The island hopper's guide to the Indian Ocean

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Imagine a perfect talcum-powder beach, palm-fringed and coral- necklaced. Multiply it by about a thousand, and you get the islands of the Indian Ocean. As a result, they play host to probably the world's highest concentration of honeymooners. So what is there to do, apart from hold hands? By Martin Symington

WHERE SHOULD I START?

One option is to start on the African mainland. A beach holiday on a tropical island is a relaxing way to round off a safari - particularly one which has involved gruelling overland road journeys. If you have been in Kenya or Tanzania, the Seychelles are an obvious choice: paradise idylls of the Bounty ad variety, complete with oodles of talcum powder sand and obligingly swaying palm fronds. A tad south of the Equator and just a couple of hour's flight from Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, they also make good practical sense.

For similar reasons, Mauritius pairs up well with Southern Africa - Zimbabwe, South Africa or Botswana. An intriguing, far more obscure alternative is Mozambique's Bazaruto archipelago. Three specks within sight off the mainland - Magaruque, Benguerua and Bazaruto - serve up a cocktail of tropical island cliches.

The thousands of coral atolls and fingernails of desert island which comprise the Maldives can also be combined with a dose of hot and dusty travel - in India or Sri Lanka. Somak (0181-423 3000), Cox and Kings (0171- 873 5000), W&O (0171-313 6611) and Partnership Travel (0181-343 3446) all offer this option. Expect to pay about pounds 700 for a week's B&B, on top of the cost of the Indian holiday, including the extra flight sectors. One other possibility for the Maldives is to stop over in Dubai.

If you are coming from the UK for a beach holiday without an African or Indian diversion, the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives remain the chart-topping trio. However, your destination options are wider. The Comoros, between the east African coast and Madagascar, are re-emerging from political turmoil as a trophy destination for the more adventurous beachcomber. There is also Reunion to the south-east, which has been French for 350 years and a departement of the motherland. Try Sunset (0171-498 9922).

For the Bazaruto islands, contact Partnership Travel (0181-343 3446), which offers stays of a week on a choice of islands for pounds 1,578 full board including flights from Johannesburg. It is also possible to fly from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

WHAT IF I DON'T WANT TO LIE ON A BEACH?

There's plenty else, starting with wildlife. Madagascar tops any naturalist's list. Most people have heard of the lemurs, those bizarre little primates ranging from cuddly ringtails to the elusive and unearthly indri-indris, whose cry carries three miles. If you've never seen an orange frog or chameleon with independently swivelling eyes (one eye sees into the future, the other into the past, according to local belief), this is the place. The stretch of water between Ile St Marie and the mainland is also one of the best places in the world to watch humpbacked whales; they're there between July and September. Okavango Tours and Safaris, 0181-343 3283, puts together bespoke Madagascar itineraries. Two weeks cost from about pounds 2,000 per person.

The Seychelles' wildlife showpiece is the Aldabra Atoll with its colony of 10,000 giant land turtles. Mauritius has various national parks and nature reserves including the Domaine du Chasseur, home to monkeys and wild pigs living in dense rainforest.

Reunion has some glorious mountain scenery and exploded volcano craters, now forested.

Tour operators conducting specialist nature and wildlife holidays include Naturetrek (01962 733051), which has a 24-day trip departing 28 October, costing pounds 3,290 including flights, accommodation and all meals; and a 16- day bird-watching trip to the Seychelles, departing 9 October, for pounds 3,295. Discover the World (01737 218800) offers 17-day escorted trips to Madagascar in May, August and October for pounds 2,520, and 15-day wildlife and botanical tours of the Seychelles.

WHAT ABOUT DIVING?

Yes, scuba diving is a principal reason for some trips to the Indian Ocean, an integral part of many more, and at least an option for pretty much everybody else. For the truly dedicated diver, the choice will be the Maldives every time. "There is no other world-class diving in the Indian Ocean" is the consensus among cognoscenti. The reason is that the ocean currents produce a coral growth - responsible for the atolls which are the Maldives themselves - of an extraordinary extravagance. In addition, the fish life is awesome, right up to reef sharks and manta rays five metres across. Yet even in the most superlative of dive sites, there are persistent reports of "coral bleaching" - death of coral owing to a rise in sea temperatures, which some experts in turn blame on greenhouse gas- fuelled global warming. The diving season is August to September.

