The Indian Ocean islands can conjure up images of smug brides posing under swaying palms, feet in clear waters, all a long way from home. If you succumb to beach envy, it is often mixed with a mistaken belief that a barefoot paradise is completely beyond reach, yet the costs of castaway cruises, for example, compare favourably with hotel rates in the Seychelles and Mauritius. On a cruise, of course, you see much more than if trapped in a tropical storm with the blissed-out brides at a single location – and a tropical paradise is only paradise when in perfect weather.
The islands are about movie-star beaches, tumbling waterfalls and turquoise lagoons, but you knew that already. Far less reported is the Indian Ocean for soft adventurers. Beyond the secret coves are soulful lemurs, randy giant tortoises, mystical mountains and spice-scented markets; cruising lets you dip into colonial plantations, explore epic wilderness, hike primeval forests, or meet chameleons and marine turtles. If feeling lazy, Bounty-ad beaches await at the next port of call. For double dinner party kudos at a later date, you can combine beaches with soft adventure, days can drift by between Creole beach parties, rum-sozzled catamaran sailaways and snorkelling in coral reefs. Welcome to castaway cruising.
Our cruise ship is sailing through the Seychelles, its islands stretched out like stepping stones. Vasco da Gama stumbled across these islands in 1502 and the view is still the same from the shore, complete with leaping dolphins. This particular island is Praslin, signalling a beach-hopping day by ferry. First there’s a visit to the Vallée de Mai nature reserve, home to rare parrots and the coco-de-mer, the world’s largest seed and the symbol of the Seychelles, shaped rather like Beyonce’s bottom.
From Praslin, the boat is tailed by dolphins across turquoise waters to La Digue, the smallest of the three main islands. Despite the crescents of perfect pink sand, we are distracted by the local beasts.
Praslin is home to a colony of ponderous giant tortoises, plodding survivalists but also remarkable Romeos. The 120-year-old male bellows as he mounts his would-be mate: most attempts fail, hence his fury. A selfie-obsessed teenager then leaps onto the back of the startled tortoise, who is far too tired to protest. We’ve just learnt that if newlyweds hear mating tortoises, their marriage will be happy so, taking it as her cue, the teenager’s new stepmother clambers aboard for good luck.
At lunch in a coconut plantation, Sandy, the guide, waxes lyrical about the Seychelles’ seventeen types of banana and for the batty (sorry), there’s also bat soup. Fruit bats are boiled with finely sliced ginger and tossed in soy sauce and coconut cream; my banana, cinnamon and vanilla dessert is just as authentic, but thankfully also bat-free. An ox-cart then trundles us to the beach of beaches, Anse Source d’Argent, a Hollywood beach starring in Castaway and commercials for Bounty and Bacardi. Swaying palms, sculpted granite boulders, clownfish dancing in the shallows – this truly is the tropics.
Mahé, the main island, brings us back to reality. The Seychelles were on the slave route and the freed African slaves were the ancestors of the present population. For Victorian enlightenment with added views, we visit Venn’s Town, the ruins of an Anglican mission for children of freed slaves and the only one of its kind in the world. The lofty sentiments are matched by towering views over the Morne wilderness. We leave the Seychelles on a high, with a Creole night of sliding and swaying to an African beat, and our slave-concocted brews date back to plantation times, though thankfully today’s rum cocktails are Fairtrade, whether produced by the descendants of African slaves or those of indentured Indian origins.
The next port of call is the often overlooked Madagascar, the world’s oldest island, a weird and wonderful blend of Asian and east African heritage. Leaving the deep-water harbour of Diego Suarez, the crumbling colonial port, our jeep passes Sugarloaf Mountain en route to Sakalava Bay. The rural scene reveals cattle-carts, mango-sellers and clusters of sacred, swollen-trunked baobab trees. On this stretch of coast, smiling Sakalava tribeswomen with painted faces are half-heartedly selling sarongs, and behind flame-coloured trees we spy crystalline beaches where ghost crabs scuttle across the sand. In the Baie des Dunes, we slip into a shallow lagoon and spot turtles before a seafood lunch in Ramena, a shabby fishing village willing itself to be a resort – we will it never to change.
Madagascar is a modern-day Noah’s Ark, so wildlife spotting is a must. Marine turtles and humpback whales compete with multi-coloured coral and squishy sea-cucumbers,while on land it’s all about startled lemurs and primeval chameleons. An elderly Malagasy greets us with her giant chameleon, a greenish-brown when calm but which apparently changes to yellow when angry, complete with swivelling eyes and flashing tongue for a sign of meltdown, much like my partner; lemurs are those cute, bug-eyed, bushy-tailed beasts with the soulful gaze, so much more like me. “Lemurs are the result of 35 million years of leisurely evolution,” claims Madagascar expert Hilary Bradt. One crowned lemur begs to be my stowaway: he loves sunbathing, snoozing and foraging for fruit, quite an evolved beast after my own heart.
Madagascar, the world’s poorest country outside a conflict zone, has its share of dusty children, dirt-tracks and dodgy military checkpoints, but wins us over with its warmth, weird wildlife and soulful spirit. Even the roadside shacks selling deep-fried bananas and sweet coffee are an antidote to safe cruise cuisine. If it wasn’t a failing state, Madagascar would probably be a tropical paradise to trounce the Seychelles and Mauritius. Jasmin, our sad-eyed guide, agrees but says his people just have to be patient, “like the chameleon, one eye on the future, one eye on the past.”
One soporific sea day later and we reach France, tropical France, and Réunion Island, sandwiched between Madagascar and Mauritius, providing the Parisian mayonnaise filling. At first sight, it’s France with better weather but that’s without factoring in emerald rainforests and volcanic peaks. Dressed head to toe in Lacoste, Thierry, our driver-guide, sets the tone, as do the chic bars and brasseries of St Denis. But once out of the café capital, we’re off to Tamil temples, Creole mansions and sugarcane plantations, all a very lush history. Definitely no animals to gawp over, apart from medium-rare steaks. This is a macho, mostly mountainous island, a mini-Hawaii with green forests and surf-battered beaches, though the drive to the centre of the island snakes through a lunar landscape of lava flows and an active volcano. At Anse des Cascades, waterfalls flow into the sea beside basalt cliffs and the beach. Réunion’s je ne sais quoi comes in the form of a clash between the raw, natural beauty all around and tame, French colonial culture which is clearly evident.
A monsoon seems to be winging its way to Mauritius, so the cruise ship is on high alert – snorkelling with dolphins is definitely off the agenda at the next port of call. Yet Mauritius, often dismissed as a honeymoon hotspot, is a beguiling island for heritage-hunting and where we tour a Chinese pagoda, ornate Tamil temples, a sacred Hindu lake, a colonial French mansion and a British fort, proving that links with the former colonies are ever-present.
The surprisingly engrossing sugar museum recounts the island’s history through sugar, from slavery to solid citizenship and the restored sugar refinery allows us time-travel from the slaves in the cane fields to the prized amber rum, aged in oak barrels. Our copious rum-tasting puts paid to any regrets about feeling the white sand between our toes or snorkelling with dolphins. When a brief tropical downpour drenches us, our guide Rajen whisks us to a garden to pick a few mangoes for the end of our voyage, in memory of Mauritius. At a beach shack with a view, the sun returns and we share bowls of spicy noodles. To Rajen, this fusion food, spiced with cinnamon, garlic and ginger, feels like a pleasing metaphor for modern-day Mauritius as he explains: “Maribon, as we say in Creole – simply delicious.”
Winter blues? Beat them away with an Indian Ocean cruise. It certainly worked for Lisa Gerard-Sharp