pier of Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex (in Port Blair) we could see how clean the water was. A visible sea bed is very rare to us Mumbaikars. Red starfish were lazing everywhere on rocks while sea urchins lay cuddled between rocks calmly even though multiple boats and ferries to various islands were docked there. We took one to go to Ross Island from here.
Bharatpur Beach in Neil island was the next beach we visited and it was stunning. Never in my life had I ever seen a beach so pretty. Although here too there were activities like glass base boat ride and snorkelling, it was quieter. In the daytime,the serene white sand and emerald blue sea was very welcoming even after the adventure we had the night before! (Read on, more on that later!). I may skip the glass boat a miss the next time around and opt for snorkelling instead. The tour operator had arranged a snorkelling session in Havelock so we skipped the paid one here (how we regret that decision, more on that later too!).
The serene Radhanagar Beach, Havelock island will always hold a special place in our hearts. I think even now when we have been to many beautiful places in our travels, it still comes in top five. The long uninterrupted stretch of clean sand with no one except our group was unbelievable.
All our hotels on the island were adjacent to beaches. They were non touristy, side, rocky beaches. They were empty, calm and very pretty, but at the same time a bit creepy. During multiple cyclones (and the tsunami of 2004) many trees were uprooted along the beach. The authorities decided to let them lay there as they just added to the beauty of the beach – and we agree! They were amazing photo ops as the texture on each trunk was unique in its own way. These trees give shelter to various tiny marine creatures and walking along the beach became much more fascinating looking at them. We were just amazed by the colours and variety of fauna on these beaches. Oh, how Sunny wishes now to go back there and click better pictures! Really, all the beaches that we visited on this trip were mind blowing and had a very exotic feel to them. And hey! Andaman Islands are a cluster of many islands and most good sized ones are inhabited and are well connected. If you find a beach you don’t like, just go for the next one, I am sure all of them are soul soothing.
Andaman Island spoilt my love for Mumbai beaches forever. I just can’t get myself to enjoy them anymore like I used to. 😦
Luxury comforts? check.
Accomodations booked by the tour operator were very luxurious and well maintained. Almost always we had a separate cottage to ourselves right next to the beach. They booked us into the Hotel chain SeaShell on all the islands. They managed to get us rooms in Hotel Sea Princes on the night of the rescue in Port Blair (Read on, more on that later too!). Rooms during the whole trip were very comfortable and amenities were well maintained. All hotels had scrumptious buffet meals and a view to die for! We spent some free evenings in Havelock enjoying the in-house bar overlooking the blue sea and had never felt so relaxed before (even at the time when we did not know how and when we were going to reach Mumbai 😀 – long story, coming up later!) It certainly was an unforgettable setting! Chefs in all the hotels were outstanding and the spread was always very delicious.
Inter island transportation gets you cruzin’!
We travelled within the island by the minibus arranged by ‘Make my trip’. But when we had to travel between islands, we would go the pier and board the bigger boats/small ships. Some of these were run by government and some were private ones. Comfort of the seats and ticket costs depends on which one it is. Our tickets were covered in the tour cost. Walking on the pier was always very exciting as we could see all the marine creatures on the sea bed till further away from the beach. We had never seen sea water so clear until then and we would spend many minutes trying to look for something unique swimming around.
Yes mummy, it is safe!
Although Andaman Islands are closer to Myanmar than to India, we never felt the distance to our country even once. The islands are populated with Tamilians, Keralites, Andhrans and Bengalis. Hindi and English were well understood. Islands are completely safe for backpackers and tourists. People are helpful and courteous. We had left our phones and valuables on the beach whenever we went into the water and no one touched them. Economy is based on tourism alone, I don’t think they want to risk it!
‘All’s well that ends well’, nowhere it is true more than our trip to Andaman islands. November is the best time to visit the islands as temprature and humidity are low all through the day, visibility is clear and crowd and costs are low. BUT, November is also the month where cyclones may hit the island and there was one, Cyclone Leher, on it’s way the day we landed.
I cannot talk about the holiday on the islands without talking about our first adventure together. It started the very second day of our trip. We (I mean the whole tour group) started late from the hotel to go to Ross island, once we reached there, we missed the ferry back to Port Blair because the kid wanted to feed chips to the deer again. We were scheduled to take ‘once a day’ ferry to Neil island from Port Blair as soon as we were back, so we missed that too. The ‘Make My Trip’ rep came up with the idea of taking us back to Port Blair in a motor boat which was great and quick thinking. From there we got into a ship leaving for Havelock later in the afternoon.
