Island gems of the Indian Ocean
Parted from the shores of Africa and Asia are thousands of island escapes just waiting to be explored. While it may seem difficult to pick among them, many Indian Ocean islands from Malaysia to Zanzibar are regularly praised for being impossibly, impressively or uniquely beautiful. When it comes to choosing just one, it's hard to go wrong.
Two sets of islands in particular set themselves apart. For people traveling in Asia or the Middle East, the iconic Maldives are a popular and unparalleled destination. Those exploring Africa can detour in Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago, a smaller chain of islands having recently earned status as a national park.
Take a handful of sand, cast it into the ocean, and you have an approximation of the Maldives. The wide spread of tiny isles are some of the most highly regarded vacation destinations, offering clear, blue waters, astounding reefs and palm-shaded spits of land that seem destined to end up on postcards. In reality, though, only a fraction of them regularly cater to tourists, let alone to humans at all. According to the Maldive's official tourism website, there are a total of 1,190 islands, only 200 of which are inhabited, and only 105 of which host resorts. Despite the Maldive's renown, finding a place of solitude there isn't a challenge.
Swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing and excellent seafood are all to be expected in the Maldives. The diving is especially impressive, due to the thousands of coral reefs in the region. The islands act like a fishing net, with the monsoon tides churning up small marine flora and fauna, which in turn draw in larger, exotic species of animals to Maldivian shores, according to the islands' official website. Sightseeing beneath the waves is understandably popular.
For those who wish to stay above the water, night fishing is another popular activity offered by many resorts. Local fishermen start their workday at dawn, but tourists are given the opportunity to leave before sunrise in order to stake a good spot of water.
While the natural beauty of the Maldives is the major attraction, the local culture helps to set it apart from other idyllic sandbars. The islands have long served as a part of a trading route in the Indian Ocean, meaning that the people, their music and their arts are an intricate combination of Southeast Asian, African and Arabian influence. While tourism continues to shape the islands, the small, tightly knit fishing culture still remains prominent. As the Maldives' tourism website notes, locals still end the day visiting friends and family, bringing small bowls of homemade curry and taking strolls along the water.
The Bazaruto Archipelago is Mozambique's answer to the Maldives. Its recently earned status as a national park is a measure of protection against mass tourism, which would be an unsurprising flood given the pristine beaches and coral reefs. CNN Travel has lauded it as a diver's haven, due to its abundance of sharks, rays and dolphins, as well as its stunning array of colorful and odd fish, including the angel the parrot and the butterfly. Flights to the islands depart from many other popular African destinations, including Johannesburg and Nairobi. Once there, island-hopping is just a matter of catching the right boat.
The Maldives and Bazaruto are just a couple of the major constellations in a sea of stars. The coasts of India alone boast numerous secluded spots. Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia all have their own slices of paradise. Closer to Africa, you'll find more than enough destinations to keep you busy. CNN Travel points to Cape Verde for surfing, Zanzibar for fantastic photo opportunities, São Tomé and Príncipe for natural beauty and Madagascar for the wildlife.