The cool, wild and very remote Andaman Islands

1.3 Andaman
A beach on Long Island in the Andaman Islands in India in November 2022. (Photos: NYTimes)
We were stepping carefully through a dripping wet forest at the edge of the beach, at night. Above us, 45-meter-tall trees towered, their canopy blotting out the stars. I could hear bats chittering and waves crashing. The smell of wet leaves cut through the salty air.اضافة اعلان

Our guide, Nariman Vazifdar, was a reptile lover from Mumbai, India, who studies nature on some of Asia’s most remote islands, the Andamans. He was wearing a camouflage T-shirt and shorts and led me and two others who had signed up for this night walk down a muddy path. The blackness was so immense that when we turned off our flashlights and stood there, listening to the jungle sounds, we could not see our hands in front of our faces.

Vazifdar clicked his light back on and pointed out bright orange crabs scurrying up the trunks of the giant mahua trees, and lizards hiding in the saw-toothed pandanus bushes. We swung our flashlight beams to follow his, punching holes in the darkness. Suddenly Vazifdar lunged at something slithering in the bushes. “Check this out, man,” he said.

In his fist, he displayed a writhing, oily, meter-long snake. “Put it down, put down!” the woman behind me yelped.

“Don’t worry,” Vazifdar said. “It’s an Andaman wolf snake, nonvenomous.”

Under the bluish beam of my flashlight I watched it sink its fangs into his hand, then came drops of blood. “Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked.

“A little,” he said. “But isn’t it cool?”

The whole Andamans experience is cool. And wild. This is a special place: remote, beautiful, rugged, mysterious. It is a piece of Southeast Asia that belongs to India and it is not easy getting here, but it is worth it. A trip to these islands offers pristine nature, Indian culture, a glimpse of fascinating communities and some of the most spectacular beaches in the world.

The lighthouse on Ross Island, near Port Blair, in the Andaman Islands in India in November 2022.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the full name of this territory, are several hundred bushy islands in the Indian Ocean almost a thousand miles east of India’s mainland. Under British rule, the territory was used as a penal colony. In the past decade, tourism has taken off, and the islands are now becoming known as a diving mecca and chillaxing spot.

Accommodations on the main islands range from luxury hotels and eco-resorts to rattan-walled beach shacks. If you explore the outer islands — and there are about 30 open to tourists — you might even see some members of the Jarawa, one of the most untouched cultures in the world. The Jarawa live deep in the forest, and though their communities are strictly protected (Indian law prohibits even photographing them) I once saw a hunting party as I was driving down a jungle road. They carried bows and arrows and freshly slaughtered wild boars slung across their backs. I stared at them. The Jarawas stared back at me. The moment lasted maybe two seconds. I will never forget it.

But the islands are changing fast. A much bigger, international airport is being built in Port Blair, the administrative capital, and new hotels, restaurants, and dive shops are popping up everywhere. It is about to get much easier to visit, and even the hermit crabs are paying the price. One sunny morning as I walked along the beach with Vazifdar (I could still see the welts on his hand from the snake attack the night before), he pointed to a large hermit crab scuttling across the sand, without a shell.

The Cellular Jail in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India in November 2022.

“Look at that poor guy,” he said. “He’s naked. The tourists have taken so many shells home, these big guys don’t have any.”

I heard a similar note while having lunch (using a banana leaf as a plate) during a visit to one of the original families who were brought from mainland India decades ago to farm rice and bananas. “When I was old enough to understand my surroundings, all I could see was forests, all around,” said my host, Paresh Sikdar, who is in his late 50s and has lived in the Andamans his entire life. “But so many trees are getting cut down. It’s changing the weather. I’m worried.”

A stop in Port Blair
My most recent trip to the islands began this fall. I flew into Port Blair, on South Andaman Island. Right now, you can access the Andamans only from within India. Indian authorities hope that once the airport expansion is finished next year, flights will arrive from Indonesia and Singapore.

As the islands’ biggest city, with a few hundred thousand people from all over India, Port Blair is both pleasant and scruffy. Its top tourist attraction is the Cellular Jail, a century-old prison (now a museum) where British colonizers tortured Indian freedom fighters in the run-up to India’s independence in 1947. It is meticulously preserved, and you can stare down the interminable corridors and step into the same cells where the freedom fighters rotted away.

A lot of misery has unfolded on these beautiful islands, which suffered waves of disease and conflict in the late 19th century and were brutally occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Another place to appreciate this history is the quirky Kalapani Museum, also in Port Blair. “Kala pani” means Black Water — that is how the islands were known in India for many years because those who went never came back.

Today Port Blair is more relaxed than many Indian cities of the same size, and the afternoon I spent there was warm and bright. I was itching for a swim. There is a beach right in town, Corbyn’s Cove, but when I showed up with a towel around my neck and goggles in hand, the lifeguard shook his head and said, quite unsympathetically, I felt, “Closed.”

“Why?” I asked.


“Really? When was the last time you saw one?”

“About six months ago. But we haven’t caught it yet. So you can’t swim.”

