Port Blair & Havelock Island

I went on this trip, as my teenage son’s sidekick. His primary interest was in an advanced level diving certification course. A good chunk of the day was spent waiting for the son to return from his underwater rendezvous. The early sunrise and sunset, the unknown low tide-high tide schedule and limited transport options and India’s single time zone literally left us in the dark when we were actually free with time to spare! 

WHAT I LEARNT FROM THIS TRIP:
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Preparation for the trip:
Information about the islands is hard to come by. It is not easy to gather details (how where when what). While it is possible to create a DIY trip it can be very challenging and requires a lot of time and the data may not be accurate.

The Airport:
For those intending to fly from mainland India, the Veer Savarkar International Airport in Port Blair is your port of entry. Since the airport belongs to the Indian Navy, photography is strictly prohibited. In the departure lounge there is a small board that tells the history behind the airport. I sadly noticed it only when I queued up to board my flight and I didn’t dare take a picture! When it was built by the British, it was a kachcha strip (dirt road) of runway. It was destroyed by the Japanese attack during World War II and was in a state of disuse and was abandoned for a while. In the ’50s it was decided to rebuild the airport. (And the queue moved on and I could not read the rest of the write-up).
Currently the airport is undergoing expansion and when completed it will welcome international flights.
If like me, you are on a DIY trip and looking for an autorickshaw ride to your accommodation, do not allow the taxis and taxi drivers that you encounter as you step out of the airport building to distract you. Get out of the building, turn left and walk confidently towards the airport gate which is only a few steps away. You will find autorickshaws just outside the gate.

Ferries:
There are two private operators and one government operated ferry. Tickets for the private ferries can be booked online. Government ferry tickets can be bought only 3 days in advance at the STARS (Ship Tickets Advance Reservation System) counters which I believe are found in the jetties at the various ports that they ply to and from (Phoenix Jetty in Port Blair, Havelock Jetty in Havelock, etc.). I also understand (but cannot confirm) that tickets for any sector and any class of travel can be bought at any of these counters. A valid government ID is required to book tickets. I think they accept credit cards too.

While I know that the government ferry is the cheapest inter-island transport available, unknown factors such as working hours of the STARS counter and ease of securing a ticket makes one lean toward buying a significantly higher priced private ferry ticket. And that is why I booked our tickets on the Makruzz ferry.

Makruzz for blog

Makruzz leaves from Gate 3 at Haddo Jetty. Call their office (telephone numbers are available on the ticket) 24 hours prior to travel to reconfirm your ticket. Reconfirm the departure jetty as well, it keeps changing. The ferry from Port Blair to Havelock and back used to leave and return to Phoenix Jetty, but now does so from Haddo Jetty.
At the entrance to Gate 3 your ticket and ID will be verified. Makruzz officials will guide you to a large hall where on one side there is the check-in counter. Once you tickets are checked and seats allotted (and scribbled on your ticket copy) wait in the hall. You can purchase small eats and other simple essentials at the little store in the hall. Restroom facilities are available. The garbled voice on the loudspeaker is your boarding announcement, so queue up and head to the boat, please madam, thank you. Luggage to be handed over to the luggage-handlers just before boarding the boat.
Makruzz has three seating classes – Premium (208 seats in the lower deck), Deluxe (64 seats in the upper deck), Royal (8 seats also in the upper deck). There is a kiosk in the lower deck. Food (an undelectable veg puff) and fruit juice (Frooti) are served to the Deluxe passengers. The ride itself is smooth and pleasant!
My only grouse is toward the haphazard handing over and collection of our luggage. Wish it was managed in a more systematic way.

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Tips:
1) Immaterial of the ferry (private or government) remember to carry a copy of the ticket and a valid government ID for travel. If you do not carry your own ticket copy Makruzz will charge you INR 50/- for a measly printout!
2) Upon exiting Gate No. 3 building at Haddo Jetty, do not accept autorickshaw rides from the drivers who will pounce on you and charge you more while autos just outside the wharf gate will agree to make the same trip at more meaningful rates.
3) Autorickshaws need to pay a fee (INR 20/-) to ride empty into the Haddo Wharf to pick up passengers and do not need to pay while dropping off passengers.  
4) Do not book your flight too close to your arrival or departure to/from any of the islands. Factor in bad weather, ferry cancellation, etc while booking your flight tickets back to the mainland. 

