An insider guide to Havelock Island
Editor’s note: We know our splainer fam loves to explore the great wide world we live in. Each month, Advisory will include a special travel guide to less-explored destinations—put together by someone who intimately knows the place. Be sure to bookmark them for your future travels:)
Meet the author: Vandit Kalia is a scuba diving instructor and the founder of DiveIndia—Havelock Island’s first dive centre. Vandit quit his gig as a management consultant in the US and moved to the Andamans in 2003—where he lives the good life with his spoiled Golden Retrievers. Few people know or love Havelock quite like Vandit.
Remote and cut off from the main Andaman Islands, Havelock once truly epitomised the cliched phrase “forgotten jewel.” My first trip was in 2001, and back then, there were only two auto-rickshaws on the island, a handful of basic huts for tourists and an irregular ferry connecting it to the main islands. The magical white sand beaches, the clear water and the pristine coral with so much marine life were all virtually untouched by humans—a rarity in this day and age.
The island has become very popular over the past five years. And as is the case with popular destinations, the vast majority of tourists in Havelock follow a standard itinerary. They miss out on many of the small details that truly make the island unique—that fallen tree by the beach that is perfect to lean back on, and let the susurration of the sea calm you down. Or the old man farming his field the same way he has for the past 30 years, the fishermen returning with their catch by the time you wake up or the white bellied sea eagle hunting for his evening meal as the sun drops to the horizon.
Here are my recommendations for people who really want to experience the islands in their true beauty and soak in the gestalt of the place—rather than check off a list of spots to visit.
Where to stay
Thanks to the island’s popularity, there is no dearth of options for places to stay. But instead of heading to a generic hotel, I recommend staying at the following for a genuine island experience.
Barefoot at Havelock: Managed by the Serai group, this was one of first high-end resorts in Havelock. It is located in a quiet corner of the island, right by Radhanagar Beach giving you access to a secluded corner of the beach away from all the hustle and bustle of tourism. Set in the middle of prime growth trees (that date back to the formation of the island itself), the resort is truly in harmony with the local environment.
Jalakara: Located in the verdant rainforest, the open-design architecture of this resort provides an experience that is unmistakably Andamans. It may seem a little strange to recommend a resort on a tropical island that is not by the beach, but you know what? The beaches are a short distance away and easy to get to. Also, no other hotel on the island provides a tropical rainforest experience in all its natural splendour, making Jalakara truly unique.
The Forest Elephant: Enjoying the islands does not always have to be an ultra-luxe experience and proof of that lies in the wood, bamboo and thatch rooms of the Forest Elephant. Set some distance away from the main tourist drag of Havelock, the resort–formerly known as the Flying Elephant—lends a chilled-out island experience that was Havelock 20 years ago, and at a budget price. No air conditioning or fancy furnishings here, but eco-friendly rooms set in a quiet part of the island. Here life still carries on at a slow relaxed islander pace. It’s also a great place from which to go birding, with many of the island’s prettiest native species in the vicinity.
Where to eat
To set expectations, Havelock is not a foodie destination. Other than a few staples such as rice, beans and a few other vegetables, most food items are flown in from the mainland. And since the island is mainly populated by Bengali settlers, traditional local food is essentially a simplified variant of fish and rice. So if you expect haute cuisine, you might be disappointed. However, there are lovely places in Havelock to hang out if you know where to look:
Anju Coco: Starting out as a small 4-table restaurant under a thatch roof a few years ago, Anju Coco is now the biggest restaurant in Havelock with a menu that is perilously close to becoming a book (or maybe a novella). It’s a lively bustling place by the roadside that is a must-visit for everyone. It's a good spot to head for dinner after a day of exploration, when you want to reward yourself with a hearty meal. Try the breadless chicken sandwich and the banoffee milkshake. You’ve earned it!
Full Moon Café: Located close to the seaside, Full Moon Café has earned a reputation for having good food and a great ambience. If you don’t have a busy schedule, you can spend half a day here. Have a relaxed lunch at the café (try the chicken sukha with naan), and then spend the afternoon with a book and a beverage of choice. You can also walk out to the beach directly in front for a refreshing dip in the water. It’s a sheltered lagoon, and so very safe.
A local-run restaurant: There are plenty of small shacks around. Find one close to Village #3 (Govindnagar), either for lunch or dinner. Golden Spoon and Nandini’s are good options. The menu will be a single page, if you are lucky. There will be a handful of tables or benches, the food will be simple, cooked by the lady who lives in the small house just behind the restaurant—but this is the essence of Havelock. Get fried fish, daal and rice, and enjoy the simple flavours.
Alternatively, if you fancy a change from the hotel breakfast or you want something even less touristy, head over to the jetty in the morning and get a dosa breakfast at one of the small stalls serving food to the island residents, both local and mainlanders.
What to do
The island’s greatest lures are its beaches, underwater marine life, and its unique vibe. Here are some of the must-dos:
Go scuba diving: The Andaman islands are one of the best dive destinations in the world. While the top sites here are for certified divers, there is enough on offer for beginners looking for an introductory diving experience, as well. Avoid the budget shore-based Try Dives and go for a boat based program. DiveIndia and Barefoot are the two oldest and most reputable dive centres on the island that will take you to a less crowded site and provide you with a far more… erm, immersive program. Yes, it costs a little more but is absolutely worth it.
Find your own strip of beach: While Radhanagar Beach and Kalapathar are the popular beaches for tourists, the entire coastline of the island is lined with beaches. Walk or cycle around and find one that is quiet. Throw in a book or headphones and you’re set for a relaxed afternoon.
Rent a bicycle and explore: The best way to soak in the ambience is by renting a bicycle and exploring the island in a slow and leisurely manner. You can easily find local rental shops or have a cycle arranged at your resort. Cycling south of the island—towards Kalapathar—is a great way to spend an afternoon. The road goes through some prime-growth rainforest (another good place to spot some of Andaman’s endemic birds), and then opens up to villages that are still untouched by tourism. Have some chai and pakoras at a roadside stall, while you are at it.
Don’t miss this
Neil Island: This island is treated as the stepchild compared to Havelock. Mainly because it has fewer resorts, and because of that reason, it isn’t as well connected to Port Blair as Havelock. On the bright side, it’s quieter as fewer package tourists go there.
Plan to spend a night or two at a mid-range eco-resort with nothing on your agenda. Stay at the tastefully done Emerald Gecko or the Dancing Dugong—which has a handful of rooms set in an acre of wooded land. Do not even think of booking a tour or hiring a taxi! Hire a bicycle or just walk around with your camera. Find a nice quiet corner by the seaside and park yourself there for a little while. If you get hungry, step into a local eatery and grab a snack or a meal.
The last word: The magic of the Andamans lies in the fact that life here moves at a relaxed, slow pace. Things happen when they get around to happening. And the best way to get the Andamans experience is to leave your expectations behind and to come without a checklist of things to do. Adopt the island life, even if for a few days, and get a true break from the hectic nature of “reality,” such as it is.