I’m riding a bicycle after many years while humming a happy tune in my head. Occasionally, I catch glimpses of the unbelievably clear water of the Andaman Sea through the trees, its bold blues a striking contrast to the greens and browns of the thickets that line the road. Rounding a bend, the coastline turns in a wide arc suddenly revealing a vast expanse of ocean, glinting tantalizingly in the February sun. On the beach, fishermen in shorts and vests unload a small trawler, its peeling red paint adding to the beauty of the scene. Imprinting the image in my mind, I get back on the bicycle and coast downhill, feeling a glorious lightness of being.
Every day at work I read, research, edit, or write about an amazing place somewhere in the world. My bucket list grows at a pace too fast for me to keep up. When I travel, whether in India or abroad, I try to pack in as much as I can, greedily collecting information, impressions, and observations. With so many places to visit, and so much to see and experience, going to the same place over and over again defies logic. Yet, here I am returning once again to Havelock in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I consider this small island, which is only 20 kilometres long and six kilometres wide, my personal paradise. I’ve walked, cycled, ridden a scooter, taken an autorickshaw up and down the length of its two intersecting roads so many times, that I’ve lost count.
Sipping a beer on the beach at night, I watch the moonlight dance on the crests of waves. Earlier in the day, the same water had appeared green-beige near the shallow shore, aquamarine on sandy bits further out, and a stunning cool blue over the reef beyond. Thinking back to my cycle ride, I realise why I keep coming back here. In the city, much like everyone else, I’m pulled in so many directions. One part of me is working, another planning meals, a third thinking of paperwork that must be completed. Even while travelling to a new place, I have one eye on the clock, making sure I catch a great site before it closes or so I don’t miss the last train out.
But on Havelock I am fully present in the moment, seizing every joy it proffers. Part of the reason for this is sheer geography. Given its definitive physical limits, there is only so much that is possible on an island. I’ve visited the island three times in six years and know its sights well.
The first time, I came alone and signed up to learn scuba diving, and it opened a world I had not known existed. It is also a meditative experience that calms my mind with its quiet and minimalism. The second time, I was accompanied by my boyfriend, now husband. It was a week full of laughter, companionable silences, and a shared sense of wellbeing. This time I’ve brought my friend Priya who desperately needs a break from a hectic job. Each time I’m here I like to wander without an agenda, making new discoveries about the island and myself.
I enjoy the simplicity of island life and that’s one of the things that draws me back here. After being bombarded by choices every day—even buying toothpaste can be complicated these days—it is liberating not to ponder dozens of options before picking one. On Havelock, decisions are easy. When I wake up the next morning, I only have to decide which beach I want to swim at. Settling upon Beach No. 7 or Radhanagar, counted amongst Asia’s best, Priya and I saunter out with our books, towels, and some money, intentionally leaving our mobile phones behind. Within two minutes we’ve rented scooters, though neither of us has ridden one in a long while. We set off warily, giggling as we wobble tentatively, then slowly gain confidence. It takes us an hour to drive 12 kilometres on a road that snakes through the island’s hilly, wooded interior. At shacks near the beach’s entrance, we buy fruit chaat and coconut water. Turning right, we walk under the shade of the trees and clamber over a section of rocks to reach Neil’s Cove. The day acquires an easy rhythm. Swim in the sheltered lagoon, dry off in the sun, nap, read. Repeat. Lying back, gazing at the horizon, my mind is more or less empty of thoughts. Later, I recall this afternoon of idleness as a priceless indulgence.
Evening casts a golden glow over the white sand beach, brushing everything with the softness of the balmy sea air. The sky is a van Gogh painting come alive, with swirls of colour that shift and dance, and we stay back to watch the sunset. As if pulled by invisible strings, people gather near the beach’s centre, faces upturned, awash in the magical light. As the sun dips behind the horizon it’s like we’re being collectively reset. Voices seem lighter, there’s more laughter in the air.
Two days later, back at Radhanagar, I swim out with my snorkel and wind up spending quality time with a school of bumphead parrotfish. There are eight fish, three to four feet long, with distinctive bumps on their foreheads. I get lost in their world. Their energetic pecking on the reef turns the water murky. Occasionally one poops a small cloud of sand. Suddenly I snap out of my spell and wonder if I’ve wandered too far off. When I pop my head up I’m only about 20 metres from the shore. Priya, who is relaxing on the beach, waves at me.
This proximity to the natural world is what I so enjoy at Havelock. To retain our sanity in the midst of the noise and chaos of the city we cosset ourselves from our surroundings. On the island, I try to eliminate all barriers by picking an eco-resort with an open roof bath, with palm fronds nodding overhead and a sand floor. At night, the cool sea breeze sneaks in through the gap between the wooden roof and walls, bringing with it the sound of the waves.
Every day as I plunge into the warm water, diving with schools of silvery fish, cycling, walking on the beach, and getting sand between my toes, I feel my body shake off the patina of the city. The increase in activity makes my limbs healthier, my skin glows as it soaks in the sun on long boat rides to dive sites. By the third day Priya has firmly decided to make changes at work or quit if she can’t. A calm descends over her. Feeling attuned to our surroundings, we easily fall into the rhythm of waking with the sun and sleeping early.
On days we’re not diving at one of the many beautiful scuba diving sites around Havelock, we explore different beaches or a section of the 95-kilometre shoreline, only some of which is accessible. Sometimes we stop off at Govind Nagar market, where the island’s two main streets intersect, to pick supplies for a picnic lunch. On other days we indulge in lavish feasts at the island’s restaurants, devouring fresh salads and luscious grilled fish.
