For a traveler used to more organised travel destinations, Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean might seem laid-back and underdeveloped at first. There is also a lack of reliable source of up-to-date information to navigate around this archipelago that is actually a part of India. This makes one’s visit all the more charming, in anticipation of the unknown. Exploring sun-kissed beaches and capturing picture-postcard sunsets can be a regular affair in these parts known for responsible eco-tourism.
If you are a birder, these islands can be a perfect destination for honing your birding skills.
When visiting Andaman on your own, you must keep plenty of time in hand so that you can compensate for any erratic ferry timings during island hopping. Government ferries will take you to most of the islands that are open to tourists (some of them may only be accessible to a non-national through special gov’t permits). They usually operate at 0600 hours and 1400 hours daily. Besides the government transportation, there are private ferries like the Makruzz and Green Ocean that ply between Port Blair, Havelock (officially Swaraj Dweep) and Neil (officially Shaheed Dweep) islands only. While government boats can be booked on the spot based on availability of seats, the private vessels can only be boarded with advance tickets booked online on their respective websites. Always keep in mind that these ferries could get cancelled at a moment’s notice depending on ocean conditions and safety of the vessel.
Apart from ferries for island-hopping, you will get rickshaws (tuk tuks) in the capital city, Port Blair, and its vicinity. On the smaller islands, however, you need to either hire a scooter or a bicycle or go for a pre-booked taxi (if carrying luggage). Transportation is actually quite affordable in the Andamans. Food and beverages can be a bit steep though, if you wish to gorge into some fresh seafood and beer. You can find accommodations of all categories based on your budget. However, except for 5-star category hotels and resorts, it is difficult to find exceptional service and hygiene in most properties as the hospitality sector is still evolving in the region. Locals, though, are extremely friendly and trustworthy. Crime is unheard of in the islands, more so when it comes to tourists and visitors.
Based on my recent experience in South Andaman, here’s a list of top 5 must-visit attractions and experiences.
1. Natural bridge and coral beach
Neil (officially renamed Shaheed Dweep) is a dreamy island located about 36 km from Port Blair and takes around 90-120 minutes to reach by ferry. This small island has a charming laid-back feel and a wealth of colourful aquatic life. Due to its unspoilt nature, Neil boasts of quite a few drool-worthy beaches, but Laxmanpur II beach, also known as coral beach, is by far the best among all of them.
Teeming with colourful fishes, clams, shellfish and live corals, this rocky beach is like nature’s vast aquarium! You can enjoy its different moods at different times of the day. However, low tide – especially early morning or right before sunset – is the best time to visit here as it opens access to the jaw-dropping natural bridge along with live corals and their habitants on the exposed rocks along the shoreline. You can actually spend hours together studying this amazing marine ecosystem. Do keep a local guide with you at all times so that you don’t end up damaging this sensitive coral habitat due to lack of proper knowledge.
Laxmanpur beach is also famous for its surreal sunsets at the natural bridge.
2. Chidiya Tapu
Chidiya Tapu biological park is an offbeat destination famous for its quiet and serene environment decked up in thick tropical greenery. The journey from Port Blair to Chidiya Tapu (translates to ‘bird island’) is quite picturesque as you pass stunning vistas of dense tree canopies complimented by sudden bursts of open sea.
The whole area is enclosed within a tropical jungle stretching along miles and miles from both sides and opening into the ocean. You can just keep gazing its turquoise waters as you walk along the coastline. There are some uprooted trees on the beach that add to the beauty of the place. Saltwater crocodiles in the waters enjoy the mangroves forest cover to stay protected.
Preserved by the Andaman Administration, the jungle accommodates endemic birds and animals like the wild boar and deer. The park is actually a birder’s paradise. Mundapahad (translates to Black Hill), a wooded hillock inside the biological park, is ideal for trekking and bird-watching. The view from the top of the cliff is simply out of the world!
The thrill of a trek, coupled with mind-blowing vistas and birding, Mundapahad has it all! Another reason to visit Chidiya Tapu beach is its marvellous sunset, something that is typical of the Andaman islands.
3. Radhanagar beach
The crescent-shaped Radhanagar beach in Havelock island (officially renamed Swaraj Dweep) is perhaps the most scenic beach in the Andaman Islands featuring smooth white sand and a serene ocean. The flat and shallow seabed is perfect for swimming and you can actually make it quite far out without missing the seafloor. The calm sea allows you to spend hours in it.
After the day’s frenzy, as the sun dips into the azure ocean, peace descends on the beach transforming it into an almost untouched paradise. The orange hue in the sky and water fills you up with a sense of tranquility.
Havelock island is 41 km from Port Blair and takes around 2.5 hours to reach by ferry. A local bus (runs hourly) connects the jetty to the village, stopping at major resorts along the way. The island has some interesting snorkeling and diving spots that can be accessed with the help of registered local guides.
4. Mount Harriet National Park
Located in bamboo flat island, a short ferry ride from Chatham jetty (around 11 km from Port Blair city), Mount Harriet National Park will blow your mind away with its outstanding natural beauty! The park is actually a part of the hill ranges found in the east of South Andaman islands. Mt. Harriet is the third highest peak in the Andaman & Nicobar islands, standing at 383 metres (1257 feet) above sea level. Once the summer headquarters of the Chief Commissioner during British rule, the park is ideal for enjoying panoramic views of the nearby islands and the ocean.
You can also enjoy trekking on trails that pass through dense evergreen forests and hilltop tropical plants, home to thousands of colourful birds. The more popular Kala pathar trek (around 2.5 km) ends in a clearing with a huge rock balancing precariously at the edge of a precipice. The entire trail is filled with leeches so you need to apply some skin-friendly repellent before starting for your trek. Begin the trek early so that you can return by afternoon.
5. Ross Island
The once notorious fortress of Ross island, used as a penal colony by the British for convicted political prisoners, is now a popular tourist destination. Renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Dweep, it is actually a small island (1.6 km circumference) located near the entrance to the harbour of Port Blair. Although it might feel a bit touristy at first glance, the island’s ruins and tropical forest create a surreal atmosphere that is almost romantic. The friendly deer and peacocks add to the charm of the place. Ross is a good place for photography and nature trail.
Andaman & Nicobar Islands never cease to impress even those who keep returning to this enchanting paradise. Just leave your worries behind and enjoy the sun, sand and surf!