Traveller’s Guide: Indian Ocean islands

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Exchange winter for the luxury of the Maldives or the Seychelles, the exotic glamour of Zanzibar or the wonderfully weird wildlife of Madagascar, says Harriet O’Brien

No one knows for sure how the body of water separating Africa, Asia and Australasia got its name.

The most plausible theory is that the Indian Ocean is so called courtesy of Europe’s Great Explorers who were charting sea routes to India’s spice riches. No doubt those sailors were as thrilled as holidaymakers are today when they arrived at the palm-fringed islands that lie in that water. The third largest of the world’s oceans (after the Pacific and the Atlantic), the Indian Ocean is dotted with intriguing specks of land – such as fabulously exotic Zanzibar and wonderfully weird Madagascar. Hands up who’s heard of Tromelin, nesting site for red-footed boobies and uninhabited territory of France? And then there are the Chagos Islands, otherwise known as British Indian Ocean Territory, whose population was deported in the 1960s and replaced by British and US service personnel – tourists not welcome.

Happily there’s a warm, stylish and affordable welcome at some of the best-known Indian Ocean islands. These waters are also home to some of the planet’s most glamorous holiday destinations – places of sugar-white sands, crystal-clear waters and gorgeous accommodation.

Despite the economic gloom at home, the island havens of the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius still attract a sizeable number of UK holidaymakers. But travellers want to spend less. Mark Duguid, head of market management at Kuoni, sees trends towards “value-for-money deals, all-inclusive options and customers choosing to downgrade from top-end properties”.

The usual rule applies over timing: if you can travel during less busy periods – right now, for example – you’ll reap the rewards. Shoulder season in the north (Sri Lanka and the Maldives) is November and May/June; in the south (the Seychelles and Mauritius) is generally October/November and April.

The Maldives remains the most popular Indian Ocean destination for UK travellers, despite political turmoil; the islands’ first democratically elected president was forced to resign and placed under effective house arrest. “Stay alert, exercise caution and avoid demonstrations and spontaneous gatherings,” says the Foreign Office.

A new domestic airport opened last month at Kooddoo island in the south of the Maldives. It puts recently completed resorts such as Robinson Club (00 960 300 9095; robinson-maldives.com) and The Residence (01300 320 865; theresidence.com) within relatively easy reach – which in turn helps to keep hotel rates competitive.

Further south, UK visitor numbers to the Seychelles have dropped this year because loss-making Air Seychelles has stopped flying to Europe. The main approach is now via the Gulf. The good news is that a steady increase in small hotels and guest houses is giving this island group more well-priced options.

South again, Mauritius is just inside the Tropic of Capricorn. You can enjoy a fusion of Asia, Africa, France and Britain on one of the Indian Ocean’s most beautiful islands. Costs in this lush sanctuary of luxury hotels are generally high, but good deals are by no means uncommon.

The current Indian Ocean star is Sri Lanka, whose charms have been rediscovered since civil war ended there in 2009. Next March, British Airways returns to the capital, Colombo, though with a stop at Malé in the Maldives. Since the war, many Sri Lankan hotels have been refurbished and their charges have increased. But Carolina Svensson, Indian Ocean product manager at Travelbag, says: “As the majority of hotels are still managed and owned by local companies, the price level is below other Indian Ocean islands.”

For the most popular destinations, the bigger the tour operator, the better the deal they can often make. Conversely if you plan to visit less-frequented islands such as Madagascar and Réunion, bear in mind that with fewer hotels, travel companies have limited scope to do deals. Yet small operators with local insight may know where to find good value at family-run hotels.

Havens on half board

Half board lets you explore the lively local culture beyond your hotel. British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) has a competitive one-week package to Mauritius from £839pp for travel between May and July, including flights from Gatwick and half board at the Coin de Mire Attitude hotel, above, close to Cap Malheureux village.

