I just returned from a week in tropical island paradise: Havelock, which is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, which is part of India. The snorkeling was fantastic and we had a lovely time.
Normally I wouldn’t have much to say about the vacation, since I spent every day at the beach and ate at the same restaurant every night, but I’ve gotten tons of questions about it because until recently, it was difficult to get there. Not only is it remote, before COVID the Indian government required tourists to get special permits and were slow at extending them.
Even now, you can’t visit any island you want. The indigenous population is known to resist newcomers and development, like roads. Even my 9year old son had seen a video on YouTube about the young man who was killed by a native tribe for trying to enter North Sentinel (bringing bibles, apparently). The area is also a military zone, from what I gleaned.
But we didn’t try to find any undiscovered tribes. From Port Blair we basically headed straight to Havelock island, which is the main tourist hub.
We flew from Mumbai directly to Port Blair and had no problem passing inspection. The flight takes three hours. We weren’t the only expats on the plane—we recognized two couples from the American School. Beyond that, there seemed to be mostly Indian honeymooners and a few wealthy families (there’s a fancy Taj Hotel on Havelock where they all stayed).
When we landed it was already too late to take the 1.5 hour ferry to Havelock, so we spent the first night in Port Blair. The atmosphere in the city, which has around 140.000 residents, was very chill. We couldn’t find any restaurants in the area we stayed, but the food stalls served good Indian fare, and fresh seafood of course.
Port Blair isn’t much to look at in terms of architecture, with one exception: the Cellular Jail, built by the British to detain Indian revolutionaries, which does an interesting light show in the evening.
There are plenty of small hotels in Port Blair but we opted to stay at Leisure Homestay; an extremely basic bed and breakfast with lovely owners. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it because it felt more like camping, but I still liked it. The owner took our breakfast order and then jumped on his motorcycle to fetch it—presumably from a food stall.
The next day we went on to Havelock for six nights. We all seemed to have the same idea—the same people we saw on the plane were at the ferry, and returned on the same ferry the next Saturday.
My family and I stayed at Barefoot, which is a lot more affordable than the Taj but still pretty and the service was great. It’s an eco resort right off the impressive and pristine Radhaganar beach (supposedly the 7th best beach in the world). The Taj is right next door. Both resorts are tucked inside the jungle, invisible from the beach. There are also lodging options on the north/east side of the island, but that’s a bit more developed.
We didn’t visit any other islands. As I mentioned, you can’t just go wherever you want and besides, tourism is hardly developed even at Havelock. And between the snorkeling, diving, hiking, paddle boarding, bird watching and the spa we were busy enough.
Snorkeling and diving are definitely the highlight of a vacation at Havelock. There are three main beach areas to explore, and there are reefs further out where you can go by boat, I guess through the diving schools.
Radhaganar beach is really big, beautiful, and great for swimming. You can snorkel but the coral is deeper and more spread out. When I snorkeled there one morning, looking for turtles, I found myself totally alone, headed for Neil’s Cove and then scared myself out of the water after spotting a large fin peeping out from under a rock. Crocodiles have mauled people in Neil’s Cove just recently, so what I was doing wasn’t really recommended. I just couldn’t resist because it’s so idyllic there.
Another must see is Elephant beach, though it’s a bit of a circus. You get there by hiking through the jungle for half an hour, and it’s gorgeous, but it’s the hub for water sports. People going nuts on jet skis and inflatable bananas, snorkeling in groups, etc.
The third place that’s easy to visit is Nemo beach, which is adjacent to the town and home to many diving schools. I did a discovery dive there, which was great, although I sorely wanted to take the full certification course. If you don’t have a lot of time and you want to be sure to see something rare, like the dugong, which is like an underwater elephant, I think you need to dive often, and relatively deep. Snorkeling will get you clownfish and moorish idols, but I think dugongs and stingrays don’t just swim along the shallow shoreline.
Any negatives? Sand flies and mosquitoes come to mind. I got bitten all day, even with deet on, which was a bit annoying. Other than that, I think you also have to manage your expectations in terms of cleanliness. While the beaches are clean, you still see quite a bit of trash, and street dogs, in all the developed areas. Things don’t appear well regulated—we saw a group of guys crushing live coral with their swim fins, because they didn’t know how to swim. Also, it gets dark early and you’re not allowed to swim after 5pm. And we didn’t have internet anywhere on the island besides the hotel reception WiFi.
When it comes to food and drink, it’s hard to find western style restaurants or bars. But we liked the restaurant and bar at Barefoot so we didn’t make a big effort to find other places. The only other place we ate was called Something Different, which had good food and a cool vibe (terrible cocktails though, truly). In my experience island food is just… not as good as it is on the mainland.
Overall, I would recommend Havelock to people who just love to be in the sea. It’s like being in Finding Nemo. It’s affordable, safe, and beautiful. I heard from people I met there that you can’t really compare it to a place like the Maldives in terms of luxury and access to sea life, but being in the jungle makes it special.