The Indian Ocean trio of Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives may all share the vast expanse of azure water that laps at their shores, but that’s where the similarity ends, with each country having its own unique culture and natural appeal, plus a distinctive array of superb hotels.
The 115 islands of Seychelles are perhaps the most wildly paradisaical of them all, with endless chalk-white crescents and stretches of beach hemmed by enormous granite boulders so big that they must surely have been dropped by giants. There’s a population of only about 100,000 people spread across these scattered islands, so you can expect plenty of peace and space.
Still, adventure does await those who seek it, from hiking Morne Seychellois – the country’s highest mountain is a challenging mission that you should allow a good half-day for – to diving in hopes of seeing some of the 850 species of fish that can be found here. Seychelles also prides itself on its rich Creole culture, and there’s no better time to see this come alive than for Festival Kreol, which is usually held in October.
In the Maldives, it’s more of a numbers game – both in terms of the volume of people who flock to its Robinson Crusoe-style islands, and in the plethora of classy resorts they get to choose from. It’s also a game of innovation – top properties constantly try to outdo each other with engineering feats such as the Muraka, a two-level residence at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island with an underwater bedroom that means you can literally sleep with the fishes.
Mauritius, meanwhile, has a population of about 1.2 million and a history woven with tales of colonisation and sugar plantations. The nation is made up of many islets and sister islands include Rodriguez, but the bulk of travellers will explore the large main island of Mauritius, which has a strong Indian and Chinese heritage, a wonderful untamed interior and a dramatic coastline. Resorts tend to be on beaches that are a struggle to peel yourself away from, but you should try and explore what this island has to offer.
Of the three countries, Seychelles is the one where tourism is most low-impact and its development carefully measured, with islands maintaining a land-that-time-forgot look about them. Sustainability is a way of life here, with almost half of this Eden-like paradise set aside as national parks and reserves. As a visitor, you can expect to come across plenty of wildlife-saving projects and conservation-first resorts.
Seychelles is made up of two island groups – the inner group of more than 40 mountainous granitic islands, which form the cultural, economic and tourism hub and include the three main islands of Mahé, Praslin and La Digue; and the 70 or so outlying, largely uninhabited, flat coralline specks known as the Outer Islands.
One new option in that area is a small eco camp on Wizard Island, set within the magnificent Cosmoledo Atoll, where Blue Safari Seychelles takes care of conservation and preservation. Cosmoledo has always been the domain of fly fishing, but Cosmoledo Eco Camp means adventurous, conservation-minded souls can now stay there in one of eight converted shipping containers, or “eco pods”.
Seychelles boasts a clutch of desirable resorts that have private islands all to themselves, such as North, Denis, Desroches, Cousine and Fregate. The last of these plays a crucial role in conserving the critically endangered magpie robin as well as hosting the archipelago’s second-largest gathering of giant tortoises, more than 3,000 of them. The highest number live on Aldabra, where there is a 150,000-strong population of these ancient creatures.
If you’d rather stay on a larger island with a bit more going on, opt for a resort on Mahé, home to the capital, Victoria, and the international airport, along with hotels from the likes of Banyan Tree and Hilton. Bringing some recent global pizazz is Minor Hotels’ top-notch Anantara brand, which took over management of the Maia resort on Mahé last summer.
Another property worth thinking about is Six Senses’ Zil Pasyon resort, which sits on about one-third of Félicité Island and is a natural wonderland for kids and adults alike – it’s a short speedboat ride from La Digue or Praslin, or you can catch a helicopter from Mahé.
Meanwhile, Four Seasons has two dashing resorts in the country, one on Mahé (see businesstraveller.com/features/paradise-found) – it recently added a whopping seven-bedroom residence if you want to go all-out in the search for space and privacy – and a newer one on Desroches, in the idyllic Outer Amirante Islands, a 35-minute flight from Mahé.
One must-do, if you can fit it in, is the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve on Praslin, a UNESCO-recognised site with a preserved prehistoric palm forest that is home to the legendary coco de mer – the largest seed in the plant kingdom, found only in Seychelles. On Praslin you could opt to stay at Accor’s exquisite Raffles Seychelles resort, but for a more low-key slice of life do also make a day trip to sleepy La Digue. Local tour companies usually include the cost of the boat trip and bike hire so you can cycle around this virtually car-free island, past vanilla plantations and giant tortoises, discovering beaches such as little Anse Patates, Petite Anse, Grand Anse and the blinding white sand of Anse Source d’Argent, one of Seychelles’ best-known.
If ever there was a time for some clever thinking on how to attract travellers back on to planes, it’s now – and the Maldives has come up with a novel option: the Maldives Border Miles initiative. Thought to be a world-first for a destination, the loyalty programme encourages you to spend more time there with the offer of points across three tiers, earned depending on the frequency of visits and whether you’re travelling for a special occasion such as an engagement, birthday or honeymoon.
