Your first port of call: Port Blair
The only point of entry is the capital, Port Blair, named after an eighteenth-century English lieutenant. Most people fly in from Chennai or Kolkata but it is also possible to make the rather arduous three- to five-day boat crossing from those same two mainland ports. Upon arrival by either means, the requisite free special permit is granted, which delineates the areas and islands you are allowed to visit. The first thing you are liable to notice is a much fresher, greener aroma instead of the unmistakable smell associated with urban India.
The town is a bit of an anomaly, however, with a mish-mash of concrete and corrugated iron buildings draped over verdant hills that dip down to the surrounding water. It says a lot about the Port Blair that its main tourist attraction is the Cellular Jail, a sombre reminder of its punitive past. A boat tour of the small islets in the bay, namely Viper and Ross, is also worthwhile, or perhaps a trip further afield in South Andaman to the Mahatma Gandhi National Marine Park at Wandoor, but most people head for more rewarding destinations after a night or two.
The honeypots: Havelock and Neil
Some visitors forego the dubious pleasures of Port Blair altogether and make a beeline on the first available vessel to Havelock, the Andamans’ prime tourist destination. This 12km-long mixture of hilly forestation, verdant farmland and golden white sandy beaches is the largest of Ritchie’s Archipelago and only a couple of hours from the capital on a fast catamaran. It has grown exponentially in twenty years from a complete backwater with a smattering of backpacker beach huts to a fairly busy place that is home to over sixty accommodations, several of them top notch resorts. These mainly service the growing number of wealthy Indian vacationers and honeymooners from the mainland.
Although some would say Havelock is on the verge of becoming spoilt, it remains the only island to offer a wide range of accommodation and eating options – try the Red Snapper restaurant at Wild Orchid – plus it has the majority of diving operations. It also boasts the splendid arc of Radhnagar (aka #7), backed by towering mowhar trees and still home to Rajan, the legendary but now retired swimming elephant, who can be visited at Barefoot Resort. Havelock’s diminutive neighbour, Neil, has started to take some of the overspill from its big sister and is preferred by many for a longer stay.
The long road north: the Andaman Trunk road
Many make the mistake of confining their visit solely to Havelock and maybe Neil, but there are a lot more places to be explored that will give you a real sense of being off the beaten track. The controversial (because it bisects the Jarawa tribal lands and is technically illegal) Andaman Trunk Road runs up from Port Blair through the three largest islands of South, Middle and North Andaman. Although the main settlements along the road are rather forlorn, ugly places, they are the access points for more splendid and much quieter beaches, most noticeably Kalipur in the far north, which can also be reached by taking a boat to Arial Bay. Ferries also stop at Rangat Bay and Mayabunder, home to many Karen people. From the latter, you can arrange a visit to pristine Interview Island, a wonderful nature sanctuary.
The isolated escape: Long Island
For those who fancy a more relaxed and relatively isolated refuge, one of the best options is Long Island. On the boat route from Havelock north to Rangat, it contains a low-key little bazaar, just one or two accommodations, principally the convivial Blue Planet, and the possibility of a fine hike across to the island’s best beach, which you are likely to have entirely to yourself.
The laidback option: Little Andaman
Best of all is Little Andaman, the southernmost island in the group and paradoxically quite large. Reminiscent of Havelock in the nineties, it is just establishing itself on the traveller trail. Much of the island is reserved for the Onge tribe and thus off-limits, but a sizeable chunk of the northeast is included on your permit. There are now around half a dozen small guesthouses and extremely laidback, inexpensive beach hut operations strung along the coast between Hut Bay and Netaji Nagar, behind a magnificent 8km strand. You can also admire the tranquil White Surf Waterfalls, whose name gives away the fact that Little Andaman boasts excellent surfing conditions.
Return flights to Port Blair from Chennai or Kolkata can cost well over £200 during the peak winter season. Boat crossings from the mainland cost as little as £20. Road and sea transportation between the islands is very inexpensive, while the cheaper accommodations only cost £5–10 per night. Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Compare flights, book hostels and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.