A string of dazzling islands off the southeast coast of Africa has long enticed Europeans in search of paradise. The bounty of white-sand beaches, turquoise waters and lush tropics combined with an infusion of African, Arabic, Asian and European cultural heritage create the islands’ unique appeal. Pack your bags as we head into the peak of summer for some island R&R.
The Vanilla Islands – Beyond the Shores of Africa
Three different island nations grace the seas north and east of Madagascar. Starting from the north, the stunning Seychelles archipelago comprises 115 islands of hilly coastal strips and elevated coral reefs. Magnificent beaches, palm forests and national parks offer a first-class tropical experience. Cinnamon and vanilla spices flavor these glorious islands, with a bounty of tropical fish patrolling the turquoise seas, creating superb snorkeling and diving—not to mention excellent seafood.
Approximately 1,100 miles south, just east of Madagascar, the island of Mauritius is known as the haven of resorts. With a distinctive French influence following nearly a century of rule (1715 to 1810), the 784-square-mile volcanic island nation is surrounded by coral reefs that provide outstanding diving and snorkeling adventures. It doesn’t stop there—you can fish, golf, swim, sunbathe and indulge in a gastronomic paradise that blends a fantastic array of French, Chinese, African and Indian traditions.
Just southwest of Mauritius via a 40-minute flight, adventurers can find paradise in Réunion. Three calderas (collapsed volcanic craters) and two volcanoes—one active and one extinct—dominate the 970-square-mile island, which is an overseas region of France. Lush mountain forests filled with waterfalls and tropical birds, small Creole villages and incredibly scenic roadways make outdoor activities, hiking and driving ideal, while beaches along the coast are perfect for sunbathers.
Seychelles – Welcome to Fantasy Islands
If you’ve seen a travel poster with a pure white-sand beach graced with lush, emerald palms, lapped by crystal turquoise waters, and backed by vivid blue skies and billowy clouds, chances are you’ve glimpsed the Seychelles. The stunning granite boulders and deep greens that fringe Anse Source d’Argent on La Digue island make it one of the world’s most photographed beaches. But practically any island here is a beach paradise. Called the “Garden of Eden,” Praslin Island is rich with fantastic beaches and the Coco de Mer (Coco of the Sea) palm—a tree that produces a unique double coconut and grows only in the Seychelles. To get off the beaten trail, request permission one day in advance from the Constance Lémuria Resort to access its hidden Anse Georgette beach. Behind the last golf hole, a path leads through lush vegetation to this private paradise. Upon emerging from the bush, you’ll find waving palms, white sand and aqua seas, as well as the sounds of the ocean and tropical birds. No umbrellas, chairs or service mean you’ll have primordial paradise practically to yourself.
Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles – The Galapagos of the Indian Ocean
In addition to splendid beaches, the Seychelles archipelago houses a bounty of marine life, nowhere more so than the remarkable Aldabra Atoll. Surrounded by an outer coral reef, this remote ring of four coral limestone islands encircles an enormous tidal lagoon of 866 square miles. Designated a World Heritage Site, Aldabra is the only place on earth where a reptile—the Aldabra Giant Tortoise—reigns as the dominant herbivore, with about 150,000 of them roaming around. The surrounding reef is home to hammerhead sharks, manta rays, coconut crabs, hawksbill and green turtles. It also boasts huge schools of barracuda, snapper and sea bream among its 220-plus species of fish. The atoll’s remote location—approx. 700 miles from the capital of Victoria—has ensured its mostly untouched status, save for a handful of permitted marine research scientists. Civilians can only access this fragile and protected ecosystem as part of a live-aboard diving expedition.
Beau Plan, Mauritius – Steeped in the Story of Sugar
A former colony of the French East India Co., Mauritius has a long history with sugar. When the French took control in the 18th century, sugarcane became the island’s main export. Learn the fascinating story of this island and its integrated culture at L’Aventure du Sucre (The Sugar Adventure). Within the old sugar mill, you can see artifacts, films, machinery and interactive exhibits that provide a detailed account of the sugar industry and the production process from beginning to end. You can also sample different types of sugar in various states of refinement along with a superb assortment of island rum in the museum’s boutique. The outstanding restaurant delivers a changing menu of authentic Mauritian cuisine in a setting of abundant natural wonder. Sit on the veranda and take in the gorgeous 10-acre gardens and mountains of the island’s central plateau. During the summer (October to April), try to go in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat.
Port Louis, Mauritius – A Taste of the Cultural Blender
To experience the island’s unique heritage, go to a Saturday horse race (April to December) at Champs de Mars in the center of the city. The oldest course in the southern hemisphere saw its first run to the wire in 1812, and the Mauritius Turf Club keeps the tradition alive today. Join the excitement of the locals cheering on their steeds or reserve a VIP seat in a private box suite at the Crown Lodge to enjoy champagne, snacks and a typical Mauritian lunch while watching the races. To further immerse yourself in the culture, wander the city’s lively open-air Central Market and try the outstanding street food, infused with a delicious array of fruit, herbs and spices. You can also sample the influences of Creole, Indian and Chinese cuisine at La Bonne Marmite. Tucked behind the Law Courts, this restaurant gem comes outfitted with crisp linens, attentive service and great value. For something more casual, join local families at the popular Tandoori Express. Order a prawn curry inside and wait for delivery at your waterside table. It may be fast food, but it comes with a superb view of the Port Louis harbor.
