The morning rays were peeking in through the half-shut flight window as we hovered mid-air over a rolling expanse of blue. Long before the wheels of our aircraft kissed the runway of the perfectly scenic Veer Savarkar International Airport, I could sense the mysterious charm hanging in the air and the adventure that was beckoning as I stepped into Port Blair, the capital city of the scantily populated and largely unexplored Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
My first acquaintance with this coral-fringed archipelago happened way back in grade four, when I was eagerly leafing through the glossy pages of our geography textbook. The white sand beaches, exotic marine life, and facts about the aboriginals of the Andamans floated in front of my eyes. All the childhood memories came rushing back as our car moved along the wide-flanked road with the sighing blue sea on one side and beautifully constructed buildings of the capital town on the other.
The Andaman Islands can be quite chameleonic in appeal. It can catch you off-guard with sudden bouts of colonial history or invite you to take on dense forest trails, where crickets chirp and not a trace of blue sky is visible.
A tryst with history
I found myself easily attracted to the ominous and formidable structure of the sinister Cellular Jail. Like a page taken out of a middle school history book, the jail came alive in front of my eyes during the light and sound show. Sentenced to Kala Paani, far from the mainland, the oppression suffered at the hands of the Britishers during India’s freedom struggle were brought to life here every evening.
A little away from Port Blair was Ross Island, or the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Island, which is also engraved with memories of India’s colonial past. A short ferry ride from the Phoenix Bay Jetty swept us off to the ruins of the penal colony, nestled in South Andaman. The creepers adorned the walls of these rundown structures while shelling and gunshots dot the walls, painting evocative pictures of a turbulent past.
An underwater adventure
Often dubbed as a heady competitor to the beaches of Thailand, the Radhanagar Beach in Andaman’s largest island, Havelock (Swaraj Dweep) is a treat for sore eyes. The emerald blue waters of the sea played peek-a-boo from behind the coconut-tree guarded entrance to the beach. After a hearty dinner of prawns cooked in a spicy South Indian masala, I remember how sleep trespassed into our dome.
While Havelock pampered me with sunsets of riotous colours, and flirted with the seafood lover in me by dishing out crunchy kokari and surmai fish fries and sumptuous king crab delicacies, it was Neil Island, just a ferry ride away from Havelock, with Laxmanpur and Bharatpur beaches that finally had me at the rims of the famous Howrah Bridge rock structure.
By the next morning, my mind had grown extremely restless as I longed for the ocean now. Having binged Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara way too many times, I was eagerly waiting for the day I could finally have my epiphany underwater. When I found myself on North Bay Island, famous for its coral reefs and marine life, my excitement overshot itself. The water here is not sapphire, rather it reflects the colour of the sea bed in myriad shades.
I found myself bravely strapping on the snorkelling gear, ready to witness life under the surface. With my eyes fixed on the sea bed below, I used my rusty skills to stay afloat as the water and majestic corals were quick to overwhelm me. Schools of colourful fish skirted by and a lone seahorse hid behind the flaming orange and fuschia of the corals.
But it isn’t just North Bay that took me by surprise with its teeming marine life, further up north in the lesser explored regions of Andamans, we found ourselves at the Kalipur Beach in Diglipur, which is famous for its turtle-nesting grounds. Reaching Diglipur itself is quite an experience as it happens to be the northernmost tip of the Andamans, close to Myanmar. A little off the beaten track, the Kalipur Beach is deserted, making it perfect for the Olive Ridley turtles who come here to lay their eggs. On a trek up-beach in the middle of the night, we stumbled across a broken shell of a turtle egg, lying covered in the mica-clad sand.
Into the forest
The mysterious side of the Andamans fully revealed itself only when I had stepped away from the beaches and delved into the dense foliage instead. We made our journey towards Middle Andaman and then further into North Andaman. Guarded by tall deciduous forests on either side, our car trudged along the winding roads in a convoy through the Jarawa Reserve, heading towards the Nilambur Jetty. The Jarawas, who happen to be the most prominent indigenous tribe found on the Andaman Islands, live in the forests of Middle Andaman, fiercely holding on to their primitive values. Believed to have a connection with the African aboriginals, the Jarawas can often be seen on this drive through the forest, towards Baratang and then eventually, Rangat.
The fact that Andamans is also a treasure trove of other natural wonders became more apparent when I found myself inside the limestone cave at Baratang. The stalactite and stalagmite formations were breathtaking and as I watched the light change across the uneven fissures, the cave transformed into a canvas of chiaroscuro.
Clad in virginal beauty, the Andamans pulled me towards itself with its beaches and its forests, its history and its natives. The islands eagerly wait to show you and take you to places unexplored, helping you discover yourself a little more throughout the journey.
How to reach: Direct flights are available from all major cities. Alternatively, a ship from either Kolkata, Vizag or Chennai ports is also an option.
Where to Stay
Port Blair: Fortune Resort Bay Island and Seashell Resort on Marine Hill overlooking the sea
Havelock: Barefoot Resorts is inside a tropical forest, with the Radhanagar Beach close by
Diglipur: Turtle Resort if you plan to witness the turtle nesting grounds
What to eat
Spicy Crab masala or Prawn Curry
Fish varieties like kokari and surmai are exclusively found in the waters of the Andamans
Seafood at the new Lighthouse restaurant in Port Blair
Dakshin restaurant by Barefoot in havelock should be on the checklist too
What to do
Visit the Cellular Jail and relive its ominous past
Take a dip in the Corbyn’s Cove or ride the tall waves at Radhanagar Beach
Watch the sunset at Chidiya Tapu Beach
Go scuba diving in and around Havelock Island or explore the coral reefs and marine life at Barracuda City or the aquarium diving point
Snorkel at the north Bay Island and Red Skin Island
Opt for glass-bottom boat rides in Wandoor, a part of the mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park
Explore the forest trails in middle Andamans