I imagine I’m not alone when I say that I’m restless. Not only emotionally after a year and a half of adjusted living, working from home, not seeing enough of my friends and laying low in the name of health and safety – but also as a professional traveller unable to take flight.
This restlessness has seen me spending much of the past weeks searching for escape options, specifically ‘how to get to Zanzibar on a budget’ – as this is where I dream of being when I close my eyes to sleep. Of course, these searches have extended to what I will wear on the plane and the island. I miss handing over that boarding pass, getting comfy, hoodie over my head, chosen podcast for company. I’ve been searching for hoodies online, white cotton kaftans, floppy hats, pretty bathing suits, cut off shorts and what would be optional ‘flip flops’ too.
I’m craving an Indian Ocean getaway – warm water, white sand between my toes, coconut cocktails and a light breeze on my sun-kissed skin. These are my top tropical island getaway for when I can again travel.
1. Tanzania’s Zanzibar, the Spice Island
The Zanzibar archipelago off the coast of the East Africa’s United Republic of Tanzania is all about turquoise lagoons, soft sandy beaches, delectable cuisine, and strong cultural traditions. Also known as Spice Island, Zanzibar is home to spices like nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper. These spices and herbs were originally brought to the island by Portuguese traders who settled here in the 16th century. Nowadays, the plantations are a tribute to the island’s past and a walk through them to touch, smell, and taste the various spices and tropical fruits is a heady rush.
Zanzibar cuisine has been greatly influenced by a blend of Arab, African, Bantu, Portuguese, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and British cultures and traditions, and you will find everything from chapatis and curries, to pilaf rice, biryani, Boko Boko, cassava, and an abundance of seafood grilled with coconut milk and spices. The capital and hub of political and social life on the island is Stone Town, with its tumbledown buildings, fascinating history, and working marina that all reflect the Middle Eastern, Swahili, Indian, and European influences the island has experienced. A slave-trading port in its day. Stone Town has Arab mansions with high, whitewashed walls sitting next to the lacy balconies and colourful stained glass windows of grand Indian residences.
Massive teak and mahogany Zanzibar doors grace the front of almost every building, and their style has been copied all over the world. They are said to be a visual statement of the wealth and social standing of the owner, the larger and more elaborately carved the front Zanzibar door, the more important the inhabitants, making it somewhat of a “carved business card” for the residents. Surrounded by coral reefs and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the marine life in Zanzibar is a diver’s dream. Whether you opt to snorkel over shallow waters or dive to explore the depths, you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of marine life including sea turtles and the bottlenose dolphin, as well as humpback whales in season.
2. São Tomé and Príncipe, the African Galapagos
One of Africa’s best kept secrets and fondly referred to as the African Galápagos, the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe form part of a volcanic chain that showcases striking rock and coral formations, rainforests and golden beaches and even the most avid traveller will look on with envy at the mention of a trip there. Officially named the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, or São Tomé Islands for short, this archipelago in the Gulf of Guinea sits approximately 300 km off Africa’s west coast.
Made up of two major islands surrounded by eight small islets, of which 6 are inhabited, it has a population of around 150,000 and is the smallest country in Africa. On the larger island of São Tomé is the Lagoa Azul lagoon, or the Blue Lagoon, in a small bay in the north that forms part of the Obô Natural Park. Just 4 km northwest of the town Guadalupe, it is an increasingly popular spot for scuba diving and snorkelling. Ôbo itself, a biodiverse, lush verdant green jungle, covers much of the landmass and is distinguished by Pico Cão Grande, a skyscraper-like towering volcanic rock.
As the smaller of the two major islands, Príncipe to the north has an area of 136 square kilometres and a population of approximately 7,000. The island is a heavily eroded volcano speculated to be over three million years old. These islands were uninhabited when discovered by Portuguese navigators in 1470 and under Portuguese colonial, rule plantations were started on the island. As there were no villages or towns outside the tiny port of Santo António at the time, these roças became the centres of the population with on-site schools and hospitals.
Once on the islands, it’s as though time doesn’t exist – or simply has a new meaning. Nature is the champion and we love how everything grows with such a force here, something that can be witnessed in the enormity and intense luxuriance of the forests and trees. São Tomé and Príncipe speak to the emotions, offering a sensory celebration and dream-like existence that’s preserved in the magic of the surroundings. The islands are also home to a collection of exceptional eco-hotels run by HBD Principe.
3. Madagascar’s Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Admittedly not only talking beach with this Indian Ocean island, but this is a naturalist’s promised land that I’ve had the pleasure of exploring quite extensively. And not only to see the lemurs, which are the one thing that everybody seems to know about Madagascar. A rather large piece of land that broke away from the African continent, and where these unique animals have followed a natural evolution. It is an island with a history that features waves of settlers, colonialists, and kings, yet the dramatic geographical landscape, giant baobab avenues, and unique assortment of wildlife are what set it apart.
Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo is built on seven hills, with distinctive architecture, ochre-painted walls, and rusty tin roofs known to shimmer a burnt African gold in the evening light. Here narrow stairways connect layers of cobbled streets that in turn reveal vibrant markets, churches, and ancient palaces. At the core is Independence Avenue, a double-lane road that leads to the old railway station. Just 4 hours east of the capital is the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a protected rainforest that encompasses the small Réserve Spéciale d’Analamazaotra next to Andasibe village, and the much larger Parc National de Mantadia to the north. The park was created in 1989 for the protection of the wildlife that occurs in this sensitive area, most specifically the elusive Indri indri.
Also known as the babakoto, the indri is the largest living lemur and resembles a teddy bear with its round face and fluffy ears. Like many other species of lemur, the indri lives in a matriarchal society, yet the indri has no tail and rarely touches the ground. Legend has it that the indri was once human, and their distinctive, somewhat mournful song does resemble the sound of a baby crying. A means of territorial marking, their call can be heard from the highest treetops to as far as 4 km away.
The park’s hiking trails weave through dense forest and past lakes and streams. With my guide listening for any indications of movement overhead, we caught sight of the eastern lesser bamboo lemur, common brown lemur, black and white ruffed lemur, woolly lemur, sifaka, chameleons, frogs, and rare orchids — as well as the much-admired indri. As far as iconic sounds of Africa go, I add the indri’s song to the roar of a lion, the cry of a fish eagle, and the laugh of the hyena.
At the Andasibe Station, three times a week children line the train tracks to sell sticky doughnuts to travellers as the station welcomes bright red passenger-carrying carriages. This very spot has seen Gerald Durrell, Prince Phillip, David Attenborough, and other naturalists arrive in this famous park. Beyond the many inland treasures, I long to hit the beautiful coastline, especially off Nosy Be, where I had the pleasure of a week-long island-hopping holiday cruising on a luxury catamaran.
My dream remains strong that soon enough my online shopping – from hoodies to flights and floppy sunhats will come true and I can’t wait to pack my bag and be tropical island bound, beach time loading. Soon, I know, very soon.