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Emeralds in the Blue-The Andaman Islands

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December 2006
Emeralds in the Blue-The Andaman Islands

A little over a year ago, it was the site of a devastating tsunami. Lately, it was voted one of the top ten destinations in Asia. The Andaman Islands are back on the tourist map, and how!

As my plane circles overhead, I get the first glimpse of these enchanting islands. They look like carelessly strewn emeralds in the azure sea.

A wall of humidity hits me as I step off the plane. I can smell the sea, even from the distance. As I settle into the quaint beachfront cottage of my resort, I can already feel the magic of the islands. I spend my first afternoon lazing on Corbyn's Cove, a wide curve of silver beach. The wet sand feels like liquid silk under my toes, as I walk across the shallows with the waves tickling my feet. This is the stuff that dream holidays are made of: palm leaves dancing in the breeze, pristine white sands, and the sound of the waves crashing on the cliffs nearby. Ah, bliss!

The launch speeds over the clear waters and I shiver in anticipation. I am on my way to see a ghost island, a deserted relic of the British Raj. The Andamans were established as a British penal colony in 1789 by Lieutenant Archibald Blair, who also lent Port Blair his name. The name Andaman, however, comes from the Malay Handuman, better known as Hanuman, the monkey god of Hindu mythology.

The boat soon docks on Ross Island. I can hear the water lapping the tranquil shore. The undulating land is dotted with ruins, which are overgrown with the roots of banyan trees. In some places, the bricks have fallen off, but the roots retain the shape. There are deer grazing peacefully nearby. The only human inhabitant seems to be a shriveled old man in a one-room museum, run by the Indian Navy. I wander through history.

Ross Island was once called the Paris of the East. The British developed this place as a private island exclusively for themselves. The remnants of this rich past can be seen in the neatly labeled ruins: the club, swimming pool, Officer's Mess, bakery and the Chief Commissioner's residence with its huge gardens and grand ballrooms. Especially poignant are the ruins of the church high up on the hillock. The altar, the pews, and the cross are all intact but roofless. I close my eyes and see the priest give his Sunday sermon. It seems for a moment I could touch them all. It's a strangely touching morning.

Storm clouds loom over the horizon. I zoom on a hired bike over the hilly road that leads from my resort at Corbyn's Cove to Port Blair, 4 � miles away. The scenery is awesome—softly rolling slopes dotted with palms on one side of the road, and steep cliffs with the endless ocean on the other. I enter the iron gates of Cellular Jail, better known as Kala Paani. Is there is a heavy brooding in the air, or is my imagination playing games with me?

This Indian Bastille stands as a mute witness to the inhuman tortures meted out to the freedom fighters. It acquired the name, Cellular, from its 698 cells. The jail was designed with a watch tower in the center with seven wings radiating from the tower. The only route to and from the wings was through that watch tower. Consequently, no prisoner ever escaped from Kaala Pani. Daily work routines for the prisoners included the crushing of thirty pounds of coconut and mustard for oil. Punishment for failing to do these impossible tasks was harsh. This building is now a national memorial. I go back at night for the son et lumiere.

The morning sun rises from the sea, setting the dark waters aflame. I'm going for snorkeling to Jolly Buoy Island. I get my picnic hamper packed, take hurried instructions from the hotel reception, and am on my way. I have to find my way to Wandoor, a small village 18 miles from Port Blair, where the Mahatma Gandhi Marine Park is situated. Nothing quite beats the heady feel of biking through unknown country roads, the wind whistling through my hair and the winter sun warm on my back. A wrong turn somewhere, confused directions from locals, and I finally make it to the Marine Park in time for the 10 a.m. launch. I'm soon speeding on the open sea, crossing islands with twisted mangroves.

As we approach Jolly Buoy, I step down into a glass bottomed boat. The fishes and corals are simply amazing—such exotic colors and shapes! I spend the next two hours in perfect bliss, exploring the warm blue waters. Some scarlet tipped corals have an interesting burglar alarm: touch them and they pop shut. I swim with shoals of fishes, tiger striped yellow-blacks, intense reds and blues. This is the world as God made it—pure, peaceful and happy. I wander on the virgin sands and collect some shells and pieces of driftwood. I make new friends, two fighter pilots based in Port Blair. They guide me to the best spots for snorkeling and regale me with Air Force stories on the way back. By evening, I'm back to my cottage—sun burnt, tired, but happy. Oh, so happy! It is a day I'll remember all my life.

