An A to Z of the Indian Ocean

From the showstopping bay of Anse Source d’Argent to the storied capital of Zanzibar, the Indian Ocean offers an expansive catalogue of exotic flavours, eco-hideaways and groundbreaking conservation work.

Thursday, August 27, 2020,
By Emma Gregg
Grey heron on the beach at Bandos Island, the Maldives. 

Grey heron on the beach at Bandos Island, the Maldives. 

Photograph by Getty Images

From dipping your toes in the showstopping bay of Anse Source d’Argent to exploring the storied capital of Zanzibar, the Indian Ocean offers an expansive catalogue of exotic flavours, eco-hideaways and groundbreaking conservation work protecting a vast menagerie of endangered wildlife. Incorporating African and Asian shorelines and archipelagos, it may be a little while before we’re able to visit, but that doesn’t stop us dreaming...

Sunrise over Anse Source D’Argent on La Digue Island in the Seychelles.

Photograph by Getty Images

Anse Source D’argent


How do you pick a favourite beach in the Seychelles? With its coral sands and remote location, the star of La Digue makes a play for travellers’ hearts. 

Steeped in desert-island allure, the Seychelles archipelago is scattered with drop-dead gorgeous beaches. It’s almost impossible to choose a favourite. Anse Source d’Argent on the island of La Digue, however, is something special. Its backdop is dramatically architectural. Huge grey granite boulders, as tall as mansions and curvaceous as elephants, frame the scene. Light bounces gently off the sea and the water is as shallow as a paddling pool. Along with Anse Intendance on Mahé and Anse Lazio on Praslin, its supermodel good looks are legendary. These shores are also models of marine conservation. In March 2020, the Seychelles announced the final details of a new initiative to designate 30% of its waters — a region larger than Germany — as Marine Protected Areas, to help safeguard ocean species, habitats and livelihoods against over-fishing and the effects of climate change. With a name that means ‘silver spring’, the kilometre-long Anse Source d’Argent is particularly envy-inducing. It’s a quintessential paradise, with immaculate coral sand, impossibly blue water and the luxury of solitude — sheer heaven. 

How to do it: Mahlatini offers an 11-day trip to Mahé and La Digue in the Seychelles from £3,270 per person sharing, including half-board accommodation, transfers and return flights from London. 

Biryani 

The Indian Ocean is one of the world’s most colourful culinary melting pots: the air is scented with spices; breakfast tables are laden with ripe, juicy fruit; and chefs work African and Asian ingredients into dishes such as biryani (rice with spices and marinaded meat or vegetables), bhuna (curry based on spices fried in oil) and golden breadfruit fritters, fried in gram flour batter. Cooking classes are available in resorts across the region: in the Maldives, for example, luxury eco-resort Constance Moofushi offers kitchen masterclasses on request. 

Comoros

Also known as the Comoro Islands — Grande Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan — Comoros is among the region’s best-kept secrets. In Moroni, the capital, you may detect hints of the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar in the narrow lanes and carved doors. Wildlife-wise, the islands echo Madagascar, with mongoose lemurs on Anjouan and whales and dolphins offshore. But in many ways, the Comoros is a place apart — and fascinating for it.

Dodos

Gone but not forgotten, dodos live on as an emblem of Mauritius — they feature in the island’s passport stamp. Poignantly, they’ve also come to symbolise the mass extinction that threatens our planet. For the past 50 years, Mauritius has had a conservation network that’s focused on the nation’s endangered plant and wildlife species. Île aux Aigrettes, a protected islet off the east coast, is one of its gems. 

Elephants

Strangely, perhaps, Africa has few safari regions that include Indian Ocean beaches as well as wildlife-rich savannah. Tanzania’s Saadani National Park is one of those rare, magical places. Base yourself at Saadani Safari Lodge and you can spend your days in a four-wheel-drive vehicle searching for herds of elephants. They move between the trees and the Wami River, cooling themselves with slow flaps of their ears. 

Elephants roam Tanzania’s wildlife-rich savannahs. 

Photograph by Getty

Festivals

Time your trip to coincide with a festival for the guarantee of a vibrant atmosphere. 

1. Sauti Za Busara, Tanzania
Zanzibar’s annual live music festival is one of Africa’s best, showcasing local taarab and bongo flava bands alongside African stars from as far afield as Algeria and South Africa. 11–14 February 2021. 

2. Holi, Mauritius
Culturally diverse Mauritius has a packed calendar of festivals. The most colourful of these is Holi, a two-day Hindu celebration involving bonfires, music and the good-humoured showering of friends and neighbours with fistfuls of gulal powder in rainbow hues. 28–29 March 2021. 

3. Azgo, Mozambique
For five days in May, Maputo’s annual arts festival, Azgo — local slang for ‘let’s go!’ — floods the campus of Eduardo Mondlane University with Mozambican and pan-African music, cinema screenings and adventurous art shows. 19–23 May 2021.

