One of the last virgin archipelagos in the world, the Andaman islands lie over 1,000km east of India, accessible by plane (or boat, for the very patient) from Chennai or Kolkata (Calcutta). Of the 200 forest-covered islands, only 26 are inhabited, many of them by aboriginal tribes who have little contact with outsiders. Most of the others are off limits to tourists. Because of their isolation - midway between India and Burma, and 700km from top to tail - there’s little development and lots of wilderness: 3,000 species of plant, 240 types of bird and over 80 kinds of reptile (including iguanas) lurk in the tropical jungle, and you’ll even meet beach-dwelling elephants. Beaches are white-sand, near deserted and fringed with palms - perfect for Robinson Crusoe adventures or back-to-nature eco-tourism.
But it’s the crystalline waters offshore that make them one of the hottest new destinations: full of colourful fish and unmapped seabeds, they're a diver’s paradise which has only recently opened up to the leisure sector. It’s a fantastical world where “lions, unicorns and butterflies masquerade as fish” (Jacques Cousteau). But you don’t need to be an underwater pioneer, as there are graded dives and PADI courses. Even snorkellers will get a maskful of aquatic exotica to take the breath away: bright yellow seahorses, multi-coloured parrot fish and scorpion fish, majestic sea turtles and lazy dugongs. The open seas, meanwhile, teem with pelagics: dolphins, sharks, manta rays, barracuda, tuna and huge schools of jack fish, trigger fish and revally.
The 3 main Andaman islands are called North, Middle and South, or collectively Great Andaman. Around and between them are smaller mangrove-fringed islets, including the idyllic Havelock Island and car-free Neil Island. On the former, buses serve 2 deservedly popular beaches, known by a numbering system: No. 7 (“Radhanagar”) and No. 5 (“Dolphin Yatri Niwas”, named after the government accommodation); there are lots of guesthouses and one fantastic eco-lodge, probably the best accommodation in the Andamans.