At the Havelock jetty, the common waiting room is small and incapable of providing seating for passengers of all the different ferry boats. So you will find people all over the place and it is a bit chaotic. The wooden benches in a patch of grass can be dirty with trash from passengers’ picnics strewn around. Keep an ear out for the shout out by the guard at the pier gate because that is your boarding announcement.

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Visiting Other Islands:
These four jetties in Port Blair are important for a tourist:
Phoenix Bay Jetty (ferries to/from Havelock and Neil, but currently these trips are made from Haddo Jetty).
Haddo Jetty (ferries to/from mainland. Currently ferries to/from Havelock and Neil)
Aberdeen Jetty (ferries to/from Ross, Viper, North Bay)
Wandoor (ferries to/from Jolly Buoy, Red Skin)
Base yourself in Port Blair, to make day trips to those uninhabited but worthy of a visit islands like Ross, Jolly Buoy and others.

Mobile Connectivity:
BSNL is the only operator on these islands and the connectivity is quite pathetic. Forget data, it took several attempts to make calls to the mainland using my Airtel cellphone and text messages seemed to have to swim the ocean to get to the other side. Be it in Port Blair or any of the islands, if ‘free wifi’ is listed under amenities provided by your accommodation, do not get carried away. Wifi, IF and WHEN it works will be available only in the lobby, not in your room. In Port Blair I stayed in two different AirBnbs. At the first AirBnb connection was really bad, at the second AirBnb connection was available at approx. 3G speeds. In the resort in Havelock, Wifi that was available in the lobby never seemed to work during my three night stay! In Havelock, I was told that Wifi is available in the market area (Squid Restaurant) but I did not get a chance to check it out. In Govindnagar Beach there is a restaurant called Golden Spoon with good connectivity at approx. 3G speed but average vegetarian fare.

Food & Accommodation:
If like me you go by the pictures you see of the accommodations and reviews you read about a property and/or restaurant, then you are going to be disappointed. The ‘good’, ‘clean’, ‘excellent’ do not really measure up. Please do not misunderstand me dear reader. I have stayed in very basic rooms in small towns and eaten in small eateries without any expectations and in some cases the standards have surpassed expectation by a leap.
But when a place calls itself a 4-star property or a restaurant charges you exorbitantly, I think the fancy rates should be justified by quality in taste, ambience, service; but it is hard to come by.

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Tips:
1) Keep your expectations really really really low!

Low tide and high tide:
I grew up in a port town on the mainland and going to the beach every Sunday was a ritual. But never have I seen the sea recede as much as I saw on Havelock (or any where else for that matter). It is impossible to swim during low tide, at most you can wade through the water and seek pleasure in walking into the sea. The tide comes back slowly, so there is no need to hurry or be anxious about walking back to the beach.
But it can be frustrating for someone like me who likes to loll in the waters.

 

Tips:
1) Try to find out the tide timings before the trip.
2) Low tide is a good time to walk along the beach for as long as you wish! 

Cash or Credit Card:
Due to network issues credit cards may or might not work. In Port Blair there is a higher chance that it will work. On Havelock island, CASH IS KING. More so for a DIY tourist. Some restaurants accept only cash. If you wish to hire a vehicle (cycle or scooter or a taxi) you need cash. Water sports activity payments are made by cash. So carry a sackful of moolah. While Port Blair has a few ATMs, Havelock has only two – those of Axis Bank and SBI.

Prices:
Here are some sample prices for you to base your expenses on.
In Port Blair an autorickshaw ride from
the airport to my airbnb (approx. distance 3km) – INR 100/-
Bengali Club to Haddo Jetty (approx. distance 4km)- INR 100/-
outside Haddo Jetty main gate to my airbnb (approx. distance 5km) – INR 100/-
Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex to Bengali Club (approx. distance 1.5km) – INR 30/-
In Havelock
an autorickshaw ride from Havelock Jetty to Govind Nagar Beach (approx. distance 3km) – INR 100/-
hiring a cycle costs INR 200/- and a scooter (fuel charges extra) costs INR 400/- for 24hrs.
In Port Blair & Havelock
a vegetarian meal (a dal, few rotis, a starter, lemon soda) for two could cost anywhere between INR 700/- to 1300/- depending on where you eat.

