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Published: March 9th 2013
Port Blair – the place that hums! (Sorry not the best start to Paradise!)
The Spicejet flight from Kolkata to Port Blair (capital of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands) takes 2 hours. Surprisingly we are 2 of only 4 foreigners on the flight – the rest are locals from West Bengal. After landing we have to get our permits (locals don’t need these) but the system seems very quick and costs nothing but a bit of time. The surprise for us was that they actually stamp your passport (awesome, just like the old days – even though this is a domestic flight!)
The first thing that hits you is the humidity ………… and then a quick second later the smell! Clearly they have problems with their drainage systems and this is repeated at various points in town. Despite their stated Eco and sustainability credentials at the airport, the place has rubbish piles at various locations which add to the “Hum factor”.
We are met by a rickshaw guy arranged by the local Guest House we are staying at – Aashiaanaa – very near the Ferry Jetty point. It’s really basic and cheap (Rs 500 for a room for
the night with shared toilet). The folk are really pleasant and helpful with information. Especially when we discover that we have left our LP guide to India on the plane. Damn & blast……….. FFFFFFF!! They helpfully offer to sell us at a discount the older version of the LP guide to India and give us a reduced version that someone had left (but removed the North India sections). We take the latter which has all we need for the next few legs of our travels (and this in turn is passed on to Michael from the Czech Republic – see later).
It’s late for lunch and most places are closed (as it is Sunday). We are advised to try the Lighthouse Residency & Restaurant – about 15 mins walk away through town near the clocktower. We head there and are just getting ready for lunch in the AC food hall section when the young waiter suggests that if we want a “drink” we would have to go to the roof terrace. Best move ever. Not only did we get cold beers but the view of PB from here was really good and the fresh breeze was really welcome.
The ticket office for the ferry to Havelock Island is also closed so we’ll have to join the scrummage (literally) tomorrow morning at about 5.30 am, for the tickets for our crossing.
Next morning we are up at 4-30 am for a quick shower before heading to, we hope, the front of the queue for tickets for the 6-30am ferry. There are also ferries at 11-00 and 2-00 (and a catamaran – The Makruzz - at 8-45, cost Rs 850 each, 1hr 30 mins to Havelock only) . Folk are already queuing but thanks India for keeping the Women’s Only Counter facility; C joins that shorter queue and holds her ground when the office opens, despite the pushing and shoving, and we get our tickets – including one seat (golddust!). There are also standing only tickets for this 2 and a ½ hours ferry ride. The seats have all been pre booked in advance. Havelock Island – The Island that could run out of Beer!
The Ferry sets off on time as do those to the other islands as well. We have a seat in the bowels of the ship – it’s warm but we have a
fan overhead so can cope. Oddly the seat next to ours is empty so neither of us has to stand around. M sleeps most of the way (2.5 hours) while C is charmed by 3 young Bengali lads on a few days holiday, and we get to Havelock Island on time.
First thing once off the Ferry is “immigration” where we have to get our permits checked and we get registered. We get a Rickshaw that the Resort (The Emerald Gecko) pays for - at Village no 5 where most of the accommodation is. This is thanks to Imran who booked us in. We find out the next day by chance, that he is family of one of the owners and he seems to have given us a pretty good deal. So a soul mate from London (East) and our email exchanges have paid off. Thanks Imran.
Our first impressions of Havelock are that it’s really beautiful and idyllic – a sort of South Sea Paradise – but this is India?! The big draw here is also the deep sea diving, snorkelling and fishing. The sea is beautifully clear and azure blue and the sand white and soft.
Not quite The Maldives but a close second and most importantly a whole lot cheaper. The development of the place is controlled by the Forestry Department and only a few Islands are inhabited. The Nicobar Islands are off limits as it’s a sensitive military post.
The eating shack at Emerald Gecko (EG) is called Black Beards’ Bistro (wildly ambitious and very Caribbean!!). Breakfasts are included which is fine. They do lunch and dinner sessions (and in between these times you have to fend for yourself at other places outside – a bit unusual). They do mainly fresh seafood, chicken, pasta or pizza & some Indian Veg fair, though the choices seem limited compared to what we could get elsewhere. We do dine there one night and pig out a bit on Prawns, Tuna steak & squid with fried potatoes – really tasty, well cooked and at reasonable rates. One evening a week they do a BBQ and the place behind the Bistro is all lit up and look great, but the menu is very limited so we skip it and go to Anju Coco Restaurant down the road from us.
