Andaman Islands: The Complete Guide for Travellers
The Andaman Islands are the largest island in the Bay of Bengal. Although these remote islands are actually closer to Myanmar in Southeast Asia, they're a Union Territory of India. There are approx 550 islands in the group, but only 28 are inhabited. Approximately 30 percent of the area is designated tribal reserve that's out of bounds to tourists, as some tribes are known to be hostile (this includes the Sentinelese, who have killed people). However, the parts that can be visited offer a dreamy combination of wild jungle, immaculate beaches, a kaleidoscope of coral, and flaming sunsets.
There's something for everyone from intrepid travelers to luxury tourists, and adventure enthusiasts to solitude-seekers. Find out more about the Andaman Islands.
Things to know before visiting Andaman
- Best Time to Visit: The climate is warm and humid all year. For perfect and sunny days, January to April is the best time to visit, which is also the pick season. December to March is the best time to see turtles nesting.
- Language: English is widely understood and used for official communication. Bengali is the most common language though. Other Indian languages spoken by some people are Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam.
- Currency: Indian rupee.
- Time Zone: Indian Standard Time. Sunrise is very early, about 4:30-5 a.m.
- Getting Around: Most islands can only be reached by passenger ferries. The main group of islands—North, Middle and South Andaman—is connected by the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), with ferry crossings and bridges. Depending on the place, various types of local transport may be available including auto rickshaws, taxis, shared jeeps and public buses. Costly seaplane and helicopter services operate between a few islands such as Port Blair and Havelock Island. On the islands, it's convenient to hire a scooter or bicycle.
- Travel Tips: Expect to go on a digital detox because Internet connectivity is generally poor. Credit cards are widely accepted in Port Blair at upmarket hotels and restaurants. You'll most likely need to pay with cash in other places. Stock up on cash in Port Blair because it may not be possible to get money elsewhere. There are a couple of ATMs on Havelock Island and Neil Island but they don't always work. Book ferry tickets in advance using a local travel agent to avoid a lot of hassle or missing out in peak season. Experience Andamans is most popular.
How to reach Andaman
Port Blair, on South Andaman, is the capital and entry point to the Andaman Islands. It's only accessible via the Indian mainland. There are regular non-stop direct flights from Kolkata in West Bengal and Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Direct flights are also possible on various days from Delhi, Vishakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, Bangalore in Karnataka, and Hyderabad in Telangana. Budget travelers who have a few days to spare and don't mind roughing it can try their luck traveling by boat.
Previously, foreigners needed a Restricted Area Permit (obtainable on arrival at Port Blair) to visit the Andaman Islands. However, this requirement was lifted in August 2018 for all foreigners except those from Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan.
Where to Go
Tourists can now visit the following parts of the Andaman Islands without a Restricted Area Permit: East Island, North Andaman, Smith Island, Curfew Island, Stewart Island, Land Fall Island, Ayes Island, Middle Andaman, Long Island, Strait Island, North Passage, Baratang Island, South Andaman, Havelock Island (renamed Swaraj Dweep), Neil Island (renamed Shaheed Dweep), Flat Bay, North Sentinel Island, Little Andaman, Narcondam Island, Interview island and Viper Island.
It's not possible to spend the night on all of the islands. In addition, permits are still required to visit forests, wildlife and marine sanctuaries, and tribal reserves within the islands (such as North Sentinel Island) because they're protected areas. The cost of the permits can be prohibitive for foreigners. You can expect to pay 1,000 rupees for a permit to visit Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park near Port Blair, or Ross and Smith Islands near Diglipur on North Andaman. (Indians only pay 75 rupees.)
Tourism in the Andaman Islands mostly takes place in Port Blair, the islands around South Andaman, and Havelock Island to the north. Apart from Port Blair, Havelock Island is the only island with fully developed tourist infrastructure. Infrastructure is quickly catching up on Neil Island, its nearby neighbor, though. This island is less commercialized but still comfortable.
For those who want to get off-the-beaten-track:
- Baratang Island, between South and Middle Andaman islands, has mud volcanoes, limestone caves, mangrove creeks, and a spot where thousands of parrots flock to roost every evening.
- Long Island, off the coast of Middle Andaman Island, is ideal for those looking for a slow pace of life and local community atmosphere.
