Few Americans travel to Africa solely for a beach vacation. Instead, they combine sand with safari, using the Indian Ocean’s easily accessed waters to wash off the dust after a week in the bush. It’s a delightful mix: On no other continent can you pair the kind of world-class game viewing offered by East Africa’s top reserves with the exotic and singular beauty of the region’s ancient island ports and fishing villages.
Characterized by fine white sand bordering turquoise waters that fluctuate spectacularly with the tides, the seaside areas also feature some of the best-preserved and most robustly populated coral reefs in the world. But to limit the agenda to sunbathing and snorkeling would be to miss the point. There is a unique cultural integrity here: Indigenous tribes coexist with descendants of Arab and Persian sultanates, Macanese and Goan traders and Portuguese conquistadors. Traditional Shirazi and Zenj architecture juxtaposes with European design.
There are, of course, logistical challenges and safety considerations. Access to remote spots involves frill-free transfers and, in some cases, long, bumpy drives. And there has been the ongoing fallout from Somalia’s political instability, in the form of piracy and kidnapping threats. Travel to the Kenyan island of Lamu, for example, is only just now slowly picking up again (evident at the landmark Peponi Hotel in Shela village) after the 2011 murder and kidnapping of two foreign tourists in the region.
The right destination, then, is as much about an examination of one’s own comfort level as it is about aesthetics. In 2013 and 2014, Mauritius and the Seychelles are safer bets for worry-free resorts, though the trade-off is longer flying times from mainland Africa. The islands off of Tanzania and Mozambique mentioned below, on the other hand, offer a laid-back vibe and exceptional access to regional history and culture.
Not for nothing have the French harbored decades of affection for this mountainous island republic 600 miles east of Madagascar. It has golf, tennis, Michelin-star dining and gorgeous beaches. And with its now-frequent access from Johannesburg and Nairobi (both four-hour flights), it’s more easily paired with a safari than ever before. The place to stay is the year-old St. Regis Mauritius Resort (rooms, from $440; Le Morne Peninsula; 230-403-9000; stregismauritius.com) on the photogenic Le Morne beach. Decor at the 172-room property is in inviolate good taste, with floors of travertine and oak parquet, ornately carved joinery and custom-designed toiles de Jouy. There are six restaurants representing four continents, a full-service spa, a 16,000-square-foot pool and a four-bedroom villa.
For those who want a more low-key option, the 52-room Angsana Balaclava (rooms, from $680; Turtle Bay; 230-204-1888; angsana.com) is an hour up the west coast on tamarind-lined Turtle Bay beach. The one-bedroom oceanfront suites are the rooms to book, and the sand-bottomed pool is the place to relax en famille, with breaks for sambal curries or thin-crust pizzas at the adjacent alfresco restaurant.
A string of 115 coraline and granitic islands, the Seychelles is 1,300 miles east of, and a three-hour flight from, Nairobi. It is a relatively near neighbor of Mauritius and has many of that island’s same amenities, but the Seychelles is just outside the cyclone zone, which can bring rain to Mauritius from November to April. Choosing between the two destinations, then, will come down to season and resort preference, which in the Seychelles boils down to just a few. Our favorite (it comes down to sheer beauty) is North Island (villas, from $2,575 a person per night; 248-429-3100; north-island.com). The 11-villa private island, a 15-minute helicopter ride from the main island of Mahe, has genuinely improved over the course of its ten-year existence, with sun-worn wood, better service and food, and a rehabilitated ecosystem, including a lush interior and four pristine beaches. Another strong contender is the Raffles Praslin Seychelles (villas, from $500; Anse Takamaka; 248-429-6000; raffles.com), which opened in February 2011. Its 86 villas, each with a butler and a private pool, sprawl across 30 acres of green hillside and white-sand beach. A quick 15- or 55-minute jump (by chopper or ferry, respectively) from Mahe, Raffles is home to the unesco-designated Vallee de Mai, a reserve known for its local coco de mer palms.
Forty-five miles north of the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, the island of Zanzibar vibrates with Shirazi, Omani, Hadimu and English-colonial history. Stone Town, the ancient city center of Zanzibar City, is easily one of Africa’s most atmospheric places, with old markets and excellent food and shops. With twice-daily 100-minute flights from Nairobi on Kenya Airways, it lends itself well to pairing with an East African safari—as does a raft of appealing resorts across the island. The Residence Zanzibar (villas, from $775; Mchamgamle, Kizimkazi; 255-245/555-000; theresidence.com) has 66 elegantly austere, one- and two-bedroom villas with vintage black-and-white photography, four-poster beds swathed in netting and stand-alone tubs in massive bathrooms. It is spread across 80 meticulously tended acres on the southwest coast. There’s a dhow for day cruises, a jetty for private sundowners and a spa with a full menu of massages and treatments. The Residence offers full-bore comfort, but the minimalist-chic design, not to mention the double-gated and guarded entrance, puts you at a remove from the island.
With not a gate in sight, Matemwe Retreat (villas, from $1,040; Matemwe; 27-21/418-0468; asiliaafrica.com) offers an entirely different experience. Here, studied style is swapped out in favor of Swahili and Makonde design references and lo-fi ebullience. The alfresco living rooms feature bits of old sea canoe repurposed as bars and tables; the sofas on the roof terraces are upholstered in colorful capulanas, a type of sarong worn in southeastern Africa. Each villa has a dedicated butler and a shared chef; but be advised that service is charming and amiable rather than prompt and flawless. A tiny atoll off Zanzibar’s northeast coast, Mnemba Private Island Lodge (from $1,550 a person per night; 27-11/809-4300; mnemba-island.com) is where barefoot luxury takes its most indulgent form on the island and arguably on the entire East African coast. Its ten thatch-roofed, sea-grass-lined bandas are wall-less and air-conditioner-free, cooled instead by trade breezes. The diving here is some of the Indian Ocean’s best.
A national park just off the coast of northern Mozambique, this chain of 31 islands is, for now, still gloriously undeveloped. Besides Vamizi Island Resort, opened in 2005, it offered little in the way of top-level accommodation. This changed in late 2011 with Azura at Quilalea (villas, from $525 a person per night; 27-767/050-599; azura-retreats.com), a private island retreat reached by bush plane from Pemba, where there are connecting flights from Nairobi (two hours) and Johannesburg (three hours). The thatched villas are simple, but furnishings are beautifully handcrafted. Meals are served all over the island—a hidden beach revealed by the receding tide at breakfast, an utterly private coral ledge shaded by marula trees at dinner. From Quilalea guests can take a helicopter or speedboat to nearby Ibo Island. Once a key port on the Arab spice route, then a commercial nexus of Portuguese East Africa, Ibo’s Stone Town is a gorgeous, crumbling monument to empires past. Those especially taken by its mystery and tranquility—both abundant—might consider adding on a day or two at Ibo Island Lodge (rooms, from $335 a person; 27-21/785-5498; iboisland.com), a 14-room inn spread across three faded colonial mansions at the edge of the ocean.