The Andaman Odyssey - Introduction to Emerald islands of India
Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory in India has one of the most pristine beaches, amazing coral reefs and exotic sea life that you would ever find. Their remote location, rich biodiversity and lower tourist population makes these one of the best holiday destinations one could visit. Andamans have gained popularity after Time magazine rated one of its beach - Radhanagar beach in Havelock island (Swaraj Dweep) as the best beach of Asia in 2004. Be it a relaxed vacation or Scuba certification, one of the safest and cleanest places in India, Andamans is a unique destination that you cannot afford to miss.
The series of travel blogs - The Andaman Odyssey will serve as a one stop travel guide to you and give you all details along with recommendations to ensure you can plan your own trip. This is the first blog in the series where we give you the perfect introduction to Andaman and Nicobar Islands and give you an overview about them. Here we touch upon everything there is to know about these group of tropical islands so that you can make the most out of your trip to Andamans. Once you understand these islands, you can proceed to making a travel plan to Andamans.
Our other blogs of the series - The Andaman Odyssey will help you understand and plan your trip to Andaman Islands and give you a good idea of Havelock (Swaraj Dweep) and Neil Island (Shaheed Dweep) with recommendation on places to stay and activities to do.
1. Introduction to Emerald islands of India - Current blog
Location - Andaman and Nicobar Islands:
Most people outside India may not have realized that between India and South east Asian strip of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia lie a group of around 572 tropical islands called Andaman and Nicobar islands. Geographically, the northern most point of these islands is just 190 kms (120 miles) from Myanmar and the southern most tip - Indira point in Nicobar which also happens to be the southern most point of India, is just 150 kms (93 miles) from Sumatra in Indonesia. Only around 38 of these islands are permanently inhabited.
Out of 572, around 325 of these islands are part of Andaman islands and cover 75% of total land mass in this area. Andamans are also the more inhabited and developed areas inhabiting 90% of total population across these islands. Nicobar islands on the other hand are way more isolated, smaller and untouched by modern world. They are smaller islands to the south of Andamans and does not have any commercial airport. Hence tourists rarely visit Nicobar islands and they also require a special permission to visit them as they are part of tribal reserve area. In this introduction and the series - The Andaman Odyssey, we will mainly be focusing on Andaman islands and not Nicobar islands.
Geography - Andaman and Nicobar Islands:
Capital town of Andaman and Nicobar islands is Port Blair. These islands are divided into 3 administrative districts:
1. North & Middle Andaman (part of Great Andaman, Capital - Mayabunder)
2. South Andaman (part of Great Andaman, Capital - Port blair)
3. Nicobar islands (Capital - Car Nicobar)
North, Middle and South Andaman are closely located islands separated by narrow creeks. They are connected via Andaman Trunk Road (ATR). However one needs to board a ferry boat along with their vehicles to cross the creeks between these islands before resuming their journey on ATR. While North, Middle and South Andaman are mainly inhabited islands, together with few other smaller & barely inhabited islands (Interview, Long, Baratang and Rutland island) they form a group of 7 islands often called - Great Andaman. Great Andaman is the main land mass that you would see in a map.
Most places of interest for a tourist are in South Andaman while North & Middle Andaman attracts attention of few travelers who have more time in their hands and love to explore offbeat places. The most popular tourist destinations - Havelock (Swaraj Dweep) and Neil (Shaheed Dweep) islands are administratively part of South Andaman district but located little away in the sea towards east. Havelock (swaraj Dweep) and Neil (Shaheed Dweep) islands along with 15 other islands/islets form what is known as Ritchie's archipelago.
Another set of smaller islands are administratively part of South Andaman but located much further away in sea down south of Great Andaman called Little Andaman. Little Andaman is slowly gathering tourists interest and becoming popular.
Interesting fact - To the far east of Great Andaman is an island called Barren island. Administratively part of North and Middle Andaman district, this island happens to be the only confirmed active volcano of South Asia (till Bali's Mt. Agung happened). It is a part of chain of volcanoes that run from Sumatra to Myanmar and it erupted as recently as early 2017. No one inhabits or is allowed on this island but many Scuba diving companies fancy going around it due to its unique and rich underwater life.
Little bit of history - Andaman and Nicobar Islands:
Andaman and Nicobar islands seem to have formed due to collision of Indian tectonic plate with that of Eurasian plate just like Himalayas were formed. They seem to have been inhabited for few thousand years but their isolation from other populations may have given them a distinct tribal culture. Over the years these islands have seen many foreign settlements from South Indian Chola kings using it as a naval base, colonization by Denmark, Austria and then Britain using it as a penal colony for punishing convicts and Japanese occupation during World War-II. After this, India has been developing these islands as strategic defense facilities. Tsunami of 2004 destroyed many coastal areas and coral reefs in these islands and restoration work has been going on since then. Off late it is slowly developing as a tourist destination.
