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Indian Ocean 101

101 ways to experience the best of the region, from surfing Madagascar's southern coast and community projects in Sri Lanka to eco retreats and ultra-luxury private island resorts. Here's a taster of our Indian Ocean 101 guide - free with the Jan/Feb 2014

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 22 May 2019, 15:26 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 11:43 BST
Medjumbe Island, Indian Ocean 101 Guide
Medjumbe Island, Indian Ocean 101 Guide

01 Experience: Surf’s up in Madagascar’s Fort Dauphin
Taking in my pasty, suncream-smeared pectorals and virgin board shorts, surf instructor Samson eyes me up dubiously. Clearly he’s never seen anything quite so white before. “You don’t look like no surfer,” he says in a slow drawl, dreadlocks shaking as he adjusts a pair of pink sunglasses. “Maybe you scare off the kids on the beach. They think you a ghost.”

After an early morning, hour-long flight from raucous Madagascan capital Antananarivo, I’m still getting used to the bright sunlight and bracing sea air of Fort Dauphin, also known as Tôlanaro. With its gorgeous beaches — complete with rusting shipwrecks — palm-fringed bays and atmosphere of gentle dilapidation, the old colonial city has already won me over.

Wednesday is surf school day here at Fort Dauphin’s Ankoba Bay, and I squint across the wide expanse of powdery sand at a group of local children frolicking in the gentle surf on polystyrene body boards. As a virtual surfing novice, it looks about my level.

“Well, you came to the right place to learn surfing, man,” continues Samson. “Grab that board and let’s see your moves.”

About 240 miles east of the African continent across the Mozambique Channel, Madagascar is a tropical Indian Ocean island. After the disastrous Marxist revolution of 1975, the government began to encourage visitors again from the late 1980s, hoping for an influx of tourist dollars. Still, much of the population remains desperately poor.

Despite its economic woes, Madagascar is one of the world’s new surfing frontiers. While the window of opportunity is limited to an arc of southern coastline between Fort Dauphin and Tulear (also called Toliara), a growing number of surfers are discovering that the region’s deserted beaches and fantastic breaks make this a true boarder’s paradise.

After a quick warm up and kit recap, it’s time to enter the water, which turns out to be surprisingly warm. Surfing is part of youth culture in Fort Dauphin, and a couple of young locals are soon inspecting my efforts. “Salama! Salama!” they cry. “Hello! Hello!”

Clean lines of waist-high swell are breaking, but even this gentle surf packs quite a punch. Fifteen minutes later and I’ve ridden my first wave standing up, albeit for a couple of seconds. Samson gives a thumbs up from the shore, while my newly acquired fan club, full of the aloha spirit, punch the air. Now all I need is a tan. Words: Daniel Allen

More info: Club Ankoba (Surf & Windsurf).


02 Andaman Islands, India
Sprinkled across the Bay of Bengal, the 572 Andaman Islands — part of India and still home to indigenous tribes — offer more than just miles of deserted beaches. It may be tempting to fly and flop on the picture perfect shores but with caves, jungle trails and India’s only active volcano to explore, there isn’t much time for sunbathing.

03 Jaffna Peninsula, Sri Lanka
Until recently, it was impossible to venture to this chain of islands around Jaffna on Sri Lanka’s northernmost tip, as civil war raged for almost 30 years. But peace has brought new beginnings and these undeveloped islands, home to wild horses, bright temples and coral forts are now open for business.

04 Bird Island, Seychelles
Many of Seychelles’ 115 islands are wildlife rich, but Bird Island is special. From October to January, you’ll see turtles laying eggs, and from December to March, hatchlings emerging. Look out for 200-year-old Esmeralda, the oldest free-roaming giant tortoise in the world. 

05 Pemba, Tanzania
Legend has it the island of Pemba was once home to a tribe of giants, so perhaps that’s why the crowds flock to Zanzibar, 30 miles to the south, leaving Pemba untouched by mass tourism. It has a rich history influenced by centuries of Portuguese and Arab occupation, towns full of chatty characters, and rural villages scented with heady clove trees.

06 Medjumbe Island, Mozambique
The Quirimbas Archipelago off Mozambique delivers a real Robinson Crusoe experience, with Medjumbe Island measuring just 3,250ft by 1,600ft. This private island in Quirimbas National Park has first class diving — the surrounding reefs are so unexplored that new dive sites are often named after the guests who discover them. 