The eco-resort we’re staying at is just beyond the range of mobile networks so we ride down to the market once in two days to call our families. When we want complete quiet, we walk alone on the beach or sway on a swing slung over a sturdy tree branch extending over the water. When we want company, we saunter over to the dive shop and exchange tales with fellow travellers. Havelock’s coral life has depleted since my first visit six years ago, especially at shallow dive sites that I remember being like underwater gardens. Dive instructors say this is coral bleaching caused by climate change and the heating up of the water. Thankfully, the fish are still present in large numbers and new coral is beginning to grow. Someone relates a story of swimming with a turtle, another person talks of spotting a shark. Our joy at experiencing the marine world gives us a shared sense of community.
A lot of time on the island is spent laughing. On our last day, Priya tries to make a video as we ride a scooter down the coastal road, causing us to crack up repeatedly. Earlier that day, cycling past Kala Pathar beach to the village beyond, I’d spotted sheets of aam papad drying outside a home, but it was siesta time and no one was about. We go back in the evening and Kanchan, the lady of the house who makes the aam papad from fruit growing in her backyard, tears out a large piece from the drying sheets for us. It doesn’t just taste of sweet and tangy mango, but also of the sun, the sea, and the salty breeze. Wrapping up the rest to take home for my husband, I tell her how grateful he will be.
She shyly rolls up a whole sheet and offers it to me. “If you’re taking it back to Delhi, you must take more”, she insists. We’re floored by her generosity and the unexpected bounty of snagging an amazing souvenir. When we stop at Kala Pathar to have coconut water the vendor notices the aam papad in my hand and asks where I got it. When I tell him, he looks envious. “You’re getting to take home the best thing from this island,” he says. I’m not surprised. Havelock always sends me home feeling lucky.
Havelock is one of approximately 600 islands that make up the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory of India about 1,190 km east of Chennai. It is 57 km northeast of the of the region’s capital city Port Blair.
Port Blair is connected with the Indian mainland via several flights daily from Chennai and Kolkata. To get to Havelock, travellers must take a ferry from Port Blair jetty. Makruzz, a private ferry service, runs to Havelock and back twice a day in the morning and afternoon (www.makruzz.com; 8.15 a.m. and 2 p.m.; duration 1.5 hr; tickets ₹975-1,600). There is also a government ferry twice a day at 6.30 a.m. and 2 p.m. but this cannot be booked online. It’s best to ask a travel agent to organise them for you at a small extra charge, usually ₹50 each (duration 2.5 hr; tickets ₹200-650). Prepaid taxis to the jetty are available from Port Blair airport. If you take an early morning flight to Port Blair, it is possible to leave for Havelock on the same day on the afternoon ferry.
On the return trip, if your flight is in the morning, you will need to travel to Port Blair the previous evening and spend the night. For assistance in booking ferry tickets and overnight hotel in Port Blair, contact Andaman Escapades (99332 81146; email@example.com).
Renting a cycle or a scooter is a great way to travel around Havelock. There are enough shops around that can set you up with a litre of petrol and helmets. Additional fuel is available at shops in the market. Autorickshaws and taxis are also available.
The temperature at this tropical island hovers in the mid-20s throughout the year, with the weather at its most pleasant in Nov-Feb when there is a slight nip in the air in the mornings and evenings (20-28°C). Summer (Mar-May) can be warm with afternoon temperatures occasionally crossing 30°C. Avoid visiting Havelock during the peak of the monsoon (Jun-Jul) when ferry services are erratic. The island gets maximum visitors in Dec-Jan.
Havelock’s highlight is the many beautiful scuba diving sites in close proximity. A new dive shop seems to open every season so it’s best to do your homework before choosing one. The well-known ones are Barefoot Scuba (diveandamans.com), Dive India (diveindia.com/havelock/), and Andaman Bubbles (andamanbubbles.com). First-timers who want to experience one dive can sign up for Discover Scuba Diving, in which an instructor holds you and takes you down for a glimpse of the underwater world (₹4,500; less if you negotiate package with your accommodation). Certification courses for beginners cost ₹18,500-23,200. A 1-day/2-dive trip for certified divers costs ₹5,000-5,250.
Barefoot Located on the stunning Radhanagar Beach, this resort has air-conditioned thatched cottages with four poster beds, and plush sofas (9686445488; www.barefoot-andaman.com; doubles ₹7,500-25,000).
Wild Orchid The log cabins here combine comfort with a rustic feel. The property has a relaxed vibe, and the restaurant serves great food (9531835655; www.wildorchidandaman.com; doubles between ₹4,000 and ₹6,125, depending on season).
These resorts offer special rates to those who sign up for scuba diving. Neither offer air-conditioning, in an effort at being eco-friendly.
Island Vinnie’s Perfect for those who want basic comforts without spending the extra buck on luxuries (03192-214247; www.islandvinnie.com; doubles ₹500-3,000; lower range only for divers).
Emerald Gecko This eco resort has log cabins that lets in the sea breeze and open-to-air bathrooms that make visitors feel close to the environment (9474286953; emerald-gecko.com; doubles ₹1,499-2,899).
Havelock has stunning beaches, including Beach No. 7 or Radhanagar, which is counted among the best in Asia. There are coves for lazy swims, coral reefs close to the shore for snorkelling, and shaded spots at the beach’s treeline perfect for reading, doing yoga, or having a snooze. The island has mangrove-lined waterways, best explored on a kayak, especially at dusk. There’s an invigorating jungle hike that ends at a beach where you can cool off with a swim. Between November and February, when the weather is coolest and most travellers visit, there’s usually a party at one of the resorts in the evening.
Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “The Island Way Of Life”. Updated in March 2016.
is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.
is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife.
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