Sunday, April 13, 2014

Andaman Holiday- A week in Paradise

One of the best holidays every and no trip to Europe or other island destinations can rival this one!
That said let me give you the itinerary we followed (which should be ideal for a family with two kids (as little as 3 and 6 or as old as 10 and 16)

Day 1-
Arrived in Port Blair by the Spicejet flight at 12.15pm.
We checked into Hornbill Nest at Port Blair. This is a guesthouse run by the Department of Tourism, Andaman and Nicobar.  The tariff is the cheapest and the views are stunning.  The rooms are decent-sized, clean and there is hot water.  Each room as a view of the Andaman sea.  What more could you want.  After checking in, we decided to have lunch Peerless Sarovar which is on Corbyn’s Cove beach.  We had the most ordinary food and five star prices.  Please avoid this one if you can.
After lunch, @ 3pm, we decided to visit cellular jail.  Enroute, the kids appeared to be tired and so we repaired to our guesthouse for beers, cold drinks and Snacks.  At 6.30, we left for the sound and light show at the Cellular jail.  This show shows you the grim side of this paradise called Andaman also knows then as Kaala Paani.  For it was infamous for its cellular that incarcerated political prisoners.  The show is for 40 to 45 minutes and is worth a visit if you can spare the time.  The ride back to our hotel was beautiful.  The road wound around the stunning coastline all the way up to the hotel and beyond.  The moon overhead reflected in the shimmering waters of the sea.  We spent the night in Port Blair.

Day 2- Port Blair to Havelock
We caught the Makruzz Ferry from Port Blair to Havelock at 8.15.  Our taxi dropped us at the jetty and a bus (presumably a Makruzz company bus) gave us a ride till the jetty office.  We checked in our baggage and boarded the ferry.  The Makruzz was absolutely comfortable, clean, air conditioned (that came as a relief in humid conditions) and spacious.  Go for it.  We arrived at Havelock at 9.30.  The timings are always punctual, no delays at all.  The first sight of Havelock took our breath away.  We were quite expecting to see dirty, oil-laden waters especially in the jetty area, but the blue, green waters resting on white sands under it was magic and the magic stretched everywhere around Havelock.  It was like we were enclosed by a rubber band of white tinged with blue.  A porter operating a four wheel cart helped us with our luggage and deposited it in the waiting taxi.  We had booked into Dolphin resort in Havelock.  This resort is operated by Tourism department as well.  The location was stunning- bang on the beach close to beach no 2.  Again the same view- white sandy shallow beach with waters that dappled green, blue, turquoise.  Could we have asked for more?  Check in was a pain as we got our rooms at 2pm after which we had lunch in the resort restaurant and then headed straight for the beach.  
The waters are safe for kids as they are shallow for at least 100 meters into  the sea.  We swam like we were in our pool with kids and inflatable toys floating around.  We didn’t have to worry about the kids as there are no waves and waters are shallow, the littlest kid in our group (3yrs) was like a tiger in these waters.  So there you have an idea.  The waters here are quite rocky so you need to select a sport with less rocks/ corals but it is not a big deal.  Just plonk all your stuff on the beach (books, water bottle, towels, camera) and get in the waters.  We easily spent 4 hours in the waters and came out only when the sun set which is at @ 5.45 and even then we lingered, such is the allure of these waters.  We spotted a guy whose hobby was underwater photography and who visits these islands at least twice a year, we spotted bird life and fish who were frolicking alongside us in the waters.  For dinner we went to Wild Orchid restaurant next to Dolphin. It was OK nothing exceptional but it did the trick- it served us beers, the kids got their cola fix.