The most dedicated divers stay on live-aboard boats, exploring a different site each day. Maldives Scuba Tours (01449 780 220) offers week-long trips starting at pounds 1,200 aboard MV Keema. The price includes flights, full board accommodation and unlimited diving. The company also has hotel-based diving packages and various options combining the two. Another specialist company to try for live-aboard options is Divequest (01254 826322). Harlequin (01708 850 330) produces a Worldwide Scuba Diving collection, including various hotel-based diving packages in the Maldives and the Seychelles.

The Seychelles also have quite a bit to offer the experienced scuba diver but, being on the shallow African continental plate, they do not have the variety of the Maldives. The January to March season is well known for whale shark encounters. One trophy destination for the most serious divers, however, is Aldabra, the world's largest atoll, which belongs to the Seychelles, but is nearer the northern tip of Madagascar. It is accessible only by live-aboard between April and December.

More casual divers should not be put off Mauritius, which has plentiful coral and other marine life. The island offers other options for viewing life beneath the waves in the form of submarine trips and "seabed strolling" whereby you put on weights and a glass helmet, and amble along the seabed - wearing glasses or contact lenses, if necessary.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

On a scheduled flight, probably, because many destinations in the region - notably the Seychelles and Mauritius - ban charters on the grounds that they might drag their tourism downmarket. This, of course, goes a long way towards explaining the high cost of holidays in the region. British Airways (0345 222111) flies direct from Gatwick to Mauritius (pounds 862.50) and to the Seychelles (pounds 764.90). Air Mauritius (0171-434 4375) flies from Gatwick and Air Seychelles (01293 596 656) from Heathrow.

There are dozens of tour operators, both mainstream and specialist, offering packages. There are wider options to the Maldives. Tour operators running charters include Kuoni (01306 743000) from Gatwick and First Choice (0870 750 0001) from Gatwick or Manchester. Scheduled flights include Emirates (0171-808 0808) via Dubai; and Air Lanka (0181-538 2000) via Colombo. For Madagascar you have to go via Paris and choose between Air Madagascar (01293 596665), from pounds 725 from Heathrow and with a serious risk of having your luggage delayed; and Air France fares from pounds 872 through consolidators Brightways (0181-574 2622) with the choice of starting from a variety of UK regional airports. The same advantage applies to flying Air France to Reunion via Paris (fares from pounds 720 through Brightways, 0181-574 2622). The easiest route to the Comoros is with Emirates (0171-808 0808) via Dubai.

There are frequent flights to Lamu from Nairobi and Mombassa, and to Zanzibar from Nairobi, Mombassa and Dar es Salaam. There are also various options by sea, including hydrofoils to Zanzibar from Dar and Mombassa. All the mainstream East African safari tour operators offer extensions on Lamu and Zanzibar.

WHAT ABOUT ISLAND HOPPING?

There are numerous permutations of boat trips or short hops on light aircraft between islands within the Seychelles, Comoros and Maldives archipelagos. Kuoni (01306 743000) offer a seven-night cruise calling at eight Maldive atolls from pounds 1,194 per person including flights and all meals.

There are also various options for travelling between Indian Ocean destinations. The most obvious is to combine the Seychelles and Mauritius. Kuoni (01306 743000) package "two-centre" holidays based on London/Seychelles/Mauritius/London flights from pounds 1,489 for 12 nights, half board.

Mauritius is the best hub with flights, on a variety of airlines, to Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comoros and Reunion. Madagascar also has good connections, making a wildlife trip followed by a few days on the beach in, say, Mauritius, feasible. For tailor-made permutations of islands, try Partnership Travel (0181-343 3446).

WHAT ABOUT KIDS?

Indian Ocean islands are far better known as honeymoon destinations. Many hotels are for couples only, while at others, children are welcome, but without any special provision being made for families.