One very positive initiative run by most hotels/resorts
here is to provide filtered water free to guest to keep the level of consumption of bottled water from shops down and reduce the Islands plastic mountain. This saves visitors money – given the heat and humidity. However, evidence suggests that they are losing the plastic war and Bisleri (a famous bottled water supplier/brand) is winning. Another feature we approved of at some “resorts” (including EG thankfully) is to provide access to a fridge to allow folks to cool their water, drinks or beers – very handy.We get a Beach Hut in a lovely coconut palm courtyard, the beach is literally at the edge of the resort and of the places we have been to, we think this reminds us most of the Cook Islands.
The island is beautiful & local people really friendly and helpful (except for one shop keeper who was a real grumpy fucker & got told off for being so in Hindi by M).
We are not quite sure how this gem of a destination has not been on the travel radar for years. It’s possibly because they don’t seem to want to cater for mass tourism – which is a good thing we
believe. The main tourists here seem to be Indians from Kolkata, Chennai or Bangalore as flights to the Islands are only from Kolkata or Chennai. Of the limited number of foreigners here, there is a large contingent from France (mainly families), Spanish & many Israeli tourists (young people). The Russian/Eastern Europe invasion has not hit here as it has Goa.
Its mango season for the local variety and we discover just up the road from us The Lee Meridian Restaurant which is selling full glasses of pure fresh mango juice for Rs 40 – an amazing deal and we go there for 2 glasses each day. Apparently mangos are Rs 40 a Kg here!! (It’s also Watermelon season and they are being sold all over the place).
They also run the e-café next door which is pretty expensive by Indian standards (Rs 120 per ½ hour) but it’s useful for keeping in touch. Internet and Telecommunication links to the Island is pretty poor and non-existent in other islands which makes booking ahead a bit of a challenge. Airtel is the best mobile network provider and reception is variable depending where you are on the island. We just managed
to ring Satish to wish him well on his Birthday by standing on the corner of some random street corner we were on having failed many times before from the resort. Trying to get hold of and wish Kaka on the 4th will be near impossible as we hope to be on Neil Island which is a communication “black hole”. We do however use the net to contact family and manage to Book our hostel in Kyoto – Japan as this was proving difficult for the earlier dates we had in mind. (They were full to mid-April - the Cherry Blossom season may have something to do with this).
Early on we come upon the Anju Coco Restaurant and meet Umank whose family own and run the business and have done for about 8 years (they still live in Delhi but come down for the season to run this very busy and profitable business). He’s a young guy and ambitious but has fallen for a German tourist from Munich and he’d love to visit her but is not sure his Dad will approve. Poor guy. Anyway good luck to him.
We are so impressed with the place and
service that we go there for a few nights. We enjoy a gloriously grilled Red Snapper (Rs 500), Fish Momo (first time ever) really delicious, Sea Trout, Jack Fish, Afghani King Mackerel, Tandoori Tikka & Butter Naan which is to die for. Its excellent food, beautifully cooked and presented and at very reasonable prices. The service is pretty good too. It makes the holiday here complete. No wonder it’s always busy and it seems like all the young Israelis go there for dinner.
EG is part of the Wild Orchid Group (very expensive hotel & restaurant nearby) that also owns Fat Martins café (a small dive looking place on the street corner between the two resorts and which did very mediocre masala tea), and Andaman Bubbles Dive Centre. Unfortunately, the service there was crap and attitude so poor that even though there is a room discount of 10% (thanks again Imran) if we go there, we decide to go with Dive India (Rs 4500 per 2 dives per person) based at the Dive India Resort (or the sign also has Island Vinnies Cabins). Our view – they are a great bunch of people (all Indian instructors bar one Ozzie),
good kit and extremely helpful and informative.
It also has the Full Moon Café at the dive centre which does awesome Madras coffees and fabulous fish thali (again a first), Malwani, Kokan & Malabar Fish Curry each with rice & a butter roti - just superb. They also serve Thecha– a mix of green chilli, garlic & a special horseradish type ingredient – a fantastic accompaniment for curries that we are going to have to try to re-create at home.
