Tag Archives: Snorkelling

Mauritius: Dive right in

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Undersea Walks, Sub Scooter, Sea Karting, Quad Biking and snorkelling with dolphins; the tropical paradise of Mauritius has a lot on offer for the adventure seeker, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Driving on Mauritian roads IMG_1951

“The French ruled us for nearly a century and the British for about 150 years, which is why Mauritians don’t drive on the right like the French or on the left like the British, but right in the middle of the road!” joked Ivan, the resort manager at Radisson Blu Azuri. Fortunately, if it’s adrenaline you seek, Mauritius is packed with enough adventure…

Though the island measures roughly 60X40 miles (about as large as Coorg), what sets Mauritius apart from other tropical destinations is the wide range of experiences for visitors. Fringed by coral reefs and clear blue waters, one may snorkel and kayak without leaving the comforts of your resort.

Chamarel viewpoint IMG_2124

We got our chance the next morning at Azuri’s private beach. Like many of the sights here, the resort was built around a sugarcane factory – its old dilapidated chimney left untouched as it overlooked the pool and Le Comptoir restaurant. After an ‘Eye Opener Juice’ of strawberry lemonade and a hearty breakfast, we set off for Gran Baie north of the island for a Solar Undersea Walk.

Locals played dominoes in the shade of the tree-lined beach. Boats bobbed in the clear blue waters while some set off from Sunset Boulevard on sportfishing expeditions to snare Marlins, Tuna and GT (Giant Trevallies). A transfer boat quickly transported us to the diving platform moored just inside the lagoon reef. John, the captain, briefed us.

Solar Undersea Walk platform IMG_1656

As we got ready to descend the ladder into the sea, our guide asked “Hey Bob Marley, are you gonna wear that rastaman cap and your glares on your sea walk”, motioning to my headgear I had forgotten to take off. “Can I?” “If you want to… The head doesn’t get wet!” And with that, the Undersea Walk patented helmet was strapped on. The distortion-free flat glass window panels allowed great visibility in 2-3 m depth of water while solar panels converted oxygen from the air to provide us a constant flow of fresh air from the surface.

On the sandy sea floor, the swimming monitor passed us crumbs of bread. “I’m not really hungry”, I motioned. “It’s for the fish,” the guide signaled back. “Aaaaah!” Despite the oxygen supply, being underwater does make you a little slow. A flurry of striped fish converged on us for a nibble. In what would be a relief to many, most water sports in Mauritius do not require a knowledge of swimming.

Blue Safari Subscooter inventor Luc Billard IMG_1703

The next stop was Trou aux Biches where Blue Safari director Luc Billard had developed a patented Submarine Scooter. “I’ve never ridden a scooter underwater”, was the common refrain. “Very easy, see those two shiny foot pedals? You press it, the scooter moves forward, you leave it, it stops. And that’s the steering.” I imagined the worst – ramming into corals or each other or worse still, mowing down the instructor, but luckily discovered that its speed was a leisurely 3km per hour.

A shared bubble was placed over me and my pillion, the platform was lowered and five scooters set off in Bond fashion. Not Daniel Craig kind, but ala Roger Moore, with strange gizmos, underwater lairs and 70s production values. The movement was quite imperceptible but the feeling of being on your own 3m under the Indian Ocean was exciting. With oxygen pumped into the vestibule, we breathed naturally enjoying a 360-degree view of the marine life – grotesque brain corals and iridescent parrotfish. The best part was the freedom to speak with your co-passenger. “So Miss Renu, traffic signal se left ya right?”

Sea scooter IMG_1700

Blue Safari also ran an excellent submarine tour that lets you observe the beauty of the seabed and the workings of a ballast system. Incidentally, they are the only submarine operator in Mauritius and the entire Indian Ocean! As the submarine dives 35m to the sandy bed, it’s the closest you’ll feel to landing on the moon. There’s limited place aboard the 10-seater and 5-seater subs, so it’s best to book early to watch stingrays and turtles glide past the ghost-like wreck of Star Hope.

Don’t let the alarming number of shipwrecks around the Mauritian coast worry you, as most of these wrecks were deliberately submerged to create artificial reefs. To the north and northwest of the island, dive for angelfish and barracudas around Silver Star (39m) or the Japanese trawler Stella Maru (24-28m), inhabited by blue triggerfish, reef fish, octopuses and moray eels. The wreck of TUG II (17-19m) on the west coast is an easy dive that throws up stone fish, leaf fish and scorpionfish. To the south west, watch trevallies and tunas hunt down smaller fish at Hoi Siong (16-28m). The forty odd dive sites can be reached within 20 minutes from the coast.

Hotel Shanti Maurice IMG_1340

Away from all the action of the north, Shanti Maurice in the quiet south was truly a great place to pause and catch our breath. Walkways lined with tropical foliage led to private villas with thatched roofs spread over 36 acres. A coral reef circled the curved beach with a jetty to the right and the surf crashing against black volcanic rock on the left.

Since the resort offered only non-motorized watersports such as windsurfing, sailing, pedal boats, snorkeling and kayaking, the beach was always tranquil. After endless rounds of spiced rum cocktails at the Rum Shed, rustic beach-side barbecues at the Fish Shack and full body massages at the in-house Nira Spa, we were ready for more action.

La Vanille Crocodile Park-Croc meat IMG_1262

Though much of the French-Indian-Creole-Caribbean-Chinese mix that comprises Mauritian cuisine is accessible to Indians, there’s plenty of adventure on the plate too. At La Vanille crocodile park, after feeding giant Aldabra turtles, petting iguanas and holding baby crocs, we tried crocodile meat.

It tasted like chicken (bit chewier) and in an ironical twist, the restaurant was called Le Crocodile Affamé (The Hungry Crocodile). Guiltily, we explored the 3.5-hectare reserve with enclosures full or crocs and caimans, endemic bats with 1m wingspans and an insectarium with 23,000 species – including dazzling bugs and butterflies.

Casela DSC_0103

One of the top wildlife attractions in Mauritius is Casela, a nature reserve where visitors can pet lions, feed giraffes, pose with caracals, go on a wildlife safari to watch rhinos or have ostriches clapping their beaks at you. “I think he wants you to feed him,” said the guide, though to me it seemed like he wanted to feed ON me. For the shy squeamish sorts, there’s plenty of Dutch courage available.

No Mauritian holiday is complete without rum tasting, best experienced at rhumeries (rum factories) like Chamarel, St Aubin and Chateau Labourdonnais. Besides stunning viewpoints, Chamarel boasts sights like Seven-Coloured Earth, the odd exhibits at Curious Corner and the island’s highest waterfall.

Chamarel Rummery IMG_1537

If you don’t happen to be a water person, there’s enough adventure on terra firma – golfing at spectacular courses like Heritage and Tamarina to hiking trails in the central highlands and peaks like Le Pouce (The Thumb), Pieter Both and Mount Piton – at 828m, the highest peak in Mauritius.

We went quad biking across the undulating terrain of at La Vallee des Couleurs, a nature park with four waterfalls and the third longest zipline in the world. Offroading to a viewpoint, we zoomed down half a kilometer over the ‘23-coloured earth’, unique to this volcanic island. I went belly down, miraculously keeping my flip-flops on!

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However, the number one activity in Mauritius is Sea Karting – the thrill of a jet boat with the safety and stability of an inflatable raft. We zoomed out on Black River in V-formation to the south west coast of Mauritius with stops at the spectacular Crystal Rock and the dramatic Le Morne Brabant mountain. We had no luck with dolphins as we were busy trying not to collide into each other as we bounced on the waves.

