A refreshingly leafy but ultimately characterless cluster of tin-roofed buildings tumbling towards the sea in the north, east and west, and petering out into fields and forests in the south, PORT BLAIR merits only a short stay. There’s little to see here – just the Cellular Jail and a few small museums – but as the point of arrival for the islands and the place with most facilities, it can’t be avoided.

Port Blair’s only firm reminder of its gloomy past, the sturdy brick Cellular Jail, overlooks the sea from a small rise in the northeast of town. Built between 1896 and 1905, its tiny solitary cells were quite different and far worse than the dormitories in other prison blocks erected earlier. Only three of the seven wings that originally radiated from the central tower now remain. Visitors can peer into the 3×3.5m cells and imagine the grim conditions in which the prisoners lived. Cells were dirty and ill-ventilated, drinking water was limited to two glasses per day, and the convicts were expected to wash in the rain as they worked clearing forests and building prison quarters. Food, brought from the mainland, was stored in vats where the rice and pulses became infested with worms; more than half the prison population died long before their twenty years’ detention was up. Protests against conditions led to several hunger strikes, and frequent executions took place at the gallows that still stand in squat wooden shelters in the courtyards, in full view of the cells. The sound-and-light show outlines the history of the prison, and a small museum by the entrance gate exhibits lists of convicts, photographs and grim torture devices.

About 300m east of the jail near the Water Sports Complex, you can see murky tanks full of fish and coral from the islands’ reefs at the Aquarium. Three kilometres out along the coast road towards Corbyn’s Cove, Port Blair’s newest attraction is the mildly diverting Science Centre, where you can choose to pay an extra Rs2 each to visit the main displays such as the Sky Observatory, Science Magic and other interactive exhibits.

On the south side of the centre, close to the Directorate of Tourism, the Anthropological Museum  has exhibits on the Andaman and Nicobar tribes, including weapons, tools and rare photographs of the region’s indigenous people taken in the 1960s. Among the most striking of these is a sequence featuring the Sentinelese, taken on April 26, 1967, when a party of Indian officials made the first contact with the tribe. After scaring the aborigines, the visitors marched into one of their hunting camps and made off with the bows, arrows and other artefacts now displayed in the museum.

Further northwest in Delanipur opposite ANIIDCO’s Teal House hotel, the Samudrika Naval Maritime Museum  is an excellent primer if you’re heading off to more remote islands, with a superlative shell collection and informative displays on various aspects of local marine biology. One of the exhibits features a cross-section of the different corals you can expect to see on the Andamans’ reefs, followed by a rundown of the various threats these fragile organisms face, from mangrove depletion and parasitic starfish to clumsy snorkellers.