A few months back Vivien’s brother Andy and his partner Kelli asked if we wanted to join them for a cruising adventure – a trip to the Andaman Islands, India! Quintessa, their 47-foot motor cruiser was to be our means of travel and around 5 other cruising yachts would also be making the trip from Thailand to the Andamans and back. The overall trip was to be around 5 weeks as India only issues a 4-week Tourist Visa, plus our cruising travel time to and from.
Facing this decision, my practical mind started throwing up silly “But what about …..?” questions.
Questions like “But will we get seasick – its 50+ hours at sea before we see land again?”; “But will we cope living in the relatively close quarters of a boat with Andy & Keli (and them with us) for such a long period of time?”; “But what will the Andaman Islands be like – it is part of India?” And then thankfully, the words of American writer Mark Twain came to mind and I knew we just had to say Yes!
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”
So off we set, Quintessa under the guidance of Andy and Kelli and Beachouse57 with Dave and Rita at the helm as our boating company for the trip across. Goodbye Phuket and hello the Andaman Sea and 600 or so nautical miles and 2+ days and nights of constant cruising. For us cruising novices that meant 4 hour watches being responsible for ensuring we did not hit anything – like little coastal fishing boats, or larger ocean going freighters on their way to their next port! Daytime was relatively easy to see what was around us and the Radar told us what was over the horizon but night time required a lot more diligence and attention.
Thankfully we were travelling on a full moon so night time visibility was good. The weather was coming from behind us (moderate NE winds) so we were kind of surfing and bumping our way along with the weather. Still bumpy and rolling around making it difficult to stand for any length of time or to walk around – sitting (either killing time or on watch) or sleeping were the best options. The great news was that although the trip was uncomfortable (for us landlubbers), Vivien or I were not sick!
The blue roofs of the buildings hugging the hills around the harbour, the multitude of palm trees covering the northern shoreline, and Ross Island sitting guard at the harbour entrance were all first impressions of Port Blair on our arrival.
The activity of this working port became quickly evident with vessels being loaded and unloaded and cross-harbour vehicular ferries plying their course to and from Chatham Island. Larger inter-island passenger ferries and cruise ships with home ports of Mumbai or Kolkata stamped on their sterns could be seen moored at Haddo Wharf along with significant Indian Naval and Coast Guard fleets.
Particularly for ‘clearing in’ on arrival, Chatham Anchorage is the place to drop anchor and despite its location in the middle of this large and busy harbour, it is a quiet anchorage.
Customs and Immigration officers made their way to our boats, accompanied by our local Yachting Services Agent, to facilitate the necessary clearances and approvals. India has a reputation for the love of Administrative Rules and Compliance oversight. This is amplified in a Port that only sees 20 or so recreational yachts/cruiser like us in a year. We saw more carbon paper and duplicate copy forms in the first 24 hours then we can remember seeing in a long time! What greatly impressed us was the assistance and support of our Agent, Mr Rathnam from Andaman Holidays who made our clearance in, provisioning, sight-seeing, along with the registration and approval of our local inter-island itineraries with the Harbour Master, painless.
Our intent was to provision with fresh fruit and vegetable, staples including bread and the like, and then explore Port Blair and immediate surrounds before heading south to the islands that interested us (and we were permitted to go to).
This link provides a great potted history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Of the 300 islands in the Andaman Archipelago, people can only visit 6 due to some transport connections and (limited) tourism infrastructure. For our group on our own private vessels, we had access to another 15 or so islands – many uninhabited – which made the opportunity so much more unique and special.
Port Blair highlights that we explored included:
Departing Port Blair and heading south, our first anchorage was Chiryatapu at the southernmost point of South Andaman Island. A protected anchorage looking onto Munda Pahad beach popular with Port Blair visitors taking in the sunset over Mt Ford on adjacent Rutland Island. Small dive boats use this bay as a training ground for new divers and there is some reasonable snorkelling although live coral coverage is limited. Ashore we did the walk up to the lighthouse which provided great views of the neighbouring bays.
Heading west from the beach, following the road for approximately 1.5 km is the Chidiyatapu Biological Park – a sprawling (zoological) park worth making the effort to visit. Captain Andy discovered rock oysters on the Chidiyatapu foreshore as we returned from this park to the beach and a return harvesting trip was quickly arranged resulting in oyster for dinner and breakfast the following morning. Two peaceful and calm nights were had here in contrast to the more hectic goings on of Port Blair.