However, there are some exceptions: in Mauritius, the all-inclusive Le Coco Beach Club has kids' clubs and excellent facilities for teenagers; from pounds 1,161 per person for a week, including flights, all meals and sports, with 30 per cent off for under-12s, with Somak Holidays (0181-423 3000). The Plantation Club on Mahe in the Seychelles has childrens' facilities including a daily youngsters' Turtle Club and a childrens' swimming pool; from pounds 1,107 B&B, with Somak Holidays (0181-423 3000), which also arranges family safaris in East Africa. Sunset (0171-498 9922) specialises in Mauritius and offer various family deals. Less well-known, there are also excellent beachside villas, which can include cooks and nannies at remarkably cheap rates. Contact Scott Dunn World (0181-672 1234).

AT A GLANCE

If the worst fears of the global-warming doom merchants come true, the thousand or so atolls which make up the Maldives may disappear beneath the gently lapping waves of the Indian Ocean. Until then, two distinct species of humanity will continue to inhabit them: the strictly Muslim indigenous population; and the tourists who are kept apart from them, for fear that their culture pollutes the purity of Islam. The latter group bask on some of the world's most beautiful beaches. However, if they are looking for thrills, they need a good book, a good lover, or both. Unless, of course, they are divers, in which case they find, under the sea's glassy surface, all the excitement lacking on the languid beaches.

The Seychelles are a group of 115, mainly coralline islands in the Western Indian Ocean. The indigenous population is tiny - just 73,000 made up of a blend of Africans, Asians and Europeans speaking a Creole which includes much English and French. Victoria, the capital, on the largest island, Mahe, is barely more than a village. Visitors seeking a cultural experience need to work very hard and are likely to be disappointed. It is much easier to lie back and enjoy the classic tropical-isle ambience on some of the planet's most beautiful beaches. South-east trade winds blow from May to October, which is also the dry season. It can be wet in all other months, especially January. On the whole, simple comforts, rather than extravagance, characterise the accommodation in the Seychelles. The islands attract legions of honeymooners.

So too does Mauritius, though both the geography and the atmosphere are strikingly different from the Seychelles. It is volcanic with jagged mountain peaks, and quite densely populated with more than a million inhabitants, of which about half are Hindus of Indian ancestry; there are also large Muslim communities. Along with tourism, sugar cane is the mainstay of the economy. Port Louis, the capital, is a thriving city and busy port. Visitors to the island will find a fine selection of beaches and coral reefs round the 330 kilometres of coastline as well as many luxuriously styled hotels offering sporting activities and nightlife, especially in the north. January to April is warmest, but be prepared for occasional rain and tropical cyclones. July to September is cooler and generally drier.

The world's fourth largest island, Madagascar, is more than twice the size of the UK. Lemurs and the rest of the astonishing wildlife are the main draw. However, a tour of the island can also be a rich cultural experience, with the people comprising a melting pot of Polynesians, French, Africans, Arabs and Chinese. There are some fine beaches too - especially on Ile St Marie and Nosy By. It is usually wet from November to March, and drier from April to October.

Reunion is a smidgen of France off the coast of Madagascar. It is the tip of a massive volcano, most of it submerged, where you ride in Renault 4s and are served baskets of sliced baguettes with your cafe au lait. There are beaches and lagoons where beautiful people from Paris and Marseilles worship the sun, sail their Lasers or snorkel over reefs. There is also an interior of harrowing scenery and glorious hiking in the cooler, less humid air: ravines, waterfalls and the three cirques - the natural amphitheatres formed as the volcano crater collapsed. Hot and wet from October to March, it is cooler and drier from April to September.

The Comoros are four volcanic islands set in the turquoise waters of a vast coral reef, blanketed with coconut and banana groves, baobab trees and profuse spices which earned the Comoros the moniker "The Perfume Islands". Three of the islands - Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli - form the politically stormy Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. The fourth, Mayotte, is French territory and receives large subsidies, while its neighbours make regular territorial claims upon it.

Zanzibar, within sight of the east African coast, forms part of Tanzania. The island has beaches which are fine, though not exceptional, and the old Stone Town which is utterly exceptional - sultans' palaces, Persian baths, crumbling forts, mosques and minarets and labyrinthine alleys hiding Freddie Mercury's birthplace and secrets left behind by Arab traders. The key decision is whether to stay in the Stone Town and make trips out, or vice versa.