Interesting fact - The Himalayan ranges in India extend as Purvanchal range in North-East India and continues to Myanmar as Arakan mountains submerging inside Bay of Bengal before emerging back as Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Best time to travel Andaman and Nicobar Islands:
The best time to travel to Andamans is from November to March. Though the temperature varies between 22-31 deg Celsius through the year making it pretty warm, April usually sees the onset of rain and it is not advisable to travel once monsoon starts. Some properties, most inter island connectivity and water activities such as Scuba diving close around June to September owing to bad weather. Note that weather plays a big role in these islands. Due to their location in the middle of ocean, weather could change very rapidly and affect you. Hence it is advised to check latest weather forecast before you travel. December and January are usually the costliest months as most tourists arrive during this time.
Interesting fact - Though Andamans is geographically closer to South East Asian countries than India, it does follow Indian Standard Time (IST). Due to this, the sun usually rises around 5 AM and sets by 5 PM here. If you plan to see sunrise daily for a week, you might end up waking up around 4 AM everyday and this might affect your body schedule and you would take couple of days to get back to your normal schedule.
Reaching Andaman and Nicobar Islands;
There are 2 ways to reach Andaman and Nicobar Islands - Ship & Air, both of which would land you in Port Blair. Government run passenger ships run from Chennai, Kolkata, Visakhapatnam but take 50 to 60 hours to reach Port Blair. Note that these are not luxury cruises and accommodation is very basic with not much to do onboard. The quicker and definitely better option is to fly to Port Blair. Veer Savarkar International airport in Port Blair is a naval cum civil airport. There are direct flights to Port Blair from mainland Indian cities of Chennai and Kolkata operated by all major Indian airlines. Recently few airlines have also started occasional direct flights from New Delhi, Mumbai, Visakhapatnam and Bhubaneshwar. A direct flight from Kolkata or Chennai would take around 2 hours to reach Port Blair. A charter flight for foreign tourists is also allowed to land after taking pre-requisite permissions making it an International airport.
Inter Island connectivity in Andaman and Nicobar Islands:
The main islands in Great Andaman (South to North Andaman) can be covered via road by hiring cabs. You would mainly require sea transport to travel to Havelock (Swaraj Dweep), Neil (Shaheed Dweep) or Little Andamans. While Government ferries do connect these islands through the year, we recommend private ships which are much faster, cleaner and comfortable. Makruzz and Green Ocean are 2 operators who ply between Port Blair, Havelock (Swaraj Dweep) and Neil (Shaheed Dweep) island daily for most of the year. We definitely recommend Makruzz which is an experience in itself.
There is also a helicopter facility to travel between islands but it is primarily for government and emergency situations for islanders. One can make prior reservations and hope no emergency situation affects their plans.
Important tip - As of end 2017, you get only 2G data connectivity on Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The internet is close to non-existent in Havelock (Swaraj Dweep) and Neil (Shaheed Dweep) islands and achingly slow even in Port Blair. In many parts of the island, you would get only BSNL and sometimes Vodafone signal.
Permits - Andaman and Nicobar Islands:
Indian Nationals - Indian citizens obviously do not require any visa to travel to Andaman and Nicobar islands. But in case one wishes to travel to tribal reserves, one needs a permit from Deputy commissioner providing reasons. This also applies if one wishes to visit Nicobar islands.
Foreign Nationals - If you are not an Indian citizen, apart from valid visa you also require a 'Reserved Area Permit' (RAP). These are issued only for 30 days and can be extended with valid reasons for 15 days but no foreign national can stay in Andaman and Nicobar islands beyond 45 days. Reserve Area Permit is available free of cost on arrival at Port Blair airport or Port Blair harbour. The permit can also be obtained from Foreign registration offices in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata.
The primary reasons for these permits are 3 fold -
Presence of aboriginal tribes in these islands who need special protection to ensure they flourish in their natural ecosystems
Presence of sensitive and precious flora and fauna in and around these islands which need to be preserved from rapid population growth and human interventions
Location of these islands make them a strategic military base for India
We hope by now you must have a good idea of what Andaman and Nicobar islands has in store for you and how to get here. The Andaman Odyssey would continue in part 2 of the introduction where we will take you through various attractions across these islands and help you create your itinerary. Part 2 of this introduction you should ideally enable you to plan your trip so continue reading about the emerald islands of India - Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Do let us know how your thoughts about this introduction. Did we miss out on something? Would you want to know something more as part of introduction? Let us know in the comment section below. Keep reading our series of travel blogs - The Andaman Odyssey.