Longstanding author of the Rough Guide to India, Nick Edwards, explains how the remote Andaman Islands have been slowly increasing their tourist profile but still reward the adventurous traveller with natural splendour unlike anywhere on the mainland.
The long emerald necklace of the Andaman Islands – an archipelago lying over a thousand kilometres out in the Bay of Bengal – is unlike anywhere else in India. Here you’ll find some of India’s most stunning beaches, invariably fringed by thick forest, and the only substantial coral reefs in the country, a magnet for scuba divers worldwide. These colourful underwater networks teem with brilliant fish, reef sharks, manta rays and Olive Ridley and loggerhead turtles. Add plenty of exotic bird life, crocodiles lurking in lagoons and the odd feral elephant into the mix, and it’s not hard to see the attractions of a visit.
The archipelago is actually closer and more similar in appearance to the western coasts of Myanmar and Thailand. Indeed, India only really inherited the island chain by default, along with the off-limits Nicobar Islands, on independence from the British, who had used the islands as a useful marine staging post and grim penal colony. In doing so they partly displaced the half dozen distinct indigenous tribal groups who had previously been the only inhabitants. This process has continued since the islands were further colonised by mostly Tamil and Bengali settlers, although certain areas are still set aside for tribal people.
Today, while firmly on the tourist trail in India, the Andaman Islands still receive realtively few visitors and this stunning archipelago is a highlight on any itinerary.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.