We book for a dive (our first in India) after a free refresher dive with Mariam. It’s up and away at 7.30am as they have to get back before the tide goes out or we’d have to walk back for about a mile to shore as the tide really goes out very far. We dive with Sahil from Mumbai. He’s a really nice young Indian Dive Master – it’s his first season. The boat takes out 7 divers in three groups so just us 2 with Sahil. Dixons Pinnacle about 1.5 hrs from Havelock is the first dive - great marine life but visibility slightly murky & then we dive The Pilot Reef which is nearer to our
start point – it has damaged coral but some interesting marine life – it’s a shallower dive and with clearer visibility. C manages to run low on air (that’s a first on most counts) and gets a helping hand from Sahil’s spare regulator.
We hire a scooter for two days to get us around the Island. Most folk do this or hire cycles if you are ambitious and fit. The Island places/villages are usually given numbers - not sure if this is a product of when they came about or what. The Ferry entry point is No: 1, the next main market area is village 3, the tourist area which borders the beach is No: 5. They do have a village No: 6 and a No: 6½?! Not sure why.
Beach number 7 (which actually has a name - Radha Nagar) is apparently the big draw. Many Indian day trippers come from Port Blair in organised groups to go there for a few hours or experience the sunset. It is without doubt a lovely beach on a very big bay. However, it has no amenities or life and seems soulless for something so lovely. After getting in past
the rolling breaking waves, the sea is calm, crystal clear and warm and reminds us of a beautiful swimming pool in Bali. The Indian visitors generally go to the central bit and wade in clothes (saris, suits) while the rest of the beach is rather deserted bar a few foreign sun bathers. We did go one evening for sunset and experienced an amazingly colourful sight.
The reason for the sub title to this part of the blog is that when we tried to get a beer at the local Bar in Village 3 they had run out and were not expecting to get any for 3 or 4 days!! So off we went to the Sunrise resort Bar and they only had a case of 12 left and expected these to be gone by 4 pm that afternoon and not get any more for a few days too. So we buy 3 for ourselves and take them away & put them in the fridge at our resort. Happiness! When we eventually come across the Govt Beer shop it’s only warm beer and they have some peculiar trading days – so watch out travellers.
We decide to take the
½ hr Trek to Elephant Island – famous for a swimming elephant (called Rajan the diving Elephant) that you can dive with (if it chooses to go into the water at all). At a cost of course even if the elephant decides it doesn’t fancy it. A photograph of the elephant swimming under water is in most National Geographic type magazines – so the photographer who paid the Rs 13000 (about £150) is making a good return on his/her money. Elephant Island is normally accessed only by boat for am snorkelling trips (Rs 3500 for 2 with equipment hire).
It takes approx. 30 mins from the road along an elephant track in high humidity – we see the giant footprints and elephant poo (relatively fresh we think as seasoned hunters/trackers that we are!) but no elephant. The route takes us through mangroves to get to the beach and as the tide is coming in and the area is all muddy we turn back. Some Bengali day trippers (young guys) decide to wade through though one gets suck up to his knees!
So we head back to the village to return the bike, stopping for photos along the way
and some “supplies” from the beer shop. We then spend a couple of hours lazing in the sun and swimming in the glorious sea outside the Full Moon Café (dive place) before a late lunch and stroll back along the beach. At high tide the sea comes right up to the shore (mangrove and coconut tree fringed) but at low tide the sea goes right out with lots of rockpools on view which are fun to explore – plenty of blue back & red crested crabs around.
The guy at Dive India offers to get us tickets for the Ferry for an extra Rs 100 per ticket – given the scrum at Port Blair we think this might be worth it & despite the ticket having only Caroline & Peter on them with incorrect permit numbers and our ages as 27 & 28 (we didn’t have to pay him for this age reduction) it worked. Obviously the Andaman way of life!!
So after 6 glorious days, we are up at the crack of dawn to have an early breakfast and catch the 9am Ferry to Neil Island. It has plenty of space and again we have seats near the
Air Con – great. Neil Island
After an hour and a half we arrive at the small island with a really tiny Jetty. It’s a rickshaw ride to The Tango Beach Resort where we have booked in for 3 nights. It’s a short ride from the Terminal and right by the beach. The rooms at Tango are pretty good and cheaper than EG but Tango is a bit of a disappointment on the service front generally, though it is a favourite with Bengali travellers (or the Tour Operators) on a package trip. We had wanted to try the Tango Buffet but despite a promised fish dish – it’s chicken! And what they can’t seem to do is a really hot cup of coffee or decent tea. Their powdered milk is sugared so if you don’t like sugar – skip the milk.