With top speeds of 70km/hr, Sea Karts are fast. Our slow evolution from Octopussy to Spectre was complete. The 1-hour excursion was easily my most enjoyable 60 minutes in Mauritius (half-day or full day guided tours also offered). Thankfully, the drive to Hotel Sofitel-Imperial at Flic en Flac was short.

Hotel Sofitel-Imperial pool IMG_2104

The reception and restaurant opened out to a large swimming pool that spilled onto a white sandy beach with the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean receding into the distance. Being on the west coast, it was one of the best spots to catch the famed Mauritian sunset, though we got Sega dancers, fire-eaters and acrobats along with the view! The prawns and fish flew with surprising agility from the grill to our plates to our mouths, as we rounded off a splendid dinner by the sea.

The final act was a dolphin cruise and snorkeling trip after breakfast. We grabbed our flippers from Christine Sofitel Boat House and set off into the big blue. It was a bouncy gangsta ride. Maybe we should have gone easy on the dholl-puris (Indo-Mauritian version of the Bihari staple dalpuri or dal stuffed paratha).

Swimming with dolphins IMG_2415

For all the activities in Mauritius, nothing could prepare us for the sight of wild dolphins skimming the waters. An entire school, maybe a hundred or so. Whenever a group approached a boat, excited divers jumped off like kamikaze warriors in a bid to swim with the dolphins. We were happy to watch the spectacle from the boat, before heading off towards Le Morne to snorkel the reefs.

“Quick, make a wish. That’s a paille-en-queue!” said the boat captain. By the time I could decipher his French pronunciation, a white long-tailed bird swooped down from the lush mountains towards the sea and disappeared. The Tropicbird, named after its distinctive ‘straw-tail’ was the symbol of the national airline Air Mauritius. It was considered lucky to spot one. “So what did you ask for?” “That I come back to Mauritius for a better look at it!”

Grand Baie Sportfishing trips IMG_1628

FACT FILE

Getting there
Located 4700km west of India in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.

There are direct flights by Air Mauritius and Air India from Delhi and Mumbai (7hrs) to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport at the south of the island.

www.airmauritius.com

Shanti Maurice IMG_1149

Where to Stay
Hotel Shanti Maurice, Chemin Grenier
www.shantimaurice.com

Hotel Radisson Blu Azuri
www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-mauritius-azuri

Hotel Sofitel Imperial, Flic en Flac
www.sofitel.com/Mauritius  

Hotel Paradis & Dinarobin, Le Morne
www.beachcomber-hotels.com

Hotel Sofitel-Imperial beach weddings IMG_2088

Adventure List

Blue Safari, Trou aux Biches
Sub Scooter for two MUR 5800, Submarine tour MUR 4400/person
Ph +230 265 7272 www.blue-safari.com

Solar Undersea Walk, Gran Baie
10:30 & 1:30 Mon-Sat
Ph +230 263 7819 www.solarunderseawalk.com

Fun Adventure Sea Kart, La Balise, Black River
MUR 5500 per Seakart (up to 2 adults + 1 child)
Ph +230 5 499 4929 www.fun-adventure.mu

La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park Quad Biking IMG_1307

Quad Biking & Ziplining, La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park, Mare Anguilles
Ph +230 5471 8666 www.lavalleedescouleurs.com

Segway & Walking with lions, Casela World of Adventures, Cascavelle
9am-5pm, MUR 740 entry fee, activities extra
Ph +230 401 6500 www.caselapark.com

Christine Sofitel Boat House, Flic en Flac
Ph +230 453 8975 bhsofitel@gmail.com

Sea dive IMG_2502

For more info, visit

Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority
Victoria House, Port Louis Ph +230 15 45 www.tourisme-ilemaurice.mu

Mauritian Scuba Diving Association
Route Royale, Beau Bassin Ph +230 454 00 11 www.msda.mu

Mauritian sunset IMG_2006

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared as part of the Islands Special Cover Story in the July, 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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Extreme India: Offbeat Adventures

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Before you make a mad dash to New Zealand or the USA for your next adrenaline fix, there’s some serious adventure on offer right here at home if you just look in the right places. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY tell you where to go.

Caving in Meghalaya-Mawsmai Caves DSC01373

If you thought adventure in India was just about trekking and white water rafting, buckle up for these truly offbeat outdoor activities across the country. Push the envelope with this handy list of activities, seasons, how to get there, costs, interesting jargon and who to do it with.

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Canyoning or Waterfall Rappelling in Maharashtra
Had enough of staring at waterfalls? Get ready for the thrill of rappelling down them! Maharashtra, with its many waterfalls tumbling down the Western Ghats, is fast emerging as a premier canyoning site. And there’s no better spot than Vihigaon, 13 km from Kasara Ghat near Igatpuri. First explored in 2007-08, the 120 ft dizzying drop has a 30 ft wide rockface, large enough for four ropes to rappel down. A check dam, smaller cascades nearby and a scenic plateau have boosted Vihigaon’s popularity. Bekare at Bhivpuri near Karjat, Dudhani near Panvel and Dudhiware near Lonavala are other good sites.

Tips: Carry a waterproof backpack with change of clothes and knee guard or protective cap to avoid scraping your knees against cliffs.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Pune. From Mumbai, Vihigaon is 124 km (2-3 hr drive) on NH-3 or the Nashik highway.

Season: July to October

Cost: Around Rs.1,000/person, includes transport, breakfast, waterfall rappelling & mountaineering basics

Who to do it with: Offbeat Sahyadri Ph +91 9987990300, 9664782503 Email offbeatsahyadri@gmail.com
Nature Knights Ph +91 9821081566 www.natureknights.net

Caving in Meghalaya-Mawsmai Caves DSC01359

Spelunking or Caving in Meghalaya
Put hills of limestone and high precipitation together and you get caves – miles and miles of it! Limestone deposits in Meghalaya’s southern slopes, coupled with high rainfall, humidity and elevations over 1000 m, are ideal conditions for cave formation. With 1350 caves stretching over nearly 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and the largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent and ranks among the world’s Top 10 caving destinations. Spelunking or caving gives people a chance to see a rarely explored realm of stalagmites, stalactites, candles, cave curtains and cave pearls, formed over thousands of years. For tourists, Maswmai Caves near Cherrapunjee in the Khasi Hills, is a good introduction. For more serious explorations, head to Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills, riddled with cave passages like Krem Tynghen, Krem Umthloo, Krem Chympe and Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

Adventure Jargon: Cave networks that have a river running through, which can be explored by swimming or wading through waist deep water are termed ‘live’.

Tips: Caving is not advisable for those who suffer from claustrophobia or those afraid of tight spaces, heights, darkness, bugs and bats.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Guwahati from where Shillong is a 2.5 hr drive.