Day 2

We decided to go snorkeling today at Beach no.2 (I needn’t tell you about the waters and sand again)  Our driver Sujith dropped us at Beach no.2  right into the hands of the snorkeling folks.  And even before we could go inside the waist- high waters, we spotted shoals of fish- some were shaped like eels, some were the amazing shade of black.  They took is in a group of two.  We put our snorkeling gear, the safety ring around our shoulders/ waist and were led in for our first sighting of under-water marine life- we saw trigger fish, live sponge, a host of asymmetrical sea life throbbing and pulsing and closing instantly as they sensed out coming.  Sadly the coral has bleached but you do spot some yellow and purple coloured coral here and there.  Our group snorkeled twice.  The kids were having so much fun with this relatively easy activity that we decided to buy our own snorkeling equipment which is nothing but a mask with a tube attached to it and of course an inflatable water-bed.  We had a dozen coconuts with sweet water and ate the coconut inside it that was so tender that you couldn’t scoop it, it came slipping through your fingers like mercury.  Amazing and I could live on this stuff.  We came back at @ 2pm just in time for lunch.  We went to Munjoh Ocean resort for lunch and thought that we should spend some part of our vacation here as well.  After coming back at 4pm we hit the beach as the kids were clamoring to try out their new snorkeling gear.  Beach till 6pm and then back for bath and dinner.