I called up my buddy Roni Antony, a fellow journalist who lives in Port Blair, and we decided to go to another beach, Wandoor, about 45 minutes away, in his snazzy new Korean SUV — but it took us a while getting out of town. We stopped for watermelon juice, we picked up a friend, we grabbed a biryani and some Cokes, we stopped for another friend.

Saw John, who runs the Koh Hee Island Home in the Mayabunder area, opens the gate of his homestay an eight-hour drive north of Port Blair in the Andaman Islands in India in November 2022.

By the time we reached Wandoor it was 4:15pm. The sun was about to set and I was even more desperate to jump in. Because India is nearly 3,200km wide on a single time zone and these islands lie in India’s far east, the sun rises and sets here extremely early. I hustled into the water; no lifeguard to stop me. Within a few yards of shore, I was floating above a magnificent coral garden. A half-meter-long grouper glided past; brightly colored reef fish darted in and out of sea anemone; an enormous school of silvery minnows burst toward me and then split apart, right before touching me. The water was 32 degrees. I could have floated there for hours.

“I had no idea,” I said, as I finally stepped out and met Anthony and his buddies on the beach. “The snorkeling here’s spectacular.”

“That’s nothing,” Anthony said. “Jolly Buoy Island is even better.” It was only a 15-minute boat trip, but we were out of time. We consoled ourselves: next time.

The perfect beach
Port Blair has more to offer than I expected. But the real draw of the Andamans is Havelock Island. Named after the British general who helped stamp out India’s first nationalist rebellion in 1857, the island was officially renamed Swaraj Dweep a few years ago, though few people, even officials, use that name.

Call it what you want, this island has become a diving magnet and Indian honeymoon hot spot, and its beaches are superb. Several ferries a day make the 90-minute run between Port Blair and Havelock, and when I arrived, it was, again, late afternoon. A driver was waiting for us at the jetty and we drove across the island, passing tin-roofed kiosks selling curries and sticks of fragrant incense. Through our open windows we caught the smells of India floating on an island breeze.

At a sign that said “Barefoot at Havelock”, we turned down a bumpy road. Barefoot opened nearly 20 years ago, when there was almost no tourism, and it still maintains a rough-luxe feel with 31 tents, cottages, and villas in a rainforest. As soon as we arrived, the resort manager, an extraordinarily kind man named Hari Kalappa, politely asked us to remove our shoes. “We are, literally, barefoot,” he explained.

I was desperate (again) to get to the beach. Hari motioned to a path through the trees. I raced down it, awed by the size and beauty of the great mahua trees around me, trunks over 3m wide. But when the forest opened up and I arrived at the water’s edge, that is what stopped me. I was standing on a perfect beach, miles of white sand in either direction, gentle, glassy waves crashing down in pools of white foam.

I have traveled to the Maldives, the Seychelles, the Caribbean, Thailand, Bali, the South Pacific, and beaches up and down Africa’s coast. But this one, called Radha Nagar, after a Hindu goddess, was more beautiful than any other. I dove in. A few strokes later I was swimming in water above my head but still clear to the bottom — the perfect swimming beach, not too shallow, not too deep.

Chidiya Tapu beach outside Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India in November 2022. 

Perhaps the greatest view was not from the beach but of the beach. Treading water I gazed back at the jungle. It looked prehistoric. All that foliage — the towering mahua trees, the coconut palms, the pandanus bushes and so many other trees and plants I will never be able to name — blended into one towering wall of green that rose up from the edge of the land and captured the last rays of the sinking sun. The tree bark glowed almost orange. I was overwhelmed with one intoxicating sensation: I am far from home.

That night, after a dinner of fresh shrimp and fish, accompanied by a stack of soft rotis and washed down with a lime soda, I climbed into bed in my bungalow. As I drifted off, a soft rain began to fall. I could hear the cicadas and the bats, the rain washing through the trees. I woke up 12 hours later.

The next few days I explored Havelock’s hiking spots and beaches, all excellent though none quite as stunning as Radha Nagar. One afternoon I went to the settler family’s house for lunch, which Barefoot arranged, and we sat on the floor and talked.

As Sikdar, dressed in flawless white, told us about the rapid development on the island, his wife laid out the meal: eggs soaked in coconut milk, stewed eggplant, fish marinated with mustard oil and spices and wrapped in plantain leaves and then cooked over a low flame, and sweet vermicelli pudding. We ate with our hands, and I left stuffed.

Havelock is just the beginning. During a previous trip, I explored the Mayabunder area, an eight-hour drive north of Port Blair. The road wends through a reserve for the Jarawa people, who remain hunters and gatherers.

Mayabunder offers more untrammeled beaches and landscapes of rice paddies and rainforest. Up here, the most interesting place to stay is the Koh Hee Island Home, run by a gentle soul named Saw John, an elder of another community, the Karen, who originally hail from Myanmar but came to the Andamans a century ago to farm.

Beyond Mayabunder, there are more remote and exquisite beaches, like Ross and Smith Island or Long Island.