Season: November to March

Who to do it with: Kipepeo Ph +91 9930002412 www.kipepeo.in
For more on Meghalaya’s caves, http://megtourism.gov.in/caves.html

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Bouldering in Hampi
The art of freehand climbing boulders without any ropes or harness is called bouldering. Pioneer John Sherman quips that “The only gear really needed to go bouldering is boulders.” Thanks to India’s landscape, the adventure sport is gaining ground. Places around Bengaluru like Ramanagram, Antargange near Kolar, Turhalli Forest and Badami have firmly placed Karnataka on the global bouldering map. But few sites can compete with Hampi for the profusion of boulders, monuments, monkeys and oddballs for a dramatic climb! At first, locals couldn’t fathom the sight of half-naked hippies armed with chalk powder climbing Hampi’s boulders. But Chris Sharma’s movie ‘Pilgrimage’, shot by renowned climbing moviemaker Josh Lowell, brought respectability to the sport. There’s even a Geoquest Bouldering Guidebook on Hampi called Golden Boulders based on the knowledge of two old time Hampi climbers Pil Lockey and Harald Vierroth (Hari). Carry your own chalkbag and climbing shoes, though guesthouses like Baba Café and Begum’s Place rent out crash pads.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Bengaluru

Adventure Jargon: The route a climber must take up a boulder is called a ‘problem’, which is unique to each location.

Did you know: Must-do sites at Hampi include Dali Boulder, Rishyamuk Rock, Ek-Number Boulderfield and Jungli Plateau.

Season: Nov-Dec is ideal. Avoid the rainy season and peak summer.

Who to do it with: GETHNAA (General Thimmaiah National Academy of Adventure)
Ph +91 80 22211246 Email info@gethnaa.com http://gethnaa.org

Kiteboarding near Rameshwaram C55A9962

Kiteboarding near Rameshwaram
Kiteboarding is a surface water sport that combines aspects of wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding and gymnastics into one extreme sport. The power of the wind is harnessed with a large controllable power kite which propels the surfer across the water on a kiteboard. Southern Tamil Nadu off India’s east coast provides the perfect conditions of steady wind speed, scanty rains and a large stretch of deep blue sea. Learn the ropes with Charmaine, India’s only female kitesurfer and Govinda, who trained under the legendary Ines Correa at a Redbull Kitesurfing event in 2013. Do a certification course with an IKO (International Kiteboarding Organisation) instructor and learn wave-style riding, freestyle or jumps at Swami’s Bay, Lands End lagoon and Fisherman’s Cove. Snorkelling, Kayaking and Stand up Paddleboard are also offered.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Chennai and Madurai, a 3 hr drive away. Or take an overnight bus or train to Rameshwaram, with Rs.400 auto fare to the location.

Adventure Jargon: Popping in and out of water intermittently due to light or gusty wind, poor flying skills or twisted lines is called Tea-bagging. And a serious accident while kiteboarding is known as a Kitemare!

Season: Summer South Winds (Apr–Sep), Winter North Winds (Oct–Mar)

Cost: Private or shared lessons of 6-10 hours between Rs.15,000-30,000 (1-2 days). Stay in rustic beach huts for Rs.1,250 per person per night, inclusive of meals and transfers to kite spots.

Who to do it with: Quest Expeditions Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409
Email booking@quest-asia.com http://www.thekitesurfingholiday.com

Skiing in Gulmarg - snowboarder

Skiing in Gulmarg
CNN ranks Gulmarg as the 7th best ski destination in Asia. And there’s good reason for it. At 13,780 ft, Kongdoori on the shoulder of Mount Affarwat is the highest skiing point in the Himalayas. The world’s highest ski lift whisks adventure seekers to the upper slopes from where they ski or snowboard down freshly powdered slopes. The Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM), a snowball’s throw away from Khyber Resort, has certified instructors, quality skiing equipment and snow gear for those interested in learning. Stay in modest but clean, shared rooms of IISM or base yourself at the plush Khyber, perhaps Gulmarg’s only ‘ski-in, ski-out’ resort.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Srinagar, from where Gulmarg is a 45 min drive away.

Adventure Jargon: Pisté (derived from French pistare or trample) is a marked ski run or path down a mountain for skiing, snowboarding or other mountain sports.

Season: December to March

Cost: Around Rs.40,000/person (minimum group of 8), includes stay, food, training and equipment

Who to do it with: Mercury Himalayan Explorations Ph +91 11 4356 5425 www.mheadventures.com

Rickshaw Run-Road Rajah on Muzhappilangad Beach IMG_0073

Take on the Rickshaw Run
Rickshaw Run, a 3500km race across the subcontinent organized by the irreverent tour company The Adventurists is described as a ‘pan-Indian adventure in a 7 horsepower glorified lawnmower’. Teams of three take part in custom-built autorickshaws often espousing a social cause with no fixed route. There’s a start line and a finish line; everything in between is up to you. Try Cochin to Jaisalmer in Jan 2016, Jaisalmer to Shillong in April 2016 or Shillong to Cochin in August 2016. Despite the flippant tone, the website warns ‘Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. These are not holidays. These are adventures. You really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.’

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Kochi, Jodhpur and Guwahati.

Season: All year round

Did you know: The Adventurists organize other outrageous activities include Mongol Rally, Ice Run and Adventure 9 – crossing the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean in a ngalawa (dugout canoe), powered by a bed sheet!

Cost: Entry fee of £1595 for the trio, which includes a rickshaw with all paperwork, 2-days of test drive, launch and finish line parties, a blog and free travel insurance worth £210.

Who to do it with: The Adventurists www.theadventurists.com

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Sportfishing in the Andamans
Though the Andamans is synonymous with deep sea diving and snorkelling, there’s more marine adventure to be found. For a taste of saltwater sportfishing, hit the high seas in the Andamans for Giant Trevally, Barracuda, Barramundi, Yellow Fin Tuna, King Mackerel, Wahoo and Sail Fish. Fishing is as per catch and release and operators run day trips for first timers or 7-day all-inclusive adventures that include acco and transfers covering Ritchie’s Archipelago and the South Andaman Islands. Day trips to Invisible Banks and Barren Island are also organized.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Port Blair. Havelock Island and most of the reefs and fishing haunts are in Ritchie’s Archipelago, a boat ride away.

Season: November to April is the peak season, until the onset of monsoon.

Cost: On request

Who to do it with: Gamefishing India Ph +91-3192-241610, 9900568091, 9434280117
Email gamefishingindia@gmail.com www.gamefishingindia.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of the Adventure cover story in the October 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.

Seychelles on the sea shore: 10 wonderful ways to discover Seychelles

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PRIYA GANAPATHY falls in love with the vibrant beautiful island life of the Seychelles and picks out enriching holiday experiences covering history, culture and cuisine

IMG_0489 Carnaval International de Victoria_Priya Ganapathy

Nearly a thousand miles off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean lies a cluster of 115 islands that make the Seychelles an unblemished paradise. Apart from lolling in its blissful sun-kissed beaches, here are 10 ways to experience Seychelles’ unique native culture and cuisine.

