When I think of an island holiday, I tend to think of turquoise, tropical waters lapping coconut palm-lined beaches: the picture-postcard place. However, islands are not all coconut trees and cocktails. Having been to a few islands in my time, the postcard idyll may often ring true, but there are a few other words that are also synonymous with islands – Darwin, hiding places, outlaws, economic hubs, volcanoes, coral reefs, endemic animals and tortoises, to name but a few.
Islands are economic hubs – Hong Kong and Japan being some of the very densely populated examples. They can also be natural divides – the English Channel, a perfectly swimmable stretch of water, separates the British Isles from the rest of Europe. While other islands have defied global politics, such as Australia, which is the world’s largest island and was once a perfect place for prisoners.
As humans we have even decided to create man-made islands like Dubai’s Palm Island, while other natural habitats boast unique wildlife like Madagascar’s lemurs. Islands can be a keyhole to the past or a home to some of the most diverse and unique wildlife in the world, some of which is hanging in a fragile ecological balance.
Here are nine holiday islands off the continent of Africa that will have you wriggling into your wetsuit and slapping on the SPF in no time.
Mauritius is home to the giant lilypads of Pamplemousses Gardens, sands of seven colours and a female president, Gurib-Fakim.
This beautiful place was also once home to two species of saddleback tortoises and the dodo – both of which were killed to extinction with the arrival of the first ships.
The country boosts a melting pot of colourful cultures from Cape Malay, French, Chinese and Indians, while the Mauritian Sega dance and music will have visitors toe-tapping for days.
The Galápagos Islands in Ecuador may be able to boast Darwin’s famous giant tortoises, but the Indian Ocean islands such as Mauritius, Rodrigues, Réunion Island and the Seychelles were also home to their own species of giant tortoises. However, today the Seychelles is the last remaining place in the Indian Ocean to see the Aldabra giant tortoise.
Many of the islands in the Seychelles, such as Fregate Island Private, have programmes that are dedicated to protecting these giants. These islands have become a second home (if you are including the shells on their backs) for tortoises due to a lack of predation.
Made up of many granite and coral islands, the Seychelles archipelago is the honeymoon destination of choice. It’s a UNESCO heritage site and it also boasts the largest coconut in the world – the coco-de-mer.
If you’re not snorkelling and sipping pina coladas whilst sailing, the birding in the Seychelles is fantastic! Seychelles has a lot of endemic species such as the Seychelles fody, Seychelles kestrel, Seychelles black parrot, Seychelles magpie-robin, Seychelles paradise flycatcher, Seychelles scops owl, Seychelles swiftlet, Seychelles warbler and the Seychelles white-eye.
Read more about the Seychelles in: Honeymoon in Paradise
3. Reunion Island
Situated in the south-east corner of Reunion Island, Piton de la Fournaise is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The volcano last erupted in 2004 and is due to let off some steam in the near future – having erupted nearly 180 times.
Reunion, although not known for its wildlife, used to have a giant species of tortoise that is now extinct. However, the real drawcard is diving with humpback whales, which can be done through Natural World Safaris.
The biggest exports, apart from sugar, are rum and vanilla – now that sounds like a cocktail in the making!
4. Sao Tome & Principe
Nestled below the bulge, in the armpit of Africa, is the second smallest African country – Sao Tome & Principe.
Don’t let the size of these islands fool you, as this island group was the world’s largest chocolate exporter at the turn of the last century.
Despite a dark history in slavery, today these islands still produce some of the best chocolate in the world and it is all completely Fair Trade – how is that for a guilt-free honeymoon?
The waters harbour some of the best deep sea fishing around, and the islands are a birder’s paradise. Although these islands do not have tortoises, they are prime sea turtle nesting grounds.
Read about Sao Tome & Principe in: The Chocolate Isles – A Place of Peace
5. Cape Verde
Like Sao Tome & Principe, Cape Verde was heavily influenced by the Portuguese. It became a refuge for political prisoners from Portugal and a hideaway for people suffering from religious persecution.
Cape Verde is a cultural melting pot with centuries of ethnic mixing, and it is home to arguably some of the most beautiful people in the world.
The island is geographically new, with magma still bubbling up from the ocean, which means that the island is still forming.
6. Saint Helena
The far-flung island of Saint Helena was where Europe’s most notorious general, Napoleon, was extradited until his death in 1821. The island is full of Napoleonic things – Longwood House, the Briars Pavilion and his tomb.
The island is also riddled with the history of the British Empire – housing prisoners from the Anglo-Boer war in South Africa as well as a Zulu chief, and a sultan from Zanzibar. Germany planned to bomb the island in the Battle of the Atlantic and, failing that, they planned to exile Winston Churchill and King George VI to the island after a successful invasion.
After the abolition of slavery, the islands became an administrative centre for all the sad souls making their way back to Africa. With such deep history, it’s no surprise that the island has its own distillery. Time for some gin!
Saint Helena is one of the remotest places on earth. Although it does not have aquamarine oceans and coconut trees, the island holds a dramatic beauty. If you feel like giving your calves a good burn, climb Jacob’s ladder and admire the colourful Georgian buildings below.
In 1677 Edmond Halley mapped out the southern night sky from Saint Helena, and he also inadvertently recorded the trade winds and monsoon patterns that still exist today from the island.
Jonathan, the world’s oldest living animal – a giant tortoise that is around 180 years old – makes his home on the island.
7. Lamu Island
UNESCO World Heritage site, Lamu Island, is a cultural retreat for guest looking for a lazy beach holiday in Kenya. Dhows and donkeys are the island’s signature features. The houses are all built from limestone, mangrove wood and coral.
Today, Lamu is an important landmark for coastal Swahili tribes.
8. Mozambique’s Bazaruto Island
Here you can float with the underwater heavy weights such as whale sharks, dugongs and turtles! These islands provide perfectly clear snorkelling and a treasure trove of brightly coloured corals. These isolated islands offer the perfect holiday escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
At places like Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort you can enjoy time spent on a paradise private island, away from the distractions of life. Once you are done snorkelling and scuba-diving, a host of other water sports await, like water-skiing, wake boarding, stand up paddle boarding and sunset cruises aboard traditional dhows.
An absolute highlight of any trip to Mozambique is the unique tastes of island cuisine and the fresh seafood that is in absolute abundance. Enjoy a professional cooking class or delight in a sumptuous beach barbeque under the stars!
9. Tanzania’s Zanzibar
Farrokh Bulsara ‘broke free’ from Africa’s Spice Islands and went onto become Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen. Zanzibar has always been an important trading port, from slaves to spices and sultans! Khalid bin Barghas, the self-declared Sultan of Zanzibar, was exiled to Saint Helena before being moved to the Seychelles.
As such this coastline conjures up images of fishermen with heavily laden dhows contrasted by the ruins of saltan palaces amongst overgrown forests and white sand beaches.
Many a safari company, such as Matembezi African Safaris, will help you create the ideal bush and beach break by tacking on a trip to Zanzibar to your stay in the Serengeti.
Zanzibar’s stunning translucent waters are a favourite for snorkelers and divers but it is the vibrant people and culture of this island that will keep you coming back for more.
To find out more about islands off Africa, read: Bush and Beach