The next day I decide to shop at Aberdeen Bazaar, the main market. There is nothing much for a serious shopper, but I pick up some beautiful oval mirrors edged with hundreds of tiny shells. Other local produce includes cinnamon sticks with a distinctive flavor grown at the government farm at Sippighat.

These undulating islands are covered with dense forests, which abound in tropical flowers and birds. At 365 meters, Mount Harriet is the highest peak in South Andamans. It was the summer headquarters of the Chief Commissioner during the British rule. If you're a nature lover, you can go for great treks here.

I take a boat to Viper Island, inside the Port Blair harbor. It was named after the ship Viper in which Lieutenant Archibald Blair came to establish a penal colony. The vessel met with an accident and had to be abandoned near the island. The first prison was set up here. Sher Khan, the Pathan who killed Lord Mayo, was hanged to death here. The eerie ruins of the jail and the gallows still stand.

Havelock Island, 36 miles away from Port Blair, has the best beach in the country, perhaps in Asia. Beach No. 7, or Radhanagar Beach, is a long curved sweep of sugar white sand, lapped by turquoise waters. I take an air-conditioned speedboat from Phoenix Bay jetty, which takes just two hours. The coral reefs abound with exotic life. There are some lovely cottages on the beach, with all modern amenities. The seafood is fresh and very, very cheap! In contrast, vegetables are more expensive, as they have to be flown in from the mainland. So I find myself paying less for a sumptuous plate of prawns, than for an aloo gobi!

Cinque Island, 16 miles from Port Blair, is perfect for scuba diving, snorkeling and camping. It comprises two islands joined by an isthmus, which is a narrow strip of silvery sand that gets inundated at high tide.

Barren Island has the unique distinction of being India's only active volcano. It has a big crater, which rises abruptly from the sea, about half a kilometer inland. The smoking crater is an awesome sight, but you cannot leave the ship to step onto the island.

Chidiya Tapu, 20 miles from Port Blair, is a tiny fishing village with lovely beaches and mangroves. It is a bird-watcher's delight, and one can spot many rare species there. The locals tell me I must go there for the sunset.

As the plane circles these bewitching islands on its flight back to Kolkata, I look down with a heavy heart, feeling reluctant to leave. And I promise myself, maybe next year?

���������������������������������������

FACT FILE.

TOUCHING BASE.

By Air: Daily flights from Kolkata and Chennai by Alliance Air/ Indian Airlines, Air Deccan, and Jet. Fares vary, e.g. from Kolkata on Air Deccan on Feb 1 $44 (1974 INR), from Kolkata on Alliance to $279 (12510 INR) per head. See www.airdeccan.net and http://tourism.andaman.nic.in/traveltips.htm

By Ship: Regular passenger ships go from Kolkata and Chennai, approximately once a week. Fares range from $29 (1310 INR) to $131 (5880 INR) per head, depending on your choice of cabin. See http://tourism.andaman.nic.in/traveltips.htm

For details and booking contact:

‘Shipping Corporation of India Ltd.'

Kolkata: 91-33-22482354, 22488013.

Chennai: 91- 44-25231401, 25231218.

PLACES TO STAY.

All these hotels offer great views of the sea.

?Peerless Beach Resort, Corbyn's Cove: 233461-64.

?Sinclairs Bayview: 233159, 232937

?Hornbill Nest Resort: 246042, 244449.

WHAT TO DO.

?Water sports: Andaman Water Sports Complex for water-skiing, wind surfing, speed boats, etc.

?Scuba diving and Snorkeling: Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Wandoor.

?Trekking: Mt. Harriet.

?Museums: Anthropological Museum, Fisheries Museum, Samudrika (Naval Marine Museum), Zoological Survey of India Museum, Forest Museum.

GENERAL INFORMATION.

Location: Bay of Bengal.

Capital: Port Blair.

Altitude: Varies from sea level to 732 meters

Languages: Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu.

Airport: Port Blair.

Temperature: 23 degrees C. to 30 degrees C.

Best Season: October to April. December and January are the peak seasons.

Clothing: Summer cottons.

ISD code: +91-3192.

Contact: The Andaman and Nicobar Tourist Office,

��������������� Near GPO,

��������������� Port Blair.

��������������� Phone: 91-1382- 244013.

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Indian postage stamp of Cellular Jail

BY PAYAL KHURANA


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