IMG_0958 Octopus Salad at Bravo! restaurant_Priya Ganapathy

1) Eat an octopus and pin your visiting card at Marie-Antoinette
Surrounded by a gigantic ocean teeming with aquatic life, Seychelles offers a generous platter of seafood. At weekly night markets like Bazar Labrin, sample Creole specialities like kari zouri (octopus curry) and sosouri (fruit bat). Pizzerias like La Fontaine at Beau Vallon in Mahe draw beachcombers to feast on salade de pieuvre (octopus salad), Assiette de fruit de mer (ocean platters), cigalle grille (grilled slipper lobster) and crispy calamari served on vibrant wooden fish placemats. At Bravo! on Eden Island Marina dig into crunchy octopus salad or grilled octopus with a fabulous view of docked yachts. Beryl and Brian of Glacis Heights Villa, a boutique homestay, consider kordonye as Seychelles’ favourite dish. The small fish makes ladies tipsy as it has an intoxicant tucked in its glands. For time-honoured Creole recipes, there’s no better place than Le Grand Trianon-Marie Antoinette Restaurant at St Louis Hill. Since 1972, thousands of travellers and celebrities have savoured a meal in this historic restaurant and guesthouse owned by Kathleen Fonseca, the grand lady of Creole cuisine. Declared a national monument in 2011, its high red roof, wood interiors, wide verandahs and white louvered windows wear a definitive stamp of tradition and taste. From the very first bite of mango salad and crunch of batter-fried Parrot fish, down to the last spoon of Coconut Nougat; the multi-course meal is divine. The colonial restaurant played home to journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley for a month after he tracked down missing explorer David Livingstone in Africa and uttered the famous words ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume’. Henry renamed Marie Antoinette ‘Livingstone Cottage’ as tribute. Before you leave, do the local thing and pin your visiting card at the notice board!

IMG_0751 Dance the sega_Priya Ganapathy

2) Learn to dance the sega
Another conspicuous facet of Seychellois island life is their love for music and dance. At night markets or by the beach catch locals singing or performing traditional dances like mutzya or moutia and sega around a bonfire. The moutia was an ancient form of protest music and dance of African origin that involves shuffling one’s feet to a rhythm. They say that when the Europeans brought the slaves here, they bound their feet with big chains causing them to drag their feet while they danced their pain away. Some say that the séance-like moutia is almost extinct as it was banned by the colonial rulers. But the sega continues to delight audiences with its irresistible charm. Holding up their flared skirts, ladies gyrate their hips rhythmically, moving their shoulders teasingly, prompting everyone around to join in.

IMG_1747 The endemic coco de mer fruits_Priya Ganapathy

3) Hold the largest seed in the plant kingdom at Vallee de Mai
If you ever wondered what the primeval garden of Eden looked like, drop by at Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Praslin. It is a protected haven for the primitive coco de mer palm and the rare endemic Seychelles black parrot. The coco de mer’s erotic shape led people to believe it was aphrodisiacal and Arab traders of yore made a killing by encrusting the giant seed with gemstones and marketing them as prized collectibles. The guided walk is an eye-opener on the treasured palm which holds two botanical records as the world’s largest and heaviest seed and the largest male flower of any palm! The Morne Seychellois National Park at Sans Souci in Mahe is another invigorating hike that unravels many biodiversity secrets – critically endangered species like the strange jellyfish tree (Medusa tree), evergreen cloud forests atop Morne Blanc filled with mosses and giant ferns and endemic birds like Seychelles bulbul and White-tailed Tropicbirds, their dainty tails trailing like kites freed in the wind. Several nature trails across different islands are just a ferry or chopper ride away.

IMG_1543 Vanilla plantation_Priya Ganapathy

4) Travel in an oxcart at La Digue
La Digue Island offers a true taste of tradition and a chance to slow down. Barring a few motorised vehicles, only quaint oxcarts, bicycles and walking are the main modes of travel here. Designed by explorer Dr Lyall Watson and one of La Digue’s most influential personalities Ton Karl, the oxcart is emblematic of the island. The contraption has since evolved into a hooded vehicle, adorned with coconut leaves and flowers, making it a well-loved mode of commuting for visitors. Visit L’Union Estate for a peek into the heritage bungalow and copra kiln, discover the antiquated oil extraction technique at an ox-drawn mill and the process of cultivating vanilla in its sprawling plantation. Interestingly, each vanilla stick is etched with UE (Union Estate)!

IMG_0175 Seychelles Tea Factory view_Priya Ganapathy

5) Go on a scented spice trail
No trip to the ‘Vanilla Islands’ is complete without a spice trail. Le Jardin du Roi, the spice plantation at Anse Royale in Mahe provides the perfect DIY experience. Spread across 25 hectares of lush vegetation, the privately owned property dates back to 1854 and is a nature reserve, botanical garden and heritage museum cum restaurant rolled into one. Grab a map and checklist and head down any of the designated trails. The easy Rainforest Trail winds through a coffee estate in the shade of the mystical coco de mer trees, cinnamon and clove plantations, patchouli and ylang ylang valley and giant bamboo groves. The Garden Walk weaves past vanilla and pepper vines, shrubs of allspice and nutmeg, citronella bushes, stunning wild ginger, orchids and exotic fruit orchards. The Ridge Trail and the Gratte Fesses, both steep treks to the estate’s highest points present brilliant views of the island and bay. Dotted with peace gardens, an old cemetery, a distillery and souvenir shop, one can spend hours here.

IMG_1361 Curieuse Island hike to Doctor's House_Priya Ganapathy

6) Get curious on Curieuse Island
Just 1km off the coast of Praslin lies Curieuse Island, an erstwhile leper colony that now offers hiking, birdwatching, snorkelling and swimming opportunities. Go on a 1-hr guided trail past the tortoise sanctuary, climb stunning granite boulders hewn by wind and water, and trudge down boardwalks past mangrove swamps crawling with giant crabs, newts, salamander and shellfish twirling in the tangle of submerged roots. Doctor’s house, home of late Dr William MacGregror, a Scotsman who treated lepers at Anse Jose has been converted into a national museum showcasing the island’s fascinating history. For 136 years this quarantined island remained cut away from human influence, which helped protect its natural ecosystem. En route, see the remains of Curieuse Causeway, a seawall built in 1910, that blocked off the mangroves and created a pond for breeding Hawksbill turtles for shell trade. Struck by disease, the turtles died, but the wall served as a walkway for visitors until the 2004 tsunami almost wiped it out! Currently a Marine National Park, Curieuse Island has several rare endemic plant species. Besides the coco de mer palms, the other old-timers include giant tortoises who don’t mind sharing beach barbeques! In fact, the island has numerous free ranging Aldabra Giant land tortoises who love getting curious about you and your food! A 15 minute boat ride takes you to St. Pierre Islet, a haven for snorkelling and diving.

IMG_0172 Seychelles Tea Factory_Priya Ganapathy

7) Sey Beer, Sey Brew, SeyTe
Besides being one of the finest viewpoints in Mahe, the famous Seychelles Tea Factory showcases how tea is grown and manufactured. The Tea Tavern by the gate is a convenient place to enjoy a brew or buy a range of classic SeyTe, with blended varieties like Special Vanilla, Green Tea, Bio Tea, Indian Ocean, Orange and Cinnamon. The “Spirit of The Seychelles” flowed steadily at the renowned rum distillery Takamaka Bay at La Plaine St Andre, a 200 year estate and homestead. We discovered that the fascinating process of rum-making from sugarcane to shot glass actually began with an old sugarcane crusher imported from India! The noisy cast iron contraption had ‘Chabavak’ (chewer) embossed in Devnagiri script! After a heady tasting session of their extraordinary range of award winning spirits including White rum, Dark rum, Spice Rum and Vesou, we voted the premium St Andre 8 Year Old with its woody aroma and Coco Rum (a delicious blend with coconut extract) as favourites. The in-house restaurant La Plaine St Andre has a hearty Creole-inspired lunch of Millionaire salad with palm hearts and fish, Red snapper, chicken coconut curry and a sweet potato-banana-nutmeg dessert.