Or head slightly off the beaten track to Zanzibar’s stunning beaches and aquamarine waters. Hayes & Jarvis (0844 855 4488; hayesandjarvis.com) has a week at the Bluebay Beach Resort, amid white sand and beautiful gardens. It’s £1,299pp for half board and flights from Heathrow via Nairobi, departing 22 January.

Take the family

Families should book well in advance for attractive lodgings and low-cost travel. Travelbag (0871 703 4698; travelbag.co.uk) has a week in Sri Lanka between 1 May and 10 June, which spans spring half-term. The price from £629pp covers flights from Heathrow to Colombo via Kuwait and B&B at the stylishly refurbished Avani Kalutara, above, on the south-west coast. Or head to the Maldives with Cosmos Holidays (0871 902 5838; cosmos.co.uk) which has a week’s package at family-friendly Bandos Island Resort (kids’ club, watersports, live music and spa). With flights from Gatwick and B&B, the price starts at £999 (adult) and £849 (child) for a 3 June departure.

All-inclusive advantage

Paying a flat fee for everything on your holiday may or may not make good financial sense, depending on where you are. In the Maldives, hotels are their own little kingdoms where guests have no option but to eat at their restaurants, so an all-inclusive deal could be worth considering. Thomson (0871 230 2555; thomson.co.uk), has a one-week package for a May departure to beautifully orchestrated Chaaya Island Dhonveli, left, costing from £1,579pp, including flights (from Gatwick), all meals and drinks – even alcoholic ones. (You’ll pay extra for watersports and spa.) Where there’s a wide range of restaurant choice, all-inclusive deals will be limited and you could find better value in other packages. Recently revamped Kurumba Maldives is a large and lovely five-star resort with seven excellent restaurant options. Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk) has a B&B package – a week here, with flights from Heathrow via Dubai, costs from £1,144pp for travel in May.

Go local

Seychelles specialist Elite Vacations (01707 371000; seychelleselite.co.uk) offers everything from five-star resorts to family-run guest houses. Lazare Picault is a secluded complex of 14 cottages in hills on the coast of Mahé island. Elite has a week here from £1,099pp with flights from London and B&B. Or try a guest house and five-star hotel combo. Elite has four nights at L’Habitation, a plantation-style guest house on Cerf Island, then four nights at Raffles on Praslin, above, all for £2,099pp with flights, transfers and B&B.

Offbeat adventure

East of Madagascar, the French overseas département of Réunion, above, has an undeveloped coast plus a spectacular interior of waterfalls and soaring volcanic peaks. Prices for family-run accommodation is fairly reasonable. Rainbow Tours (020-7666 1250; rainbowtours.co.uk) has a nine-day self-drive trip, with B&B, from £1,560pp, including flights from London via Mauritius and car hire.

You’re unlikely to see another tourist at Comoros, north of Madagascar. The downsides of this quartet of islands, set in turquoise water, are basic accommodation and high living costs. Undiscovered Destinations (0191-296 2674; undiscovered-destinations.com) has 11 days here from £1,325pp, including inter-island transport, hotels, lodges, guidance and some meals. International flights are excluded (from Heathrow about £750 to Moroni via Nairobi: 020-8283 1818; kenya-airways.com).

Natural wonders

Right now it’s prime lemur-watching season in Madagascar. About the size of France, this natural wonderland has limited infrastructure and hotels, and holidays tend to be costly.

For dedicated nature tours, one of the best-priced options is a small group tour with seasoned Madagascar operator Reef and Rainforest (01803 866965; reefandrainforest.co.uk) which has a two-week “Adventure Overland” trip covering the island’s most striking parts, ending at Ifaty beach. It’s £2,765pp, which includes flights from Heathrow via Paris, transport, guidance and half board.

For well-priced independent trips try South Africa-based Real Madagascar (020-7993 5127; real madagascar.com). It has a one-week package combining wildlife watching with a beach stay in eastern Madagascar from €660pp, covering B&B and land transport, but excluding flights (about £850 on Air France via Paris: 0871 989 1034; airfrance.co.uk).

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