Flying back to the mainland from Port Blair, after a week of bliss, we passed over one island that stood alone: North Sentinel. I have read a lot about this place. Down there live a small group of hunter and gatherers, maybe only 50 or 75 people, who have no contact with the outside world and survive off the jungle and the sea. The few people who have tried to step on their shore, including a young American missionary in 2018, have been killed.

Now this is truly a fiercely isolated place. But as I stared down at that drop of green surrounded by bright blue, I wondered: For how long?

Ever since his early 1990s blockbuster “Diana: Her True Story” about the Princess of Wales (which was expanded after her death), Andrew Morton has been the best known and most accessible, if not the foremost, biographer of England’s royal family. He is on a first-name basis with the lot of them, at least on the page.

Before “Diana”, Morton had written books on Andrew and Sarah. After “Diana”, he turned to William and Kate; to Wallis; to Meghan; to Diana and Diana and Diana again, like a whirling dervish of dish, and most recently to Elizabeth and Margaret. (A Monica Lewinsky book was in there, too.) He has been upstairs and downstairs, chatted with courtiers and correspondents and, he hints, befriended some in the innermost circle who would rather stay anonymous. He could have written a stand-alone biography of Elizabeth in his sleep — and now perhaps he has.

“The Queen: Her Life” was originally supposed to be published next spring, but then Her Majesty, in a final act of her famous grace, died in time for the holiday book-buying season — and, as it happens, the fifth season of the Netflix series “The Crown”, in which Morton, receiving the ultimate tribute to his trade, is played by actor Andrew Steele.

I cannot fault his publisher for wanting to capitalize on this confluence of events. But even though the new biography was finished in August, according to publicity materials, it feels rushed and undernourished. That does not seem entirely worthy of its sturdy subject, who was born in 1926, and, Morton writes in one of several flights of floridity, quickly put to sleep beneath “an imagined layette of magic and myth, a gossamer blanket where new threads were constantly interwoven into the patchwork of legend and reality.” Like Linus Van Pelt’s, this was “a blanket that would accompany her throughout her life”.

No matter what one thinks of the monarchy as it has changed and frayed, been interrogated and even ridiculed, the woman this baby would become, and her long-running leadership, deserves thoughtful analysis: more than a dash through the existing literature and a quick dip into Special Collections.

Even during a rote command performance, Morton can be droll and dry, noting that our heroine’s upbringing was “less Disney, more brothers Grimm” and that her gilded paternal bloodline included a dentist. I enjoyed learning the word “rumbustious” and that the royals once amused themselves on a beach in a downright Kennedyesque fashion, flinging “small pellets of bird dung” at one another and then catapulting into the sea. Though tellingly, Elizabeth sat out the fun.

But all but the most uninformed readers are in for quite a bit of recapitulation, often of facts that are already canonical. Four times they will be told that Elizabeth’s father, King George, suffered from “gnashes,” or outbursts of temper, caused by frustration over his stammer. Thrice they will be reminded that Princess Margaret and her husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, were leading glamor symbols of the London swinging ’60s style scene. Diana’s bulimia, which she revealed to Morton in ’92 and then again in a notorious interview with Martin Bashir (also depicted on the new season of “The Crown”) is revisited: fleetingly but repeatedly.

Elizabeth had a red box of government dispatches delivered almost daily; her chronicler’s red box is stuffed rather with cliché. Since Bob Dylan has his own book out now, I might have allowed Morton one rueful observation, after John Lennon tells an audience of royals to “just rattle your jewelry”, that “the times really were a-changin’”. Reaching for that phrase again as Prince Edward is permitted to cohabit with his future wife Sophie Rhys-Jones in adjoining rooms at Buckingham Palace smacks of simple laziness. The phrase “wide of the mark” appears twice in three sentences. And did Morton really type that his subject would be “a hard act to follow”? Yes, yes he did.

“The Queen” is not terrible; it is just terribly serviceable, with names, dates, and places cantering past like Elizabeth’s beloved horses over the course of 375 pages — which, if you do the math, is under four for each year of her life, like a special-edition Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The tense changes necessitated by her death could have used one more combing-over. “She has the kind of face that looks angry when she is trying not to smile,” Morton writes. We have a name for that, my good man.

And some odd or unnecessary anachronisms and Americanizations leap out, including that Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s grandmother, sought a “therapist” for advice about her son Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson and that Elizabeth and Margaret’s nanny, Crawfie, took them for distracting excursions on London’s “subway”.

These might be minor traffic violations if “The Queen” weren’t overall such a clip job — deft and confident, but a clip job nonetheless. And often Morton is clipping … himself. The publication of “Diana: Her True Story” is treated with odd impersonality, cited and then consulted, along with a sequel, “Diana: In Pursuit of Love”, for chapters on the disintegrating marriages of the queen’s children and her infamous “annus horribilis”, when Windsor Castle was severely damaged in a fire and Morton became part of the narrative. The author even appears in his own index. Maybe that is living the dream.

If you know nothing whatsoever about Elizabeth Windsor, this is a perfectly satisfactory primer. But if you are a buff of the royal soap opera, it will feel like standing at a party having to nod and grin politely while your husband, maybe after a few too many Pimm’s cups, tells one of his favorite tales, that you have heard a million times, too fast, to strangers.

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