India: The Andaman & Nicobar Islands
LOCAL! GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands, India
By Sharbendu De
An archipelago of 572 emerald islands (only 38 inhabited) floating in splendid seclusion in the Bay of Bengal over 1100 kilometers off the east coast of India and accessible from either Calcutta or Chennai only. This is indubitably one of the last remaining island chains that exist largely in a natural state.
Stretched over an area of 700 kilometers -- north to south --, and once a hill range extending from Burma to Indonesia, these undulating islands are thickly covered by deep green jungles inhabited by unique bird species and endless varieties of exotic flora and fauna ringed by palm-fringed, sandy beaches meandering along the coastlines. The islands are also home to several indigenous tribal groups, many of which are virtually untouched by foreign influences.
"How is it that you're wearing clothes?" asked a potbellied idiot to Anju, a witty young girl from my neighborhood during one of our trips to Calcutta.
"After all, you are from the land of lojenkes (Naked People)," said the man who once happened to stumble on a book on the Andamanese, the major aboriginal tribe.
Greatly irked, Anju spatted, "You're right, I just put on clothes thinking you civilized people may feel ashamed; I'll remove them the very moment we get on board the return ship."
Until recently, this was how the world thought of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Covered by over 92% forest reserve, home to endemic birds and studded with pristine sea beaches, the Andaman islands offer endless opportunities for nature lovers to pamper themselves with bird watching, relaxing on a secluded beach, or hiking in the islands' unpolluted environments.
But the real attraction lies offshore, as the warm Andaman waters harbor some of the world's rarest and most exotic underwater marine life, including schools of dolphins, sharks and manta rays, and the waters are perfect for snorkeling and SCUBA diving.
And, since the islands are geographically isolated -- as yet undiscovered by most travelers --, they are more than likely to remain undeveloped for years to come.
Note: The Andaman Islands are currently accessible to foreigners. The Nicobar Islands are currently off-limits to foreign nationals, and Indian nationals are only sometimes admitted.
WHEN TO GO
With temperatures between 23oC - 35oC and a cool breeze blowing all the times, November to May remains the best season. Moreover, with the unique later Dec. early January Island Tourism Festival and special diving cruises scheduled for the Andaman waters throughout this season from Phuket (February and April), this is indubitably the best season to visit.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Port Blair, the capital and administrative headquarters of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is accessible from Calcutta and Chennai (India) by flight and ship.
- Alliance Air (Tel: 33108) 4 days a week
- Jet Airways(Tel: 36922/36933) daily
- Alliance Air -- 6 days a week.
You can reach Port Blair by ship, 3-4 sailings a month from Calcutta and Chennai and one sailing from Vishakapatnam (an erratic one). The fares vary on class and comfort basis.
- Contact Shipping Corporation Of India, Calcutta (Tel: 033-248-2354/8013), Chennai (Tel: 044-523-1401, 522-0841/6873)), Port Blair (Tel: 03192-33347/33590).
You'll need 3 passport photos. Ships get cancelled at times, thanks to government bureaucracy, strong union forces and bad weather. Be prepared for delays.
Inter-island passenger/vehicle ferries run from Phoenix Bay and Chatham jetty in the early mornings. Bad weather conditions impede smooth services. Daily boats available for the enchanting Havelock Islands (5 hrs.), Neil Island is served 4days a week (3-4 hrs.), Long Island three times a week (6 hrs.).
Check for latest schedules with Directorate of shipping Services, Port Blair (Tel: 32528/34299/31794) or tune into the local news bulletin aired by All India Radio, Port Blair at 6:45 am and 7:10pm. Also read the Andaman Herald or The Daily Telegram.
Local buses connect the city and all of South Andaman. Buses for Wandoor/ Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park and Chiriya Tapu (Bird Island) leave every 3 hours or so during the day and occasionally at night from the Central Bus Stand, Aberdeen Bazaar, Port Blair.
The buses for Rangat and Mayabunder leave bus stand from 4:30 am to 11:30pm.
Taxis and autorickshaws also connect the city, but charges are high. Autosrickshaws are cheaper, but negotiate hard in both cases. Ask the locals for prices, they know best.
Motorbikes, scooters and mopeds are the best modes to get around Port Blair and are available for rent from TSG Automobiles (Tel: 32894) or from Singh Travels (Tel: 33757) near the clock tower, Aberdeen Bazaar. Take them on the ferries (along with fuel) to Havelock Island and some other islands where transport is more difficult and more expensive.