After a short briefing by our neighbours (2 young German girls who have been here for a week) we are ready for whatever Neil Island has to throw at us. We hire 2 rickety bicycles to get around and find the local Kingfisher Hotel (aptly named) Bar for some cool beer. Then onto the village market
where it’s relatively quiet, for lunch at Chand’s, a local institution – Fish Thali for Rs 100 each. Filling and tasty. They serve M loads of stuff as he communicates in Hindi & eats with his hands, while we notice that the tourists are given about half of what he gets for the same price. C goes for the mango pancake & boy is it good. We have them quite a few times during our stay. Something to make at home no doubt - when Alphonsos are in supply.
We go back to the market in the evening when it’s buzzing with folk milling around – this is the social side of the village, and buy some local mangos for breakfast. There’s a short sharp downpour while we are in the market one night, which is nice to experience.
We come across the brightly lit Pradise Restaurant not far from us which offers to do us chilled beers in chilled glasses and they have octopus - C’s favourite - so we are sold on coming there and have a fun evening under the stars and Christmas tree lights all around us which seem to have a life of their
own and go from very bright to dim depending on the vagaries of the local electricity power surges. The food is decent so we come back for our final evening too. A lovely red snapper grilled and a curried whole fish with ice cold beer. Here’s to Neil!!
Another night we go for dinner at Gayan Garden Restaurant – Fish in coconut curry, Fish grilled (with anchovies) and Prawns grilled – the food is pretty good but the beer was not cold enough despite us having given them 30 mins notice.
We try to walk to the “Natural Bridge” at beach number 2 twice –once along the beach and once along a track from the road. However, both times, ½ way there we decide that we’d get stranded as the tide was coming in so abort the plan for another day. We never do get there! The beach on the north side where we are staying is quite rocky in places so for swimming we go to beach number 4, near to the jetty. The water isn’t crystal but pretty clean given the boat traffic not far away. The sea is really hot near the shore (almost too
hot for swimming) but as we go out on the gentle continental shelf it’s cooler and pleasant.
The beach here has a large contingent of Indian (read Bengali) day trippers or ‘over – nighters’. They seem to come on organised trips and spend a day in PB, then a day or 2 in Havelock, onto Neil arriving sometimes on the early am Ferry and leave by 3.30pm to PB.
We try and experience the sunset from the viewpoint just up the way from us – for most Indian visitors this is a highlight of their day in Neil Island. However as it’s been an overcast day the sunset is somewhat subdued. We do get some good pictures though. Maybe tomorrow eh! However, the next day is even cloudier so we got the best shots that we are going to.
We learn from the villagers that the majority of folk here are actually Bengali descendants which might explain the number of visitors from Kolkata? So we have an interesting insight into Bengali travellers.
So here are some observations on the Benagli Travelling community who come here: - as a community who consider themselves to be the intelligensia of
India we believe that they have a lot to learn. Their little cherubs seem to be largely obese (fattened no doubt on love, junk food, fizzy drinks, Bengali sweets and ice cream). The older generation have a tendency to talk very loudly as if everyone is deaf (more so some of the women who have a well-developed shrill which would stop a runaway car at 40 paces). Their dining habits leave a lot to be desired (and we are talking about the new middle class here), they discard food on the table rather than leave it on the plate and treat the serving staff like they are sub human. Finally they don’t ever appear to be enjoying the trip & look glum and bored most of the time. Boy have they got issues. In all our months of travelling in India, including our month in the village in Rajasthan, we have never come across such awful behaviour and such ignorance. We have found people in other states in Indian more respectful irrespective of caste and status.
And don’t even get us started on Queuing! It’s just something that they don’t do easily unless told off or ordered to. Mind
you, this a general issue in India not just the Bengalis.
The younger professionals and newlyweds do behave much better and seem to be much more friendly. Their idiosyncrasy is a tendency to go for the Stetson hats look for the blokes and the floppy brim sun hats & shades look for the women. It is common to see a young woman done up to the nines donned with handbag & hat walking along the shore or wading in at low tide. Like most of Indian folk they take a dip in the sea fully clothed – most cannot swim. Some men are adventurous enough to wade in with their Jockey (an Indian Brand name for under wear by the way) shorts on. Interesting people watching exercise though.
