Port Blair is the administrative and commercial capital of the Union Territory of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The city is built on a series of hills around a natural deep water harbour, that could have made for a picturesque landscape, but today suffers from both unplanned development and fairly nondescript architecture.
The city is home to a population of 100,000 residents, most of whom lend their origins to Bangladesh, Bihar, Tamilnadu and other parts of the Indian mainland. The Indian Navy has a large presence, given that these islands are of strategic importance at the head of the Malacca Straits. Most of the population are refugees from wars or migrant labour who moved here post-Independence with the promise of land. There are some older communities who trace their past to serving the British colony here or having served time at the Cellular Jail then settled in the islands.
Port Blair mainly serves as a transit point for those going on to Havelock or other islands or stopping overnight before catching a flight or ship home. But it is popular with Indian travellers, given its hoary past and deep connection with India's independence struggle. Many of India's freedom fighters including Mahatma Gandhi were interred here at the infamous Cellular Jail. The city was also part of the first landfall of the Japanese on the Indian sub-continent and they both built a lot of the infrastructure here as well as left reminders of their brief but brutal occupation of the islands - abandoned bunkers and vine-covered cannons still pockmark the shoreline of Port Blair.
While in Port Blair, make it a point not to miss a half-day (preferably morning) visit to Ross Island, the former capital of the British Crown; stop and be fascinated by the lives of the mysterious indigenous tribes of the islands at the Anthropological Museum, and rent a bike and ride up to Mount Harriet National Park for stunning island-wide views. If you have more time, then drive down 45 minutes to the Andaman & Nicobar Environmental Team basecamp at Wandoor and learn of their pioneering initiatives in conservation of the fragile ecology of the Andaman Islands.
Havelock is a 65 square kilometre island located in Ritchie's Archipelago, about 50 kms north east of Port Blair. 60% of the island is reserved tropical forest, with the remainder under agricultural, commercial and residential development. This is the only developed island for tourism outside of Port Blair. The population across 4 village communities is approximately 7,000 people. The island subsists on agriculture, subsistence fishing and tourism. Travellers arrive by ferry at the pier on Beach 1 (all beaches are numbered based on former timber logging camps) where there is a small market with a few shops and Barefoot's new lounge and restaurant. No. 3 is the main market for Havelock - here is where the shack restaurants churn out delicious grilled fish, hot curries, and sweet syrupy jalebis with your tea. There is an interesting vegetable market with all kinds of local greens (ask for japani dhaniya - thats Japanese coriander, you will be inspired!). The sea food market is also an interesting place to visit to see whats coming in off the ocean. At the number 3 market, the road splits - one goes along the north and east coast and the other goes further south inland until it reaches Beach No. 7 on the western coast.
The east coast road runs along Beach No. 3 to 6 and this is where most of Havelock's buzz is - small backpacker hideaways, mid-size beach resorts, cafes, and the scuba diving centres (including Barefoot Scuba at Beach No. 3). There are a few good places to eat including Cafe Del Mar (Barefoot Scuba) at Beach No. 3; the Red Snapper (Wild Orchid Resort, Beach No. 5) and the Emerald Gecko Restaurant. Once you are past the development, the road turns sharply south hugging a pristine aquamarine ocean (unfortunately not good for swimming, because of rocks and an ankle deep lagoon) till you reach the elephant camp at Kala Pathar (Black Rocks). This is a good place to watch the elephants of the Forest Department.
The road to Beach No. 7 runs through paddy fields, banana plantations, and small homesteads with little flower gardens. Its a delightfully windy rural road that turns a corner and bursts upon Beach No. 7 and its stunning ocean view. Here there are some shacks by the roadside turning out great omelettes and fish in a variety of forms. All along the beach are the giant mahua trees (over 100 feet high) with their buttress roots - a reminder of what most of the Andaman's coastal rainforest once looked like. Barefoot at Havelock, a highly commended eco-lodge is hidden in a little replanted forest at the end of a winding path through the trees.
Beach No. 7 is all what its been made out to be. Its two miles of a gradual crescent shaped cove with pristine white soft sand fronted by a warm, gradually sloping sandy seafloor that has no rocks, gentle waves, and perfect for swimming with the family. In the background, a blanket of tropical coastal rainforest as far as the eye can see - no manmade construction, no beach umbrellas and sunbeds, no touts, no tourists! All around Havelock Island are fringing coral reefs bursting with marine life, ideal for snorkelling trips. There are thick mangrove forests and creeks that run through the island, making for dreamy kayaking trips. Once you reach Havelock, you'll want to take off your watch, lose your phone, and surrender to nature!