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Forget The Maldives. Take The Dive And Visit Lakshadweep Instead

05/08/2016 1:43 PM IST | Updated 11/08/2016 1:47 PM IST
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Nisha Ravindranathan

Perhaps because she grew up in coastal cities all over the country, where beaches were always within reach, and evenings meant an ocean breeze in her hair, this writer has always needed a regular dose of Vitamin Sea to keep her spirit from waning.

And so earlier this year, she decided some time hopping islands in Lakshadweep, with its pristine sand and surf, was in order.

Nisha Ravindranathan

The islands

Located just off Kerala's stretching coastline in the west, the Lakshadweep islands lie north of the Maldives.

At the southernmost atoll of the archipelago, lies Minicoy, roughly translating to mean "The King of Islands" – aptly named, given its placid, shimmering lagoons, white, virgin beaches and the wealth of coral and big game that you're likely to spot here -- mantas, rays, sea turtles, eels, sharks, wild dolphins... who's lusting already?

There is also Agatti, which houses an airstrip; Amini, densely populated with locals, fishermen and islanders; pristine Bangaram (among the largest of these islands, populated more by turtles than it is by people) and Thinnakara beside it; plus Kadmat, Kavaratti, Kiltan, Kalpeni, Andrott, Bitra, Chetlat and Cheriyam.

Nisha Ravindranathan

Only 10 of these islands are occupied by islanders, and even Indian nationals need special permits in order to visit most of them. The reasons cited include conservation, the preservation of indigenous cultures and the fact that these islands are now a strategic outpost for the Indian Navy.

Nisha Ravindranathan
Nisha Ravindranathan

Getting there, permits and accommodation

You can get to Lakshadweep either by sea or air. Either way, you need your permits and papers in order before you can even board your vessel. There used to be private operators in Lakshadweep, but as of now, all tourism within the islands is controlled and operated by the Government of India.

Nisha Ravindranathan

Basically, everything from your cruise ship, to the boat transfers between islands, to the meals that are inclusive in the tour packages should you choose to go this route, to the hotels and/or guesthouses, as well as the non air-conditioned tents (which are the only living facilities available on some islands), are all organized and run by the government.

The government has beach resorts in Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Minicoy, Kadmat and Bangaram, meaning these are the only islands you can visit, after making a reservation through SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports), who upon receipt of full payment towards your stay as well as the details of your air/ship tickets will issue you a special permit with clear instructions that forbid the carrying, consumption or purchase of alcohol while you are on the islands.

It is also illegal to collect coral of any sort -- and you will see heaps of these lying around washed up on shore by the sea, not just underwater. Strict screenings at the airport and harbour, random searches, heavy fines and the possibility of incarceration mean that visitors should take these local laws very seriously.

To visit the other islands you need to procure a special permit which is once again issued by SPORTS, upon submitting additionally, a personal invitation letter addressed to you from a Lakshadweep local, stamped by the local panchayat, as well as details of where you will be staying privately and for how long, (also paid for in full, wherever necessary).

For those who choose to fly, Air India is the only airline that flies in and out of Agatti, every day except on Sundays. Ships to Minicoy ply from Kochi harbour and back, every seven days or so.

Seeing how there are no speedboats that ply between Minicoy and the other islands, one other way to visit here, while also getting a taste for the other isles is to stay on board the ship MV Tipu Sultan which tours Kalpeni and Kavaratti in addition to Minicoy.

You can write to SPORTS at laksports.reservation@gmail.com, or visit their official website for all enquiries and information, as well as templates of forms that you will need to download, fill and submit.

Insider's Club

1. Because of its proximity to the Maldives, die-hard island hoppers can tick two locations off their bucket list by simply clubbing both sets of isles over a long sun-soaked week.

That said, the reef life in both are almost exactly mirrored -- divers know and often make it a point to come just to witness migrations of all kinds of fauna in the Arabian Sea, as they make their way from colder to warmer waters between the two atolls twice a year.

