Holidaying in Port Blair

portblair01The mention of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, also known as Emerald Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, conjures up visions of freedom fighters deported to these far-off islands as a punishment for revolting against the colonial rule. But during our visit (before the tsunami) to Port Blair, the capital, we found, besides being replete with history they have everything to offer to a holiday lover.

Our flight from Chennai landed at the Veer Savarkar airport in less than two hours and as we emerged, the fresh island air beckoned us, so did our guide with his warm smile. The short journey to our hotel, Megapode Nest, which was named after a Nicobari bird, was rather bumpy but when we reached the hotel nestled in beautiful surroundings on the top of a hillock, we thought it did justice to its name.

portblair02Our air-conditioned cottage with a thatched roof (it had three fans and eleven lights) and a balcony facing the bay, with Ross island on the right and Mount Harriet on the left was picture perfect. Cars were seen plying on the road down below our cottage, and a ship sailed through what looked like a sheet of gray cement, the still waters of the bay appeared so from a distance.

Our first excursion for the day was to Viper island, in a cruise from Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park which has a water sports complex and a children’s park as well. We had a glimpse of the harbour, the Chatham Saw Mill, (established in 1883), Mount Harriet, before finally reaching Viper island at the end of 45 minutes.

This is a tiny, serene, beautiful island situated inside Port Blair Harbour. It derives its name from the vessel Viper in which Lt Archibald Blair came to the islands in 1789 with the purpose of establishing a Penal Settlement. Before the Cellular Jail was built, this red-coloured jail, built by the British during 1864-1867 on a hillock, served as a prison to many freedom fighters including Veer Savarkar and Nanigopal. Dangerous convicts found guilty of violating the rules of the Penal Settlement were put in fetters and forced to work with their fetters on.

That evening, we had an experience of reliving history, the saga of the freedom movement brought through a sixty-minute sound and light show, son-et-lumiere, at the Cellular Jail. The show began with a commentary on how the islands got their name – Mythologically the name Andaman is presumed to be derived from Hanuman who is believed to have set foot on the island before going to Sri Lanka (Malays called him Handuman).

Next day we sailed to Ross island, the citadel of British power, portblair03built by the so-called convicts into a self-contained town with government offices, an Anglican church, houses for British and Indian officers, a printing press, clubs, a swimming pool, tennis court, a bakery, a temple and a bazaar. It was known as The Paris of the East for its grandeur and splendour, but now all that remains of the island are broken walls of these buildings supported by a thick growth of peepul trees. The only structure that has retained its shape is the church on the hilltop. The Ross Memorial Museum, ‘Smritika’ set up in 1993, has beautiful pictures adorning its walls which speak of the glory the island once boasted of. Also, there is a video show about this in the once existing bakery which is transformed into a modern building now.

We reached Mount Harriet, summer headquarters of the chief commissioner during the British raj, covering a distance of 55 km partly by a ferry from Chatham jetty and partly by road. It was lined by palm trees and stretches of little forests. Some tourists transported their cars in cargo vessels from the jetty and motored to the hilltop. From the different lookouts all the way to the top we could savour the scenic surroundings and once we reached the top most point, it was sheer ecstasy viewing the mist-covered outer islands and the azure sea. Mount Harriet is the highest peak in the Southern Andamans, 365 meters high and one can find time standing still while enjoying the cool breeze and the sound of chirping birds. The adventurous can trek from Bambooflat to Mount Harriet and from there up to Madhuban through a nature trail and spot rare endemic birds, animals and butterflies.

We headed for Chidiya Tapu, an hour’s drive from Port Blair. After driving through lush green mangroves and forest cover we arrived at the most beautiful beach I had ever seen! The gigantic trees here appeared to touch the skies, the silky sand, the bluish green waters and the distant islands added to the quiet charm of the place But when I found no birds in sight and only holiday makers standing in the waters I started wondering how the place got its name.

portblair04I found Corbyn’s Cove, the palm-fringed beach nearer Port Blair we visited the next evening, had a picturesque quality of its own, and it appeared to be a swimmer’s paradise with several honeymooners taking a plunge here which was known for its safe waters. But if you wish to have a peep at the marine life, head to North Bay at the foothills of Mount Harriet in a cruise and transfer yourself to a glass bottom dingy in the midst of the sea which takes you to the island. (You have to do some acrobatics to climb on to the boat) .For those interested in snorkelling and scuba diving and watching the sunset, I suggest a visit to the Havelock island, the two-hour-long cruise and the turbulent sea notwithstanding.