Bicycles are the best way to get around pollution free Neil Island, and are available at shops in Neil Kendra at modest charges.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTION
- Havelock Island
A 5 hour-long journey by boat from Phoenix Bay Jetty, Port Blair brings you to Havelock Island "The island campers paradise." One ANTO (Andaman and Nicobar Tourism Organization) bus awaiting eagerly whisks you to No.7 Radhanagar Beach and the other heads for No.3 Dolphin Yatri Niwas. Take the one heading for Radhanagar beach. After a 20-minute drive up and downhill on a serpentine road following green pastures on both sides, the bus screeches to a halt right in front of the mesmerizing serene paradise, Radhanagar Beach.Splendidly secluded Radhanagar Sea Beach is the ideal destination for all nature lovers, island campers and offshore adventure aficionados. An unobtrusive combination of seafront island, cosy camping tents set amidst dense forest, a 2.5km-long stretch of clean, golden sand beach running parallel to the forest, and an hypnotic azure blue-tinted green translucent sea off the coast awaiting to seduce you, this is the beach you've dreamed about.Laze around the pristine beach, take a long walk down extreme right, swim and bask under the bright sun. Since very few, if any other, bodies will be around, turn the beach into a nudists' beach -- strip off and dive into the warm waters. No one will care.
- Go bird watching in the nearby dense forests, come back and swim with the waves again, and explore underwater marine life. Dry yourself over a delectable lunch listening to music at the luncheonette at the Jungle Resort. Then, go photo hunting Iguanas. Take a sunset walk by the beach looking for nesting turtles (this is a turtle nesting beach), have your dinner and then fall asleep to the sound of the waves. In the morning, get up? No!!! Don't get up; you must be dog tired by now.Designated "Asia's best sea beach" by up-market travel magazine, Action Asia, the beach offers private space to all aspirants and is a perfect rejuvenation center for all weary and agonized hearts too. You can spend some time at the nearby shacks talking to the local villagers, who are very friendly and down-to-earth people.Accommodations are available in beachside tents set up by the Tourism Department, or at an eco-friendly Jungle Resort, just a few yards down into the jungle. This is also the home to Andaman Scuba Club offering scuba diving courses by trained PADI Dive Masters. The nearby seas offer more than 12 dive sites with Campbell Shoals and Minerva ridges the most popular.
The only source of communication is the phone booth at No.3, which stays inactive most times. Bring a flashlight along to find your path back at night to the resort or the tent through the forest: snakes may be lying in your way.
- Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park
29 kilometers southwest of Port Blair, covering an area of 281.5 sq. kilometers of open sea, creeks and 15 small and large islands, the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park at Wandoor is one of the best found anywhere in the world.Filled with dazzling fish and kaleidoscopic corals and visited by schools of dolphins, white shark, Hammer-head shark, manta rays and bluefin jack, these virtually unexplored waters are perfect for snorkeling and SCUBA diving.Regular boats from MGMN Park sail for Jolly Buoy, Red Skin and Cinque Islands.
- No government boats sail for Cinque Islands. Red Skin and Jolly Buoy offer breathtaking underwater views of coral reefs and marine life, and a clean beach. Take a closer look from these glass bottom boats.Cinque Islands are a pair of uninhabited islands and a national sanctuary. The most fascinating part is a rare, sandy beach with a sand bar joining North and South Cinque Island. A favorite diving destination, the islands are accessible by private charter boats from Port Blair, Wandoor or Chidiya Tapu.
- For boat charters/hire: Bay Watch Tours & Travels, Ananda Restaurant, Port Blair (Tel: 33989); Speed Motors, Dairy Farm, Port Blair (Tel: 34840).
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS
- Cutbert Bay, a turtle-nesting beach from Dec-Feb, accommodations at Hawksbill Nest (Tel: 74233).
BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS
The best activities in the Andaman Islands are found both on and offshore. With pristine beaches all around, relaxing in hammock, sunbathing or lying around boozing to the mellifluous tunes of the sea waves is a rejuvenating experience for weary and tired hearts.
But offshore lie the best psychedelic adventure sports. Go swimming and snorkeling along the coral reefs for a quick taste of marine life. The Andaman waters are some of the world's finest, relatively unexplored, unspoiled and dazzlingly colorful. With fascinating, virgin diving destinations some which have been closed to travelers for over 50 years -- Barren Island (India's only active volcano), Narcondum Island, Cinque Island, Passage Island and Interview Island, are the world's new "Diver's Mecca."
Other activities include water skiing, wind surfing, sailing, parasailing, jet skiing, kayaking etc.
- Andaman Water Sports Complex
Ahead of Marina Park, Port Blair. (Tel: 30779).
Take a Seven-point Harbor cruise from Phoenix Bay Jetty. Also make yourself to the Ross Island, the former summer capital during British rule. Boats available from Phoenix Bay jetty daily except Wednesday.
