Ringing out the end of 2016 was made extra special by a family holiday to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. When I say family, I mean only 18 of us, ranging from little R at six months to her great grandmother at 87 years!! This time our excuse/ reason was my uncles 60th birthday. The last family holiday I went on was over a decade ago, so I was really looking forward to this one. The family has been all over India, to Kashmir, Darjeeling, Goa, Kodaikanal, Manali, Yercaud, Pondicherry to name a few places and Bhutan. My wonderful aunt and uncle were the movers, shakers and organisers of this trip. A big advantage of having a generation of retired folk in the family now, we were able to make our bookings six months in advance.
A short flight from Kolkata got us (and our 19 bags, pram, wheelchair and baby mosquito net) to Port Blair. After the Cholas, Marathas and Danes, Archibald Blair, a British naval officer, visited the islands in 1788 and the British began to use them as a colony for convicts. The adivasi populations were decimated in the “battle of Aberdeen”, where the British used guns against indigenous bows and arrows. The islands are home to both negrito and mongolid tribes, the Sentilenese, Ang (Jarawa), Onge, Andamanese, Shompan. Now their dwindling populations are over run by settlers from the mainland, from Bengal, Tamilnadu, and of course the defence forces.
We checked in to the Sea Princess at Wandoor, 14 km from the Port Blair airport, and were met with stunning views of the aquamarine ocean. The white coral sands were unbelievably soft, and we floated in the calm, lake-like, crystal clear ocean. The coconut trees and sea Mahua swayed gently in the breeze. The estuary and mangroves were beautiful too, but we stayed clear of them after we saw the signs saying beware of crocodiles! That evening we drove back into town to see the cellular jail. Rather depressing, if well preserved, the jail reminds us of the depths to which the human race can fall. The sound and light show was interesting, though a little long, and Om Puri’s voice booms out as the gentle old peepal tree.
The next day, we took the ferry from Wandoor Jetty into the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. Only 2 of 15 islands are open to the public and we headed to Jolly Bouy. Grub island and Snob island sounded interesting too! We were guided by Murugan (originally from Madurai) who showed us the sights and sounds as we floated down between the islands to Jolly Bouy. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef, the corals and marine life here are stunning. We took a glass bottomed boat ride and saw a national geographic feast of fish, coral and underwater life. Irridiscent blue and red finger coral, sea lilies, anemones with clown fish peeking out, brain corals, star fish, purple lipped clams buried in the rocks, shoals of tiger and butterfly fish. Deeper out, we saw long blue fish with yellow tails and less coral since no sunlight penetrates the deep. After this brief introduction to the coral ecosystem, Murugan took us snorkelling. Absolutely delightful to see the corals close up, touch the sticky sea anemone and paddle around in the float. Murugan dragged us non-expert swimmers around and took us to see a necklace starfish. The forest department strictly keeps plastic out – you can hire water bottles (Milton and cello coolers like kids carry to school). So thankfully we get a glimpse of underwater paradise. And hopefully since humans are kept out of the other islands, the corals might have a chance of survival. It’s horrifying to think of the military activity around the Great Barrier Reef some years ago. Let’s hope we are more sensible here !! The marine interpretation centre, with model dugong and leather back turtles, is also worth a quick visit.
We celebrated the baby of the family turning 60 and watched the most stunning sunsets on the beach.
Next morning we took ourselves with our IDs to the Port Blair jetty and were safely ferried across to Havelock Island. We stayed at the government run Dolphin Resorts, right on the picturesque Vijaynagar beach. The rooms, the food, the wifi at the reception and the eating joints down the road kept us busy when we were not at the beach or swinging on the hammocks! The sunrises were stunning and had us out at 530am. The tides ebbed and rose, leaving us with a gentle lake of crystal clear water. The next celebration was a 38th wedding anniversary and we spiced up the hotel buffet with bamboo chicken and cognac soaked Christmas pudding!
We also spent an evening at the world famous Radhanagar beach and for the first time met waves. They swept us off our feet and crashed into the receding waves behind us. The dense green forested hills on one side and the setting sun on the other made it picture postcard perfect. We left a note on the beach for A who will be visiting next week! Hope the waves will carry it to him and the good weather will hold.
We took the ferry back to Port Blair, past Neil Island and spent a relaxed evening at the Sea Shell Hotel and new light house restaurant. Slipped in a little shopping at the government run Sagarika for shells, cowries, coconut shells, mother of pearl earrings etc and snuck into the Anthropological museum. It was interesting but could have been much better, with more info and their tourist publication gave a many laughs with their descriptions of coral “reeps”!!
We flew out of the island, our hearts filled with memories of the beautiful ocean and our bags a little heavier with sand from the beaches! This is somewhere I will definitely visit again, inshallah!