Day 3
We checked into Munjoh that came as a relief after the relatively spartan digs of the government guest house and just as we were wondering if the beach could get any better, we were handed another stretch of a beach that was wider, whiter, bluer, greener, clearer, shimmering  like a soft throw beckoning us toward it.  But before we could dive head-long, there was sea-walking to be done at Elephant Island.  Reluctantly, after check-in and packing our swim suits for sea walking we set off for the jetty.  At the jetty, we bought our tickets for sea-walking and got into a motor boat that would take us to Elephant Island.  Our package also included snorkeling.  
After a 25 minute wonderful ride in the azure waters, we had to leave the boat and get onto a big, two storied boat that was anchored off the beach.  We changed into our suits (though you don’t need to, you could be in your shorts or pants as you are going down to the ocean floor anyway, it is just convenient to wear as little as possible).  For sea- walking which literally mean walking on the sea floor- we were lowered onto a ladder which was fixed to the walls of this ship and that went right to the floor.  You get down just so your head is above the water. Then they lower an astronaut-type helmet onto your head that rests on your shoulders.  As soon as it is lowered, your guide pushes your head down into the water so that the pressure prevents the water from entering the helmet.  Then you descend the ladder and onto the floor.  We had difficulty adjusting to the pressure as you get no time to deal with pressure at all.  It happens in an instant and you are constantly breathing hard to keep the water out and also gulping to keep relieve the airplane-like pressure on your ears.  My 10-year old son was thrilled and terrified and he chose to leave almost immediately.  The sea-walk lasts around 10 minutes, you are at eye level with corals and the amazing marine life that is actually well and living.  But most of the time is spent on ensuring that you pose right next to the fish/ corals and you are struggling to stay in one place at the same time breathing right, gulping and it all happens to fast that by the time you are relaxed enough to enjoy the marine surroundings, the guide is nudging you towards the ladder.  And just like that it is over. 
You change, you are handed a CD of ‘you’ with fish and corals and it’s time to get off the ship into to the boat that then speeds you the Elephant beach for some more water ‘fun’- snorkeling.  There are hundreds of people there- most of them day-trippers who are there for a couple of hours before heading back to Port Blair.  The waters again are exceptional (just as everywhere in Havelock) but there are just too many people.  Snorkeling too is no fun though you get to see enough fish. It just is no fun when you have snorkeled at Beach No.2.  For me Elephant Island trip was a disappointment, a very expensive piece of disappointment – sea-walking comes at 3,200 per person and the ride to Elephant Island sets you back by 720 Rupees per person. The ride was great though.  Walking itself lasts just 10 minutes and you are rushed through the route (which is maybe 20 paces or less) and the photo- op.  So skip it If I may advise you and instead go for snorkeling at a leisurely pace at Beach no. 2. It costs just 600 per person and the guy is willing to negotiate if you are a larger group.  You can also have daab (coconut water) at 10 buck a pop and chat with the guy who sells it as he scoops the tender coconut as you are resting on an upside down boat.  The atmosphere is friendly and there is no hurry at all to get anywhere.   
We came back at @ 3pm and were hungry.   Right on Havelock jetty is a two storied wooden structure that says Barefoot Bar and Brasserie (discount the ‘bar’ part, they no longer serve) .  we went in and ordered Pizzas, virgin mojitos, garlic bread, chicken Franks (the most amazing chicken franks ever) and of course coke and apple juice.  The weather was great and the sea breeze did the trick. We lunched at the waterfront! With great views of the jetty. We could see the sea planes and water scooters and clippers that bounded on the seas.  All in all a great way to end our not so great sea-walking experience.  Water-front dining/ lunching? In Mumbai? No way! Chennai? Are you mad?
Back at the hotel, the kids were already on their way to our pool/ sea by the waters of the Andaman with their snorkeling gear and so were we.  We played Frisbee, swam, just floated and rode the gentle waves till 6pm.  Back at the hotel, the kids climbed into a Jacuzzi as I emptied whatever bottles I found in the bathroom- moisturisers, shampoos, shower gel.  The roaring Jacuzzi was a delight, we settle in for chilled mojitos and beers as the children shouted and shrieked in the Jacuzzi.  End of Day 3
Day 4
The big day! Diving! Can you imagine, we were going diving with Doongi Dives outfit run by Nikhil Kalra, a gentle soul with a smile and if it is anybody you are going to entrust ‘yourself’ to, it has to be this calm, unruffled person.  Strangely there was no trepidation. My brother and I donned out wet suits and got into the Omni that would ferry us again to Beach No.2.  We were first time divers, never ever having experienced anything like diving outside of TV.  We were given our instructions in water by Amit who would  be my guide and god underwater.  After all you are leaving terra firma and delving into the womb…..:) (well not quite, for you are always a couple of seconds away from the surface and sun) just the same when you are inside, you feel like you are in Marina Trench! We were asked to float on our backs and then gently tugged into the waters for our gradual descent in to the sun lit interiors of the Andaman sea.  The pressure was nil and you got time to adjust to the mask, the breathing (you are breathing in pure oxygen from the cylinders) and the pressure.  And there you are, floating as one with the fish and the myriad sea creatures who are sure are looking at you in curiosity!  There were sea cucumbers, clown fish, trigger fish, white salmon, eels, carnivorous sea fauna that shuts its wide mouth if a fish get in, and hold your breath- an octopus……. . I swam among these creatures, and there was wonder on my face (albeit covered with a mask, you couldn’t see it)  It was the best 25 minutes of my life and worth every penny and anxiety and doubts if you have had before you went in.  Amit, my guide, constantly used hand gestures to confirm my comfort (like Buddha mudra- form an O with your index finger and thumb) I was exhilarated.  It was as natural for me to float in the ocean as it was for me to walk on land.  There were absolutely no teething troubles- no pressure troubles or breathing problems. The trick is to completely give in to your instructors and their suggestions.  Listen to briefing before diving carefully and do exactly as they say.  My prize for this diving trip was a certificate and a CD with pictures and a video.  Also I came away with an addition for diving.  I went for my second dive the next day!  Back at the hotel, we had lunch and thought about checking out Beach No. 7 or Radha nagar Beach- voted as the best beach in Asia blah blah….
Now it was nearly 3pm, the kids were tired, sleepy and we debated if we wanted to visit the beach as a tourist or would we rather stay at our private paradise?  After all how much more beautiful would Beach No. 7 be?  But we gave it and were on our way to Radhanagar beach.  Well the kids were in for a disappointment as rings are not allowed and we wouldn’t let them go in without a ring.  So swimming was out.  The beach was thrice as wide as out beach and the seas were rougher, the waters were the same turquoise blue that we have now come to expect.  We hastily beat a retreat.  Beach no.7 is always crowded with tourists and so it was just not our thing.  For somebody who has gotten used to a heavenly stretch all to herself, why would I want to spend time on a beach filled with two hundred other people. We quickly took some pictures and were back on ‘our’ beach J
Day 5
Having been there and dived in, I wanted another taste and this time, I was under water for a full 35 minutes.  I am definitely getting my PADI certification!  It was our last day on Havelock and we would be checking out at 2pm. The ferry back to Havelock was at 4pm.  We thought of having one last ‘waterfront’ lunch and were glad we did it. Munjoh gave us a free ride till the jetty, we checked in (ticket check in only, no baggage check in), after our lunch we clicked a few snaps in the jetty and boarded the Makruzz for a relatively tame Port Blair.
Check in was again a nightmare as the reception at Hornbill resort told us that we did not have reservations.  After the problem was sorted out, they said that they didn’t have any extra mattresses.  Well were a group of 8 people- 4 adults and 4 kids. We asked our kind driver Guddu to buy us two mattresses from the Bazaar.  He was completely bamboozled but realised the problem.  So after arranging our own mattresses we checked in and had dinner at Sinclair Bay view further down the road.

