About the Andaman Islands
The Andaman Islands are an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal with a population of 5 lakh people. It comprises roughly 572 islands known for their palm-lined, white-sand beaches, mangroves, and tropical rainforests. Only about 38 of them are inhabited. Andaman islands are also home to gazillion gorgeous coral reefs with vibrant marine life and thus it’s a popular diving and snorkelling site. It is also one of India’s top honeymoon destinations. South Andaman is where I went, home to the capital—Port Blair—and also to most of the island’s population. The remote Northern Islands—closed to visitors when I was there—is home to indigenous Islanders, and much of it is off-limits to visitors.
Getting to the Andaman Islands
Oh whew! This can get complicated. Nonstop flights to Port Blair from Mumbai and most other Indian cities are rare. There are a few nonstop flights that fly from Chennai, Vishakhapatnam, and Kolkata and most transit flights from other cities have technical stops at these two. So, it was a challenge to find the right flight from Mumbai at an optimum price and we had to track the flight prices hourly until they fell to sub INR 8k (USD 100).
In the end, we took a 3 am flight. Yes, 3 am! And landed red-eyed at the airport. Still, it was nonstop. Small mercies.
Next, came another challenge. We had to wait for the Covid test results to arrive in order to board the flight, which, as per recent guidelines, had to be exactly within 48 hours of our landing at Port Blair airport. And what with the increased Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra, the labs were overburdened and results delayed. So it was a nail-biting wait until the report in our mailboxes arrived at 12 am, 2 hours before the flight. I was all readying to beg and grovel at the airport.
There are also ships that leave from Chennai, Kolkata and Vishakhapatnam to Port Blair. The journey takes 50-60 hours.
But despite the challenges of the current times, we managed to land in this gorgeous gem of an island and lo and behold, I present to you a condensed, and, according to me, perfect, four-day itinerary.
Important to know
Mobile network is erratic on the island. Vodafone and Jio did not work when I was there. Airtel is somewhat better. Hotel Wi-Fi is your best bet, which in most cases is only available at the reception. Thus, do not expect to work out of Andaman just as yet.
Cab hailing services such as Uber and Ola do not operate on the island, and taxis can be somewhat expensive, so rent a scooter or a bike for the period you will be here, or do some setting with a cab driver, persuading him to give you a package deal.
Cash is mostly king. Get plenty when you come, although there are ATMs, they are few and far in between. Most places prefer cash or payment through a digital wallet platform.
Liquor is expensive and shops few. If you find one, stock up.
Most beaches open at 10 am and close by 5 pm. Days at the islands end early too. Expect to be back in your rooms by 10:30 pm.
Hotels check-in (usually 11 am – 12 pm) and checkout (usually 8 – 10 am) early.
Overall, I spent about INR 25,000 (USD 330) on the trip (ex-flight).
Best time to visit
We went in April. People had warned us about the heat and humidity, which wasn’t too bad. Only the rains can be a problem, so avoid visiting in the monsoon months, which are June to August.
Now, the four-day do it yourself itinerary to see the best parts of the Andaman Islands.
The do-it-yourself itinerary
Day 1: Havelock Islands
Havelock, also known as Swaraj Dweep, is an island of beautiful white sandy beaches, lush green forest, and rich coral reefs. And because of its rich undersea treasure, it is a sought after destination for snorkelling and scuba diving.
We proceeded to Havelock as soon as we landed in Port Blair. The two ways to do this is taking a ferry or a helicopter. We took a Makruzz Ferry.
The Makruzz ferries (leaves from Haddo Jetty) was better than my expectations. It was well managed, clean, with great views, and equipped with a small eatery, although you cannot go out to the deck. The government ferries (leave from Phoenix Bay Jetty), on the other hand, allow that privilege and cost half of what the private ferries cost. There are other private ferry operators such as Aashi and Green Ocean. In the end, it comes down to cost and timing.
You cannot purchase the Makruzz Ferry tickets at the jetty. Their office is en route (located in Airport Authority Colony, Delanipur, Port Blair), in case you want to play dangerous and decide to buy the tickets after you land. But tickets are available online even until a few hours before travel. On the other hand, tickets to government ferries cannot be bought in advance or online. You need to employ a travel agent or queue up at the counter to fill a form.
A ferry ride to Havelock island takes 1 hour 30 min by private ferry and 2 hours by a government ferry. We landed at 6:30 am, showed our Covid-negative reports, got it stamped, and booked a prepaid cab (INR 250 / USD 3.5 for a ride to the Haddo Jetty). You need to reach the jetty at least 30 minutes prior so you can get a boarding slip for the Ferry (The slip could be a Covid-19 exception). At Havelock and Neil, these counters are outside the Jetty. Boarding closes ten minutes before departure. A mobile ticket is good enough.