The Ferry trips to and from Neil Island are uneventful (other than buying tickets ‘on the day’ when C has to scrimmage even in the Woman’s only queue). NI doesn’t have an advance reservation system. The boats are somewhat over run with cockroaches which don’t bother folks but are seen scurrying around. It takes 2 hours from Neil to Port Blair.
We arrive at Port Blair just before sunset
at 5.30 pm and we walk up to Aashiaanaa for our last night here. This time we pay Rs 800 for a room & private bathroom. It’s a weekday and the place seems to be a lot busier, lively and full of colour. The local buses remind M of the colourful Chicken Run Buses in Guatemala. We probably didn’t do the place justice and see enough of it. Some travellers we met were going to spend 3 or 4 days here and visit some of the nearby islands. However, what lingers is the smell in many places and what is even more surprising is the fact that many of the street eating shacks or carts are all by open drains that look foul and in many cases smell as well. They locals are obviously immune to this and the humidity.
All in all the Andamans are a fascinating group of islands. Havelock is our favourite (based on the little we have seen) and we’d love to visit it again. The other popular islands that foreigners visit are Long Island and Little Andaman – both a lot quieter. The Islands have some interesting history and there are still tribes who
– by choice – are cut off from the outside world and use bow and arrows to ward off anyone who tries to come near their territory including Indian army helicopters. The government though appear to be sensitive to their plight and warn foreigners to stay away and not take pictures etc. Travellers Tips:
If you want a good view of the islands as you approach get a seat on the left hand side of the plane.
Avoid getting to Port Blair on a Sunday – most things are shut including the Booking office. On weekdays you can organise & book tickets in advance rather than get involved in the crush for same day tickets! The crush is worst at Port Blair.
All the Ferry tickets seem to cost Rs 300 per person except PB to Havelock – Rs 320 each.
Standard fare from the airport to town Rs 150 by rickshaw.
Make sure you get into the right queue for the island you want as information is scarce and there are no signs for the day tickets. The 5.30 am tickets are sold through a side office window before the main office block
which doesn’t open till 9 am and the queues change on the vagaries of the ticket seller and where he ends up sitting.
If you would like cold beers - we found the local Bottle shop is now in Village 3 – it’s moved from Village 1. It is Rs 70 per bottle – Kingfisher Strong only and not cold so get a hostel or hotel where you can use their fridge. Sula wine on offer is Rs 440.
Getting around Havelock: Scooter Hire: Rs 400 per day: standard rate all over the island + Rs 80 for litre of petrol. Bicycle Hire: Rs 80 per day – standard rate.
Getting around Neil Island – Rickshaw Jetty to Tango resort area – Rs 60 standard. From Tango to The Market Rs 50. Bicycle Hire: Rs 80 per day – standard rate. Food & Drink
Beers at the Lighthouse Residency is Rs 100 each. At the bottle shop in Havelock (Village no 3) is Rs 70 but warm! At the Bar (Village no 3) Rs 130 & the same at The Sunrise Resort Bar. At Wild Orchid Rs 150 + taxes.
Try The Gita shack
in Village no 3 – locals say its good and cheap
Anju Coco Restaurant is good – has a good menu but slightly more expensive than some but service and quality very good – the Butter Naan the best we have had in India and also the Fish Momos.
Lee Meridian – next door to Anju is worth a visit as is The Full Moon Café which is part of the Dive India Resort nearby. Great choice menu, atmosphere, service but slightly more expensive again.
Havelock - The Sunrise Hotel is a reasonably priced Bar here (Rs 130 for Kingfisher strong) or go to the Bar in Village 3 Rs 100 for beer – if they have any!! Most other places don’t have alcohol licences and don’t do the cold tea routine as in Rajasthan. They generally seem wary about the police here who obviously run a tight ship so to speak!
Neil Island: Chand’s in The Market do great food at really low prices – Fish Thali Rs 100. Pradise is good for fish & cold beers (Rs 150). Gayan is good for Fish dishes – more expensive & beer Rs 150 (not guaranteed cold).
The latter two are about ½ km from The Market.
Kingfisher Bar in Neil does a good cold beer for Rs 130
The Tango Resort at Neil does a good value vegetarian buffet for lunch Rs 200 per person which is pretty good. They do the same with a non – veg option (Fish Curry thrown in for good measure) for dinners – same price.
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