Places I visited in PORT BLAIR:
Cellular Jail:

52fb421e-bb06-4a50-a36f-9cb4248acfc9A must-see in Port Blair. A well preserved national monument. The jail comprises of cells in three storeys. Seven spokes of three storey blocks radiated out from a central tower. The front of the cells face the back of the cells of the adjacent spokes. Only three spokes stand today.

Tour guides are available (INR 200/-), mostly in Hindi and the duration of the tour is 45 minutes. We spent one and a quarter hour inside. English guides, I understand are fewer and it is difficult to find one on a Sunday. A tour starts when the guide has a decent group size. How long it would take to come up with the right number is anyone’s guess.

I was pleasantly surprised to note that credit cards are accepted at the entry fee counter. And even more surprised to see RO drinking water made available and rest room facilities too. Last entry ticket is issued at 4pm.

Tips:
1) Watch the movie ‘Kaala Paani’ (Sazaa-e-kaala pani’ in Hindi) to complete the experience. 2) Tickets for the ‘Sound & Light’ show have to be bought in advance on the day you wish to watch it, just make sure to buy yours BEFORE the counter closes at 5pm. 

Corbyn’s Cove:

 

The drive from the Cellular Jail to Corbyn’s Cove is along a well kept road with spectacular views of the sea and nearby islands.
You cannot swim in the sea here. The place is infested by operators offering water sports. Jet ski rides are priced INR 900/-, INR 600/- and INR 400/- Prices are fixed, the operators are nasty, bordering on rude. Now, I cannot tell what you get for the price you pay because the operator will vaguely point out into the sea and say ‘up to that rock is 400 bucks’ and a ride to that island is 600 bucks’. So now you do the math.
Small stalls sell trinkets and a few others others quick bites and hot beverages and tender coconuts.
There is nothing much to do here, so, honestly, you can give the place a skip.

Anthropological Museum:
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If you have 30 minutes to spare, then visiting this place is a good idea. While the idea behind the museum is commendable, I wish they had put in more effort at making it more interesting for the visitor. If I had to use only one word to describe the place, ‘drab’ comes to mind. If you block out the dullness of the place you can learn a little about the various tribes, about the A&N Islands, the life and evolution and culture of the island people through the various write ups, displays, exhibits and photographs.
Elevators are available for the use of physically challenged and senior citizens ONLY. Rest room facilities are also available. Photography (even on cell phones) is strictly prohibited.
Museum Timings:
9am to 1pm
1.30pm to 4.30pm
Closed on Mondays and all Public Holidays

Places I visited in HAVELOCK:

Govind Nagar Beach:
Also known as Beach No. 3, this section of the Havelock coastline is about 3km from the jetty. It is sparsely dotted with resorts and restaurants and dive shops. The beach is made of white smooth sand. The beach is accessible through many resorts and if you have a keen eye you will spot paths that lead down to the beach from the highway. The mostly quiet beach is a good place to lounge on and swim in.
Sadly, the wind brings in all the (mostly) plastic debris making the water’s edge dirty. Getting a little deeper into the water for a swim is the best way to avoid the debris.

Waking up early on a beach holiday isn’t exactly what I wanted to do, but on the last day I pushed myself out of bed and hoped to catch the sunrise. To my disappointment, it was a cloudy morning. The sea was transitioning from low tide to high tide. So I watched the sea come in. Here are some pictures taken at the same spot at 15-minute intervals starting from 4.45am.

