Andaman Islands – A paradise every Indian must see

–          Mahesh Hegde

View a slideshow of my photos from this trip on Flickr

My Job in L-3 India took me to various places around the world including Canada, South Korea, Khandala / Lonavala …. The most interesting of the places my job has taken me is to Andaman Islands. I was in Port Blair Andaman for giving a training to Indian Navy personnel for a week followed by a vacation for about 5 days.

It all started when the requirement for giving training in Andaman came up in office and lot of people wanted to take up this task including me. There was not much discussion in office for this assignment as Madhukar and I were pretty senior we were the chosen ones (actually there were not too many choices as people do not like to give trainings).

Since this kind of an opportunity does not come very often I decided to take my wife Prashanti along so that I can have a great time during my vacation in Andaman. So what happened to start as a teaching assignment, ended up as a training assignment + an extended vacation with my wife.

We had to take two flights to reach Port Blair and this is how Madhukar was after our first flight from Bangalore to Chennai.

Sleeping Madhukar @ Chennai Airport

Thanks to the scarce seats at Chennai airport. The sad part about it is that if you have to transfer from one domestic flight to other you need to go out of the airport and come back in! Luckily you do not have to check in again. Chennai to Port Blair flight was longer than what I expected. It is a hard to believe fact that Andaman is closer to Burma than India. Please don’t be surprised if people ask you weather you need a passport / Visa to go to Andaman. Many people have asked me that assuming that Andaman is a separate country!

This was my first glimpse of the Andaman Islands from the plane. I just said WOOW!! Photography is banned in the Port Blair Airport so the air hostess asked me to switch off my phone as soon as I took this.

First view of Andaman

Landing in the Veer Savarkar Airport in Port Blair, named after the freedom fighter who had once escaped from the jail in Andaman, the weather was pretty hot and humid, but not as bad as Chennai. We picked up bags and met our driver who was holding a placard outside the airport. I had no idea about the common cabs in Port Blair; I was expecting at least a Tata Indica. To my disappointment our cab happened to be a rickety old Ambassador which we had to bear with for the rest of the week. We got into the Amby and then came our next surprise as the car started to take us towards our “VIP” accommodation!! We were driving on the airport runway!!!! I couldn’t believe this; I have seen the airport vehicles run on a runway sometimes, and also some defense vehicles allowed on the runway like in Pune airport. This was the first time I came across a civilian car being allowed to go on the runway. Here is a picture I took, you can observe a black dot far on the runway is a chopper trying to take off while we enjoy the “Runway Crossing”

Runway Crossing

It was a very hot Day and we were first taken to a Navy Commander’s residence who arranged accommodation for us in Andaman. I really envy this Commander’s sea facing house, although the house was an old Government building, the view of the sea from the living room was awesome. It reminded me of one of the hotels in Ulsan, South Korea where I used to stay which has a cool view of the ocean. We were shown our accommodation at the officer’s mess which was kind of descent but the air conditioning was not sufficient to fight the heat. So on day two we decided to move to a hotel SeaShells a highly recommended place to stay.

Cellular Jail – Kaala Paani

Sound & Light Show @ Cellular Jail / Kaala Paani

Our first tourist spot we saw was the cellular jail in Port Blair which has a distressing history behind it. You can walk through the empty corridors of the jail which once was filled with the determination and sorrow of the freedom fighters who were deported from the main land to this jail nick names Kaala Paani. This website gives a lot more info on this jail which is a National Monument today. The sound and light show which is conducted every evening at the Jail tell about the story of the jail in the sight of a tree which stands in the jail’s gardens. A very touching story makes u realize the cost of freedom. This is a must see if you are in Andaman.

During the entire week we spend the days on board Indian Navy Ship INS Kesari which is one of the Shardul class ships in service as a Landing Ship Tank (Large). This type of ships are exceptionally valuable in rescue missions during Tsunami and other natural mishaps as they have the capability to beach in shallow waters, where other ships cannot enter. These ships also have a huge storage space where you can play a casual game of cricket or soccer J this space is used to store tanks and trucks in battle or to transport people and supplies during emergencies. I had worked on the project to design and deploy an Integrated Machinery Control System (IMCS). Madhukar and I spent most of the week giving training to the Navy personnel on board the ship on the IMCS. We spent the evening checking out places within Port Blair like, the Marina / Water Sports Complex and Ross Island.

Ross Island – The Strange contrast

View of Ross Island from Cellular Jail

We chose Ross Island over Mount Harriet National park (Highest peak in Andaman) and in the end I feel we took a good decision. If you have seen the Cellular Jail you must also visit Ross Island as the history of these two places are linked. Exactly across the jail is this Island called Ross Island which was the administrative headquarters of Andaman now managed by the Indian Navy as INS Jarawa named after the tribal group of Andaman. When the freedom fighters were struggling in the Jail the British enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle in Ross Island where they had club houses, ball room, cricket and tennis grounds, spotted deer, peacocks and a lovely white sand beach with crystal clear ocean waters. It is said that the British used the local tribes and the inmates to build their paradise in Ross Island. Ross Island takes u back in time and boosts the respect you have for our Nation’s freedom fighters.

