Islands of the Indian Ocean: where should you go?

Beautiful beaches, tranquil lagoons and stunning sea views – discover some of the best islands in the Indian Ocean and start planning your next trip.

By Saga team

Published 4 May 2024

With nearly 1,200 islands, most uninhabited and spread over a vast area of ocean, Maldives is Asia’s smallest country as well as its most geographically dispersed.

It lies south of India, to which it has been linked for centuries by culture and history, although its religion is Islam. British visitors will also recognise traces left by its time as a British Protectorate from 1887 to 1965.

Such culture and history, however, are of little interest to the majority of visitors who come for those islands, each with its own perfect beach and colourful underwater life.

They enjoy some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world, and pampering in high-end resorts afterwards.

There are more than 100 resorts, ranging from the topmost extremes of luxury to more price- and family-friendly ones.

Historically, they were all on their own private islands but looser regulations now allow for other choices, including stays in private guesthouses while island hopping by ferry.

None of the islands are more than eight feet above sea level and the threat of rising seas due to climate change dominate the island’s future.

That means care of the environment is taken extremely seriously, and many hotels offer guests experiences such as tree planting or beach clean-ups.

Most resorts also have a resident marine biologist to provide talks and guidance. Few people come away from Maldives without an increased appreciation of the beauty and fragility of nature.

“Together but apart” might sum up this autonomous island of the Republic of Mauritius. Mauritius itself feels remote after the long flight from Africa, and Rodrigues is another step beyond into a world that is even more unspoilt.

Sharing a geography with its sister island, almost 400 miles distant, Rodrigues has a very different history.

With a drier climate and no sugar cane, it has remained an island of African and Creole people without the massive influx of Indian and other outside cultures.

However, it still has the coral-fringed beaches of Mauritius itself, along with a tropical interior. Diving, snorkelling and other water sports, such as kitesurfing and sailing in a traditional pirogue, occupy most visitors.

A popular pirogue excursion is to Coco Island, where a bird sanctuary holds several rare species. The trip itself is an adventure and a chance to swim in the crystal clear waters of a lagoon.

Rodrigues is 11 miles long and four miles wide and its mountainous spine is ideal for hiking.

The tiny island’s isolation has produced a unique environment and there are active programmes to reintroduce endemic species that have been lost in past centuries, including the program at the François Leguat Giant Tortoise Reserve.

Eco-tourism is a major part of its tourism plans and there are many options for those wishing to avoid larger resorts and hotels.

Lying between Madagascar and Mauritius, Reunion is a department of France. It uses the Euro and EU citizens have the same residence rights as on mainland Europe.

The island lies under the shadow of one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Piton de la Fournaise, which is also one of its major tourist attractions.

Most eruptions involve a lava flow that pours into the Indian Ocean but the volcano is closely monitored.

Climbing the ‘Furnace’ is physically strenuous but the island is equally famous for its hundreds of miles of other hiking trials. Its three cirques – vast volcanic craters formed inside the dormant Piton des Neiges – are a national park that provide a unique natural environment for walkers.

The variety of landscapes is surprising for an island only 30 miles wide, ranging from palm-fringed beaches through savannah to steep mountain valleys where waterfalls plunge into forest-shaded pools. Birdwatchers are in paradise with an equal variety of bird species.

any of the island’s bMeaches are black volcanic sand but there are also some lovely white coral sand ones.

Not all the island is protected by coral reef, but where it is diving and snorkelling are popular. You can watch whales from land, or on boat tours from June to October.

Reunion is often described as a mini Hawaii and is best seen from the air. Paragliding and helicopter tours are a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of its tropical beauty.

The teardrop shape of the island formerly known as Ceylon hangs down from the south of India like a pearl earring.

And Sri Lanka's treasures live up to that bejewelled image, from the beaches and national parks to the verdant tea plantations and eight Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Few places can pack such a variety of experiences into such a small area. Centuries of culture have produced sights such the rock-top fifth-century fortress of Sigiriya or the “Temple of the Tooth” in Kandy.

This relic of Buddha is shown off every year in a colourful parade of elephants. You can also see elephants in the wild in one of the national parks, or watch orphaned animals being bathed in a river.

Cool off yourself in the clear blue waters off beaches with superb resorts, or take a train to the hills of Nurweya Eliyah and toast generations of British tea planters with an ice-tinkling gin and tonic.

The cuisine of the island can be at the other end of the temperature scale. Fiery curries are a contrast to the dishes that are a legacy of Portuguese, Dutch and British occupation.

In Galle, on the southern coast, colonial influences are also seen in the architecture of its fort. Looking out over the Indian Ocean, this tiny town embraces a mix of local and foreign residents who together produce a unique culture.

Further east along this coast is the national park of Yala, refuge for some of Sri Lanka’s few remaining leopards. You will be lucky to spot any of these elusive creatures but crocodiles, buffalos and many species of bird are a given.

This archipelago of 115 islands lies around 1,100 miles off the coast of Tanzania. Many visitors island-hop, looking for the ultimate paradise of sand, coral reef and palm trees.

The main island is Mahé, where the capital of Victoria holds a quarter of the country's total population of around 100,000. Mahé also has the international airport, making it the usual base for exploring the archipelago.

The islands in the east are formed of granite, and the most populated, while those to the west are coral. This makes for a surprising range of landscapes, both above and below the water.

Diving and snorkelling are major draws, with warm, clear water and coral reefs, wrecks and underwater canyons to explore.

The marine life is rich and colourful, and you can even snorkel or dive with whale sharks if you wish.

Sea kayaking is a great way to visit several different islands in one day, as distances between them are often short. The clear water allows you to spot dolphins and turtles as you paddle from one perfect beach to another.

These tropical beaches are the main attraction for many. The number and remoteness often means having one to yourself, one reason why the Seychelles is so popular with honeymooners.

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