April is our holiday season. Over the years we have had wonderful holidays across Bali, Krabi, Cambodia, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and many more exotic locations. Each one has been memorable and we felt like staying on and on ….. However, this year was different.
Driven by my daughter’s desire to go Scuba diving we decided on the Andaman’s. Scuba Diving seems to be the latest passion of teenagers and it’s an expensive hobby – the problem is it’s difficult to find a good safe agency and a clean sea with a lot of divining spots. After weeks of searching we finally zoomed in on Barefoot Holidays and Havelock.
Why Havelock? It’s the best place for diving in India – Pristine clean waters, over 2 dozen diving spots in close proximity, a wealth of reef and oceanic life. You can dive for almost 10 months a year though the best season is from Feb to April when sea conditions are best. I was also driven by Modis push for nationalism and felt it best to promote the Indian economy with my tourism $$.
Why Barefoot? Of all the Scuba agencies I called in Bangalore they responded the best. I had good references on people who had used them. It’s for the Pro’s – so if you are on a discover Scuba mission you have enough options – but my daughter wanted her PADI certification so we decided to go with the best. Barefoot Scuba divers are passionate and well trained – almost all are Dive Masters with 500 – 5000 dives under their belt. Their infrastructure, safety records are the best. They have good equipment, reliable boats and the Barefoot Scuba resort is bang on beach no 3 with sea facing rooms. Yes, they are expensive – and a 4 day Open water PADI Certification course will cost you 24,000 + Stay / Food ….. (Cheaper options are Dive India & Bubbles). Add to this they also have a transit service apartment in Andaman called ” the Nest” and take care of all your travel in the Andaman’s (Pick up , Ferry etc)
So why am I not very thrilled? The Andaman’s are difficult to get to (Bangalore – Chennai – Port Blair by Flight and then a Ferry to Havelock) – there is no Wi Fi in most hotels / restaurants in Havelock and the network connection is very very poor – there is not much to see – hardly any entertainment – and its expensive – the service is functional and basic, hotels in Havelock have no TV or newspapers – natural beauty is OK nothing spectacular – Check out is at 7 AM – the hotels are decent but not WOW. Add to this the energy of the place is a bit dull and listless – there is some sadness in this place – the minute you land at the airport you can sense that something is missing and that feeling carried thru the trip.
Maybe this is because of the history. This is where the British incarcerated our political prisoners. Torture and treatment meted out to them is comparable to what the Jews suffered in the Nazi camps. Thousands were hanged. Things got worse during the brief occupancy by the Japanese during World War 2. Havelock was not inhabited till the early 50’s and the Indian Govt made this the home for shiploads of refugees from Burma and Bangladesh.
The population in Port Blair is 30% Bengalis and 30% Tamil with the rest from Andhra, Jharkand, Bihar, Panjab etc. Havelock is almost all Bengalis. The whole population in Havelock is now catering to Tourists – agriculture has come to an end and surprisingly we did not see any cows, goats, birds – just a lot of cats. I wonder what that signifies? Yogi Adityanath would have surely said – with no cows there is no positive vibration in Havelock. The Bengalis who are everywhere are good people – but they seem to be engrossed in deep sorrow. Speed, efficiency and a courteous smile is not their natural trait
Day – 1
We landed at Port Blair in the afternoon at 2. Barefoot has a service apartment with 4 rooms “The Nest” that is 5 minutes from the airport. Its decent and homely and was perfect for our transit stop.
In the evening we visited the Cellular Jail – a very well maintained piece of history where you learn that there is a lot more to India’s freedom struggle beyond Gandhi & Nehru. This is where Veer Savarkar and countless others bore the brunt of British cruelty. The light & Sound show at the Cellular jail is good – the story of the Cellular Jail is narrated by an old tree that has seen it all over the years. This is a must visit for every patriotic Indian. However, my friend recommended the Light & Sound show at Ross Island – which is a ferry ride away – that is supposedly even better.
We ended the day with a wonderful dinner at a beautiful roof top restaurant “SeaShells” with a school buddy I am meeting after 29 years. As we were discussing history and Andaman’s with the children we all agreed that the history that is represented in our school books is very different from what actually happened. Whether it is the contribution of the Cholas or the thousands of freedom fighters and their struggle in places like “ Kala Pani” – our school history does not do justice to what really happened.
Day – 2
We visit the Chatham Saw Mill and a Govt Aquarium (Budget less than 30 min for each) and were back at The Nest for lunch before departing by a private Ferry to Havelock. The private Ferry Service “Makruzz” costs Rs 1000/- one way – while the Govt ferry is Rs 435). The ferry takes about 2 hrs – they serve snacks on board (Got to pay for it – Sandwiches / Tea / Brownies etc). The service is good.
