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The Indian Ocean's hottest hideaways
Christopher Vourlias, Forbes Traveler

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January 30, 2009

The boat that whisks you toward your small slice of paradise skips across waves so dazzlingly blue, it's impossible to tell where the sky ends and the sea begins. An island -- a swath of tropical green ringed by pearl-white sands -- sits like a gemstone set into the ocean's waters. Fishing dhows glide by, their sails stiffly catching the wind. As you coast toward the beach and listen to the sound of the wind rasping through the trees, you might wonder if you've stumbled into some Hollywood flick. Coconut crabs scuttle across the sand, gulls pirouette in the air. At any moment you expect Tom Hanks [Images] to come staggering across the beach, his beard wild as a prophet's, a volleyball with a Crayola-colored grin tucked into the crook of his arm.

Castaways might be tempted to light a signal fire and look to the horizon for signs of help. But for guests of Mnemba Island Lodge, getting stranded on a deserted island is precisely the point. The ultra-exclusive eco-lodge sits on a pristine private island in the Zanzibar archipelago, a stone's throw from civilization but -- for those lucky enough to visit -- a world away from the crowded beach resorts just an hour downwind. The lodge's 12 thatched villas are discreetly tucked into cozy, tree-shrouded nooks around the island; if you were sailing past Mnemba, borne along by the monsoon winds, you might not even know the haute hideaway was there.

For centuries, the Indian Ocean was home to some of the world's busiest maritime trade routes. In Zanzibar, massive wooden dhows were packed with ivory, spices and slaves bound for Arabia and the New World. Rich fabrics sailed from Cutch; dates from Muscat; silk and porcelain from the Far East. Persian and Chinese sailors made frequent stops in the Maldives [Images] en route to far-flung ports-of-call. Ceylon -- now Sri Lanka [Images] -- was famous for its vast plantations of cinnamon and tea, cultivated and shipped to foreign lands.

Today, though, as five-star resorts crown coasts from Sri Lanka to the Seychelles, from the Maldives to Mozambique, it's a different sort of traffic that's crowding the Indian Ocean's waters. Wooden dhows have given way to luxury yachts, and the wind that rustles through the palm trees could very well be blowing from the nearest helipad. With more than 40,000 miles of coastline fronting its azure waves -- and hundreds of swish resorts jostling for the finest real estate -- the Indian Ocean has become a vast playground of private islands, uninhabited coasts, and jetsetting sun-seekers basking in the balmy breeze.

At Mnemba, shortly after you've kicked off your sandals on the beach, "barefoot luxury" begins with an introduction to your personal butler, who tends to your every need throughout your stay. Cocktail in hand, you're guided through the forest to a big, breezy villa where a king-sized bed is turned majestically toward the sea. In the afternoon you can snorkel through colorful coral gardens, get a sensuous rubdown, or recline on the beach with champagne chilling in a bucket by your side. At night, there might be a lavish beach barbeque complete with colossal lobsters and hurricane lamps casting shadows on the sand. The walk back to your villa is serenaded by the chirps and trills of the forest. The sandy paths are lit only by the pale face of the moon.

At North Island, in the Seychelles, escapism and eco-consciousness go hand in hand, with an ambitious conservation experiment that's created the perfect marriage of style and sustainability. The remarkable effort to clear all non-indigenous species from the island -- and introduce endangered Seychellois wildlife like giant tortoises and fruit bats into its protected sanctuary -- has turned the island into an idyllic eco-paradise.

"It was such an immense undertaking," says Sandy Cunningham, president of Uncharted Outposts, which specializes in remote luxury hideaways. "They removed everything that did not belong on that island. It was such a mammoth project from start to finish."

The attention to detail extended to the island's villas, which were carefully crafted using indigenous wood, thatch and stone. The effect is a sleek, sophisticated, understated style that has become as much a North Island calling card as its conservation work.

So, too, has the island's exclusivity. Norman Pieters, a specialist in customized luxury trips for Karell's African Dream Vacations, notes that because there are only 11 villas, North Island "is one of those cases where you really feel like it's your own private island." Villas are widely spaced, the staff is discreetly attentive, and you can easily spend hours exploring the island without another soul in sight.

"Generally, on an island vacation," notes Pieters, "you're either a prisoner of your resort, or you're haggled and hassled to death." But North Island offers something that few resorts can match, and that you can't quite put a price tag on: perfect freedom.

"You can be as private as you want to be, and as invisible as you want to be," he says.

It's easy to disappear in the Maldives, a sun-washed archipelago of more than 1,000 islands. Romance has always blossomed here: According to legend, the country's first king was a 12th-century Sinhalese prince who discovered the islands on a honeymoon sail. At Soneva Gili, lovestruck couples can canoodle in one of the 44 stylish villas perched on stilts over an azure lagoon, or retreat to one of eight exclusive "Crusoe residences" hidden off the island's north shore. A series of boardwalks strung across the water links the villas to the main island, your feet all but kissing the waves. In the spa, glass floors let you spy on marine life while your muscles get worked over by an expert masseuse.

"The Maldives has a tremendous draw with the European crowds," says Cunningham, noting that many travelers from the continent will fly out for a short romantic getaway. Like most Indian Ocean hotspots, though, it remains all but undiscovered by Americans. "If people want to get away for a short weekend, or even a week," she says, "they're going to do the Caribbean or Mexico." Though the region boasts world-class diving and deep-sea fishing, vacations in the Maldives or the Seychelles are typically combined with trips elsewhere in the region: an African safari in Kenya or a business trip to Dubai.

Distance isn't the only concern. In December 2004, after a massive earthquake occurred off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a catastrophic series of tsunamis tore across the region, destroying coastal areas and claiming more than 250,000 lives. The Maldives was one of the countries hardest hit: In the wake of the crushing waves, government officials feared the country's map would literally have to be redrawn. Many small islands were entirely washed away by the waves; some of the islands being eyed by developers today, Cunningham notes, "weren't even existing islands" before the tsunami struck. Even today, she says, "the fear with the Maldives is that the next tsunami" might prove equally disastrous.

While the tsunami hardly cast more than a ripple on its shores, few of the Indian Ocean's hot spots have benefited as much from the recent tourist boom as Mozambique. For more than a decade after independence, the sprawling African nation was ravaged by a civil war that crippled the economy, devastated the country, and left close to a million dead. The remarkable turnaround in the years since has made it one of Africa's great success stories, and a new generation of jetsetters -- drawn to its sun-soaked coasts and idyllic islets -- is discovering its legendary beauty.

In the Quirimbas Archipelago, off the country's northern shores, a pristine string of coral-ringed islands is the place to entertain fantasies of getting Lost. At Vamizi, 12 luxurious, thatched villas front a stretch of powdery sand as crisp and white as a bridal gown. The resort was designed with an eye toward leaving a light footprint: Villas were built utilizing the abundant local materials, and each is propped on stilts above the beach, to minimize the impact on the environment. The effect is sleek, stylish, and impossibly romantic. Honeymooners and spotlight-weary celebs have been flocking to Vamizi since it was unveiled; even Nelson Mandela, ever-spry at the age of 90, visited just months after its grand opening.

For socially conscious guests, the lodge's admirable work in the local community -- from funding a school and clinic to employing many of the villagers -- makes all that indulgence go down extra easy. As Cunningham points out, "the more destinations support local populations, the more local populations [will benefit] through community-based tourism."

While sun-seekers might argue over our picks for the Indian Ocean's hottest hideaways, lending a helping hand is something we can all agree on.

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