- Diglipur is the major town on far North Andaman Island but nearby Kalipur Beach is more pleasant. Saddle Peak (the highest point in the Andaman Islands at 732 meters above sea level), Smith and Ross Islands marine sanctuary, and tiny Craggy Island are other places to visit in the area.
- Little Andaman Island is as far south as you can go. This area was badly damaged by the 2004 tsunami but has slowly recovered. There's no tourist infrastructure there, apart from simple guesthouses and huts on the beach. It's best known as a surfing destination.
Things to Do in Andaman
All notable historical attractions are located in and around Port Blair. The Andaman Islands are rated among the best scuba diving sites in the world though snorkeling is a popular alternative. Other activities include various watersports, island hopping, jungle treks, fishing, bird watching, undersea walking, and surfing. And, of course, chilling by the beach!
The top things to do in the Andaman Islands are:
- City tour of Port Blair including British-era colonial buildings, museums, World War II bunkers, Corbyn's Cove, and the notorious Cellular Jail (there's an evening sound and light show).
- Harbor Cruise around Port Blair, North Bay Island, Ross Island and Viper Island.
- Day trip to Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor, including Jolly Buoy and Red Skin islands.
- Nature walk through the biological park and sunset at Chidya Tapu.
- Scuba diving and snorkeling around Chidya Tapu, Havelock Island (the main area) and Neil Island. Some recommended companies are Planet Scuba, Lacadives, Infinity Scuba, Barefoot Scuba, Dive India, Andaman Bubbles, and India Scuba Explorers.
- Watersports at the Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex in Port Blair, and Elephant Beach and Nemo Reef opposite the helipad on Havelock Island.
- Undersea walk at North Bay Island.
Offbeat things to do in the Andaman Islands include:
- From Baratand Island, take a boat through the dense mangrove jungle and go on the Mangrove Canopy Walk to a massive limestone cave.
- Trek or take a boat from Long Island to secluded Lalaji Bay.
- Take a boat from Long Island through North Passage to Merk Bay and go snorkeling.
- Witness turtle nesting at Dhaninallah beach, Karmatang beach, Cutbert Bay, Kalipur beach, or pristine Ramnagar beach (Middle and North Andaman Islands).
- Trek through Mount Harriet National Park near Port Blair, or to Saddle Peak.
- See the only active volcano in India on Barren Island. Experience Andamans conducts boat tours.
- Watch Smith and Ross Islands become two separate islands when the tide is out.
What to Eat and Drink
Seafood is the specialty in the Andaman Islands. Mandalay Restaurant in Port Blair and Red Snapper at the Wild Orchid Resort on Havelock Island are the best places to dine. Indian cuisine is commonly served in restaurants. Alcohol is a hit and miss affair though. It doesn't flow freely, so it's best to get your own supply from liquor stores in the area. Generally, only high-end restaurants attached to luxury hotels serve alcohol, and bars are few and far between.
Culture and Customs
Hinduism is the main religion in the Andaman Islands. As many people are Bengalis, Durga Puja is the biggest festival celebrated. There's also a large minority of Christians. Muslims are a small minority. Indigenous tribes make up about 10 percent of the population and most follow their own distinct shamanistic religion. They believe in spirits of the dead, which are associated with the sky, sea, and forest. They also believe it's possible to communicate with the spirits through dreams.The two most important ones are Puluga (also known as Biliku) and Tarai, connected to the monsoon winds and storms.
The Andaman Islands has a conservative culture. While revealing swimwear is fine for the beach, make sure you cover up in other local areas such as village markets and jetties.
Money Saving Tips
- The shoulder seasons from October to mid-December, and April to mid-May, are less expensive and quieter. The weather is variable though, as these months are either side of the rainy monsoon season.
- Travel by bus and public (rather than private) ferry where possible.
- Skip the expensive seafood and order a local thali (platter) for a couple hundred rupees.
- Haggle to get a good price. It's expected in markets, and for auto rickshaws and taxis (unless fixed price is stated).
- Stay in less developed/commercialized places, or accommodations with shared bathrooms.
- Buy alcohol from liquor stores, rather than hotels and restaurants where the markup is huge.