Tsunami hit beach @ Ross Island

North Point – My first experience with underwater world

Corals of Andaman

On the last day on board the ship we had the privilege to meet the Captain of the ship we were giving training on. After we were presented with some mementos Captain asked us what plans we had for the next day, we told him that we were planning snorkeling in North Point. The Captain instructed one of his Commanders and an expert diver who free dives for more than 50 feet to guide us the next day. The next day we started early from our hotel and were surprised to see that at about 5.30 am college and school students were ready to catch their bus to the school. This seems normal in Andaman as the sun rises early there compared to the mainland India. We left the jetty at about 6 am in a small inflatable motor boat. It took us about half an hour to get to North Point. I also had brought my wife along and it was her first experience on a boat like this. It was our first experience at snorkeling for all three of us (Madhukar, my wife and me). The ride to North Point was little bumpy as we had some small waves in the sea due to cool breeze from the east. Once we reached North Point we got some lessons on how to use the snorkeling gear from the Navy Commander Madhukar was the first who wanted to jump into the sea which he tried for about 10 minutes and gave up (for the time being). So it was me who jumped into the sea first. The water was warm and comfortable and the early morning sun was not very harsh. I put on the snorkeling gear and then Commander gave me a quick tour of the corals at North Point. Woooow!!! I never expected the underwater world to be so beautiful, rich and breathtaking, colorful corals, variety of shapes, strange creatures and fish – lots of them. This moment is the most memorable one of my trip to Andaman. After Madhukar saw me in the water, he got more confidence and he also jumped in. Then, my wife joined me in the water and I took her for a tour holding her in one hand and swimming using my other hand. Although, my wife does not know how to swim, we had some floats to help her stay on the surface of the water. All of us enjoyed the spectacular views of the corals lit by the slant rays of the early morning sun in the crystal clear waters. Some of the corals here were really huge, probably as huge as an elephant. I really missed an underwater HD camera to capture the moments. The absence of any tourists as it was early in the morning made the place even better.

We were snorkeling for almost over an hour. Once we were done, I took my wife for a quick tour of the Naval ship and then we were dropped back to the jetty from where we went to our hotel in the Amby by about 9 a.m.

Some facts about North Point:

–          North Point appears on the back of the Indian 20 rupee note

–          This is the first point of reference for navigation on Indian Territory for incoming vessels from the east; there is a light house here on top of a small hill to guide the boats.

Havelock Island – Thick tropical forests, mangroves, one of Asia’s best beaches

Makkruzz Catamaran @ Havelock Jetty

This island is about 2-3 hours by sea from Port Blair and a must visit if you want to see some really great beaches and thick tropical forest. There are two boats that operate between Port Blair and Havelock. The best option is the private “Cruize” This is a very efficient boat and since it’s a catamaran hull it is also fast and takes about an hour and a half. This is very similar to the ferries from Busan to Okpo in South Korea.  Beware as the private boat may be cancelled if the weather is bad. On our return trip the private boat was cancelled and so we had to take the only other option i.e. the Government operated boat. The government operated ferry stinks, makes u puke and also takes almost double the time. I somehow managed to stay stable after the 3 hour journey, but most people did not!

We arrived in Havelock at about noon, the resort where we were booked (SeaShells Havelock) has a small private beach lined with mangrove trees. The resort is setup in a coconut plantation and has several independent wooden cottages which are maintained well. You really do not feel like going out of this place. The resort arranges vehicles and boats to visit the different parts of the island.

Seashells Resort Havelock

The first location we checked out was Elephant Beach. To go to Elephant beach we took a scary motor boat from the Havelock jetty. It takes about 45 minutes to reach Elephant beach. A rare feature about the beaches of Havelock is that the beaches have a rich tropical forest backdrop lined up with really huge trees. A “glass bottom” motor boat at this beach was very useful to take some pictures of the colorful and shallow coral reefs. The corals here are really colorful and there are lots of varieties. However I felt that the corals at North Point are bigger. Snorkeling in Havelock was banned when we visited as a crocodile had lately killed a foreign tourist.

Back in the resort in the night I spent some time taking pictures of the resort at night. The next day we had planned to visit one of Asia’s best beaches.

After a heavy breakfast, we started for Radhanagar Beach which is about 15 Kms from our resort. Once we reached Radhanagar we were disappointed as the sky was overcast and the waves were too high for swimming. We were probably the only tourists on the beautiful beach. Setup against a thick tropical forest lined up with huge trees. The clouds started to clear, as the sun started shining we could see the different shades of blue in the water due to the varying depth of the ocean bed. The colors were incredible. A photo op and this is the result.

Radhanagar Beach Havelock

More tourists started coming in and I enjoyed swimming in the beach, hitting against the waves & jumping on them. Just as I started coming out of the water the clouds were coming in from the sea and the sun still shining on the beach. It was a perfect moment and a perfect photo reflecting the spirit and the weather of Andaman.

As we packed off from the beach for lunch, I took a final look at the beach and the sea and thought this is the best beach I have ever seen.

Key attractions at Havelock:

–          Radhanagar beach

–          Boat ride through the mangrove trees

–          Corals at Elephant beach

–          Neil Island – Beaches and Corals – this is a smaller island beside Havelock

Waiting for the boat at Havelock Jetty

Havelock was the last place we visited. We took the Govt. ferry to get back to Port Blair and took the next day early morning flight back to Bangalore via Chennai. The next time I go to Andaman I would like to take the Great Andaman Trunk road all the way to the top most Islands in Andaman and check out the sand bars connecting two islands there. I have heard a lot about this place. We could not do it on this trip due to time constrains and uncertainty about the road. Sometimes this road is closed to preserve the tribal people who live along the road.

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