Exploring the Andaman Islands

I skip barefoot along the sand to the water’s edge where, framed against a deepening pink sky and a rising sun, my diving boat is waiting for me.

I’ve been here a few days, exploring the waters off the coast of the Andaman Islands of India. On my last dive I found myself among schools of yellow-striped bannerfish, blue-black triggerfish, marbled pastel parrotfish and silver jackfish. I was also treated to the sight of the elegant blue-spotted stingray and large, grumpy groupers swimming lazily along the sandy bottom.

Today I was greeted by a purple baby octopus, just a few inches tall, out for an unsteady walk as he tripped along teaching himself to walk on his many legs. When its enormous cartoon eyes spotted me, it ducked under a piece of knobbly, ochre coral and kept poking his head out to check if the coast was clear. I moved on quietly, leaving him to enjoy his playground.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an archipelago of over 500 islands at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, southeast of India. While most of these, including all the Nicobar Islands, are not open for visitors, the few that welcome travellers are renowned for their tranquil beauty.

Havelock Island, the most popular of these, is a thickly forested island edged with pale, soft, sandy beaches that meld into bluey-green oceans that make you wonder if you haven’t somehow walked into a postcard.

Radhanagar beach (below), once voted the best beach in Asia by Time magazine, is a perfect half-moon of inviting blue waters, soft, clean, walkable sand, picturesque rocks rising up at either end and thick forests protecting it from the world. For a place so lovely, it is surprisingly calm and unpeopled most of the year.

While it’s a great place to spread a beach towel and spend a blissful afternoon in a haze of sand and sea, when hunger beckons head over to Something Different, the best seaside cafe in Havelock with eclectic furniture, cheerful art and pleasant service.

If I haven’t mentioned food yet, it’s only because the place makes you feel so calm and happy that everything tastes good. You’re spoilt for choice with a menu that ranges from curries to pizza and with mains that range from $7 to $12 it’s also easy on the wallet.

Another great eatery is the Full Moon Cafe, attached to Island Vinnie’s Tropical Beach Cabanas , where I stayed. Prices start with a standard hut for $12 a night, up to $70 for the adorable tented cabanas, one of which I opted for.

Vinnie’s is an institution on the island and also has the best dive shop in town, Dive India, attached to it. They have great dive instructors and Vinnie and the crew make sure your dive and stay are safe, smooth and fun.

If you’re a certified diver, a day of diving (two dives) will cost about $125 or for $90 you can try a dive without certification. You can use the WiFi at Vinnie’s but don’t expect it to be very reliable, in fact, if you can, just spend your time here unplugged to really unwind. If you’re looking for a bit of luxury, Barefoot at Havelock has lovely fan-cooled and air-conditioned villas starting from $210 a night.

To get to Havelock, fly to Port Blair, the capital of the territory, via any major Indian city and take a 90-minute ferry ride. Ferry timings change seasonally, so it’s better to arrange a ride with your accommodation.

In addition to an Indian visa, you need a special permit for the Andamans, which you can get for up to 30 days at the airport when you land. It’ll run you $95.

The weather varies between 25 and 35 C through the year. Any time of the year is good to visit, but if you don’t like the rains, avoid the monsoons—May through September.

For a dose of history and culture save a day to spend in Port Blair, which houses the Cellular Jail, built by the British to detain Indian political prisoners during the freedom struggle. The story of the freedom fighters comes alive within its walls… tales of writing books, singing revolutionary songs and planning independence in punishing circumstances.

The nearest island to here is Ross Island, which was where British officers lived in an opulent colony, complete with pools, clubs and shops. Today, the ruins have been reclaimed by lush island greenery and are overrun by deer, making for an interesting visit.

The jail is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and entry is around $1. You can take a 15-minute boat ride to visit Ross Island for $4. Both places have an evening light and sound show in English that gives you an historical overview.

Bag a window seat on the plane. As you come in to land the first sight of these spectacular islands from the air will remain with you for a long time.

A few days in the remote Andaman Islands—the perfect tranquillity surrounded by white sands, turquoise waters and verdant forests—will leave you relaxed, happy and planning your next trip…

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