Kenyan Lamu also offers romance rooted in history, though it has been rather more overwhelmed by tourism since the early 1970s, when an influx of hippies and otherworldly travellers turned the island into a sort of Katmandu-on-sea. Today the allure remains the same - a blend of African and Arab culture, colourful markets of spices and silks, and a background of beautiful beaches strewn with cowrie shells. These days, however, hotels cater as much to the five-star tourist relaxing after a safari, as to the backpacker.

Mozambique's Bazaruto Islands were inaccessible to outsiders throughout the country's bitter 17-year civil war. In fact, many of the islanders today are refugees from elsewhere in the country who fled there during the war. The market town of Vilanculos on the mainland is visible across the straits, which are plied by dhows rigged with sails made from UNHCR tarpaulins. Fish and seafood are bountiful. The islands are suffused with the paradox of pristine tropical beauty, preserved in part because of a war which brought untold violence and misery.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?

For further information on the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, the Comoros or Reunion try the Indian Ocean Commission Tourism Office, 203 Sheen Lane, London SW14 8LE (0181-876 2407).

Key guide books include the Lonely Planet Guide to Mauritius, Reunion & Seychelles (pounds 10.99), the Lonely Planet Guide to Madagascar and the Comoros (pounds 11.99) and the Lonely Planet Guide to the Maldives (pounds 8.99). For Madagascar, the Bradt Guide to Madagascar (pounds 12.95) is indispensable.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there: Numerous operators offer charter-flight packages to Larnaca and Paphos, Cyprus's two international airports, including Cyplon Holidays (0181-342 8103), Thomson (0990 502580), First Choice (0161- 745 7000) and Sunworld (0113-255 5222).

There are scheduled flights on: British Airways (0345 222111), Heathrow to Larnaca; Cyprus Airways (0181-359 1333), Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester to Larnaca and Paphos; and Air 2000 (0161-745 4644), Gatwick and Manchester to Larnaca, and Manchester to Paphos. July and August fares are high - eg a return from Heathrow to Larnaca, departing 22 July, is pounds 343.

Travel advice: although the Foreign Office is not at present making any warnings about Cyprus, it seems likely that there could be mounting tension in the next 10 days; 20 July marks the 25th anniversary of the invasion of the island by Turkish troops.

Further information: Cyprus Tourism Organisation, 17 Hanover Street, London W1R 0AA (0171-569 8800).

THE TOP FIVE HOTELS

FOR A stay in any of the following hotels, money had better be no object. They have all been selected, very subjectively of course, from numerous world class hotels in the Indian Ocean. To book them, try operators such as Elegant Resorts (01244 897 888) and Silk Cut Travel Island Retreats (01730 265211).

1 Royal Palm, Mauritius Attracts global glitterati, for many of whom it is the most desirable hotel in the Indian Ocean. The views, the swimming and the pampering are exquisite. However, situated up on Grand Baie, the most fashionable resort on Mauritius with its nightclubs and casinos, it doesn't attract the total-seclusion freaks.

2 Fregate Island, Seychelles A privately owned island retreat, composed of 16 individual villas among banyan and wild fig trees. It has one of the great swimming pools of the world, nestling in a natural rock basin.

3 Le St Geran, Mauritius Intimate, out on the palm-studded Belle Mare peninsula, luxuriating in tropical gardens and fringed by the softest sand. Elegance and style, plus legendary Creole cuisine. There are excellent water and land sports, including a magnificent nine-hole golf course.

4 Soneva Fushi, The Maldives Another opportunity for a luxury-meets-Robinson Crusoe stay, on an otherwise uninhabited atoll surrounded by turquoise waters. The ultimate in privacy and, except when helicopters clatter in with new guests, serenity.

5 Serena Zanzibar Inn, Zanzibar The old customs house overlooking the sea on the Stone Town waterfront has been converted into a sybaritic five-star hotel. Gaze across the Indian Ocean to the mainland as the sun sets over East Africa. This is as romantic as life gets.

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