Moka, Mauritius – Finding Paradise in Colonial Creole
For a break from the bustling resort life, escape to the island’s central plateau and step back in time at the Maison Eureka. This charming 18th-century Creole mansion showcases the colonial architecture, photographs, china and period furnishings of its heyday. The guided tour recounts stories of this fascinating era of Mauritian history and the home’s Leclézio family, whose in-laws still own it. On the veranda overlooking the lovely gardens, you can sip rum, sample Mauritian tea and pastries, and try a typical home-style Creole lunch flavored with island-grown vanilla. Browse local crafts at the two gift shops and stroll past palm and mango trees, azaleas and ferns, rare endemic plants and waterfalls in the English-style gardens that replaced the former spice trees and sugarcane fields. If you’re wearing proper walking shoes, make the 15-minute descent to the Eureka waterfall. If you’re interested in staying, book a night in one of the rustic cottages. Just remember to carry mosquito repellent in this humid area of the island.
Réunion – Volcanic Adventure Island
The introduction of coffee crops once made this sister island of Mauritius a commercial success. Today, it’s the collapsed volcanic craters of Cirque de Mafate, Cirque de Salazie and Cirque de Cilaos that provide Réunion’s appeal. Besides climbing or canyoning (traversing a canyon by scrambling, jumping, climbing or rappelling), you can hike, mountain bike, drive or take a helicopter flight to see these marvels, each of which has its own unique features. Accessible only on foot, the unspoiled ruggedness of Cirque de Mafate is a boon for hikers. Cirque de Salazie enchants with vivid green scenery, steep gorges and majestic waterfalls, plus a small Creole mountain village called Hell-Bourg that won a prestigious spot on the French national list of “most beautiful villages of France.” Although popular for canyoning, the forested and flowered Cirque de Cilaos has plenty of groomed trails that range from easy to difficult for hikers, trekkers and mountain bikers.
Cirque de Cilaos – The Road to the Clouds
Mountains, fresh air and vast canyons carpeted with verdant forest all appear on the remarkable Road to Cilaos. Fantastic views greet motorists at practically every turn on this engineering marvel. Switchbacks bending around sheer cliffs and lush canyons are a lure for driving enthusiasts, while buses transport those who prefer to sit back and enjoy. Get an early start to navigate the 400-plus turns. After about two hours, you’ll reach the quaint mountain town of Cilaos at the foot of Piton des Neiges—the island’s highest mountain. To make the most of the journey, spend one or two nights at a local B&B or small hotel in Cilaos. This charming Creole mountain village offers plenty of activities for visitors who can stroll through the public market, admire fine local embroidery, take a trip to the nearby winery and walk to the intriguing art-deco Notre Dame des Neiges church, which is illuminated in fluorescent blue light at night. Set out in the morning to hike the fabulous surrounding trails in dramatic scenery, and finish your day at the local spa and thermal baths, heated by volcanic chambers.
Travel Tips: Vanilla Islands
The Indian Ocean islands beckon travelers looking for the best of sun and sand with a melting pot of cultural flair. You won’t need much but beachwear to fit right into this version of paradise, but you should know a few things before you go.
Seasons in the Tropics
- Mauritius: Summer (October to April) temperatures range from 64°F to 95°F (18°C to 35°C). Winter (May to September) temperatures range from 61°F to 86°F (16°C to 30°C). You’ll find cooler weather mostly in the central plateau regions. Cyclones typically occur in Mauritius and Réunion between January and March.
- Réunion: In general, average coastal temperatures range from 70°F to 80°F (21°C to 27°C). In the higher interior elevations of the Cirques, temperatures can fall as low as 36°F (2°C). The best travel periods are the beginning (October/November) and end (April/May) of summer to avoid cyclones, downpours and French school holidays.
- Seychelles: Temperatures always remain pleasant—between 75°F and 90°F (24°C and 32°C). Cyclones don’t affect these islands, except for occasional grey and windy weather from December to March. Winter (May to September) tradewinds cause increased wave activity, so you may need to find sheltered beaches. Seasonal turnaround periods (March/April and October/November) are generally calm. July and August are the driest months, while January is the warmest, wettest month. You’ll find much higher hotel prices and lower availability during peak seasons (December to January, July to August, and Easter).
Colonized at different times by the Dutch, French and British, the Indian Ocean islands are inhabited by people from Africa, India, Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine, Zanzibar and China. As a result, this melting pot of cultures translates into a mix of languages.
- Mauritius: Although English is the official language of government and education, French dominates the media and public life. Locals speak mostly Creole (a French-based vernacular peppered with Indian and English), but you might also hear Indian and Chinese spoken.