A giant tortoise ambling around in Île aux Aigrettes, Mauritius.

Photograph by Getty

Giant tortoises

Once found on almost every continent, giant tortoises were hunted to near-extinction during the Age of Exploration (from the 15th to the 17th century). However, in the Seychelles, a late 19th-century ban on their slaughter saved the Indian Ocean’s last tiny population. There are now around 150,000 Aldabra tortoises, mostly on the island of Aldabra. This atoll is breathtakingly remote, but if you’re keen to see some huge reptiles lumbering around, there’s a more accessible alternative: Curieuse Island, which can be reached by water taxi from Praslin Island. 

Humpback whales 

Most of us are familiar with East Africa’s Great Migration, which gallops across Kenya’s Maasai Mara between July and October each year. But have you heard of East Africa’s Marine Migration? At around the same time the wildebeest and zebras are arriving from the Serengeti, humpback whales appear in Kenya’s coastal waters, ready to breed. Some calve in the warm, calm refuge of Watamu Marine National Park. The Watamu Marine Association has been studying them since 2011, and runs a project allowing tourists to add their sightings to its database. 

A youngster cycles through the streets of Stone Town, Island of Mozambique.

Photograph by AWL Images

Island of Mozambique 

In its medieval heyday, Africa’s Swahili Coast was dotted with prosperous trading posts. Tragically, some of their most magnificent buildings crumbled away after independence, but in Mozambique’s first capital, Ilha (as the locals know it), many mansions have been restored, with appealing guesthouses, galleries and museums popping up on the historic streets.

Jungle

At Tree Tops Jungle Lodge in Sri Lanka, lying in a hammock surrounded by the squawks of wildlife is the perfect way to relax. Deforestation has plagued the coastline, but here, a glorious swathe of jungle has been restored.

Kreol culture 

Mauritius is awash with European influences, but at Zilwa Attitude hotel, indigenous culture comes first. Kreol proverbs decorate the bedroom walls and staff organise language lessons and visits to locals’ homes. 

a ring-tailed lemur carries a baby on its back, Berenty Reserve, Madagascar.

Photograph by Getty Images

Lemurs

A nighttime safari in Madagascar reveals another side of the rainforest: this biodiverse African island is the endemic home of the lemur, one of the world’s most endangered mammal groups. 

Nocturnal lemurs peer down at me with a pointed stare. I’m tiptoeing through a patch of ancient Madagascan rainforest, flicking my torchlight through the trees, and tiny lights are beaming steadily back at me: eyeshine. As I approach the closest pair of eyes, details appear: the round, furry face and long, fluffy tail of a mouse lemur. 

“Let’s continue,” says Sesen, my guide, who has known this forest since childhood. “It’s best not to dazzle them for long. A snake may be watching.”

In Madagascar, it’s perfectly possible to wander along forest paths at night. In fact, I’d highly recommend it. Elsewhere in the tropics, a nocturnal forest walk can be terrifying, with creepy-crawlies, venomous snakes and dangerous mammals to watch out for. But in Madagascar, no such worries apply — if you’re a human, that is. If you’re a lemur, you need to watch out. Here in Madagascar’s central highlands, mouse lemurs live alongside Malagasy tree boas, non-venomous snakes that can grow to over two metres long. The boas have thermoreceptive pits that allow them to work out exactly where their prey is.

“Don’t worry — I’ve never known our snakes to attack people”, says Sesen, as if reading my mind. Relieved, I tiptoe onwards.

Planning this nocturnal adventure was as simple as waiting for nightfall and following Sesen into the forest. As the darkness deepens, I’m glad to be accompanied by a guide with a calm attitude and a good sense of direction. Everything looks different by torchlight. A panther chameleon wobbling on a twig looks monstrous, and owl screeches sound like screams.

The next morning, I wake from a dream of swimming in the ocean with whales calling all around. As I blink awake, the dream fades, but the sounds remain. Fuzzily, I recognise it. My cabin at Saha Forest Camp overlooks a curtain of trees that’s home to the indri, Madagascar’s largest and most vocal lemur. Lemurs flourished on this island, but illegal activities like mining have whittled away their habitat, leaving their numbers threatened. To have seen — and heard — them in the wild is indeed the stuff of dreams. 

How to do it: Rainbow Tours can arrange a 17-day escorted wildlife-watching tour of Madagascar from £4,520 per person, including accommodation, flights and domestic transport. 

Mayotte

The steep, volcanic peaks of this island — a French overseas department — are popular with hikers. Below them are fertile slopes, fragrant with vanilla and cloves and lush with banana, papaya and jackfruit trees.