- City tours, harbor cruises, tours to Ross Island, Viper Island and other places are carried out by the Directorate of Tourism, Andaman Teal House (Tel: 32642/34061), Sagar Tours & Travels Pvt. Ltd., Haddo, Port Blair (Tel: 33703/33704) Calcutta( tel:033-4646333) Chennai (Tel: 044-8229017); Shompen Travels, Middle Point, Port Blair (Tel: 33028/32644); Island Travels, Aberdeen Bazaar, Port Blair (Tel: 33358/33034).
Join a live-aboard diving cruise scheduled in February and April 2001 from Phuket in the Andaman Waters.
- South East Asia Liveaboards Co. Ltd.,
Tel: 66-76-340406/340932, Fax: 66-76-340586
Offer a live-aboard 9days/10nights diving cruise US $1700 per person from April 10-20, 2001
- Siam Dive n Sail
Offers an Andaman dive trip in February 2001
By far, SCUBA diving is the best learning opportunity in the Andaman Islands. Courses are among the cheapest in the world leading to PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) recognized certificates. Plus, the thrill of being in virgin marine territories in the Andaman Sea, make this a learning opportunity you won't forget.
- Andaman Divers, c/o Peerless Resort, Corbyns Cove, Port Blair (Tel: 33461/64).
- Andaman Scuba Club, Sushil Dixit, Jungle Resort, No.7 Radhanagar Beach, Havelock Island.
Andaman & Nicobar Scuba Diving Society, c/o Bay Island Hotel, Marine Hill, Port Blair, (Tel: 32881). BEST LOCAL HAUNTS
In the days gone by, every night offered deserted streets and parks. These days, the vivacious Don Juans are out in the open merrymaking or lazing around Marina Park.
A five-minute walk downhill from Aberdeen Bazaar past Netaji Stadium is the Marina Park - an all time favorite local haunt. Have some spicy panipuris from the wayside stalls, and people-watch all evening.
With plenty of accommodations available, the Andaman Islands have rooms to suit every pocket. Budget accommodations are concentrated in the center of Port Blair. Spend a little more and you can stay in secluded lodges with gardens and views over the sea. Contact the Directorate of Tourism for detailed list of accommodations (Tel: 31346/32694/32747).
The best accommodations available are:
- Hotel Bay Island
Marine Hill, Port Blair
Tel: 34101/32198/32065 Fax: 31555
Port Blair's best hotel by far. Elegant, airy and finished with polished Padauk ( rare island wood). All rooms have carpets, en suite bathrooms and balconies overlooking Phoenix Bay and the seas; the less expensive ones are a little cramped. The restaurant is superb for a splurge with good Indian specialties, seafood and a well-stocked bar. Lush gardens and an open-air, seawater swimming pool make this a luxurious island hotel. American Plan accommodations US$80-US$100/night. Credit cards accepted and SCUBA diving available.
- Peerless Beach Resort
Corbyns Cove, Port Blair
Tel: 33461-64, 40201-03, Fax: 33463
Perfect setting among green gardens of palms, jasmine and bougainvillea opposite the beautiful sandy Corbyns Cove beach (most popular sea beach in Andamans). With balconied, A/C rooms, intimate cottages, bar and a medium-priced restaurant, this is ideal for families. A 15 minute drive from Aberdeen Bazaar, this is a place to stay in complete seclusion yet very much within communication lines. European plan rooms US$20 - US$80, scuba diving facilities available.
- Jungle Resort
No.7 Radhanagar Beach, Havelock Island
Tel: 37656, Fax: 37657
Spread in splendid seclusion over 12 lush green acres, this is Andaman's first Eco-friendly resort and by far the best in its sphere. With a beautifully silent jungle around and the serene sea beach and cool waters, this is a perfect rejuvenation center. The resort has one two-story, 4-bed family cottage for US$50/night. The remaining bungalows are spread out with a bedroom on top and living room below, attached bathroom and a balcony. Nine two-bed cottages and nine basic eco-huts, which are all open without doors to lock and only big enough to sleep comfortably."We don't advertise at all and don't want to advertise," says Sushil Dixit, the owner. With no promotional hypes, this is one place where the only source of advertisement is "word of mouth." A true find.Also offers scuba diving courses and facilities.
Seafood is the unique island specialty everyone craves. Port Blair's restaurants have north and south Indian dishes, as well as Burmese delicacies and a wide variety of seafood to offer.
- Annapurna Cafeteria, Port Blair -- great dosas, snacks and other south Indian dishes.
