Intoxicating Island

Rustic Simplicity

Quaint: Neil Island is spectacularly beautiful, and thankfully, is still untouched by heavy tourist traffic.  If you are going to the Andamans, without a doubt, Havelock will feature as your number one destination. Radhanagar Beach on Havelock was rated by TIME magazine in 2004 as one of the most beautiful beaches in Asia.

But whoever did the ratings perhaps forgot to visit Neil Island, or has a sense of beauty vastly different from mine. No doubt, Radhanagar is stunning, but Neil is enchanting in its quaintness and rustic simplicity. Neil, which is visible from Havelock (and vice versa), is comparatively much smaller. Unlike Havelock, it does not feel touristy, overdone or overrated. It is non-commercial and has a feeling of being untouched. To put it simply, it is utterly gorgeous.

Hospitable locals

The island is ideal to just laze around and do nothing in particular. All we did was cycle from one place to another to drink in more beauty. Without really knowing it, our bodies relaxed as we slowly took in its mellow prettiness. And to make it even better, the people of the island are gentle, hospitable and kind. They are ever ready to help and, many a time, go out of their way to be of any assistance.

To quote just one instance, my pint-sized friend, who was riding a rusty bicycle meant more for a six-footer, panicked when she saw a bus (doing possibly 2 km an hour, and probably the island’s one and only bus) trundling along from the other side. She appeared to finely execute a slow motion fall onto the side of an even slower bus. And though she was more rattled than bruised, the entire bus poured out and expressed concern, offering her words of sympathy, water and first aid.

Most of these people are from the 80-odd families resettled on this veritable paradise during  partition. The island is made up of mainly Bangla and a handful of Tamil households. Almost all of them are engaged in agriculture, and it has, over time,  earned the name — ‘the vegetable bowl of the Andamans’.

The sun was strong and the breeze gentle, which made it a perfect combination for cycling by these fields that give the islet its sobriquet. Our first stop was what the islanders call the Natural Rock or Howrah Bridge. To get to this spectacular spot, we first had to encounter and dodge a rather belligerent dog that appeared to want to make a snappy meal out of our ankles. After having parked our cycles at a little shack selling coconut water and other refreshments, we were directed by the locals, who ran the shop, to a path that led to the bridge. We scrambled over a bed of rather sharp rocks to reach this natural rock formation which is only accessible during low tide.

You can spend a couple of hours just tramping around and looking at interesting sea life in the shallow pits formed by the eroded rocks. It was also possible to climb on to the very top of the bridge to get a stunning view of the ocean beyond the pretty green cover that backs it. On our way back, we had several punctures on one of these notoriously unreliable and rusty two wheelers. Before starting out, it’s best to get your cycle, which you can rent at your resort (more like Goan shacks), given a once-over by the
local mechanic.

The mechanic is located on the main road opposite the main market area where you can also purchase fresh fish. Alternatively, you can catch your own fish and your resort will be more than happy to cook it for you, local style. While the fish was getting cooked, we got into a conversation with our waiter at the restaurant in our resort. Everybody on the island, and in fact the whole of the Andamans, appears to speak good Hindi. Joy, our waiter, was no exception. For a class eight drop out, he was rather bright and insightful.

His arguments were nuanced and to paraphrase what he said, “The Andamans is a microcosm of India. We are peaceful people. We all, whether Tamil, Bangla or Telugu, believe in the adage — unity in diversity.”

Vibrant sea life

While we marvelled at his wisdom, he gently urged us to hurry to the furthest point west of the island that adjoins the resort (thus having the most enviable location on the island), to view the setting sun. Most of the accommodation options are clustered around this extreme west side. None of them are too expensive, ranging from Rs 200 to Rs 1,000. Apart from the glorious views in the evening, which you can catch lazing on giant fallen logs on the cliff edge, you can return a little into the night to take a dekko at hundreds of flickering fireflies that turn the nearby bushes into natural lanterns.

On the side of the same cliff runs a path down to the beach that is fantastic for snorkelling during the day. It’s all mostly dead coral but fish and sea life here are colourful and plenty. Where the sea dips to about 30 feet at the edge of the reef, you can spot myriad clown fish, anemones and other rainbow hued fish. But if you do want to spot live coral, your best bet would be to try snorkelling off Neil’s picturesque jetty.

In both the places, you’ve got to be careful not to cut yourself on the corals’ sharp edges. The clear white sand beaches all along the coastline are also great for sun bathing and acquiring an even tan.

On the other side of the jetty is a stretch of clear aquamarine waters of Bharathpur Beach that is used for bathing and swimming. For those interested in scuba diving, there is one PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) centre called Dive India on Neil that conducts basic and advanced courses in diving in interesting dive sites around Neil.

After all this, if you are still game for more activity and you still want to soak in more beauty, you can cycle through the lush fields to the Ramnagar Beach. The beach is usually deserted and overlooks the pleasing Little Neil — a small naval island outpost. On what looks like the far side of the beach is a rocky outcrop and a small cave that appears to have been damaged by the tsunami.

Jump over the rocks and you come to the island’s most secluded scenic spot. A little private alcove was all that we needed to round off an already superb holiday. This is one island that truly intoxicates.

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