We have stayed in probably all of the finest recommended beach lodges from the Seychelles to Madagascar, down the coast and islands of Kenya and Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius. It is fair to say that we know what is good and, quite frankly, what is not.
The truth is that pictures can lie. Or at least tell only a very small part of the story. And truthful, unbiased opinion counts for a lot in this new age of information. If you are to ascertain what a location is actually like from the private marketing copy supplied by an individual lodge you should analyse what is not said as much as what is; for example, if a lodge organises daily free picnic outings and snorkelling trips, you could fairly surmise that their beach is tidal and/or awful. It is a mystery beyond understanding why many so-called beach locations have appalling beaches.
Tripadvisor can be useful, but falls short of providing relative, objective information, people tend to have a good time and write a good review wherever they are, especially if they are on honeymoon, and only go back to complain online if something goes calamitously wrong. There is no function on Tripadvisor to tell you about a better beach down the coast/ on a nearby island/ closer to the safari action, because all those reviews are subjective to the (often) one visit.
So this is a guide to unearthing the best beaches in the Indian Ocean, from an expert perspective. These are the questions that we ask, on our mission for sublime beach joy.
What is the tidal movement ?
Tides may fluctuate by up to 500 metres – making swimming impossible for the majority of your day, and often water too shallow for a proper swim even when the tide is in. And as a follow up question we would ask if the hotel has a pool to compensate for those low tide moments.
What is the quality of the beach sand?
Ideally we would be imagining powder white coral sand, but there are beaches with silty yellow sand, or rocks, razor clams, anemones, etc necessitating jelly shoes to navigate a path to the sea. We want to know if beaches have seaweed, and if so is that seasonal, or cleared by the hotel each day. Some of our favourite and most beautiful locations have a number of beaches with different aspects so when one is subject to seaweed, the other is fine.
Waves or snorkelling, swimming or surfing?
The mainland coast tends to have deeper water and big waves, whereas shallower island beaches tend to have better snorkelling. (This is a generalisation, but often true!)
How big is the hotel?
Again a generalisation, but small rustic lodges tend to be airy and natural and the larger lodges tend to be better equipped with mod cons. Think about what matters most to you; would you like black-out blinds, aircon that works, an isolated aspect or a kids’ club? If you are travelling with children you might consider if the area is malarial, are their inter-connecting rooms, how far you are prepared to fly them.
So… where then?
The million dollar question. But the answer is not simple… it is dependent on a wide range of factors, including all the answers to the above questions, budget, time of year and how far you are prepared to travel from your safari. Below is a very oversimplified analysis of the main locations:
If you have deep pockets, then North Island wins hands down with its glorious, non-tidal beaches, a small, beautifully appointed and well run lodge. BUT it does cost about E2200 per person per night (pppn). Also up there in the private island stakes are Denis and DesRoches, both private islands and far more sensibly priced, but these can be difficult to get to. The Seychelles definitely fulfils all private island dreams, but otherwise the best and most beautiful beaches on the main islands of Mahe and Praslin tend to be part of the big hotels. The Seychelles are also hard to get to and from, especially from mainland Africa.
Still unspoilt, Tanzania is a great safari country with some very lovely Indian Ocean beach options that are easy to tack on and reasonably priced. Zanzibar has a wide range of small and large hotels, some on good breaches, some not, with good boat-based snorkelling and diving. The other main islands of Pemba and Mafia are better dive locations than they are swimming locations. Mnemba, Thanda and Fanjove are superb private islands with amazing beaches and the latter is not prohibitively expensive. Our great favourite is the tiny, rustic chic Ras Kutani, a superb beach lodge on the mainland but no diving or snorkelling.
Hard and expensive to get to nowadays and usually accessed from Tanzania, there are a number of islands near Pemba in the Quirimbas archipelago that are worth travelling for! The jewel in the crown is Vamizi – a small lodge with a wonderful beach (though not cheap). Quilalea is more of a snorkelling or diving location, and we don’t think the mainland beach lodges are worth the expense and effort to get to
Not the easiest or cheapest to get to, most easily accessible from Johannesburg or Kruger National Park. The mainland beaches are fine yellow sand with waves, and with good diving and snorkelling – a particular favourite is White Pearl, south of Maputo. Most of the lodges, though, are in the Bazaruto archipelago on the islands of Benguerra or Bazarutu. Generally these lodges are great, but they are expensive and the beaches not amazing and are very tidal. Seriously good snorkelling, diving and fishing, however.
The domain of large hotels, buffet suppers and kids clubs. Some beautiful beaches but some very mediocre beaches too. Time of year is important here, as the East tends to be wetter and windier than the West… and there is no such thing as a small, bijou Mauritian hotel!
After a turbulent recent history, the Kenyan coast is back on the map. What used to be a tourist hotspot due to the beautiful vast white beaches, is now almost deserted. Now what awaits is 300 miles of beautiful Indian Ocean spots with no tourists in sight. There are some very good authentic lodges along this coast, which in comparison to Zanzibar are very well priced. The Lamu Archipelago is also an old favourite; a place where you get old Swahili island life culture, as well as some excellent lodges and simply beautiful beaches. We love Kenya, and the coast would love to see tourists back after their troubled recent history, so we really cannot recommend it enough.
The new kid on the block and much more accessible now with the new service from Johannesburg straight to Nosy Be. The infrastructure in Madagascar is still frustrating, but avoiding Antananarivo makes travelling here a lot better. Madagascar has great beaches and simple accommodation, although there are a few high end lodges being finished up as we write. Of particular note is the private island haven of Tsarabanjina, which is hotly anticipated as our next great favourite!
Not really accessible from Africa, the Maldives are a holiday destination in their own right (or combined with Southern India). Regardless of price, the different Maldivian islands tend to have everything that we dream of for our ultimate African island. The Maldives have an abundance of amazing, soft, white powdery sand, off the beach snorkelling, and many very fine lodges here are not outrageously expensive. The down sides are that many island lodges have a lot of rooms crammed onto a small island, and there are a lot of chain hotels (although there are some charming smaller lodges too).