At Havelock the Barefoot guys were there to receive us. The service from Barefoot was exceptional. It’s part of the Café Coffe Day group and Netaji the manager at Port Blair who was coordinating for us did an outstanding job.
Barefoot has two properties at Havelock – the main property called Barefoot Havelock is an Eco Retreat on the world famous Radha Nagar beach tucked inside a woody rainforest. They have 31 elegantly designed thatch huts, cottages & villas. The other property where we were headed is called Barefoot Scuba – this is the place for Scuba Diving. It’s on Village no 3 near the Jetty and the main market. A few cottages and the rest are shacks. Great food and good service. This is where the hard core divers stay for weeks and months. The rooms are a stones throw away from the beach. This beach has azure blue water and sand as fine as powder – but the beach is narrow and not a shade to the one at Radha Nagar.
Day 3 to Day 6
My daughter was busy with her PADI certification. Day – 1 was theory and passing an exam, Day – 2 was confined water divining and Day 3 & 4 were the deep sea diving. She enjoyed it and says that the experience was unique. This was her 16th birthday gift and I am hoping she will carry memories of this all her life.
My little one and me had a tough time spending our days. Other than Scuba Diving and Sea Food there is not much to do at Havelock. The Radha Nagar beach is awesome and we went there almost every day.
A second beach called Kala Pathar is OK. The place for touristy activity is Elephant Beach – a 30 min ferry or a 1.5 km trek. We took the Trek that was more adventurous, thru thick forests and some wading thru knee deep water (The Crocs and Anacondas were having an off day)
The ferry costs 700 Rs round trip while the Trek guide charges you Rs 400). You can do Snorkelling , Banana Boat and Sea Walking here. If you have been to S East Asia and Phi Phi island you will be disappointed – there is hardly anything to see in the waters here. Rides are expensive (Rs 500 each for a 5 min ride and the sea walk is a whopping Rs 3500 / person, It’s better to do you jet Skiing at Port Blair)
Kayaking, sailing etc seem to be options on paper but we were told that Sailing has been closed down. Clearly this is one island which has a lot of potential but the authorities don’t want it to get more commercial. The recent liquor ban and a threat to ban diving from May 1st was surprising. A Taj property is opening soon and that may drive some high end tourists.
We tried a bunch of restaurants – all of them stone’s throw from our resort. “Anju Coco” was great – awesome food and service. We wanted to visit “Something Different” – but a last minute panic of a strike in Havelock against a possible diving ban from may 1st made us prepone our return and we missed going here.
Autos & cars n Havelock and Port Blair go point to point – so a short 30 min to and fro ride from our resort to Radha Nagar Beach costs Rs 800/-. Most Tourists are couples and backpackers and they rent two wheelers for Rs 400 / day. Liquor is banned in Havelock (The main Barefoot property has a bar – but most other places the bar is closed). No entertainment in the evening – so you are very much done by 830 PM and go to sleep by 9. Carry books, board games – things to keep you occupied if you are travelling with Kids.
The sun rises early – we are on IST but almost halfway to Thailand. So by 5.30 AM it feels like 8 AM in Bangalore. It’s a cash economy – so ensure that you carry lots of cash. There are two ATM’s in Havelock near the jetty. The small Village market has all that you need including a stationery and pharma store.
After 4 days of completing her certification successfully we headed back to Port Blair. The capital is a busy town and a lots of tourists use this as their hub to visit the islands nearby. Barren islands the only active volcano of India is in the Andaman’s and can be visited on a day trip. Lots of options for diving, water sports exist in and around Andaman’s – but we did not explore.
On the way back we had 24 hrs at Port Blair – again staying at The Nest. We managed to visit the Anthropology Museum, the Science Museum, The Naval Museum and a few art stores (Lots of lovely shells to buy at affordable prices). We stopped by at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram which is located right next to the sea.
We discovered Annapurna – Pure Veg South Indian restaurant and after 5 days gorged on Idlis, Dosas and Sambar (Sadly no curd rice was available). The ITC Fortune hotel is close by to “The Nest” and we had lunch there – nice place with an excellent sea view. Other good hotels in Port Blair are Peerless Inn & Sinclair’s.
By the time it was time to leave we had started liking the place. It’s different – don’t expect Goa here. The place has its own rhythm and it takes a few days to get acclimatised. Weather in April end was warm but manageable – best time to travel is Jan – Feb (Nov – Dec the North East Monsoon may cause disruptions)
I may not come back here again– but there are 3 Things that make it worth a visit
- Diving in Pristine Waters
- Cellular Jail
- And some beautiful beaches with soft white sand and azure blue waters….
So go for it!