Use this getaway guide to pick your ideal Indian Ocean island escape
Palm trees, coral reefs, volcanic outcrops or weird creatures? Whichever one floats your boat, there's an island - within easy reach of SA - that's perfect for you
SEYCHELLES: INSTAGRAM-WORTHY PERFECTION
Few islands in the Indian Ocean deliver unfiltered tropical paradise quite like the Seychelles. This archipelago of 115 islands a stone’s throw south of the equator is almost impossibly photogenic, from the palm trees and powder-white beaches to its ancient forests filled with endemic birdlife.
Mahé is the largest island, home to the international airport and the quaint capital of Victoria.
It’s well worth spending a few hours discovering the colourful stalls of the Sir Selwyn Clarke Market, and the colourful Arul Mihu Navasakthi Vinayagar Hindu Temple across the road. Up in the hills, make time to visit the restaurant and historic gardens of Jardin du Roi. Panoramic views are a bonus.
An hour’s ferry ride away you’ll find the charming island of La Digue. Here the pace is slower and most visitors get around by bicycle or ox-cart. L’Union Estate is a popular drawcard, with its vanilla plantations and collection of Aldabra giant tortoises. You’re also just a short walk from the most famous beach in the Seychelles: the impossibly gorgeous Anse Source d’Argent.
The island of Praslin, a short boat ride away, is something of a Goldilocks option. There’s a better spread of hotels and guesthouses, but with the same laid-back charm as La Digue.
The ancient forests of the Vallée de Mai, one of two World Heritage Sites in the Seychelles, are a must-visit. Walk the shady trails quietly and you may spot endemic Black Parrots in the high boughs of the famed Coco de Mer palm trees.
On the north coast the sands of Anse Lazio are simply made for Instagram, while the beachside restaurant of Bon Bon Plume is famous for its fragrant Creole-style prawn curry.
While the Seychelles is certainly an expensive island escape, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Self-catering cottages are available, with supermarkets in most villages for buying the basics.
Dining at laid-back local-friendly restaurants will save you plenty, while opting for a bike or local bus cuts down on expensive taxi fares. — Richard Holmes
• For more info, see seychelles.travel
RÉUNION: ADVENTURE AWAITS
It's not often you visit an island to see a volcano, but on the isle of Réunion the Piton de la Fournaise, the Peak of the Furnace, more than lives up to its dramatic moniker.
This active volcano - the last eruption was in mid-2017 - is an unlikely star of this Indian Ocean island; adding a fiery day trip to Reunion's famed beaches and mountain trails.
Réunion owes its dramatic topography to volcanic activity. Lush mountains rise steeply from the coast, topping out at 3,000 metres on the summit of Piton des Neiges, the Peak of Snow, just 20km away. That's a bit like driving out of Durban and cresting Sani Pass just past Pinetown.
It’s a dramatic landscape that demands at least a week, and a hire car, to explore properly. A ring road encircles the island, making self-drive holidays a breeze.
You’ll find homely guesthouses and delicious Creole cuisine across the island
Start with some R&R at the stylish beach resorts of St-Gilles-le-Bain or Boucan Canot in the northwest, but don’t get too comfortable.
There are forest trails in Bélouve above the Cirque of Salazie in the east, and paragliding above the seaside village of St Leu in the west.
Want to get wet? Try kayaking down La Rivière des Marsouins, or snorkelling with dolphins in the north of the island.
There’s no shortage of adventure, but you’ll find homely guesthouses and delicious Creole cuisine across the island.
An excellent hideaway is the remarkable mountain town of Cilaos. Encircled by the craggy ridges of an extinct volcano, it’s a charming village that appears lifted from the Alps and plonked down in the Indian Ocean. Switchback trails in the surrounding mountains have made this a hot destination for mountain bikers and trail runners alike.
From baguettes in the corner boulangeries to a warm bonjour in the waves, Réunion is a slice of France cast away in the Indian Ocean. Happily, no visa required. — Richard Holmes
• For more info, see en.reunion.fr
RODRIGUES: LOW-KEY & LOW ON FRILLS
The smallest island in the Mascarenes Archipelago is also the most charming. Just a 90-minute flight from Mauritius, Rodrigues swops resorts and busy roads for winding coastal tracks and amiable family-run gîtes.
Island life is centred on the capital of Port Mathurin, where a stroll through the lively Saturday market will dish up stalls selling everything from honey to woven hats to fiery local chillies.
Rather base yourself at one of the small coastal hotels though, where local boatmen – or organised tour operators – will show you the secrets of the encircling coral lagoon. Rodrigues is just 18km long by 6km wide, but the lagoon is three times the size of the island.
Calm waters and steady trade winds have made it a haven for savvy kite-surfers, but the waters here are also alive with local fishermen: women catching octopus on the reef at low tide, and boats searching the sandy flats for local carangue.
The deeper channels that cut through the reef also offer superb scuba diving for the adventurous. If you’re not, hop on a boat for a day trip to the idyllic Ile aux Cocos, one of 20 protected islands in the lagoon.
