The Vanilla Islands, or Comoros as it is officially known, is one of Africa’s truly hidden gems – a beautiful archipelago of three major islands off the East African coast. It is often forgotten, quite off the well-trodden tourist routes, and not much has changed here over centuries.
Officially it is known as the Union of the Comoros and consists of three major islands, the Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Mohéli (Mwali), and Anjouan (Ndzuani). The country also claims a fourth major island, Mayotte (Maore), whose people voted against independence from France in 1974 and it therefore continues to be governed by France as an overseas department. There are also a number of smaller, largely undeveloped islands.
Not very prominent on the tourism map in the past, the island country is now more aggressively marketing itself as the Vanilla Islands. But it still remains a very remote tourist destination. Despite its relative obscurity this is where you go if you want 24/7 romance, if you want to drop off the face of the earth, and where you can have any kind of tropical island holiday from a cheap budget adventure to an idyllic honeymoon or a five-star luxury experience. The bonus is that it’s something of a French vacation in the tropics, or a tropical Arab holiday, considering that 98% of the island is Muslim with a heavy Araba influence. It is the only member of the Arab League that lies entirely in the Southern Hemisphere. The three languages spoken here are Comorian, Arabic, and French, although you will also find a fair number of English-speakers around.
The choice of accommodation here – the majority with idyllic tropical sea views – range from guest rooms to self-catering or room-serviced beach bungalows, Airbnb, holiday cottages, budget hotels and a 5-star villa-style hotel. The food here is mostly seafood, but you will also find French, Arabic and Indian cuisine. And of course, bananas prepared in many different ways.
The islands offer that unique blend of Africa, Swahili, Arab, Indian Ocean islands, and the French connection. You won’t find it anywhere else in the world. There are banana and palm-fringed beaches everywhere with spectacular views across calm, crystal-clear waters to other parts of the islands. As you laze away the days on these pristine white beaches, the mixed scent of sea air, cloves and vanilla hang in the air, while volcanic mountains wink at you from islands across the turquoise waters.
The sheer beauty and adventures of the place more than make up for the lack of amenities, and the people are warm and friendly. You can explore the endless beaches, take a boat trip around, snorkel in the clear waters teaming with marine life, hike in rainforests or up the side of a volcanic mountain, see the giant fruit bats, watch the giant sea turtles on the beach early in the morning, and more. Chomoni Beach on Grande Comore is very popular with visitors and locals alike, or if you like a wilder part of the ocean on Grande Comore’s east side, Bouni Beach is it. Wander through the medina, or old town, of Moroni and go see the beautiful Grand Mosque du Vendredi (but don’t treat it as a tourist attraction).
Every bit as exciting and interesting as Zanzibar’s world-famous medieval stone town with its narrow streets and carved doors, is Moroni’s much lesser known medina. It’s an absolute maze of narrow alleyways without any tourists or souvenir shops. Here you will find old unrestored ornate wooden doors, traditional buildings and much of the Arab influence, as Moroni was founded in the 10th century by Arab traders of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. It played an important role in the Arab trade across the Indian Ocean and very little has changed here over the centuries.
A visit to the National Museum of Comoros is also worth it. It was established in 1989, with its four exhibit rooms showcasing the history, art, archaeology and religion; the volcanology and earth science; the oceanography and natural science; and the social and cultural anthropology.
The islands are very safe when it comes to crime. Don’t be discouraged by people telling you the political history of Comoros – over 20 coups and a few presidents assassinated since gaining independence in 1975. Four of the coups were led by the infamous but colourful French mercenary, the late Bob Denard, who made the islands his home, married here and converted to Islam. These days the Comoros are coup-free and peaceful and even if there were to be another attempted coup someday – which is very possible – it is unlikely to affect tourists. Coups here are usually little more than a rather deadly scuffle at the presidential palace between presidents and a handful of armed men, and you may not even notice anything until you read a newspaper! It only adds to the spice of these islands, just as Arab traders and roaming pirates did in bygone days.
These days the most dangerous things here are the local drivers, the ocean for someone who cannot swim when going in deeper than shoulder height, or the peril of getting too much rest and sleep. On the downside for some, getting hold of liquor can be a problem in this conservatively Muslim country, but some hotels and Chinese traders do sell it. It’s hard to tell if this is legal or not, but nobody seems to have a problem with it.
Just getting around is an absolute adventure here. Speedboats that mostly depart from Chindini on the southern tip of Grande Comore and take about 10 people at a time, will take you from one island to the next, providing the sea is calm. You can also fly but flights are unreliable, and boats are better. On land there is no real bus system – shared taxis and hired cars that come with drivers, are the norm. Also, bring everything you need with you as there is little by way of shopping here, and remember that power outages happen regularly. But again, in the Comoros this is simply all part of the adventure and the fun.
For a little more sophistication and better amenities, you can make the French-governed Mayotte your base. But people often complain it is overpriced and lacks the raw and exciting vibe of the other independent islands. You will find lovely beaches here too and much to do, but there’s a large ex-pat community here and not much love is lost between them and the Mahorais and the other islanders. Nonetheless, this island offers excellent beaches, shops and other businesses, infrastructure and better communications, top-class accommodation and good restaurants for the more discerning, wealthier traveller.
For more information, contact the Comoros National Tourist Office on Tel +269 773 78 16 or go to http://comorosdiscover.com/.