IMG_0488 Carnaval International de Victoria_Priya Ganapathy

8) Catch the Carnival spirit at Victoria, the smallest capital in the world
When the Carnaval International de Victoria hit the streets, the infectious festive spirit paints the capital in a riot of colour, dance and unabated fun. International and local acts, flamboyant costumes, music and vibrant tableaux create an electric mood as everyone whirls to capture the raw energy and beauty of the spectacle on camera. The much awaited carnival takes place around the third week of April every year.

IMG_0302 Tamil temple at Mahe_Priya Ganapathy

9) Visit the only Hindu temple in Mahe, the largest island of Seychelles
Not far from the heart of Victoria, the capital city, the spire of a South Indian shrine carved with rainbow hued gods and goddesses looks like it has been directly transplanted from a temple street in Tamil Nadu! From within the Sri Navasakti Vinayagar Temple, priests chant Sanskrit shlokas in soulful Carnatic style as bells, drums and nadaswara music resound inside. Clearly, the Hindu Tamils in Seychelles contribute to its multicultural ethos.

IMG_0644 Inter-island ferry_Priya Ganapathy

10) Learn scuba diving at Big Blue Divers
Beau Vallon in Mahe is the chosen hub for adventure seekers who come to sail, snorkel, dive, fish or parasail. With dive sites varying from 8-30m, Seychelles is suitable for both beginners and experienced divers. The waters are ideal between March-May and September-November. Big Blue Divers, run by Gilly and Elizabeth Fideria, offer diving sessions in crystal waters and coral gardens around Willy’s Rock. The treasures in this watery world with a coral reef swarmed by myriad fish can keep one rapt for hours. Elizabeth says, “People only have to dive once to know if they like it or not. Seychelles helps you figure out whether you’re a sea loving turtle or a land dwelling tortoise!”

IMG_0156 Seychelles is an excellent beach destination_Priya Ganapathy

Fact File
Getting There:
Jet Airways has flies to Mahé via Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Colombo. Air Seychelles flies direct from Mumbai to Mahé (4 hr 10 min) three times a week. For inter-island travel, hop on to Cat Cocos www.catcocos.com or local ferries from Mahé to Praslin and La Digue.

Where to Stay: Choose from private island resorts like www.fregate.com, www.north-island.com or www.denisisland.com to chalets, villas and luxury resorts like Hotel Savoy Resort & Spa (www.savoy.sc) in Beau Vallon (Mahé), Hotel L’Archipel www.larchipel.com (Praslin) to boutique homestays like Glacis Heights Villa (Mahé), farmstays and retreats. For budget holiday options visit www.seychellessecrets.com

For more details visit www.seychelles.travel

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the September 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.

Andamans: Walking down the Isle

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With secluded beaches, stunning sunsets and dazzling marine life, the Andaman Islands are a great place for couples, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Scuba diving Andamans_Discover India

A pair of Powder Blue Tang circled each other giddily before disappearing into a rocky crevice. Green Staghorn corals bore a velvety sheen as if marine antelopes were rutting on the seabed. The underwater realm of gently swaying ferns, sea fans, iridescent fish and strange marine forms was painted in colours we had never seen before – so dazzling, they were permanently seared in our brains. In a matter of hours we had gone from dropping a week’s supply of fish food in our aquarium in Bangalore at dawn to snorkeling in the Andaman Sea by late afternoon. As we discovered a new world, hand in hand, it was a lot like being in a giant aquarium ourselves…

After flying over the seemingly endless Indian Ocean, the first sight of lush green islands from the air brought us to the edge of our seats. The moment we got off at Veer Savarkar Airport in Port Blair, we inhaled the tropical air and a tempestuous sea breeze tousled our hair with wild abandon in rousing welcome. Andamans was going to be great, we felt and trooped off with the enthusiasm of explorers on the verge of a discovery. A short drive to the hotel and a quick change later, we were on a boat to North Bay, the closest dive site around town. Local boat operators offer a 3-island boat tour including Ross and Viper Islands. At North Bay, tourists are transferred onto smaller glass bottom boats through which they peer at the shaky distorted seabed and squeal in delight. But we were happier snorkeling. North Bay, with its seven coral sites, was merely an appetizer for the main course that lay ahead…

Neil Island jetty_Anurag Mallick DSC07376

The best prospects were at the diving hub of Havelock, but we had a few days to explore the mainland. After our introductory session at North Bay, we were off to Ross, the smallest of the 572 islands in the Andaman & Nicobar group. It was hard to imagine that this little blip of a 0.8 sq km island with crumbling edifices choked by roots and vines was once a buzzing hub of colonial high life. The ruins of a bakery, church, bungalows and boiler rooms once echoed with laughter and animated chatter. At its peak, Ross was dubbed as ‘Paris of the East’ because of its grand soirees.

Ironically, just a mile away, Indian freedom fighters languished in one of the most notorious prisons in Indian history. In a searing dichotomy, the Andamans had experienced so much pain and suffering – torn between British colonial rule and Japanese occupation to being battered by the tsunami in 2004 – yet it showered on every visitor so much joy and peace, like a soothing balm over frayed nerves. We walked to the far side of Ross to the forlorn Ferrar Beach lined with rocks and overhanging trees.

Viper Island_Anurag Mallick DSC06722

Partially under the army’s command, the island was dotted with World War II bunkers. Chugging to a dramatic shot of the setting sun, the boat docked at Viper Island where the red gallows at the summit was the site of several grisly hangings. The surviving wooden beam served as a chilling reminder. Many people had perished here, including Sher Khan who stabbed Indian Viceroy Lord Mayo in 1872. It was dark by the time we got back to base.

There’s a lot to do around town and a couple can spend more than a couple of days exploring Port Blair and its getaways. With its lazy undulations and tropical air, it is often described as India’s only warm hill station. We checked out the marine museums, relived the sadness and heroism trapped inside Cellular Jail, witnessed the poignant Sound and Light Show, gawked at North Bay’s palm fringed lighthouse captured on the reverse of a Rs.20 note, browsed for shell, coconut and driftwood souvenirs around Aberdeen Bazaar, drove south for a sunset at Chidiya Tapu and enjoyed a nature trail to Kala Patthar at Mount Harriet National Park beyond Hope Town.

Andamans North Bay view on Indian 20 Rupee note_Anurag Mallick

A great escape from the bustle of the capital, the quiet hilltop hideaway had a lovely old Forest Rest House with watchtowers and gun mounts scattered on the hillside. We were honoured to meet the Andaman Blue Nawab, a haughty butterfly that fed on only one species of plant and chose to starve to death if it wasn’t available! Thankfully, we weren’t as fussy and happily chomped on the wide choice of fish and seafood, sipping cold beer at Marina Park and the town’s only beach, Corbyn’s Cove.

Keep half a day aside for Wandoor Marine National Park, an hour’s drive west of town. The 280 sq km park spread over a cluster of 15 islands is the best dive site near Port Blair. Take a boat to Jolly Buoy, Red Skin or Mahuadera to explore its rich marine life that includes four turtle species – Green Sea turtle, Leatherback turtle, Olive Ridley turtle and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. We saw everything from large leatherbacks and giant clams to little Anthias and Fusiliers darting around.

Unloading vegetables at Havelock_Anurag Mallick  DSC06907

From Port Blair the Great Andaman Trunk Road darts north to Baratang with its limestone caves and mud volcanoes blubbing like a thick curry on slow boil. For something more mesmeric, a 45 min boat ride from Havelock to Barren Island, gives the adventurous a chance to see India’s only active volcano as it spews ash and dust. The northbound road from Baratang, broken up by ferry crossings and straits, continues further to Mayabunder and Diglipur. But our tryst with the mainland was over as we were taking the swanky Makruzz to Havelock Island.