Once in Havelock, rent a scooter or a bike to get around. Autos can get expensive. A bike costs INR 500 (USD 7) to rent for 24 hours to rent, added with an INR 2000 (USD 27) returnable deposit. Your hotel can provide you with one, and there are a few rentals next to the jetty.
Your first-day do-it-yourself itinerary in Andaman
A beautiful white sand beach which is considered among the best in Asia (Tripadvisor, 2017 Traveler’s Choice Awards), Radhanagar beach is about 10 km away from the Swaraj Deep Jetty and you’ll need an auto (INR 500/ USD 7) or a bike to get there. The water is crystal clear and gains ground beautifully; you can get neck-deep early on, but the waves are gentle enough and the safe area is marked properly; so you never feel afraid. There are plenty of lifeguards around as well. Entry to the beach start at 10 am and closes at 5 pm.
Elephanta Beach (alternately called Elephant Beach) is a calm beach with clear waters, plenty of underwater life, and inexpensive water sports activities. The beach was named after three elephants who once used to provide rides here; sadly, they’re no more. On most days, the beach is reasonably crowded and has a lot of water sports action happening. You can arrive at Elephanta Beach by taking either a short boat ride or a thirty-minute trek through the lush forests from a point close to Radhanagar beach.
The boats to Elephanta Beach start plying at 8:30 am and end at 12:30 pm. Tickets can be purchased next to the Swaraj Deep Jetty, where you got off. The boat takes you to the island (20 min to and from) and leaves you there to do what you will for 3 hours. You come back in the same boat you go in. A mini snorkelling trip is thrown in free of cost. You could upgrade the snorkelling to go farther and deeper, which I found totally worth it. Most water sports cost INR 200 (USD 3) per head, while deep-sea snorkelling (if you want to upgrade your free snorkel) with photos will cost INR 1000 (USD 13) per head.
A trek to Elephanta Beach would likely be more fun. While we didn’t do this, we met a few tourists who did. The trek starts here and it may bode well to take a local guide to help find the way. A guide will cost about INR 500 (USD 7).
Day 2: Havelock Islands
This is the primary draw of the island and many take a trip merely to experience this. Havelock is a great place for scuba diving because of the calm and crystal-clear water, predictable ocean currents, and the colourful corals and countless fish that thrive in them. If you’re a first-timer and afraid of water, don’t worry, and don’t be afraid. A scuba dive is easy to do and you’ll be safe. After all, you do have a SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) and an instructor with you, at all times.
You have two choices to experience a scuba dive in Havelock. A ‘shore dive’ is cheaper and easier to do, and costs between INR 2000 and 3000 (USD 25 to 40) depending on the provider. A boat dive costs between INR 5000 and 6000 (USD 65 to 80) and is a better experience, simply because you’ll land up seeing much more. The price for a boat dive includes a boat trip to a mid-sea location, 30 minutes of training, followed by 45-50 min of dive, and underwater photos and videos. Early mornings are coveted dive slots because the fish are hungry and active. The water is clearer as well. Note that you’ll likely feel exhausted after a dive (unless you’re very fit and active otherwise, which I’m not), so do not plan anything arduous immediately afterwards.
It’ll be perfectly fun. Just breathe and stay calm. And think of how stunning the underwater photos would look. Moreover, and of course, the main reason you’re doing it, underwater life is mind-freaking-blowing. There are so many colours on fish, did you know? Gold, silver, orange, violet, yellow, silver, black, purple. Corals too. Grand and impressive. You’ll see! And if you’re like me, you’ll choke with tears often, overwhelmed by the spectacle. But remember, you’re breathing through a mouth apparatus. So extreme emotions are better avoided.
We used Seahawks Scuba for our dive. It cost us INR 3500 (USD 47) per head, all inclusive, for a boat dive. DiveIndia and Barefoot (they have resorts too) are the most popular, and thus also more expensive. We also researched Scubalove and Ocean Tribe; both seemed good. It all comes down to cost and availability in the end. You’ll find lots of providers as you walk down the street or even partnered with your hotel.
In the evening, take your bike to visit the Kala Patthar beach or laze at another one of the cafes at Govind Nagar Beach such as the Full Moon Café or your hotel’s private beach-side restaurant. Curious thing: Andaman is such a draw for honeymooners’ that packages abound to please them, such as candlelight dinners, photoshoots, and couple dives. You’ll see them all around you, and if you’re travelling solo, that’s something to get used to.