- Réunion: French is the official language, but locals commonly speak Creole in casual settings. Since the vast majority of tourists are from France, it’s a good idea to brush up on basic French phrases and numbers since many tourist-industry employees aren’t fluent in English.
- Seychelles: English, French and Creole are the official languages, but many islanders also speak Italian and German.
Visitors should bring adapters and converters to conform to the islands’ voltage, frequency and outlets, which follow British and French standards. Check your device to see if it’s compliant with the following:
- Mauritius: 220V; 50Hz
- Réunion: 220–230V; AC 50Hz
- Seychelles: 220–240V; AC 50Hz
What to Wear
The warm and humid climate of the Indian Ocean islands calls for dresses, skirts, shorts and shirts in lightweight, breathable fabrics. Swimsuits, sarongs/cover-ups for women, sandals and sturdy shoes for walking and trail hiking. Winter (May to September) tradewinds call for light sweaters and pants, especially in the highland areas.
Each island is unique, so be sure to dress accordingly:
- Mauritius: Bring your best beachwear and casual wear to this resort haven. Pack shoes that slip on and off easily so you can remove them quickly when visiting Hindu temples.
- Réunion: Pack a jacket and rainwear, along with comfortable walking shoes to navigate the rugged terrain of this laid-back island. Cover your arms and legs to ward off the mosquitoes that call this lush, tree-filled paradise home.
- Seychelles: Smart-casual eveningwear (long pants for men, dresses for women) is perfect for most of the hotels and casinos on these islands.
Staying Safe in the African Sun
The sun is powerful in the African tropics. Pack hats, sunglasses and sunblock for all the islands. Don’t be fooled by overcast days—the sun’s strong UV rays can still burn your skin. Take it easy the first few days by limiting sun exposure, and wear a UPF-rated T-shirt, tunic or cover-up. Before staking your place in the sand, look for shade from a palm tree or pack a sun umbrella for shelter.
What to Try
Cooking influences from African, Chinese, Creole, Indian and European kitchens make these islands exotic eateries. Don’t miss some of the edible specialties:
- Alooda Glacé (aka: Falooda): A sweet Mauritian drink with milk, rose syrup, crushed ice, tapioca-type strips, basil seeds, vanilla and almond essence.
- Bourbon vanilla: The French first brought vanilla cuttings to Réunion, once named “Ile Bourbon” (Bourbon Island). Considered one of the world’s best varieties, Bourbon now describes the vanilla grown on the Indian Ocean islands, including Mauritius and the Seychelles—inspiring the regional nickname “Vanilla Islands.”
- Coco D’amour: The local coconut liquor in the Seychelles.
- Rum: Visit a distillery on any island and the L’Aventure du Sucre in Mauritius, a great museum that showcases the history and process of sugar production on the island.
- Seafood: It doesn’t get much fresher than on the islands. In Mauritius, shellfish is served with sauce rouge (red sauce), a sweet, tangy tomato delight. Octopus is a specialty in the Seychelles, served in a coconut curry or seafood cocktail. Tuna and kingfish are usually deep-fried with a spicy Creole tomato sauce, while smaller fish are cooked in curries and stews.
- Street food: The Mauritian capital of Port Louis is ripe with food stalls peddling local specialties like curry, dhal pouri (ground split peas wrapped in tortilla-like bread), rougaille (tomato sauce with onion, garlic, chilies and spices), samosas and gâteaux piments (deep-fried split pea and chili balls). If you’re feeling brave, try larves de guêpes (fried wasp larvae)—a local delicacy in Réunion and Mauritius. Look for the camion-bars (food trucks) in Réunion for cheap, local eats.
The Best Cultural Events & Markets
While you’re on the islands, be sure to go to a market or time your travels to coincide with a festival to experience the local culture and find authentic handicrafts, food and traditions.
- Mauritius & Réunion
- Chinese New Year (February): Chinese islanders celebrate with parades, dances, and food.
- Festival of Cavadée (January/February): The Tamil community comes out in force to celebrate. Devotees carry wooden yokes adorned with leaves, flowers and pots of milk to the temple, piercing their bodies to symbolize devotion to the Lord Maruga. Parades of floral floats, drumming, singing and bright clothing accompany the festivities.
- Bazar Labrinn (year-round): Fresh, local delicacies and souvenirs— Wednesdays and the last Saturday of the month in Beau Vallon Beach, Mahé.
- Bazar Ovan (year-round): Known for vibrant Creole music—the last Sunday of the month in Baie Lazare, Mahé.
- Bazar Victoria (year-round): Exotic Seychellois Creole culinary delicacies and handmade crafts—every Friday in Victoria, Mahé.
- Feast of the Assumption Mary (August 15): Locals flock to La Digue island to celebrate the feast dedicated to the church of La Digue.
- Festival Kreol (end of October): The biggest and most important event of the islands’ cultural calendar is a weeklong Creole celebration filled with colorful costumes and parades, musical rhythms and delicious cuisine on all the main islands.