We stood on the deck, hypnotized by the wake left by the twin hulled luxury catamaran before returning to our plush seats to enjoy the cruise at 24 nautical miles an hour. The jetty was abuzz with fishing boats unloading bananas and fish while little crafts ferried adventure buffs to remote dive sites in Ritchie’s Archipelago. We caught a cab to the Government-run Dolphin Resort that had a superb location and view, before upgrading ourselves to the luxurious yet eco-friendly Barefoot Resort at Radhanagar (Beach No.7).

Radhanagar Beach Havelock_Anurag Mallick DSC06814

Tucked away on the island’s western side, the beach ranked among the best in Asia and we could see why. The wide shallow crescent was ringed with tall Andaman Bullet Wood trees on the seashore as a handful of tourists enjoyed sunbathing, leisurely walks or watched the sun go down. All the nightlife was on the eastern side at Govindnagar (Beach No.3) where most of the beachside restaurants, cafes, resorts and dive shops were located. Understandably, Havelock was fast becoming a honeymooner’s paradise.

The next morning we took a boat past the Lighthouse to Hathi Tapu or Elephant Beach where trees uprooted during the devastating cyclone provided a striking backdrop. Boats bobbed by the edge as tourists in inflatable tubes waddled around the corals, led by their snorkeling instructors. Like the tiny polyps that secreted these vast colonies of coral, the feathery white sand too had a fascinating origin.

Hathi Tapu Havelock Island_Anurag Mallick  DSC06954

The multi-coloured Bumphead Parrotfish break off chunks of coral and rocky substrates by ramming its head against it, resulting in a flat bump on the forehead. It grinds the coral rock, feeds on it and excretes fine sand which over thousands of years has shaped some of the most sublime sandy beaches in the world. One Parrotfish can produce up to 90 kg of sand each year. The Blue Streaked Cleaner Wrasse or ‘Doctor Wrasse’ nibble off wound tissue and parasites from larger fish, giving them a manicure, pedicure and facial in the bargain. We were suitably inspired to follow suit and pampered ourselves with relaxing detox and rejuvenation programs in the evening.

On a whim, we took off to Neil Island nearby, an hour’s ride by boat. For those who might find high profile Havelock too touristy, unobtrusive Neil is the perfect answer. We disembarked at the stunningly blue jetty, checked into a beach shack and sampled the day’s catch at a garden café. Neil Island gave us a glimpse of how the Andamans would have been before being discovered by tourism. We explored the caves at Sitapur (Beach No.5) to the south and took a guided Coral Walk during low tide at Laxmanpur (Beach No.2). By the edge of the sea mirrored in pools of saline water was a natural rock bridge – ironically, it was ‘Howrah Bridge’ to the island’s Bengali settlers rehabilitated after the Bangladesh War. We drifted in warm currents and swam with the prospect of seeing dugongs amid grassy shallows and secretly wished that the lone boat that would take us back to Port Blair would forget to arrive…

Andamans Boat Jetty_Anurag Mallick DSC06736

NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Air: Located in the Bay of Bengal about 1000 km from India’s east coast, the Andamans is connected by regular flights from Chennai and Kolkata (2 hrs) to Port Blair, the capital.

By Sea: Shipping Corporation of India operates Passenger ships between Port Blair and Vizag (56 hrs), Chennai (60 hrs) and Kolkata (66 hrs).

Getting Around: There are regular ferries from Port Blair to Havelock (4 hrs), besides Neil and Rangat. Makruzz covers the 45 km distance in 90 min. Local cabs are available in all tourism zones.

What to do Together Checklist
Snorkeling or deep sea diving at Wandoor or Ritchie’s Archipelago
Candle-lit gourmet dinner by the surf at Havelock
Long romantic beach walk at Radhanagar or Neil Island
Shopping for souvenirs at Aberdeen Bazaar in Port Blair
Bird & butterfly nature trail to Kala Patthar
Enjoy a sunset at Chidiya Tapu or Mount Harriet
Rejuvenative massage and spa treatment for couples

Hathi Tapu Havelock Island _Anurag Mallick DSC07019

What to Eat 

Port Blair has several eating out options like Corbyn’s Delight and Mandalay, though New Lighthouse Restaurant close to the water park and museum is a good no-frills eatery. Singhotel’s Pink Fly Lounge Bar is a trendy nightspot. Havelock is dotted with resorts that run charming cafes and restaurants like Island Vinnie’s Full Moon, The Wild Orchid’s Red Snapper or Emerald Gecko’s Blackbeard’s Bistro besides little shacks like Anju Coco that serve anything from pizzas and pancakes to great seafood. Barefoot Bar & Brasserie overlooking the jetty is a good vantage point while Barefoot’s Dakshin restaurant close by serves great South Indian.

Where to Stay

Peerless Sarovar Portico
Port Blair’s only beach resort overlooking Corbyn’s Cove
Ph 03192-229311 http://www.sarovarhotels.com

Fortune Resort Bay Island
One of the most luxurious hotels in Port Blair, atop Marine Hill
Ph 03192 234101 http://www.fortunehotels.in

Barefoot at Havelock
Havelock’s swankiest resort blending luxury and eco-friendly charm overlooking Radhanagar Beach
Ph 044 42316376, 9840238042 http://www.barefoot-andaman.com

Mount Hariett National Park_Anurag Mallick DSC07745

Contact
For tourism info
Andaman & Nicobar Tourism
Directorate of Information, Publicity & Tourism, Port Blair
Ph 03192-238473, 232694 E-mail ipt@and.nic.in http://www.tourism.andaman.nic.in

For Mt Harriet & Wandoor National Parks
Chief Wildlife Warden P.O. Haddo, Port Blair 744 102
Ph 03192-233321 Email cwlw@andaman.tc.nic.in

For Diving
Barefoot Scuba
Ph 044 24341001, 9566088560
Email: dive@barefootindia.com http://www.diveandamans.com

Dive India
Ph 03192 214247, 8001122205
Email: info@diveindia.com http://www.diveindia.com

Andaman Bubbles
Ph 03192 282140, 9531892216
Email: andamanbubbles@gmail.com http://www.andamanbubbles.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Discover India magazine.

Andaman & Nicobar: Twin Fantasies of Exotica

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The boat bobbed gently on the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. As we soaked up the sun on the deck, the guide announced, “You can enjoy snorkeling at North Bay, see the ruins of Ross Island where we have lunch, head to Viper Island and finally return to Port Blair where…” Suddenly a belligerent male voice cut him mid-sentence, “What is this? Don’t you cover Nicobar also?” For a few endless seconds there was only silence, before the whole boat rocked with belly-shaking laughter. The guide broke the news gently. “Sir, Andaman and Nicobar is a chain of 572 islands that stretch across 800 km! Car Nicobar, the northern-most point and headquarters of the Nicobar group is 270 km from Port Blair and takes errr… 16 hours by sea.” Mr. Loudmouth’s righteous indignation vapourised instantly to utter bewilderment; his mouth opened and closed wordlessly like a goldfish, as he computed the numbers.