It’s a bird refuge that will have twitchers atwitter, home to everything from Fairy Terns to Brown Noddies and White-tailed Tropic Birds.
If it’s history you’re after, stop in at the François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Caves Reserve, which aims to rehabilitate a small corner of the island to resemble the years before the first French settlers arrived.
The island is low-key and low on frills, but overflowing with authentic Creole hospitality.
— Richard Holmes
• For more info, see tourism-rodrigues.mu
MAURITIUS: SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
This scattering of islands that travel writer Lawrence Green once called “a little fragment of 18th-century France far out in the Indian Ocean” is probably the most-visited of all the Indian Ocean archipelagos — at least as far as South Africans go — and for good reason.
It’s closer than the Seychelles and Maldives and there are well-priced direct flights on South African Airways from Johannesburg and on Air Mauritius from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Its tourism infrastructure is also vibrant, with resorts and hotels for all tastes and budgets.
I spent a week in Mauritius at the end of 2016, staying at Beachcomber’s Victoria and Paradis resorts. With its long passageways open to the tropical air and stands of casuarina trees dug into the sand, Victoria feels like like a lovely resort hotel in Mozambique in 1970. Paradis, meanwhile, sprawls among rustling palms, emerald-green golf links and a fine strip of beach on the island’s southwestern tip.
Each hotel offered a different perspective on this exotic island chain. Victoria — a laid-back resort popular with families — is close enough to the tourist centre of Grande Baie and Port Louis for day trips inbetween chilling by the pool.
Paradis, on the other hand, looks and feels like an adventure. The lofty bulk of Le Morne Brabant — whose forests once sheltered runaway slaves — and the little bays carved into this part of the coast — offer more of the tropical island ideal.
It is a magnificent place to play golf and there are other diversions in the area such as an excellent tour on e-bikes of the nearby towns such as Souillac which offer glimpses to a side of Mauritius most visitors miss (see electrobikemauritius.com). — Paul Ash
• For more info, see mauritius.net
MALDIVES: ISLAND FANTASY
Public service announcement: I have been to The Maldives — 1,192 islands dotted about 26 natural coral atolls southwest of India — just once and then only for a couple of days.
But that brief and lovely stay at The Residence on Falhumaafushi island at the southern end of the Maldivian archipelago reawakened me to the four necessities of a decent island holiday: eating well, sleeping long and peacefully, snorkelling in clear water along a reef — the first creature I saw was a turtle finning along in the blue — and chilling in abundance.
I suspect that The Maldivian experience is mostly a slight variation on the same theme. You land in Malé, the capital, and then hop on a smaller aircraft to your island, in this case a 55-minute flight to Kooddoo Island in the Gaafu Alifu atoll. From there it was a seven-minute speedboat ride to The Residence (and this may have been the best boat ride of my life).
The days are full of simple wonder. You can have a private beach picnic. There is yoga at sunset or a cocktail-mixing course with the barman and a cooking course with the executive chef.
Many of the resorts have villas built on stilts over a turquoise sea and The Residence is no exception — only my villa also had an infinity pool built in which allowed me the unique experience of going for a goof while listening to the sea lap below me.
The Maldives is a dollar-denominated destination and prices at most resorts vary widely according to demand. It’s not cheap — and you also have a long-haul flight to get there.
MADAGASCAR: WILDLIFE GALORE
For the truest type of castaway feeling, in lush, untouched lands teeming with curious creatures and plant life, Madagascar must be the one. At 587,041km², it is the fourth-largest island in the world.
That sheer size, along with its proximity to mainland Africa, takes the credit for its being home today to some of the world’s most unique flora and fauna, including lemurs, chameleons, carnivorous plants, orchids, and towering baobab trees.
Close to 90% of all plant and animal species found in Madagascar are endemic, and that means an incredible range of creatures and plants that you simply won’t see anywhere else in the world.
The mainland’s 2,000km length also means an incredible scenic diversity, from volcanic lakes to lush rainforests, wetland areas to high escarpments, baobab avenues to tropical beaches, along with a fascinating population whose culture is a blend of African, Arabic and Indian influences.
Its crown-jewel tourist area is the 320km² Nosy Be island, off the northwest coast, which has a national park and a string of nearby, smaller islands.
Its relative lack of development means it’s not (yet) overpopulated with strings of sanitised resorts, though there are accommodations as luxurious or as rustic as you like.
If you’re flying from South Africa, it’s also the least amount of flying time compared to its Indian Ocean competitors — Airlink flies once-weekly directly to Nosy Be — and that’s a win too.
The only caveat is some questionable wildlife practices — jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those lemurs?— so try to go with reputable operators and don’t pay a stranger on a beach to show you some turtles.
To live the ultimate dream, rent a catamaran (with crew) and meander from deserted island to desert island by day, swim, snorkel or dive with giant turtles, then dine at night on fresh-caught seafood and drift off to sleep, rocking gently under the stars, ready to wake up — still dreaming — tomorrow. — Elizabeth Sleith
• For more info, see madagascat.co.za