- Islet Restaurant, Port Blair -- A two-minute walk from Aberdeen Bazaar to Cellular Jail, Islet has some tasty Chinese, as well Indian foods and an open sea view of Marina Park. Good for candlelight dinners, but service is slow.
- Bay Island Hotel, Marine Hill, Port Blair -- The open air restaurant is superb for a splurge with good Indian specialties, seafood and a well-stocked bar.
- Delhi Cafeteria, Middle Point, Port Blair -- opposite Mount Batten Hall (oldest in Andaman), this is good for North Indian delicacies. Non-veg is their speciality.
The Annual Island Tourism Festival and the HODI race (canoe race of the Nicobarese tribe) draw great applause. You can watch some documentary films on A&N Islands free of charge at Andaman Teal House (Tel: 32642) Mon-Thu, Megapode Nest, Wednesday and Friday.
- Light & Sound Show
Two shows a day at the Cellular Jail, Port Blair, once a dreaded prison used by the British to chain freedom fighters. The Jail has now been turned into a National Memorial. English show at 7:15pm nightly.
This is not a shopper's stop. Moreover, tired of hectic city life and mad shopping sprees, people come here to relax.
However, exotic handicrafts of corals, seashells, woodcrafts and fine cane-crafts are the hottest island collectibles. Look for some remarkable mementos at Sagarika, Cottage Industries Emporium and Khadi Gramodyog Bhawan, Middle Point, Port Blair.
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
Traveling in the Andaman Islands is highly restricted for security reasons. The islands are a naval base, as well as home to tribal and forest reserves and national sanctuaries.
In addition to an Indian visa, all foreign nationals require permits to visit Andaman Islands. The Nicobar Islands are currently out of bounds for non-Indians. Even Indians require special permits to visit Nicobar group, which can be obtained from The Dy. Commissioner, Port Blair or Calcutta under special circumstances.
Foreigners can now easily acquire permits from the immigration authorities by paying US $30 or its equivalent in Indian Rupees on arrival at Port Blair (by air or sea). Permits are valid for 30 days, and can occasionally be extended by 15 days. On arrival, foreigners are required to report immediately at the office of Dy. Superintendent of Police, Port Blair.
Permits can also be obtained from Indian Mission Overseas, foreign registration offices at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta or immigration authorities at airports. The permit covers specific places for night halts and specific places for day halts only. Check the list with the Directorate of Tourism, IPT building, Port Blair.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Hot, cooked and peeled foods, and bottled water are best. Drive slow -- the islands are hilly with narrow serpentine roads. Rash driving could be fatal.
Do not, under any circumstances, trespass prohibited or reserved areas. You might be inviting trouble from the Administration, as well the attention of hostile aboriginal tribes living in separate islands. Consult the Tourism and Forest Dept. (Tel: 33321) for details.
For emergency medical attention, head straight for G.B.Pant Hospital (Tel: 32102/33473) in Port Blair facing the Cellular Jail. There are also private clinics, as well as drug stores.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS
The Indian Rupee is the local currency. (About 45 Rs = $US1). Credit cards are not widely accepted, though some upmarket hotels and Indian Airlines offices will take them. And as there are no ATMs around, cash and travelers' checks remain the best source of funds.
- For foreign exchange/ travelers' checks/credit cards, make for State Bank Of India (SBI) in Port Blair.
- Syndicate Bank, Mohanpura, Port Blair (Tel: 32568/32532)
- Indian Bank, Aberdeen Bazaar (Tel: 33341)
- You can exchange your currency at Island Travels (Tel: 33358/33034), Port Blair and Shompen Travels (Tel: 33028/32644)
- The Cyber Cafe (Tel: 30516/34231), Holiday Resort, Delanipur, Port Blair. This is the only resort that stays open till late night.
Middle Point, Port Blair is crammed with STD/ISD booths and few cybercafes. In general, Port Blair is well connected. There are some other cybercafes at Goalghar and other parts of the city.
The main post office (Tel: 32226/32566) is beside State Library, beside which lies Telegraph office.
The telephone area code of India is +91 and Port Blair is (03192).
Be prepared for travel delays, as the boat and plane services are sometimes hampered by weather conditions, as well as bureaucratic factors. Do not move into any unrestricted islands -- the tribes could get hostile. Book your journey tickets and hotels in advance. Do not pick up corals from the sea or disturb the natural and marine ecosystem; this is an eco-friendly destination and your efforts to keep it intact are appreciated.
The official Web site of Andaman & Nicobar Tourism Department. You can contact the government with queries.
An online book on the Andamanese tribes and cultures.
Also check out the books and literature from the reference section at State Library, Port Blair.
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