Some are dreaming of Maldives or Seychelles, saving thousands of dollars for a dream vacation there. Other spend their time on overcrowded beaches in Thailand. But most have no idea about one of the most magical, secluded and affordable places on Earth - Andaman islands.
The islands are part of India and situated in the Bay of Bengal, only two hours flight away from Kolkata and Chennai. The old fashioned way of reaching the Andamans is by a ferry. The trip which lasts 72 hours is a must for lovers of the sea, dolphins and whales which you are very likely to see on the way.
Island’s main city - Port Blair, is worth at least a day. Most visitors are interested in a huge Cellular Jail, built in 1906 by British colonialists and used to exile political prisoners sent from peninsular India. These days the prison is open as a museum, and hosts lights show in evenings. Another point of interest in the city is a local Anthropology museum, perfect for those curious about island’s indigenous people and their culture.
The most popular of Andamans is Havelock island, 2.5 hours of ferry and $6 away from the capital. “Popular” here means that you are likely to be one of a dozen people on the enormous Radhanagar Beach, considered the best beach on Andamans and one of the best in Asia. It boasts crystal clear water, white sand and is surrounded by enormous 30 meters tall trees. Here you can snorkel, dive, take an elephant ride to the jungle, hire a boat or rent a kayar. Diving starts at $40 for 2 hours (beginner level) and $71 for 2 tanks. A night in a bungalow with attached bathroom costs $25, bungalow with shared bathroom is $12.
Only 1.5 hours away is a much smaller Neil island, perfect for lovers of virgin nature and Robinson Crusoe-like experience. The entire island can be explored in a 30 minutes motorbike trip. The island was badly damaged by a 2004 tsunami, which wiped away most of its corals. But snorkelers say that many still remain near Bharatpur beach.
Three hours by a ferry to the north and you are on Long island, another secluded place boasting a single guesthouse on the beach. Rooms here start at $8 for shared bathroom or $24 for attached. The main local attraction is a 2 hour trek through the entire island to the amazing Lalaji beach.
Ferries from Long island back to Port Blair are going only three times a week, but you can reach a town of Rangat by boat in one hour and then take a bus to the capital. A 7 hour bus ride to Port Blair is an attraction by itself. Guarded by armed policemen, the bus takes you through virgin forests and villages of Jarawa tribe, crossing small rivers on the way - all while listening to excellent Indian music, loved by drivers. Keep in mind, that taking pictures of tribal people without their permission and giving them food is strictly prohibited and punishable by law.
The most southern island - Little Andaman is 5.5 hours of boat trip away from Port Blair. It is also reachable by helicopter but the priority is always given to locals and you can only take no more than 5 kg of luggage. The long ferry trip will be rewarded when you see kilometers of pristine beaches and stunning sunsets. $3 a day - and you have a room with attached bathroom 50 meters from the ocean.
Little Andaman is also considered one of the best places in India for surfing. But even at season’s peak you will not meet more than a dozen of surfers. Take a motorbike ride around the island to see stunning waterfalls and secluded lagoons. But, most importantly, the island is perfect for meeting another local treasure - the people. In villages you will be greeted like Bollywood stars by adults and children alike. All will be willing to shake your hand, take a picture and share fruit or whatever else they will have.
Katia Shanti is a tour leader working with I love Asia. She specializes in trips to India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Katia’s trip to Andamans is available here