Where to stay at Havelock Island
Eat and chill at the highly-rated beachside cafe—Something Different, easily walkable via the beach from Havelock Island Beach Resort or the Sea Shell Resort. I had one of my life’s best Risotto there. Venom at Symphony Palms was a good hangout spot for after-dinner drinks. The Bonova Cafe and Pub at Sea Shell Resort was fantastic for coffee, pizza, and the general vibe.
The trip from Havelock to Neil Island can be done by one of the private ferries (they have better timings, and cost about INR 1200 i.e. USD 16) or a government ferry (plies in the afternoon, office is a few meters away from the jetty, costs about half of what a private ferry costs, or INR 560 / USD 7.5).
Day 3: Neil Islands
Named Shaheed Dweep but popularly known as Neil, Neil Island is a smaller version of Havelock with a distinct laidback village feel. The island was inhabited only in the 1960s and has a large Bengali population.
The main beaches of Neil are Bharatpur Beach (for water sports – right next to the jetty) and Sitapur Beach (for sunset viewing). The sea around Neil is as clear as in Havelock so one can indulge in scuba and snorkelling. After watching the sunset at Sitapur, you can hang around in the gunny bag shacks to enjoy locally roasted fish, sip tea, and enjoy the balmy evening sea.
Another interesting place to visit is the Natural Bridge, or a bridge made out of two living natural corals fused together naturally. Natural saltwater mini-pools have formed inside the rock formations next to it and by the sea and one can see crabs and fish swimming inside as well as corals. The bridge is fondly referred to as the Howrah Bridge by the Bengalis settled around it.
Also, the night sky is spectacular in Andaman. It is always a sky full of stars. And no better place to stargaze than in Neil, quieter than its more popular island counterpart, Havelock.
Where to stay at Neil Island
Day 4: Port Blair
While Havelock was the highlight of my trip, Port Blair had a lot of interesting things to see as well. An easy way to get around Port Blair, as most of Andaman, is to hire a scooter or bike, but you can also hire an auto or taxi for the day. An auto cost us INR 1000 (USD 13) to travel from the Haddo Jetty to see Corbyn’s Cove, Cellular Jail, and Ross Island (only transport to and from the Water Sports Complex / Aberdeen Jetty), and to my hotel next to the airport. The points of interest are all not far from each other, but autos and cabs are quite expensive in Port Blair, and thus, a package deal works better.
This was the primary reason for extending my stay at Port Blair. The Cellular Jail, also known as Kala Pani (‘Black Waters’ in Hindi), was a colonial prison used by the British for exiling political prisoners in the years before Indian Independence. This is how I knew of Port Blair and Andaman until the island’s popularity exploded for the purposes of tourism. The prison was built between 1896 and 1906 and about 80,000 freedom fighters were held here, many of them tortured and executed.
The most popular thing to do at Cellular Jail is watching the Light and Sound show, which costs INR150 (USD 2) / head and starts from 5:30 pm (different timings for the Hindi and English language showings). While somewhat entertaining, I thought it was hyped. The jail itself is a good walkabout as you relive history and appreciate the sacrifice that generation made for the pride and freedom we enjoy today. Entry to the jail grounds costs INR 30 (USD 0.4)/ head. The last entry is at 4 pm.
It is annoying how many noteworthy locations in Andaman are actually named after the British. I learnt that Neil Island was named after British Brigadier General James Neill who was one of the perps in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Argh. All the names have been changed (Neil Island is now called Shaheed Dweep, for instance), but usage is yet to become mainstream. Ross Island is another such, named after Captain Daniel Ross, but now called Netaji Shubash Chandra Bose Dweep. The British used it as an Administrative Headquarters for 85 years, since 1857. It was later abandoned after an earthquake in 1941. The island itself is the most interesting visit of Port Blair, overridden as it is with deer, peacocks, creeper-covered ruins, and majestic thick-rooted peepul trees. There is also an impressive lighthouse overlooking the ocean. Unfortunately, these were built by Indian prisoners, most of whom were actually freedom fighters imprisoned in Cellular Jail. It was difficult for me not to feel a tinge of sadness when I walked about.
Entry to Ross Island is INR 30 but we took a boat from the Water Sports Complex to get here which cost INR 370 (USD 5) per head. You are given one hour to see the island (criminally short) and then you’ve got to head back in the same boat. A golf cart can make it easier to see the grounds (costs INR 80 or USD 1 per seat) but if the weather is balmy, the grounds are better walked.
Corbyn Cove Beach
I wasn’t particularly thrilled by Corbyn Cove but it is one of the most popular places to visit in Port Blair. Stop by for some water sports (if you haven’t had enough of them already), take a dip in the sea, and eat some kulfi or chat on one of the lounge chairs by the beach. It is a one hour stop.
Other places to visit in Port Blair are Chidiya Tapu, Samudrika Marine Museum, and Jolly Buoy Island.