There are already plenty of reasons to visit the country, from the beautiful marine environment of its 1,200 islands to the middle-of-nowhere escapism of its luxury resorts. The best of the islands try to bring a slice of everything to you, from boduberu, an intoxicating dance to drums, to lessons on cooking spicy Maldivian curries or keeping mind and body occupied with a constant rota of visiting or on-site marine biologists and wellbeing gurus.
And when it comes to the hottest new thing to try in the Maldives, how about skydiving? A modified Cessna 208 is now in the country at Dhaalu airport, marking one of the first steps to establishing permanent skydiving drop zones in the country.
Under the water, one of the newest phenomena is spending the night down there, with Conrad’s Muraka – a three-bedroom ocean residence with a master suite located five metres below the surface – leading the way. Accor’s Pullman Maldives Maamutaa has two new Aqua Villas featuring underwater bedrooms so you can relax while the fish swim by your floor-to-ceiling windows.
If actually being in the water is more your thing then the Maldives is the ultimate destination, with incredible dive sites. One of the most ingenious options can be found at Como Maalifushi, the only resort in the remote Thaa Atoll, which runs a “whale shark hotline” at night. The resort has teamed up with Ecocean, which monitors these majestic creatures, to give guests the chance to swim with them. You’re given a mobile phone, wait on high alert and as soon as a whale shark is spotted in a known feeding area, you’re whisked out.
There’s always a new resort to get excited about here, too – granted, 2020 was a slower year for openings but there are now some significant new hotels on the horizon. A good choice for couples, families or groups will be Siyam World, which will open in October with its own floating water park and an entire village dedicated to kids, as well as a 24-hour all-inclusive plan for its 12 restaurants and bars.
For something more refined, keep an eye out for one of the most exclusive new enclaves in the country – the Fari Islands project. This high-end archipelago includes Patina Maldives, the first property for this brand which opens in May 2021 – it offers such a sleek proposition that it has been accepted into Design Hotels. The Ritz-Carlton Maldives Fari Islands is set to open the following month and has been designed by Kerry Hill Architects. Just as prestigious will be Capella Maldives, which is due to be launched next year and will feature interiors by André Fu. You will also be able to enjoy the Fari Marina, home to a beach club, boutiques and restaurants, while boats will shuttle you between the various restaurants on the islands.
Still, it’s not all about the newcomers in the Maldives. One long-established resort showing it still has what it takes is Soneva Fushi, now 25 years old and celebrating by unveiling its one- and two-bedroom Water Retreats, which it claims are the largest villas of their kind in the world. There are eight of them, each with a retractable roof above the master bed and its own 19-metre water slide.
Mauritius is all about fields of sugar cane swaying in the wind, little churches nudging up next to pastel-coloured Hindu temples, bustling little towns, and people who are a friendly mix of Indian, Creole and Chinese, its past peppered with Dutch, French and British colonial influence.
That’s not forgetting some outstanding resorts from the likes of Four Seasons (temporarily closed but due to reopen in August) and One and Only, and an extensive range of water sports – if it can be done on or under the water, it’s probably available somewhere in Mauritius. The island’s 177km coastline is fringed by coral reef, a barrier running virtually the whole way around, so it’s little surprise that this is one of the top diving destinations on the planet, loved for its warm waters, good underwater visibility and abundant marine life.
At 61km long and 47km wide, nothing is ever too far away in Mauritius, and hiring a car to explore is a nice option. The north lays claim to some fantastic white beaches and proximity to the capital, Port Louis, making this area a tourism hotspot, especially around Grand Baie.
On the east coast you’ll find some of the best beaches, such as the 10km Belle Mare, making it obvious why this area gave life to many of the island’s original luxury hotels, such as Shangri-La’s Le Touessrok (temporarily closed) and One and Only Le Saint Géran. Then there’s the “sunset coast”, covering the west from Port Louis down to Le Morne Peninsula, the latter home to another cluster of top resorts, excellent kite surfing and the monolith of Le Morne Brabant, one of the island’s best climbs.
The mountain has a deeper significance, having once been a refuge for escaped slaves, or “maroons”. It is said that when the maroons saw soldiers approach the mountain – who were in fact coming to inform them that slavery had been abolished and they were free – they jumped to their deaths rather than risk recapture. You can visit the new Intercontinental Slavery Museum in Port Louis to dig deeper into this part of the island’s past. Close to Le Morne is the Black River Gorges National Park, home to the country’s highest mountain, Little Black River Peak.
Historically, the south is less developed, with empty beaches and fishing villages, but several domaines or sugar estates, such as the one at Bel Ombre, have now been turned over to nature and activity-driven tourism.
Sadly for us, holidaying there is a challenge at the moment, with all international flights to Mauritius suspended. A phased easing of travel restrictions is expected from the end of June 2021 and international visitors will be required to present valid Covid-19 vaccination certificates to enter the country. Mauritius is also still dealing with an oil spill last July that affected its southeast coast.
With this in mind, it might be worth hanging on until later in the year, when the Lux Grand Baie Resort and Residences opens in November. This will be probably the most impressive debut on the island for a while, from a brand with a track record for innovative lifestyle resorts.