Day 6
We visited the cellular jail and were surprised to see it maintained in pristine conditions.  The walls are white-washed, everything is spick and span, the information is neatly tacked, I went inside Veer Savarkar’s cell but it was too white-washed and sterile to feel any horrors that he experienced.  I mean to say that I actually felt good after visiting the jail , the roof has great views of the sea and we spent an hour on the roof, just standing like we would on our balcony, mute, spellbound by the views.  I apologize here, but the cruelty and injustice is not on our mind when you fix your sights in the sea.
After the visit, we thought we would visit Ross Island but decided against it as it is another incarceration structure in ruins and with kids, we wisely refrained from going (even without them we wouldn’t have gone, for what is the use of a beach if we can’t go in?) We had lunch at TSG Emerald which is a bit inside the city and has no views of the sea at all.  The food was OK, but our stewardess was great going by the name of Vanilla- Cute.  It was almost 3pm and we debated about what to do next? Our driver suggested we visit Chidiya Taapu for a view of the sun-set.  The ride was about 40 minutes and a perfect time for the kids to have a small nap.  The decisions was great, after ups and downs (in which we got a glimpse of the island of Port Blair) we reached Chidiya taapu- a narrow sliver of a beach which is a part of protected forest area with mangroves that rich and fish and reptilian life.  There are sign boards warning the visitors of potential dangers of crocodiles, tides, fish that harm and corals that cut into your flesh.  I found a rich haul of shells.  My brother and his little one napped on the wooden benches while we explored the beach.  What I would suggest here is if you have the time, you should do a boat-trip through the mangroves.  The forest police clear the beach goers at 5 as it is forest area and you can watch the sun-set a little further down the road.  It is a great spectacle.  But honestly, if you have been to Havelock , Chidiya Taapu is a bit of a comedown.  That being said, the analogy is having tasted god’s own nectar, would you  be willing to settle for ice cream (however premium- Hagen Daz, Valrhona……etc etc)
But the time we had, Chidiya Taapu was a wise choice.  We headed back to the hotel and had an early night, we were really tired.  Bu the night was not without its thrills.  My husband got trapped inside the bathroom (the resort supervisor said that and I quote ad verbatim- yeh to normally screw driver say khul jaata hai.  Yeh lock mein yeh problem hota hai) Jackass, shouldn’t you warn us?  Anyway my husband really scared the wits out the supervisor by yelling “heart attack ayah toh? Darwazaa tod do.  Finally the reception guy came in and kicked the door- lock and all. 
Day 7
Time to come home.  I normally can’t wait to get home, this time though it was with extreme reluctance.  I just couldn’t bear to see the crowds and be among them.  I was further depressed by the sight of a group of people who were clicking away pictures of a mural at the arrivals… was a god forsaken ‘cultural’ mural of some men and women and dhotis and sarees with dhols and some such.  Jesus! People will click anything!  But I am home now and am writing this detailed blog to encourage more people to go the Andamans.  It is the final frontier for the intrepid traveler…Oh you may have grand canyon, and Yukon and Alaska and Hawaii, but Andaman is IT.  Yet I know I will come back even more raving mad as I explore more and more of this jewel .  I am putting down some information here that I hope will be of help to plan your Andaman holidays.

Some Information to help you plan your trip

Best Time to go- Obviously from November- March.  But for me first week of April worked equally well and the tariffs were lower that the Nov- March window.