A city tour of Port Blair also has its attractions. We found The Cellular Jail, a national memorial now, a marvellous structure for its symmetry and design. The jail was completed in 1906 and had seven prongs, but now only three are left. Veer Savarkar’s cell on the third floor has his garlanded picture hung on the wall.

The Anthropological Museum, The Naval Marine Museum, Forest Museum and Chatham Saw Mill, (the oldest functioning saw mill) are worth a visit. We observed people of the island are honest and sincere, and appeared to match the pristine nature of the place.

Fact file:
Location – Bay of Bengal
Capital – Port Blair.
Climate – Tropical throughout the year with humidity relatively high
Best season – Oct-May
Port Blair is connected with Chennai and Kolkata by air, by sea from Chennai, Kolkata, and Visakhapatnam and back. The voyage takes about 50 to 60 hours.

N Meera Raghavendra Rao

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One thought on “Holidaying in Port Blair

  1. V Raghavan

    On reading my write-up (which follows this note), Meera Rao e-mailed to me to read her posting on the same subject. As there was not much overlap, I thought I will put my write-up as comments here.

    The Kingfisher flight from Chennai touched Port Blair around noon. This port is named after Sir Archibald Blair who was sent by the East India Company to establish a port with the view to creating a Penal Settlement.

    My visit started with a visit to Corbyn’s Cove, an ordinary but impressive beach. We then got into a ferry boat for a 2-hour cruise along the sea encircling Port Blair. A stop at Viper Island, where the British created the first penal settlement. We climbed a hill to see the Phansi Ghar, with the hanging platform still in tact. The settlement was later moved to Port Blair, where the cellular jail was built. This huge jail can accommodate 800 prisoners in cells (hostel-like rooms), which were spread over seven radial wings from a high central observation tower (only three of the wings are now seen). The sound and light show at the cellular jail started at 5.30 pm (the sun sets at this time in the Andamans). The show was not as impressive as the show at the Red Fort in Delhi. Yet it traced in detail the history of the jail. The jail accommodated criminals as well as political prisoners. The uprising of 1857 had its echoes in the jail, with the prisoners demanding an end to the cruel treatment they were meted out. Much later in 1937, the prisoners went on a fast unto death. Jawahar Lal Nehru and the Mahatma intervened to dissuade the prisoners, who were later released and sent home. In 1969, the Indian government bestowed the status of a national monument on cellular jail.

    Day 2 started with a sail to Havelock island some 60 km away on a luxury cruiser Makruzz introduced just a year ago. The ship is air-conditioned with comfortable seats and large glass windows all around. Documentary films and a snack bar are added attractions. The afternoon was at the Radhanagar beach in Havelock. Time magazine described the Radhanagar beach as the best in the whole of Asia. So it is! For countless millennia, the pure ultra-white sands have been hearing nothing but the sound of the waves. The A & N Tourism department is making a valiant attempt to keep the beach eco friendly.

    Day 3 was a day of great excitement with Scuba Diving on the cards! All tourists (men and women) opting from the dive were fitted with rubber suits. An oxygen cylinder is mounted on your back and you hold the breather cup firmly between your teeth, close the lips and breathe while under water. A professional diver comes down with each tourist to make sure you are safe. Some of us attempted only the shallow waters some 20 feet below sea level and swam with little and medium sized fish and between corals. Fancy stories abound about scuba diving. My driver was describing about fish of the size of a car charging towards you with its mouth wide open (like you see in the movies). But as they come near, they take a sharp deflection and go elsewhere. There are brave divers who go straight into the mouth and take video pictures! In rare cases, in the deeper sea you may find yourself swimming along with the dolphins. Even the shallow water attempt was a life-time experience. Incidentally you do not need to know swimming to do scuba diving.

    On day 4, we sailed to Elephant Beach, which underwent large scale destruction in the Tsunami. You can still see the broken tree branches lying all around. Here, I went on a boat with a glass bottom to witness the underwater world in the crystal clear waters, with the visibility extending to some 20 feet below. Others did Snorkelling, where you float on the water with your face down and watch the great show at the bottom. You breathe through a tube which extends above the water level.

    Day 5 is time to fly back home with happy memories.

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