Nightlife 

Mombasa is the buzzing centre of Kenya’s coastal party scene. Check out Tapas Cielo bar in the Nyali area, Moonshine beach bar at The Reef Hotel Mombasa and Shots Bar in the Bamburi area. 

Off-grid retreats and eco-lodges 

Hoteliers are creating planet-friendly places to stay in sublime, natural settings.

1. Alphonse Island, the Seychelles
The chalets on private Alphonse Island, in southwestern Seychelles, come with their own bicycles, allowing guests to freely trundle along the palm-fringed paths. Naturalists offer updates on the comings and goings of turtles, and the diving is superb. 

2. The Rainforest Ecolodge, Sri Lanka
For a wraparound rainforest experience, try a nature walk from The Rainforest Ecolodge. The hotel stands on a tea estate bordering the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Sinharaja Forest Reserve — the country’s largest primary rainforest.

3. Mafia Archipelago, Tanzania
Five islands make up Mafia Archipelago. The capital, Kilindoni, is a sandy-laned town surrounded by mangroves and papaya trees. Chole Bay, meanwhile, is one of Tanzania’s top snorkelling destinations, its reefs teeming with clownfish and rays. Stay at Pole Pole, overlooking the bay. 

Prawn fritters are known as ‘crevettes croustillantes' in Mauritius. 

Photograph by National Geographic Traveller

Prawn fritters

Selina Periampillai, a Mauritian chef and author of The Island Kitchen cookbook, serves up her recipe for prawn fritters (known as ‘crevettes croustillantes’). 

Serves:Takes: 30 mins
Ingredients
1 tbsp spring onion, finely chopped (approximately 2 spring onions)
1 green chilli, finely chopped
2.5cm piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
150g raw king prawns
1 lemon, ½ juiced, ½ cut into wedges
1 tsp soy sauce
30g plain flour
30g cornflour
1 egg, beaten
500ml vegetable oil, for deep-frying

Method
1. Mix the spring onion, chilli, ginger, garlic, prawns, lemon juice and soy sauce in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside to marinate for 15 mins. 
2. Combine the plain flour and cornflour in a bowl, then add 30ml chilled water and the beaten egg and whisk gently.
3. Pour the oil into a deep frying pan and heat until the temperature reaches 180C on a cooking thermometer. Scoop out the prawns from the marinade and pat dry with kitchen paper. Dip the prawns into the batter one by one, then deep-fry in the oil for around 2 mins until lightly browned and crisp. 
4. Drain, then immediately serve with the lemon wedges. 

The Island Kitchen by Selina Periampillai (Bloomsbury Publishing, £26) is out now.

Quirimbas Archipelago

The azure waters, coral reefs and luxurious lodges of Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago promise the ultimate island idyll. Ibo Island Lodge, located on the north west of Ibo Island, comprises three magnificent waterfront mansions and is the perfect base for an island-hopping escape, with plenty of opportunities to explore by kayak, dhow and standup paddleboard.

Hell-Bourg, a small village in Réunion. 

Photograph by Getty

Réunion

The island of Réunion, 420 miles east of Madagascar, is a jumble of jagged, UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed peaks, thrusting up to 10,000ft into the sky. Among them is Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Steppes Travel offers bespoke hiking and beach holidays that explore La Réunion’s zigzagging trails. Afterwards, maybe head to nearby Mauritius for a well-earned chillout. 

Swahili

Learn a little Swahili and it will always smooth your path in Kenya. Hotel staff often greet guests with a cheery ‘karibu’ (‘welcome’). The well-known hakuna matata’ (‘no problem’) is a firm favourite too. To break the ice, practise saying ‘habari?’ (‘how are you?’). 

Hawksbill turtles on a reef in the Seychelles.

Photograph by Getty Images

Turtles

A paradise idyll in the Seychelles, North Island is as passionate about the environment as its luxury credentials. Ayyoub Salameh, the general manager of North Island, discusses the island resort’s rehabiliation and conservation efforts. 

Hawksbill and green turtle numbers are dwindling. Visitors with four weeks or more to spare can help by working as Marine Conservation Volunteers on North Island in the Seychelles, assisting environmentalists in monitoring turtles and other endangered species as part of a long-running ecosystem restoration project. 

Why do sea turtles need protecting?
They’re keystone species. For example, green turtles keep the seagrass beds healthy by grazing on them, and their egg shells and the hatchlings that don’t make it add important nutrients to the ecosystem. By safeguarding the nesting sites of hawksbill and green turtles for two decades, we’ve seen a remarkable increase in turtles nesting here.

What’s the main threat to their survival?
Truthfully, fishing gear and rubbish in the ocean. Turtles can drown if they get caught in debris. To tackle this, North Island is plastic-free. We’ve banned single-use plastic and, every morning, our beach patrols collect rubbish carried by the trade winds and recycle it to ensure it doesn’t re-enter the ocean.