It was a government run ship and we all had our seats booked but we were too excited and decided to take a tour of the ship and the deck. Our first ship ride, it was excellent! Sunny was ever so careful of where I was putting my feet with all the machinery and pipes everywhere. Little did he knew what was ahead of us :D.By sunset we had reached Havelock Island. They rushed us onto a jetty in a mini bus. We were not sure of where we were or where we’re going. I am sure they had told us the plan but we were too overwhelmed at the time to let it sink in. For me atleast, every leg of this journey was very exciting and I was very sporty about it.
There was a motor boat waiting for us at the jetty partially covered and just big enough to accommodate all of us, a helmsman and a navigator. Our luggage was dumped in the bow of the boat and we zoomed into the setting sun. Now imagine this, a low motor boat with 12 seats almost all occupied, a navigator sitting on the bow of the boat with a torch and the pilot half praying that the motor doesn’t stop or the diesel doesn’t dry up, jumping on waves 3-4 feet high with force of a fierce ocean. Each time the boat crashed into the wave it would break into our face. Flipsy – doozy, that’s exactly how our tiny motor boat was cutting through the ferocious high tide of the night. Sunny as well as other newlywed husbands were completely paranoid. Wives, including me were enjoying the wild ride, the other family was seriously sea sick and puking their stomachs out. As the night grew darker the stars twinkled above. No land or light in sight for miles, the stars filled up the sky from horizon to horizon. I wished secretly that we didn’t have the canvas over our heads, I would never get a better opportunity to see this magical sight above. Looking at Sunny’s worried face I instead wished we should reach land safely. Down below the froth made by the boat was glowing because of plankton’s luminescence. It was unbelievable and magical – straight out of a fantacy movie. We had the advantage sitting on the first set of seats, we could enjoy both, the glow in the sky and the glow in the sea. The navigator would switch on the torch light occasionally to see if there are any buoys visible to guide us to land. As the time passed, all the tour members started getting anxious to see land or lights but miles and miles of darkness was broken only with rumble of the motor and roars of the waves, and somewhere in the middle the pilot asked us if we had seen a plastic water bottle anywhere rolling on the floor of the boat. After further investigation we came to know that the boat had almost run out of diesel and the bottle had some spare in it. That was the trigger, everyone started searching for it very vigorously. There were high chances that it may have fallen off the boat in one of the jumps over the waves. The lady with the baby finally found it rolling near her feet and passed it to the pilot, everyone was hopeful of living again (phew!). All the dramatic parts of the movies Jaws, Castaway, Titanic were playing in our heads. A couple of miles more, and it was no more fun and games. We were now questioning the crew if they knew where they were going. Back of my head, obviously I knew, they are locals and they can navigate to each island with their eyes closed but the stress and anxiety on the boat was building up on me too. Their mumbling reply did not help either. No lights still in sight, once when the navigator put his torch on, we were only a feet away from a cemented pillar. All of us took a sigh of relief realising that land would be near now. In another couple of minutes and turns we saw some halogen lights, we were there finally! We had reached Neil Island jetty. Closer we approached the pier we saw there were people standing on it and waving at us with torches. And when we reached even closer, we realised the pier was almost 10 feet higher than the motor boat. It was a pier for cruise ships! The ladder came down only halfway and we all had to do some gymnastics to get on it balancing ourselves on the wobbly bow. The baby had to be tossed up first and the mother pulled herself up followed by the father and the daughter. Slowly we were all up and Sunny was visibly relieved that both of us were safe and alive. We were drenched and all our suitcases were soaked. After we reached the hotel he had the most relaxed night, dried all our clothes and slept like babies.