To the uninitiated, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are twin fantasies of exotica, as inseparable as Laurel & Hardy, Ernst & Young or Yin & Yang. Two peas in a pod, albeit at opposite ends. Cut off from the mainland for centuries, these islands have been home to tribes untouched by modern civilization. The story of how a harmless harbour for ships in distress transformed into a notorious penal settlement under the British, a Japanese-occupied territory during World War II to eventually become a tourist paradise is as magical as a tropical butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Today, Andaman & Nicobar has finally taken wing as a dream destination in the minds of domestic and international travellers alike. 

In this surreal world, turtles nest on virgin beaches, jungles teem with rare flora and fauna, geographical wonders like coral reefs, sand bars, rock bridges and mud volcanoes leave you awestruck while sting rays, sea moths and rabbit fish inhabit the deep. Snorkeling and scuba diving are perhaps the most intimate ways to discover this hidden realm that explodes with fascinating marine life. North Bay, the closest snorkeling site from Port Blair, gave us our first glimpse of the coral reef. While glass-bottomed boats offered the tame pleasure of window seats on flights, snorkeling was more like skydiving. We hovered over schools of multi-hued fish shimmying in underwater gardens of coral. 

In sharp contrast, the historic ruins at Ross and Viper stood still, ravaged by time, calamity and war. The choking grasp of overgrown vines had squeezed the life out of the barracks, boiler rooms, churches and bungalows of the erstwhile headquarters of the British. During World War II, after occupying Singapore and Rangoon, Japanese troops landed at Port Blair on 23 March 1942 and captured it without firing a shot. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had allied with the Japanese to oust the British and it was at Ross, a tiny island of 0.8 sq km, the smallest in the Andamans, where bells of freedom tolled for the world’s seventh largest country. On 30th December 1943, Netaji, Supreme commander of the Provisional Govt of Azad Hind, hoisted the Indian tricolor in British-free India for the very first time and renamed Andaman and Nicobar as Shaheed Dweep (Martyr Island) and Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island). Netaji stayed in the British High commissioner’s house and a memorial near Netaji Stadium at Port Blair commemorates his visit. 

However, much before WWII, the Andamans marked an important milestone in India’s road to freedom. The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny prompted the British to develop the Andamans as a penal settlement and its most recognizable symbol was the Cellular Jail. The photo displays, sculpted models, relics and son et lumiere offered a vivid portrayal of the past. It was hard to imagine hundreds of Indian revolutionaries toiling night and day under extreme conditions for 10 years to build a seven-pronged prison. 

Nearly 30 million bricks, handmade from crushed corals sourced from Dundus Point were used. Each wing had three storeys for solitary confinement in individual cells, hence the name Cellular Jail. When the siren blared from the central watchtower, it announced that three martyrs had been hanged. We climbed the tower for an unhindered view of the sea and gazed at ships passing by. The red and white stripes of the lighthouse at North Bay broke the dense green cover that stretched till Mount Harriet, our next stop.

Lilting birdsong mingled with the scrunch of shoes on the nature trail from Mount Harriet to Kala Patthar and Madhuban. One of the richest areas of biodiversity, Mount Harriet National Park was home to spectacular butterflies like the Andaman Blue Nawab. True to its name, the fussy butterfly feeds on only one species of plant; if unavailable, it chooses to starve to death! Back at the Forest Rest House, we sipped tea at the machaan and watched the sun dip into the sea and the lights of Port Blair twinkle at night. After trawling the museums, shopping for shell handicrafts at Aberdeen Bazaar, sunsets at Chidiya Tapu, lazing on the beach at Corbyn’s Cove and snorkeling at Wandoor Marine National Park, we headed for the most popular hangout in the Andamans, Havelock. 

Aboard the swanky Makruzz, the 55 km journey was a breeze. Slicing through endless blue waters at 24 nautical miles, the luxury catamaran left a foamy wake as flying fish scurried for cover. Soon, we docked at Havelock. After some gourmet seafood at B3 overlooking the jetty we set off to Beach No.7 or Radhanagar. One look at the white crescent-shaped beach fringed by groves of Andaman Bullet-wood and we knew why TIME voted it as Asia’s best beach. 

The Barefoot Beachside Jungle Resort was the fanciest address in town, rated amongst the top 30 eco-resorts in the world. The island brimmed with resorts, restaurants and scores of dive sites nearby; those who had their fill, moved to the quieter charms of Neil Island. 

From Radhanagar we trekked to Elephant Beach or Hathi Tapu, Havelock’s most popular dive site. The dense thicket opened into a Dali-esque painting – crystal clear waters lapped gently against massive upturned trees strewn on a narrow beach strip. As we gushed in delight, our guide remarked wryly ‘You should have seen it before the tsunami!’ It was hard to imagine how the mood of the sea had shifted from this Zen-like calm to the destructive fury of 2004. Nicobar, being closer to the epicenter, bore the brunt.

Unlike the Andamans, tourism in Nicobar was restricted due to its strategic importance as a defense base. Foreigners were not allowed and domestic tourists needed special permits, granted only in exceptional cases. Nicobar’s remote location beyond the treacherous 10 Degree Channel, a 400-fathom deep waterway, only added to its mystique. Its geographic isolation had allowed endemic species to grow to gargantuan proportions. Here, intrepid Giant Robber Crabs climb up coconut trees to crack open nuts with their claws. The empty shells of Giant Clams, the world’s largest living molluscs, serve as water troughs for pigs reared by Nicobarese. Over a third of Andaman’s 246 species of birds are endemics, including the iridescent Nicobar Pigeon and Megapode (literally ‘bigfoot’, a scrub fowl that laid outsized eggs). India’s largest snake, the Regal Python is also found here. 

To a generation that grew up learning ‘Kanyakumari is the southernmost tip of India’, it was a revelation that Indira Point in Greater Nicobar was the rightful owner of the tag. Poring over a map on the ferry back to Port Blair, we realized we had merely skimmed the surface. One could only wonder what other secrets lay trapped within these stunning emerald isles… 

Contact

For tourism related info & acco
Andaman & Nicobar Tourism
Directorate of Information, Publicity & Tourism, Port Blair
Ph 03192-238473, 232694 E-mail ipt@and.nic.in Web www.tourism.andaman.nic.in

For visiting Mt Harriet & Wandoor National Parks
Chief Wildlife Warden
P.O. Haddo, Port Blair 744 102
Ph 03192-233321 E-mail cwlw@andaman.tc.nic.in

For special permits to visit Nicobar & other tribal areas (Indians only)
Deputy Commissioner
Andaman District, Port Blair 744101
Ph 03192-233089 E-mail dcand@and.nic.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June, 2011 issue of Quest magazine for Spenta Publications. 

Andamans: Ultramarine, the Colour of Adventure

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We were belly down in a Dead-man’s Float over the blue waters of the Andaman Sea, hovering over a brilliant coral reef splattered with dancing colours. A pair of striped Banner Fish waved their elongated fins in welcome, with the elegance of rhythmic gymnasts performing with ribbons. Embedded in the corals, the wavy furls of clam shells shimmered like gem-encrusted African violets.  We were hypnotized by the languid sway of sea ferns, the moss green antlers of Staghorn Coral, barrel-sized Giant Clams that squeezed shut in self-defense and leathery sea cucumbers disguised as driftwood… there was a whole new world…throbbing, gliding and playing hide-n-seek all around us. 