07 Nosy Tsarabanjina, Madagascar
Nosy Be is Madagascar’s best-known island resort, but to escape the crowds head to Nosy Tsarabanjina, a private island 40 miles away. Snorkelling and boat trips are included free of charge for guests staying in luxurious palm-thatched villas. Sacred tombs of local tribal kings can be found on one of its secluded beaches. 

08 Editor’s pick: La Digue, Seychelles

“The larger islands of the Seychelles are not without their charms; the smaller resort islands are, in parts, luxurious and excel in eco credentials; but it’s the third island of La Digue that really seduces.

Home to only a handful of cars — transport is usually either by ox-cart or bicycle — the island is slow, sleepy and sublime; a pristine, unspoilt spot in paradise. The lush forest canopy and coconut palms, the scent of vanilla and orchids and, until recently, the only home of the endangered Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher bird — La Digue’s natural beauty is exceptional.

But it’s the huge granite boulders and stunning white sand beaches that really set it apart. And the pick of the bunch, Anse Source d’Argent — regularly voted the best beach in the world, and reputed to be the most photographed — is somewhere you never forget.” Words: Pat Riddell


09 Sundowners, Zanzibar
One of the best places to appreciate the ocean is from the elevated terrace of the Africa House Hotel in Stone Town. Each afternoon it’s packed with visitors clutching G&Ts and ordering dishes like mangrove crab salad and Zanzibari fish curry. 

10 Local flavours, Mauritius
Mauritius entertains the inquisitive of palate with domestic dishes such as rougaille — a soupy mix of tomatoes and onions loaded with fish or prawns. Try it at Le Fangourin in the north of the island.

11 Dine in style, Sri Lanka
Hunker down in Colombo’s Gallery Cafe, just off Galle Road, for both local and western fare in a courtyard structure built by iconic Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. 

12 Gallic gastronomy, La Reunion
It might be in a different hemisphere from the French mainland, but La Reunion — 130 miles south west of its more famous neighbour, Mauritius — serves up some of the finest French pastries you’ll ever find. And don’t miss a plate of kari — a tamarind-infused creole curry.

13 Maputo, Mozambique
The Centro Cultural Franco-Mocambicano recalls Mozambique’s 1977-1992 civil war in its cafe, set amid sculptures made from rusty battlefield detritus and serving great sandwiches. 

14 Coco Rouge, Seychelles
For authentic creole cuisine in laid-back surrounds, you won’t find much better than this family-run, unpretentious place on Praslin where fresh seafood comes as standard. T: 00 248 23 22 28.

15 Experience: Ibo Island, Mozambique
At least Pompeii knew its executioner — Vesuvius, there at its shoulder, spewing hot ash and asphyxiation. When the Reaper came for Ibo, he was more discrete. The tide of history was his weapon, the colonial era ending suddenly in 1975, as Mozambique shook off the Portuguese hand that had clutched it for almost five centuries. But it was a death as emphatic as that in first-century Italy — a town wiped out, its elegant homes left eerily empty, its residents seemingly vanished into the ether.

One of the 27 islands that make up the Quirimbas Archipelago — the scattered shards decorating the ocean off the northeast coast of Mozambique — Ibo was one of imperial Portugal’s bases in southeast Africa. At its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, this was a place of wealth and opportunity, built on ivory, gold and slavery. Substantial homes sprung up on Rua da Publica and Rua do Matadouro, while, at the water’s edge, the swarthy sentry of Fort de São João protected the merchants who lived extravagantly within its shadow.

Their descendants were still here when Mozambique gained its independence — but few stayed to see the new republic’s baby steps. They fled to Europe, leaving their mansions to the decaying touch of the salt air and the utter indifference of the indigenous islanders.

Strolling Rua da Publica, ambling into structures that four decades of neglect have turned to husks, I realise I’m the only person interested in this fragile scene. Ibo’s African populace is busy, off fishing to support the modern village spreading out north of the old town — visibly unfussed about the fate of structures that once represented oppression.

Yet there’s a beauty to all this faded grandeur — and a future. Ibo is under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and some of its properties are being restored with tourism in mind. The brightest example is Ibo Island Lodge, a splendid mercantile pile that’s been converted into a hotel. Here, for three nights, I sleep in one of its high-ceilinged rooms, eat well at the roof terrace restaurant — and watch the sun set on the embers of empire. Words: Chris Leadbeater

More info: Double rooms at Ibo Island Lodge cost from $295 (£182) a head per night, including meals and a tour of the old town. 


Read the Indian Ocean 101 Guide in full, free with National Geographic Traveller (UK) Jan/Feb 2014 issue.

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