We ended up spending two extra days on Neil Island because of Cyclone Vardah, but in the end the worst part about it was the boredom – we were never in any danger and the the biggest inconvenience was the hotel’s toilet paper supply getting wet. Neil was a lovely, uncrowded destination (very un-India in that respect) and would be great in the right weather. The government even declared hotel accommodation free and paid for our ferry off the island. We missed out on diving but everyone on the island (including our hotel, the dive centre and the police) did their best to manage the situation. We suspect that the authorities even made a special effort to get cash to the island. Unfortunately it did mean a two day delay (and hence a shortened trip) in getting back to South Andaman island, although this was less of a loss than it sounded because diving conditions in the aftermath of the cyclone looked something like this:
Although most visitors to the Andaman Islands head to Havelock Island (and occasionally), the southern part of the main South Andaman island has some beautiful beaches, a beautiful forest reserve and some good diving. We had booked a few days at the lovely Wildgrass resort (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g297584-d8128427-Reviews-Wild_Grass_Resort-Port_Blair_South_Andaman_Island_Andaman_and_Nicobar_Islands.html) and some dives with Lacadives (http://lacadives.com/). We were very impressed with both the resort, which was set in a quiet forested spot, and the professional dive centre, who were holding it together despite their main boat having been capsized in the cyclone. The diving seemed to have a lot of potential with a really good variety of fish, albeit obscured by the terrible post-cyclone visibility, and we really enjoyed our few dives despite the conditions, thanks to the Lacadives team.
We had not seen the last of Cyclone Vardah, however, and she hit Chennai just as we were about to head back to the mainland, grounding all flights. The Andamans are about 2 000km towards Myanmar from India, so she had plenty of time to make it there before us. After a 6 hour delay, we arrived to a devastated Chennai with uprooted trees everywhere and widespread power and cell phone outages, as well as traffic issues. Our hostel, Elements, had no power but they made a plan to organize candles, mosquito coils and dinner at a heavily discounted price (http://www.elementshostel.com/). After the government sponsored accommodation on Neil, the money we saved on ferries, accommodation and diving, and the discounts we were granted on mainland accommodation, Vardah saved us quite a bit of money!
Chennai is a massive, vibrant city but it is a bit lacking in tourist attractions and, given the cyclone chaos, we opted to head out early the next day on a two hour public bus to Mahaballaburam (also called Mamallapuram). Mahabs is a small seaside tourist town known for its ancient stone carvings which are listed as a World Heritage site. The town is a fun stopover, although the sites can easily be completed in 3 or 4 hours so one night is perfect. Mahabs had also been hit by the cyclone so we were once again without power and no chance of getting our hands on any cash, but enjoyed more accommodation discounts thanks to Joe at Silver Moon guesthouse (https://www.facebook.com/Silver-Moon-guest-house-mahabs-696388520455075/).
Our next destination (via another 2 hour bus) was the ex-French colony of Pondicherry (Puducherry). Pondy is famous for its French Quarter which feels like someone has transplanted a little French town into the chaos of India. There are dozens of lovely restaurants (some specializing in Franco-Indian ‘creole’ food e.g. Carte Blanche) and you can get your hands on crepes and croissants (try Cafe des Artes) as well as great South Indian food (don’t miss Surguru). Highly recommended is the gelato at Gelateria Montecatini Terme which is up there with the best we have every had. We also managed to get cash thanks to the reliable State Bank ATMs and a rare forex dealer who had cash. Pondy is a lovely destination, and well worth a couple of days of sipping coffee in the cafes and strolling on the promenade. We stayed at a really good value guesthouse just outside the old town called Aadhaar (https://aadhaarguesthousepondicherry.wordpress.com/). Pondy was our first cyclone-free zone and we are rapidly settling in to the laid-back south Indian vibe.
Next up: our first train journey (for this trip), to Madurai