“Nemo”, cried our snorkeling instructor, breaking our reverie, as he pointed to the orange and white clownfish darting in and out of the tentacles of a sea anemone. If a mere pixel-sized section of the reef at Mahuadera on the fringes of Wandoor’s Marine National Park kept us enthralled for hours, imagine what the 572 islands of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands have in store for you…

The 2000 sq km stretch of fringing coral reef is one of the largest, most complex and fragile ecosystems that support marine life. While glass-bottomed boats are the most popular mode of marine exploration, they offer only the tepid comfort of window shopping. In contrast, snorkeling and scuba diving compare to the joys of a big splurge! 

The clear aquamarine waters of Jolly Buoy, Red Skin and the 15 islands that dot the 280 sq km Marine National Park abound with four species of turtle – Green Sea turtle, Leatherback turtle, Olive Ridleys and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. Every year between December and February, the beaches in North Andamans lure tourists to witness the amazing spectacle of turtle nesting. With 92% forest cover, the Andamans teem with rare butterflies, egg-laying sea snakes reptiles, exotic birds like the Megapode and Hawabill and endemic flora and fauna unseen elsewhere.

Eons ago, these islands formed an unbroken mountain chain extending from the Lushai and Arakan in Myanmar to Sumatra in Indonesia. Its location at the junction of two continental plates thousands of leagues below the seabed led to geological disturbances, causing this mountain range to sink and sever from the mainland, thus creating the Andaman Islands. Today, only the ‘camel-back humps’ of submerged peaks are visible. 

According to legend, the monkey god Hanuman used these islands as a stepping stone when he flew across the seas to Lanka. The Malays called it Handuman, from which its present name is derived. Trade prompted the Cholas to set sail for South East Asia with goods of commerce and epic lore. The Tanjore inscription of 1050 AD mentions Nicobar as Nikkavaram or Land of the Naked. 

Home to hostile tribes, surrounded by seas all around, these virgin islands remained forgotten for centuries, save passing references by foreign travelers. It was the British who first developed it as a harbour base to assist ships in distress. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the Andamans gained notoriety as a penal settlement that echoed with the far cries of freedom. 

In the warm glow of the sunset at Chidiya Tapu, memories of the last few days seared through our minds… Snorkeling at North Bay – our first encounter with the deep, walking barefoot at Corbyn’s Cove – Port Blair’s only beach, nature hikes through Mt Hariett National Park, enlightening trips to museums, the bustle of Aberdeen Bazaar, local handicrafts of shell and pearl, boatmen with lanterns on nightly crab-hunts, the old saw mill at Chatham Island, the Japanese bunkers of World War II… it all came back in a flood. 

The poetic ruins on Ross Island, once described as ‘Paris of the East’, now hunched like a frail old man; overgrown roots creeping like gnarled veins across its wrinkled skin. The sheer irony of the gallows atop Viper Island; the edifice was crumbling, yet the wooden beam for the hangman’s noose had survived! 

And the most defining landmark, the Cellular Jail – a symbol of valour, sacrifice and struggle for Indian Independence from British rule. Built by the blood, sweat and tears of six hundred convicts who laboured relentlessly for a decade, now only three wings of the colossal seven-pronged prison remain. Dusk had silently slipped on a cloak of darkness and we returned to Port Blair to catch a boat the next morning…

The Makruzz was the quickest way to Havelock Island in Ritchie’s Archipelago, a hub of marine adventure. Shooting out of Port Blair’s Phoenix Bay Jetty, the swanky boat covered the 50 km distance in under two hours, cutting travel time by half. The mini-cruise liner sliced through the inky water causing schools of flying fish to burst forth in silvery sparks as they skimmed off the surface into infinity. 

Soon, we docked at Havelock’s main jetty – village number 1 where we bumped into an old friend Louve. An avid angler, he was here to grapple with tunas, barracudas, marlins and giant trevally. ‘Andamans is the final frontier for Sportsfishing my friend’, he shouted, as our taxis revved away. We drove down the island’s eastern side past a profusion of resorts to the Government-run Dolphin Resort, easily one of the prettiest locales. A row of cottages overlooked tree-lined lawns and an endless stretch of shallow turquoise waters. Post lunch, we were off to discover what was once a hunting base of the Great Andamanese tribe. 

‘The island has two men rods (main roads)’, spoke the third generation Bengali driver in his lyrical accent. Most settlers in the Andamans were people from the coast of Bengal and Hindu migrants from Bangladesh after the ‘71 war. Relocated into colonies numbered for convenience, the settlers renamed these enclaves after their gods – Govindnagar, Radhanagar, Lakshmanpur, Sitapur, Bharatpur…  The mixed nomenclature continues to this day, peacefully co-existing with islands honouring British heroes of the 1857 Mutiny – John Nicholson, James Outram, Colin Campbell, Henry Lawrence, John Lawrence, William Peel and of course Henry Havelock and James Neil. 

Soon, we were on the ‘second’ road to Radhanagar or Beach No.7 on the island’s south-western side. We could see why it was ranked as the best in Asia. A crescent-shaped beach of feathery white sand ringed by tall padauka (Bullet Wood) trees, Radhanagar’s main attraction was the Barefoot Resort. 

Rated amongst the world’s top 30 eco-resorts, Barefoot offers a luxurious mix of plush accommodation, exotic spa treatments, gourmet cuisine and marine adventure. We trekked from Radhanagar to Hathi Tapu or Elephant Beach, littered with gigantic trees uprooted by the ravaging tsunami of 2004. Here, a group of amateur divers went through their introductory sessions. Barefoot Scuba, Dive India, Laccadives and the dozen other dive shops at Havelock offer a wide range of courses. Most day trips include 2 dives with packed lunch. After a detailed briefing, Divemasters led teams to remote, virtually unexplored sites like Barracuda City, Dugong Dungeon or Turtle Bay around Ritchie’s Archipelago. 

While Havelock, the heart of all tourist activity, brims with resorts and restaurants, Neil is the quintessential soul of Andamans and chugs to a lazier beat. Cheaper lodging options and great seafood make the isle a favourite getaway for budget travelers seeking peace and quiet. Most of these thatch and bamboo ‘resorts’ hire out cycles and basic diving gear to enable leisurely explorations. At Lakshmanpur 1 Beach or Sunset Point, a narrow channel separates Neil from Havelock, where dugongs swim in shallow waters. Just past the natural stone arch at Lakshmanpur 2 Beach, the sea recedes at low tide and the submerged reef exposes its hidden treasures… a chance to see corals, shells, ornamental fish and brittle stars, on foot! 

From being a land of aborigines, to a harbour base, a penal settlement, a tropical paradise and now a Mecca for marine adventure, the Andamans has reinvented itself each time, braving the test of time, calamity and war. The legacy of the Andamans lives on, with the imprint of North Bay’s palm-fringed lighthouse immortalized on the back of a twenty rupee note.

Fact file 

Getting there: Located 1000 km to the East of India in the Bay of Bengal, Port Blair is connected by regular Jet Airways flights from Chennai and Kolkata (2 hrs) and passenger ships run by the Shipping Corporation of India (60-72 hrs).

When to go: Though October to May is the main tourist season, the perfect time for scuba diving is between December and April, when the waters are clear and the visibility great.

For Marine Adventure, contact:

Barefoot Scuba
Ph: 044 24341001, +91 95660 88560 Email: dive@barefootindia.com Web: www.diveandamans.com, www.barefootindia.com

Dive India
Ph +91 99320 82205, 99320 82204 Email: vkalia@diveindia.com Web: www.diveindia.com

Monster Fishing
Ph +91 98450 15472 Email: monsterfishing@theandamans.com Web: www.theandamans.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of JetWings magazine.