Best base in Port Blair and also the Cheapest-  Hornbill Nest operated by the department of Tourism.  It’s impossible to book by phone- phone lines do not work and email (what is that).  You need to have some local person go there and book it for you. Tariff is as low as 1000 Rupees per day.

Booking Hornbill Nest- I booked mine with the help of Mr. Arvind Patil of Maharshtra Mandal (09732476001).  He will go to Hornbill nest and put down an advance for your reservation.  Always ensure that you have a booking receipt.  He will give you his A/ c number and you can transfer the advance to him.  He does it as a favour and it is not his business.  My suggestion is to take a usable gift for Maharashtra Mandal or leave a donation or give him a small fee (say 500 rupees) .  The tariff for the rooms here is 1000/- per day.  The rooms are sea facing.  The resort is located on Corbyn’s Cove beach.

Meals at Hornbill Resort- You need to tell them in advance about your dinner/ lunch plans and also tell them what to make and how much.  The food is home-style. We usually had fish fry (passable) dal with light tadka, rice, mix vegetable and jeeera rice.  You can but liquor once you get into Port Blair and ask them to chill it for you  in their fridge.  Water here is potable.  So I suggest you simple refill the water from the filter here and not buy bottled water and add to environmental woes.

Transportation at Port Blair and Havelock- Contact Guddu for taxi- 09476071444.  And you can plan your Port Blair itinerary with his help. You can ask him to book your sound and light tickets for you.

Number of Manager at Department of Tourism- Mr. Rajesh -9474212595.   After you get confirmation from Mr. Patil that he has booked your for the your dates, call up Mr. Rajest and get a confirmation from him.  He will ask somebody to look into the reservation book and confirm.
The tickets also have pre-assigned seats. So everything is chilled.

Diving- Doongi Dives at Munjoh Ocean Beach Resort.  As you drive along from the Jetty towards beach No.2 you pass by plenty of diving outfits.  They seem to be good- Andaman Bubbles and Island Vinnies's also seem good since i have communicated with them and gut feel was positive.  Finally i can vouch only for Doongi Dives since I dived with them.  But the other two outfits have equally good reviews on Trip advisor. You can decide depending on which one is closer to your acco.

Ferry tickets- Again since there is a government hand in this, you can book only by physically presenting yourself to the ticket counter.  But not to worry.  I discovered a website that does your job for you- This is not a real time website.  They go to the counter to get your tickets.  I got mine on the second day of my filling up their form and transferring the payment for tickets.  My contact person at Paradise Andaman was Ms. Tamara Sutreena- 09933287276 / 09531923560.  Friendly and helpful as are all the islanders on Andaman.  Just remember when dealing with them be polite and soft not aggressive and business-like

Booking Dolphin Resort at Havelock- As with Hornbill, ask Mr. Patil to book it for you by paying an advance.  Be very clear with dates and ensure you have a booking receipt.  Here paper is the Ultimate Reality.  If Mr. Patil is not able to scan and mail you the booking receipt, ask him to send it with your designated driver (which is what I did. Guddu gave me my booking receipts upon arrival in Port Blair).  Internet lines are very fragile and intermittent. So count on it (or rather don’t count on it). The tariff again is 1000/- for deluxe, 2000 for semi-deluxe and 2500 for super deluxe..  There are villas as well but don’t even bother.  Unless you are Sonia Gandhi’s son, supreme court judge, first cousin of Raghuram Rajan’s secretary’s wife’s first cousin, you won’t get itJ
But never mind, all accommodation is spacious and 50 meters from the beach.  Tell them in advance about your meals, confirm if they will give you extra mattress and always keep the booking receipt pinned to your chest.
If you are tired of this then move to Munjoh Ocean Resort or Sea Shells Resort.  They are luxurious and what can I say, they are non- government, everybody is welcome!
All these numbers are fresh from my use and as as recent as 14th April 2014. 
Go ahead, pack your swimsuits, ring, inflatable bed and get on a flight to the Andamans.


Anonymous said...

like the blog Andaman Tour Packages

Swati said...

Thanks for sharing this amazing experience. Is it a good time to travel in June first week..??

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