There’s something about island getaways that really embody the essence of an escape. The humid air, scent of the sea, unique landscape, fresh cuisine and soothing sounds trigger our senses and a metamorphosis takes place.
Your body relaxes deeply as you kick off your shoes and bury your toes in the sand. This is it – the holiday you’ve waited and saved for, even dreamt about. The images you’ve been staring at on a screen of seemingly unreal colours of water, dreamy palm trees and sandy beaches now your personal backdrop for enviable holiday photos.
Once the sun is soaked into your skin, the last pages of your book relished and you’re sufficiently water-logged from the sea, there’s much to explore and many fascinating island cultures to absorb.
These destinations all offer the typical island pleasures, but each one boasts something uniquely special of their own.
Mauritius – Island of cultures
SEE: Through Mauritian eyes: Exploring the island as a local
Mauritius is considered an example of successful cultural integration.
The island country is inhabited by European descendants – mostly French settlers, Africans, Chinese and Indians. This cultural diversity is a source of national pride and you will find each culture celebrated and incorporated all over the island.
Visitors can hear a mix of French, Chinese, Hindi and Creole being spoken in the streets and taste these cultural blends in the cuisine. Dishes range from pickled octopus, dim sum and spicy biryani to octopus curry and rougaille - a combination of spices and tomatoes typically used in Creole cuisine.
SEE: Mauritius: A place to eat, pray and love
The year is filled with festivals that celebrate each of these cultures like the Hindu festivals of Cavadi, Diwali, and Holi; the Chinese New Year; and the Muslim festival Eid. You can visit temples, churches, mosques and pagodas, and listen to African Séga, dance Indian Bharatnatyam, or visit a French café that serves roti and samosas.
SEE: 20 must-do events during your 2017 Mauritius escape
People of different religious backgrounds live in perfect harmony together and this acceptance of cultures and delightful blend forms the basis of Mauritius.
Need to know:
South Africans do not require a visa or vaccinations for travel to Mauritius.
SEE: Tropical island stays to suit your South African budget
Seychelles - Islands of conservation
The Seychelles is a less frequented destination but should be high on the bucket list for so many reasons.
Granite outcrops line the beautiful sandy shores and the azure waters are swimming with marine life. There are over 2000 species of tropical and equatorial plants, almost 300 recorded bird species, turtle sanctuaries, marine protected parks with over 1000 recorded fish species, mangroves, and the largest population of giant tortoises in the world.
The islands are recognised for protecting its flora and fauna and the Seychelles’ government is very strict in protecting their natural heritage.
The atoll of Aldabra – the world’s largest raised coral atoll, and Vallée de Mai on Praslin Island are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and Cousin Island has won several awards for conservation and ecotourism.
The Island Conservation Society implements conservation programmes on several islands and focuses on protection and rehabilitation of the islands, particularly the outer islands.
La Digue was once a bicycle and ox-cart-only island and only recently allowed cars. Visitors are still expected to get around by foot or bicycles, and the few cars that are on the island are used by hotels. The island is home to many critically endangered and rare animals, along with the giant tortoise from Aldabra Island.
SEE: Seychelles: Why it's good for the soul
Need to know:
No visa is required by any nationals travelling to the Seychelles and unless you are travelling through the Yellow Fever belt, no inoculations are required.
Reunion Island – Adventure island
Reunion Island is known as ‘not your average tropical destination’ and the ‘traveller’s island’.
There’s everything from an active volcano, lush rainforests, picturesque waterfalls, and scenic mountain passes. Forty percent of the island is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The unique topography of this volcanic island makes for a wonderful and exciting island experience. The natural amphitheaters known as ‘the Cirques’ offer thrilling canyoning excursions, plenty of hiking and mountain biking trails, and an intriguing mountain village culture.
SEE: Taking risks on the Island of Reunion
Additionally, travellers can go whitewater river rafting, kayaking, paragliding, hand gliding and skydiving – not to mention world-class scuba diving and snorkeling with chances of swimming with migrating humpback whales during whale season.