The Cinque Islands with their fantastic white beaches and various anchorage options were our next stop. Think two islets, joined by a spectacular sand isthmus with shallow water either side that covers it completely at high tide. The National Parks officers living in his tent on this picturesque island the only permanent inhabitant. As a designated National Park there are entrance and anchorage fees that need to be paid in advance in Port Blair. We had a couple of nights here enjoying what these anchorages and islands offered – sometimes accompanied by professional looking, comfortable live-aboard dive ships, and at other times we had the islands to ourselves. We experienced good snorkelling off the anchorages on the western side of North Cinque Island with very large Coral Trout, Sweetlip and other edible reef fish in abundance. Coral regrowth is happening but is still limited. Visibility at these anchorages was spectacular.
Coral bleaching. It should be noted that in the summer of 2010, the sea surface temperature in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands went up to a devastating 34 degrees Celsius and stayed in the high 31-34C range for an extended period. In this El Niño event during April-May 2010, between 65% and 81% of the live coral cover was bleached. This was certainly evident during our travels but as mentioned above, it was good to see some of these coral reefs coming back to life. We suppose the presence of the dive boats also suggested that things are on the improve.
Although a significant distance from Port Blair (120 km by sea), Little Andaman Island and the community of Hut Bay does offer an opportunity to get ashore, do some basic provisioning and sightseeing. Anchorage in Hut Bay harbour with the approval of the Harbour Master is the option we chose. The community of Hut Bay is approximately 3-4 km from the harbour and requires hiring an ‘Auto’ (Indian style TukTuk) to get into town. Approximately 1.5 km along the foreshore of Hut Bay harbour is the Crystal Café. The exceptionally accommodating owner ‘Mr George’ was happy to arrange any of our needs including a vehicle and driver to get our troop around the island and see its sights. Crystal Café also produces some great Indian food which we partook of 2 nights in a row.
Little Andaman highlights we enjoyed included:
Hut Bay was the furthest south we travelled and it was now time to head back north to Port Blair before reprovisioning and starting the second half of our journey.
Passage and Sisters Islands were to be our next anchorage as we headed back to Port Blair, but weather conditions did not allow overnight stops at either of these islands. Both islands looked like they were well worth exploring. Not to be perturbed we did get to spend another night off the Cinque Islands.
Having re-provisioned in Port Blair and submitted our second itinerary for approval with the Harbour Master, our journey north commenced with Havelock Island our first port of call.
Beachhouse57, had the good fortune to catch two good sized Yellow Fin Tuna on the passage across from Port Blair to Havelock – which provided several very tasty meals for our troop.
Havelock Island (#7 Beach) was our anchorage and a spectacular one at that. With its long white beach, palm and tree-fringed, clear water, and calm anchorage – getting our dinghy on and off the beach was the only issue due to the rolling waves. Beach #7 is another sunset location popular with locals and tourists, the central section of the beach and the adjacent Park can be busy as the day comes to an end but that still leaves plenty of empty beach to enjoy and explore. In the carpark (leading to the Park and beach) we found several roadside stalls selling fruit and a couple of simple Indian food eateries. Also from the carpark, we took the local bus connecting this (western side) of the island to the main villages of Havelock (eastern side).
Village #3 has several cafes/eateries, dive shops, and a couple of tourist-oriented gift shops as well as the local Fresh Fruit & Vegetable market – which had a good selection the day we visited. Village #1 (Laccam Harbour) had a small selection of cafes/eateries adjacent to the main Ferry Terminal. But not much else that caught our eye.
Phone signal (and therefore the internet) was available on Havelock – a rare occurrence and that allowed us to search for local restaurants with a good reputation. TripAdvisor suggested “Something Different” restaurant on the east coast to the island (somewhere near Village #2) and we were very happy we took TripAdvisor’s recommendation. The menu is extensive and goes beyond the standard Indian offerings, the service outstanding, and the food sampled by our table of eight all received very positive feedback. We plan to come back to Havelock Island towards the end of our trip so we can check out other anchorages and explore the Island further.
Leaving Havelock our itinerary had us travelling to Long Island – the furthest point north we had planned and then making our way back through the Button Island groups and finally, Inglis, Havelock and Neill Islands – all rated for their natural beauty (above and below the water) and great anchorages.