Meanwhile, a vacation in Lakshadweep is way cheaper than one in the Maldives, which means you more or less get the same beachy perks without putting too much of a dent in your pocket.

Nisha Ravindranathan

2. The best time to visit is between mid-October and mid-May. By the second week of May, the monsoon is usually already in full swing in Minicoy and then heads north towards the other islands. This is when even speedboats stop plying in these waters.

You can still fly into Agatti and make a quick trip to Bangaram (which is supposedly breathtaking in all its natural glory and rugged remoteness during the monsoons) but expect choppy water, waves that are at least12-18ft high and downpours that keep even locals and fisherfolk indoors!

3. The locals speak a language called Jisri, which has no written alphabet. It is a curious mix of Tamil and Malayalam and passed on orally from generation to generation.

If you speak Malayalam though, you're golden on any of these islands, since this is the language that is taught in schools. Those of you who don't, take a couple South Indian friends along. Like this writer, they too will find themselves rollicking along just fine with Jisri, and hey you get to gatecrash the impromptu party. Win win!

4. The beaches you'll find on these islands only appear to be made of white grainy sand. They are in fact made up of fine coral dust!

Nisha Ravindranathan

In a process that has been taking place for millions of years, the coral reefs that make up the atoll are eroded by the tides, by rough seas, by the furies of the monsoon, until finally, the waves deposit them slowly but surely on the banks of lagoons to form beaches and long shorelines. Divers, like this writer, have discovered that the seabed is made of the same gorgeous and grainy golden dust.

If you look at satellite images of the Lakshadweep Islands, you will find that they shape-shift, altering themselves subtly every couple years. That too has to do with the ocean moving sand beds around the lagoons -- beach today, gone tomorrow!

Nisha Ravindranathan

Food & drink

As far as food choices go, you are bound to be more or less disappointed with the fare served in your hotel for two major reasons.

First, the produce is never really fresh the way you're likely to find on the Indian subcontinent because it makes its way to these islands by ship from the mainland. This also makes meat and even the most ordinary kinds of fruits and vegetables much more expensive to procure.

Second, every government-run guesthouse kitchen tones down the spices in the cooking, simplifying preparations drastically, to suit what they assume are the palates of the many foreigners who flock these shores.

Nisha Ravindranathan

The exceptions to these rules are seafood, specifically tuna, which Lakshadweep exports in large quantities, and tender coconut water, which will be among the sweetest you've ever tasted.

You are more likely to find much more exciting flavours -- spicy, pungent, even aromatic -- in local kitchens, that is if like this writer, you manage to talk your way into one!

For instance, there is a biryani made with crisp fish or fried chicken (or very rarely, mutton) and a spicy masala-coated rice that closely resembles the flavours of Malabar and Calicut. Also fried crab and fish that has been marinated in whole spices and roughly ground pepper.

On the sweeter side, you will find steamed dumplings (like modaks or the South Indian kozhakattai) filled with a mixture of jaggery, palm sugar, dates and ground coconut; paper thin pancakes served with sweet coconut milk and honey, and last (a DIY for your kitchen perhaps?), mangoes and the first milk of coconut blended together to make one mean, unlikely smoothie!

Liquor is prohibited on the islands, and the respectful, responsible thing to do is not carry any with you while travelling here.

Instead, make your way towards one of several coconut farms -- there are autorickshaws available for hire, as are bicycles, which make the whole experience way more fun and local. Here, you can see mira i.e. the nectar from coconut flowers being tapped, and with a decent enough sales pitch, persuade them to even sell you a bottle or two.

Nisha Ravindranathan

Mira, also known as nira in Kerala, if allowed to ferment turns into pure, unadulterated toddy in the course of about 48 hours, the likes of which is impossible to procure even in Kerala these days where all sorts of other ingredients get thrown into the mix to make the drink more potent.

