Glorious sights, great hospitality and a holiday to remember, writes SUBHA J RAO
A seemingly unending water line with bobbing boats and launches and tree-clad hills dotting the horizon — that’s what the eyes first take in when you land in Port Blair. A little before the landing, the vast blue expanse below takes on definite shapes — the many islands that make up the beautiful Andamans.
It has all the makings of a great holiday. Only, this is almost on the verge of turning into a non-event. On day one, we do the mandatory Cellular Prison and Viper Island routine carrying a slightly irritated child. By evening, he’s all pink and feverish. The next morning, he’s down with measles. Just the thing to ruin a holiday. But, no.
Our friendly guide materialises at the unearthly hour of 5 a.m. and bundles us off to a nearby hospital, where, cheerful nurses and a doctor pronounce the expected verdict, and surprise, surprise, tell us to go ahead with the holiday. “Keep applying calamine lotion and give him loads of tender coconut water and curd rice,” they tell us. And, a family sets out again to enjoy whatever is left of a hard-earned holiday.
In all the excitement, we leave behind a handbag with Rs. 25,000 in cash. Only to find it in the same place, an hour later. I mentally give the brochure that spoke about honest locals a five-star rating.
The natives know tourists are their means of sustenance and do their best to ensure you don’t forget your trip in a hurry. The tenderest of coconuts is cracked open to quench your thirst; travel with a sick child like I did, and you can see the red carpet being rolled out — hotels magically whip up curd rice, which is not even on their menu!
How can one dismiss the Cellular Jail with one visit? So, we went back.
The stirring commentary during the sound-and-light show brings out the patriot in you. And, you still recoil in shock at some of the atrocities perpetrated inside the cells of this prison, built in 1906. Take along a guide, available at the reception for a fee, and look around the 698-cell prison, laid out in a honeycomb pattern.
The innocuous entrance, the coconut-fringed premises and the blue-green waters skirting it hide the horrors unleashed on people inside this seven-wing jail, built with such calculated precision that no prisoner could ever have contact with another — every wing opens out to the rear of the other. The idea was to isolate inmates and allow loneliness to break their spirit.
Once outside, try the three varieties of coconut — green, orange and yellow, and the delicious, very Bengali jhalmuri, served with a liberal dash of mustard oil! And, then, there’s Ross Island, which used to be the administrative headquarters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands before Port Blair. It’s just a 10-minute boat ride from Phoenix Bay jetty.
Here, take in the remnants of a grand-looking church, a bakery, press and barracks, accompanied by domesticated deer, who follow you around hoping for a nibble. The Japanese occupied it from 1942 to 1945, and you can see the bombed-out remains, held together by enormous tree roots.
Mt. Harriet is not originally on our list, but we cherish the three hours there. A tiny hill station that used to be the summer headquarters of the Chief Commissioner during the Raj, it takes about an hour to reach from Port Blair.
Drive into a ferry at Port Blair, and drive out at Bamboo Flat, an experience that can spook the tourist; the locals do it with practised ease. Then, continue on a winding, lush forest road. There’s a well-maintained garden up here, a guest house, and a tea stall. The sunset here is to die for. There are many view points, from where you can see the sun cast a fiery orange glow on the hills, valley and water. You can also go trekking to Madhuban or take a conducted tour before heading to Bamboo Flat. Here, you can see the ruins of the tsunami struck, and how people have slowly picked up the pieces of their life again.
The water world called Havelock beckons next. But, more on that later.
How to go
Port Blair is connected by air to Chennai and Kolkata, and by sea to Chennai, Kolkata and Vishakhapatnam (a journey of between 50 and 60 hours).
Where to stay
There are loads of hotels and resorts in Port Blair. An old favourite is the government-run Megapode. The in-house restaurant serves great food.