The anchorage at the southern end of Long Island provided an opportunity to get ashore and walk around the little village. There was a shop selling a simple selection of vegetables and other basics, but not a lot else could be found.
Not being inspired by our first glimpses of Long Island, it was up anchors and a new course set – this time for the Button Island group. Our first stop – North Button Island and a great anchorage just off the beach and reef. Beachhouse57 once again showed their fishing skills by pulling in a good sized Spanish Mackerel on the trip across – another fish dinner for the 12 people amongst the 5 boats now travelling together.
Visibility was excellent here as was the diversity of fish to be seen snorkelling, and it was good to see some coral regrowth happening here also. The sand spit and beach provided opportunity to get ashore and the sandstone cliff separating the two beaches on this side of the island provided a dramatic outlook. Plenty to do here so 2 nights and days were easily spent enjoying the environment.
Our next port of call was Inglis Island and to get there we chose to go via Middle Button Island and through the Charka Juru strait separating Outram and Henry Lawrence Islands.
Middle Button was definitely worth the stop off! Spectacular visibility and in our assessment, the best snorkelling, coral regrowth and diverse fish population we had come across this trip! No sign of the lone Forestry Officer that is said to be stationed here. This anchorage is definitely worth a day or two depending on your schedule. But for us, after a morning spent enjoying the waters at this anchorage and a late breakfast it was off to Inglis.
We dropped anchor at the northern anchorage on Inglis Island as did the 3 other boats we were now travelling with (Bali Hai, Yantara & Beachhouse57). A good anchorage off the beach and sand spit. Visibility was not as good as we had experienced to date but the Coral Trout were very co-operative for the fishermen in our troop. We also managed to buy a few Painted Crayfish (Rock Lobsters) from local fishermen diving on the reef adjacent to the southern anchorage on Inglis – seafood meals galore! We spent two relaxing days and nights here before our return to Havelock.
Our anchorage on Havelock Island this time around was off Beach #2 just south-east of Laccam Harbour. Although not a designated anchorage in the Sea Pilot guide it did give us quick access to the beach and the main road so we could reprovision our fruit and vegetables at Village #3. The Something Different restaurant was also just off the beach so why wouldn’t we revisit – given our very positive experience last time!
Our last port of call before returning to Port Blair and the end of our Andaman Islands travels was Neil Island. Our anchorage was in the small harbour adjacent to Bharatpur beach at Neill – out of the way of the tourist ferries and adjacent to the reef on the eastern side of this wide sandy bay. It’s an easy 15 minutes’ walk to the main village which has a basic daily fruit and vegetable market and a few stores. The main activity appears to be focused on the harbour and the arrival and departures of ferries from and to Havelock and Port Blair. Tourists disembark and head for the small glass bottom boats that sit waiting on the beach nearby, eager to view the small coral reefs situated within the harbour. Some hire a small van or ‘Auto’ to tour the islands, 3 other beaches and the ‘natural arch’ off beach #3. We enjoyed our wanderings around the island – its relaxed atmosphere and friendly locals helped with that. Snorkelling on the coral reefs in the bay was also good – reasonable visibility, abundance of fish and reasonable coral regrowth making it worth getting in the water. After 2 nights here, it’s time to make our way back to Port Blair to tie up loose ends, some last minute sight-seeing, and then ‘Clearing Out’ before our 50 hour return trip to Phuket, Thailand.
Unexpectedly, Port Blair also provided us with several cultural insights – and isn’t that what travel is all about – seeing new, and perhaps unexpected events that provide insight into local people’s lives. You can read about them here
Was this the great adventure we were hoping for – absolutely! The Andaman Islands gave us insights into indigenous peoples trying to cling onto their existence despite the importing of new peoples and all they bring. We were able to explore islands untouched by tourism, or many people at all! We experienced, in Port Blair at least, the cacophony, mad traffic, sacred cows roaming the streets, and other aspects of life mainland India is renowned for. We dined on delicious Indian food, as well as consuming the freshest of seafood – caught from our own boats. We gained insights into people’s lives, their customs and ceremonies – experiences we feel blessed to have have been briefly part of! We learned about India’s colonial past and its dark side under British rule. And for Landlubbers like Vivien and I, we got to experience the cruising life that the boat owners we travelled with know and love.
The Andaman Islands, India – was definitely a cruising adventure!