Need to know:
South African travellers do not need a visa to enter and there are no required vaccinations.
WATCH: Reunion: An Island Of Adventure
Maldives – Island of islands
The Maldives is one of the most dispersed countries – it consists of almost 1,200 coral islands spread over approximately 90 000 square kilometers. A large portion of the country is made up of water and island hopping is a great way to explore the Maldives.
The liveaboard experience vs. a resort-stay allows you to explore many of the numerous islands from the comforts of a yacht or sailing vessel. Some yachts are fully equipped with a bar, spa, sun deck, restaurant, and even a Jacuzzi.
You can choose an itinerary that suits your interests from hitting the best surf spots, or diving and snorkeling destinations.
The islands are grouped into 26 atolls, all of which enclose a central lagoon that is perfect for snorkeling. The outer reefs, which form many of the islands, are broken by deep channels where large pelagic species of fish, dolphins and whales can be found. You’ll find everything from tropical fish to majestic manta rays and whale sharks.
SEE: Maldives' thriving atolls: A magical dive with mantas by moonlight
As you approach an atoll, the colours of the sea turn from a rich deep blue colour to the most brilliant and captivating turquoise and emerald greens. You’ll have the flexibility of exploring local fishing villages, learn about local island culture, sunbathe on un-spoilt and secluded beaches, and jump spontaneously somewhere into the Indian Ocean.
Need to know:
There are no visa or vaccination requirements for South Africans travelling to the Maldives.
SEE: Quick Guide: Maldives
Zanzibar – Island of tides
Zanzibar evokes images of picture perfect beaches where one can spend the entire day floating in the sea contemplating life with a cocktail in hand. And while this is entirely possible, it’s important to note that to do so depends on which side you choose to stay.
The tidal range around Zanzibar Island – also known as Unguja and the most famous of the islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago, varies greatly and changes based on the position of the sun and moon.
Most visitors begin their Zanzibar journey in Stone Town in the southwest coast of the island. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a fun place to wander and get lost exploring the narrow, cobbled streets and diverse architecture and history. The tidal range is minimal on this side of the island but not recommended for swimming.
SEE: Sizzling escape in untouched Zanzibar
In the northwest coast of the island is a village called Kendwa, which is barely affected by the tidal range and a good choice for beachgoers and honeymooners, but is slightly rockier than other parts of the island.
The north coast is the least affected by the tidal range. Nungwi on the northernmost tip is a popular year-around tourist destination. Travellers can swim any time of the day and explore a lively and interesting village.
There is magic to this tidal range though and it occurs all along the east coast where the range is quite extreme.
In the northeast coast lies Mnemba Island. Off the coast of Mnemba are most of Zanzibar Island’s top diving and snorkeling sites. A trip out needs to be timed according to the tidal calendar and you may need to journey by van to get to the boat that will carry you to the sites.
This offers amazing insights and fleeting glimpses into the lives of locals as you pass beautiful scenery and tiny villages. Upon your return, if you make it before the tide goes out, the boat crew will navigate the only narrow channel of sea left to cross before they have to jump out and push the boat back to shore. The rocky outcrops along shore are exposed now and you’ll return to a completely different and glorious scene from when you went out.
The southeast coast is where the most extreme tidal range occurs and planning your day’s swims will require consulting the tidal charts. Each hotel on this side will have an updated one or you can check it online.
This vast range offers a unique experience and a fascinating look at how coastal communities coexist with the sea. At low tide, you can walk more than a kilometer out to where the sea breaks onto the reef. Along the way you will find exciting treasures of the sea and women and children working hard to collect what they can before the tide returns. The harvesting of seaweed here accounts for 3% of the world’s commercial harvest.
Need to know:
South Africans are no longer required to acquire a visa for Zanzibar. Vaccinations are not required, however malaria precautions are highly recommended.
*Shalini Tewari is a freelance travel writer, follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.