This incident was followed by a bigger problem two days later when we were in Havelock Island when Cyclone Leher hit the island. October to February is the season for cyclones on these islands. The choppy sea during our motorboat stint was just the beginning of an upcoming storm. We got up on the morning of 24th November covered in coconut flakes and husks, they had flown in with the strong winds and squeezed in between the log walls of our room. We were told not to go out for the morning as the government was assessing the situation and it may not be safe to move around outside, falling coconuts were the real danger. Around noon the winds stopped blowing and as the morning sightseeing had been cancelled we decided to take a walk in the island township. The walk was beautiful and the tropical plants at the roadside were very new to us. We visited the market, did some shopping and returned only to find our tour operator waiting to take us to Radhanagar Beach. It was to be our last day on the island and he was reluctant to cancel the day’s plan completely, although it had started drizzling now, we jumped into our minibus and reached the most amazing looking beach. Remember all those Hollywood movies where the random extra is just standing in a wide open clearing and sees a dark cloud moving towards him which is actually a covering of an alien mothership, or a random girl playing on a pretty beach and sees this big wave of destruction coming towards her! Well, it was almost like that when the coast guard started banging the bell as the dark cloud of the actual cyclone was heading towards the land right in front of us. Although it was still many kilometres away, the scale of it was making it look very close. We hurried to the bus and back to our hotel. That evening the government announced cancelation and blocking of all inter island transport. Flights were postponed and all tourists were asked to stay where they were till further information. A meeting of the group was called and after much negotiation the ‘Make My Trip’ rep told us that the stay for another day will be borne by the operators and they will make sure all of us reach our destination safely. We called up our parents from the reception as cell phones were not working and updated them with the proceedings. The next day, we lounged in our rooms or in the veranda in front of our rooms, ordered room service, chilled and chit chatted. It was an unusual experience for us and although it was stressful at the time, it got Sunny and me closer. We learnt to depend on and trust each other, we were glad that we were together in this. It was good. When the sky was clear again the next day, the Indian Navy ships rescued all the foreign tourists, we were taken back to Port Blair in a cruise ship.
The bay was choppier than ever and ferocious waves were tossing the ship playfully making everyone a bit sick. That night we were accommodated in a hotel in the outskirts of the city. Port Blair was stuffed with tourists rescued from every island. We were very tired that night and had wobbly legs from the jumpy voyage, we found it best just to crash and snore.
Next morning we went to the adjacent beach to have a last look at the bay, now calm and soothing like before. The welcoming cool hues and bright sunshine was the perfect goodbye! When the runway had dried up, flights started taking off and we headed home in the first available flight managed by ‘Make My Trip’, our reliable tour operator.
Oooh! That was a very nostalgic write up! It leads to the next question,
Is Andaman islands circling back in our bucket list?
Obviously, we would not go back to Andaman Islands with a package tour again. We are all about DIYs now. However, I do admit, we may not have been able to handle the cyclone crisis without them. We would not know what to do and where to go during such an emergency. Although our trip was a booked tour and we had a limited kind of very touristy experiences (apart from the cray time during our motor boat ride offcourse!) it was still so much fun! and fit the requirement at the time perfectly. The place gave us so many amazing memories that we can not wait to get back and enjoy other experiences that the islands have to offer.
Our list of ‘things to do in the next trip’ is really REALLY long, here is a short version:
- Taking a walk in the island towns. A day before the cyclone hit, Sunny and me went for a stroll around the sleepy town as all our days sights were cancelled due to govt. advisory. It was a short walk and we bought some fridge magnets and cup noodles incase we get stranded for too many days. Maybe next time we can explore more into towns and find some hidden gems!
- On the day we reached Havelock, we visited PADI certified scuba diving center and made our payments there for a trip underwater the next day. They were to take us in a boat to a coral island. Train us and take us diving. Of-course, none of that happened thanks to Cyclone Leher but it has now made it into our list for the next trip. It is very important to choose a certified dive company for a safe an memorable experience like Seahawks Scuba. They have training courses and offer multitudes of other unique activities.
- We had skipped a paid snorkeling session at Neil Island and were supposed to go for a complimentary one in Havelock, and guess what…??
- A visit to Jolly Buoy Island or Mahatma Gandhi Marine national park for exotic wildlife spotting is a must in the list!
- There are multiple exquisite museums in Port Blair which would be fun to visit but were not in our itinerary. Its great to see these to know more about the place you visit. So, always on our list.
- We have decided, next time we are here, we will hire a self drive (easily available, I have heard) and go bird watching. Some islands have conservatories made especially for birds which would surely be very very exciting to visit. I am sure these tropical islands are home to many many rare and exotic birds. Chidiya tapu is also a good birding destination.
- We hardly got a chance to taste some local cuisines during our stay there. As Make My Trip had our meals arranged in our stay hotels everywhere. Only once when we were rushing to catch the ship to Havelock from Port Blair, we stopped at a restaurant for some lunch. I hardly remember it, gulped it down in a hurry. 😦
- I have heard of very rewarding hiking trails around Mt Harriet. Definitely adding that one!
- Volcano watching and scuba diving around Barren island. The only active volcano in India. Can you really miss it?
We are sure to visit the islands again soon, I am sure more things have changed there than their names. 🙂 . Feel free to give us some ideas of what to do there!
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