Islanders generally leave mira to ferment undisturbed for about 40 days. The resulting liquid is locally called sirka, and used as a condiment in their cooking. Sirka is acidic, virtually indestructible, and is found year round in every kitchen in these islands, replacing the pulp of tamarind that is so commonly found in several South Indian curries. It is also used to marinate fish, seafood and meat.

Nisha Ravindranathan

This writer recommends you taste both farm-fresh mira as well as the pure toddy that follows shortly.

Mira has the fragrance of tender coconut water as well as a similar sweetness, but it also has a slight sourness and milky quality to it. Procure it between 4:30 and 5pm when the tappers have just begun their descent from the trees, and it is at its sweetest best. Then leave it undisturbed for two days. Pour over ice cubes and marvel at the tremendousness of the transformation.

Toddy retains a coconuty hint of its origins but is essentially sour, acidic and pungent. As an alcoholic beverage, its potency is comparable with wine, although grapes tend to take longer to ferment, and when they do, do so in much more complex ways. Either way, that's two more things off your bucket-list.

Nisha Ravindranathan

Nisha Ravindranathan

Nisha Ravindranathan

Nisha Ravindranathan

Do and dive

Waterbabies everywhere, don't just dip your toes in the shallows, when you can easily take the plunge instead! Dive sure and dive deep!

Kitting up in scuba-gear is easily one of the most exciting and rewarding things you can do in these waters. PADI institutes and instructors are everywhere to help newbies learn skills, get certified or even just get the hang of things long enough to have themselves an underwater adventure.

Nisha Ravindranathan

Nisha Ravindranathan

Nisha Ravindranathan

Enthusiasts and regulars, there are multiple spots and experiences that await -- push your limits by diving caves and abysses, let yourself (in this case, quite literally) be carried away on a drift dive or attempt a thoroughly exciting (if somewhat scary) night dive. Dive sites include but are not limited to Manta Point, Turtle Bay, Secret Garden, The Wall and The Cave -- these are just the tip of the iceberg. This writer was lucky enough to dive them all, and promises that the experience is unforgettable.

Nisha Ravindranathan

For the slightly more water-wary there's also kayaking, canoeing, snorkeling, paddle-boarding and wind-surfing -- almost all of which you can choose to do either by yourself, with friends, or with professionals who will kit you out in safety gear themselves.

Nisha Ravindranathan

With a little bit of luck, the right GoPro, and just by getting in the water early enough, you'll find that you can spot green and hawksbill turtles in the lagoons, particularly those that surround Bangaram, Thinnakara, even Agatti. All you need are fins and a mask. Freedivers, ahoy!

Boat enthusiasts, you can yacht, go game-fishing, or even water ski with the help of an instructor and a nifty little motorboat.

Nisha Ravindranathan

As for those who don't want to even get their toes wet, curl them into fine coral dust instead, while you take long barefoot walks on the beach and watch the sun go down. Sip sweet tender coconut water first thing in the day as you lie on a hammock reading.

The same blokes who taught your friend how to ride waves with a boat and gave her a pair of sea-legs, so she could stand at a prow and watch dolphins leap, will also teach you how to spot, chase, and catch crabs on the beach (beautiful snow-white sea creatures with deadly pincers, not the STD!).

Hire bicycles by the day and ride around the island -- most have lighthouses, a jetty, several coconut farms and jagged coastlines that you can explore at leisure.

Nisha Ravindranathan

Nisha Ravindranathan

Join in on a game of beach football. Request a bonfire or a barbeque -- the hotel staff are usually friendly enough to call it an even trade if you volunteer some of your cooking skills.

Nisha Ravindranathan

But most importantly perhaps, let yourself unwind, let yourself just be for a while. Let the sun and the sand and the swaying fronds of the trees work their quiet magic on you.

A version of this story was first published on The Wishing Chair Blog.

(© Nisha Ravindranathan. All photographs are the property of the author, and may not be reused without permission.)

Photos: A Last Look At Andaman's Only Swimming Elephant

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