 

Kalapathar Beach:
This is where one must go to see the sunrise they say. Since I do not ride a motored two wheeler and did not want to drag myself out of bed at an unearthly hour, I chose to take an autorickshaw ride a little later in the day. Came at a princely price of INR 400/- to and fro with two hours waiting. Kalapathar beach is about 3.5km from Govindnagar Beach.
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The beach clearly gets its name from the black rocks. Here too the rocky beach has a lot of debris in the water. When you get there you will see all the package tour groups having been ferried there in their taxis.
There are little nooks on the way which I think would be ideal spots to lay on the beach and for a swim. Then again, low tide is not a good time for that. There are small stalls selling trinkets, tender coconuts and small eats. I saw a board that said ‘changing rooms’ so that’s a good thing I think. But I did not use it, so I don’t know what condition it was in.

Elephant Beach:
Instead of taking the conventional route to this beach (a boat from Havelock jetty) we decided to trek and aren’t we one happy mom-son pair!
For a mammoth price of INR 600/- for a distance of 7.5km (both pick up and drop) our very talkative (and so far smartest) autorickshaw driver dropped us off at the trek start point. You have the option of trekking on your own or with a guide. We decided to do the latter. An official looking man sitting under a thatch roof open ‘office’ takes down name and contact details of all trekkers. A guide is assigned to you (they have a queue system and it aids greatly in preventing haggling or jostling amongst themselves to get to you first).
There are signboards on the route, but I wish there were a few more than there already are. There are dustbins, so use them instead of simply flinging the empty water bottle into the woods.
The 1.8km path passes through a village, a forest reserve area and finally the mangroves. The village is sparsely populated and you wonder if there are more hens and cockerels than people 🙂 The village is mostly covered with arecanut plantation.
The forest reserve has some fine samples of old and solid trees.
Walking (or should I say wading) through the mangroves is a surreal experience. But it can become more than wading through shallow waters during high tide. You need to take off your shoes and I recommend wearing shorts unless you don’t mind getting wet. A thoughtfully placed bench before you enter the mangroves is a nice rest spot especially if you have small kids with you.
And viola! the sea is right there in all its glory. The green sea and deadwood come together to make the place a visual delight! While you revel in what you see, you are interrupted by the whirring of the boats that bring tourists by the load to enjoy snorkelling, sea walk, jet ski and other water activities.
You pay your guide (INR 500/-) upon returning to the start point.
The trek is easy.
If you forget to carry water, you can buy some before you start the trek.

 

Tips:
It is possible to walk along the beach from Govindnagar to Kalapathar.
The beach is lined with  trees with very low and burly branches. During high tide the water rises to the level of these low branches thereby making it difficult to estimate the depth. This inability to calculate depth and the fear of getting my cellphone soaking wet made me abandon the walk. The best time to attempt this walk (about 5km in one direction) would be at low tide. I also feel that walking in the direction from Kalapathar to Govindnagar is better since if at any time you want a ride back, you are closer to civilisation and a path leading to the main road than if you went the other way.   

Conclusion:
It works out significantly cheaper to design your own trip instead of a package tour.
It gives you flexibility on where you want to go, what you want to do, how much time you want to spend in a place and you do not have to follow the herd.
Do not carry work that requires you to connect to the internet. You will not be able to get anything done due to poor connectivity.
In this time of the year (November) wind brings all the muck that we leave on the island (plastic and glass) back to the beach. It was heartening to see the locals (workers at the local businesses) clean up the debris and also hurtful to see them do it with their bare hands. Radhanagar beach is supposed to be less affected by the wind, but I cannot vouch for it since I did not visit there.

In terms of natural beauty, the place is on par with Maldives and Bali. Rampant growth will be the death of this paradise on earth. Being eco-friendly is the only way to ensure that these islands and the beaches remain beautiful for a long long time. I hope the government and private operators will work in tandem to improve the islands and make it more traveller friendly.  The parties involved must take a leaf out of Bhutan’s strict (but easy to follow) eco friendly practices. Striking the right balance is the only way forward and I hope this is borne in mind and greed does not take over like it has all around us.

Disclaimer: The info on this blog is partly from my research and partly from what we saw and did on the trip. I am aware that some gaps are still there and some info might not be 100% accurate. If you have more precise info, please do share with me so I can edit the blog and give you credit for it as well. Thank you!

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