How is ecotourism in the Seychelles aiding marine conservation?
It’s educating people, while raising funds to enable us to do more. The non-profit organisation Wildlife ACT has been an amazing partner. One of the original team, Elliot Mokhobo, fell in love with the flora and fauna of the island and decided to stay on. He’s one of our best-loved guides. north-island.com

Underwater adventures

With low-lying islands surrounded by shimmering reefs, the Maldives is a superb place to learn to snorkel and scuba dive, or perhaps advance your skills. For the ultimate indulgence, you can experience the ocean from the comfort of your bed by booking the ultra-exclusive The Muraka, at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island. Launched in late 2018 for an eye-watering $200,000 (£160,000) per four-night stay, this two-level lagoon suite has a submerged bedroom with huge windows and an arched ceiling of transparent acrylic. It’s like sleeping in a private aquarium. kagimaldives.com

Vanilla

Around 80% of the world’s vanilla pods are grown in Madagascar. With a minimum export price of £280 per kilo, it’s a treat when hotel housekeepers leave them on your pillow. Sweet and evocative, vanilla is so quintessential an island commodity that Madagascar, Seychelles, Réunion, Mauritius, Comoros and Mayotte chose the name Vanilla Islands for their tourism partnership, which encourages visitors to island-hop. 

Windsurfing in Mauritius.

Photograph by Getty Images

Watersports 

Mauritius has a wild side. In the south west, a basalt monolith, Le Morne Brabant, acts as a natural throttle, whipping up winds that set hearts racing among the windsurfers and kitesurfers who flock here. One Eye break, to the west, is famously lively and should only be tackled at high tide. For beginners, Le Morne Lagoon is ideal, with resorts such as Lux Le Morne offering lessons. 

Xylophone music

Handmade from wood, with hollow gourd resonators beneath the keys, the marimba is Africa’s xylophone. In Kenya and Tanzania’s laidback beach resorts, you’ll often hear rippling marimba melodies floating on the breeze. Together with acoustic or electric guitars and wood-and-goatskin drums, they’re a mainstay of the local bands that entertain at hotels and bars.

Ylang-ylang flowers 

Marilyn Monroe would’ve felt perfectly at home on the island of Nosy Be, in northwest Madagascar. It’s one of the world’s biggest producers of ylang-ylang, whose sweet, exotic fragrance adds a tropical frisson to Chanel No 5, Monroe’s favourite perfume. With glamorous resort hotels and direct flights from Rome and Milan with Neos, Nosy Be is popular with beach-loving Italians, and others are catching on, too. 

Fruit stalls — with guava, bananas and oranges — add a burst of green, yellow and orange to Stone Town’s diverse colour palette.

Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer.

Zanzibar

This year, Stone Town, the historic quarter of Zanzibar City, celebrates its 20th year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As ever, a cultural tour is the perfect complement to any time spent lazing on Zanzibar’s shores. 

If, after a safari in Tanzania, the ocean is calling, a trip to the pale, palm-fringed beaches of Zanzibar is the answer. As a bonus, Stone Town, the historic capital of Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago, is fascinating to explore. For much of the past two millennia, the sheltered bay on Unguja’s western shore was the Indian Ocean’s most treasured harbour. From as early as the first century, merchants from Yemen, Iran and west India were anchoring here to strike deals with the spice, ivory and slave traders based along the Swahili Coast. By the 10th century, Stone Town was beginning to take shape. With Portugal, Oman and Britain taking turns to preside over it between the 16th and 20th centuries, it absorbed influences from all three, as well as from Arabia and India.

Present-day Stone Town is an intriguing jumble of narrow streets and alleys, shaded from the tropical sun by coral stone mansions with heavy wooden doors. Many have vine leaves and flowers carved into their frame, an indication that the house was built for a spice merchant — there’s a good example at Emerson on Hurumzi, a boutique hotel. Other doors feature geometric patterns, tradesmen’s symbols or passages from the Koran. Some are studded with brass spikes, an 18th-century fashion imported from India, where doors were heavily reinforced to withstand charging elephants. 

In 2020, Stone Town celebrates the 20th anniversary of its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wander the alleys on foot, and you’ll discover shops and galleries stuffed with African antiques, fabrics and tinga tingas, brightly coloured paintings that are distinctively Tanzanian. Memories of Zanzibar has a large selection, and you can sometimes watch local artists at work at the Cultural Arts Centre. To take in the cityscape over cocktails and lunch, head to the rooftop Tea House at Emerson Spice  

How to do it: Audley Travel typically offers a 12-day trip to Tanzania, with four nights on safari at Selous Game Reserve and five nights in Zanzibar, from £3,810 per person, sharing. Includes accommodation, flights from London and all domestic transport. For more information on Audley’s flexible bookings promise, visit audleytravel.com.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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