It’s just after dawn, a time rarely seen on traditional beach holidays. Yet a group of guests has already gathered in front of the Rocktail Beach Dive Centre. I wander up - weight belt in one hand, cup of coffee in the other - and listen to the excited chatter about what lies ahead (or rather below): “There have been fantastic whale shark sightings recently!”; “Massive mantas circled us yesterday!”; “I hear the coral is incredible!”
Clearly the newcomer in this group of advanced divers, instructors and underwater photographers, I silently take in the snippets of conversation, smiling into my coffee cup at the thrilling words: “whale shark”. Before I know it, I'm aboard a rubber duck and flying across the surf towards one of Rocktail’s many dive sites. The mixture of speed, spray and sea air add to the knot of anticipation growing in my stomach, but the butterflies vanish the moment I descend into the calm, deep blue – and all I feel is wonder!
Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline is home to several of the world’s top dive sites: divers can look forward to kaleidoscopes of pristine coral; clear views of morays, turtles and mantas; clouds of colourful fish in aquarium-like settings and giant pelagic fish patrolling steep-sided drop-offs.
And it's all very accessible. Below are five lodges close to the best sites, private retreats that offer you the chance to explore below the waves while staying in barefoot luxury.
Azura @ Quilalea, Quirimbas Archipelago
Quilalea Island sits in the Quirimbas Archipelago, a scattering of islands off Mozambique’s north coast. The protected reefs of this archipelago offers some of the world's best scuba diving, as they are abundant in a variety of tropical fish and corals and the range of water depths suit all underwater explorers, whether you're a beginner or seasoned diver.
Quilalea Island has a proper training pool and professional dive equipment where you can complete your PADI Discover Scuba course before disappearing under the waves. Everything from turtles to humpback whales, reef sharks, stingrays, moray eels, dolphins and a varity of fish can be seen on the dives.
The beautiful villas at Azura Quilalea offer a true private island experience, where barefoot luxury meets a tranquil beach retreat. Ideal for honeymooners and familiesa like, Azura @ Quilalea is an exceptional Indian Ocean island adventure.
Best For: divers of all strengths, a private island 'Robinson Crusoe' experience.
Find Out More: Quilalea Private Island.
Ephelia Resort, Mahe Island, Seychelles
Situated on one of Mahe's most beautiful beaches and overlooking a national marine park is Ephelia Resort, one of our favourites in the Seychelles. The visibility in the bay is very clear, offering amazing diving opportunities close to the resort itself.
Popular dive sites close to the resort include Trois Bank where visibility stretches up to 23 meters, and is ideal for more experienced open-water divers. Expect to see beautiful coral formations and granite rock, as well as grey reef sharks, octupuses, eagle rays, barracudas and even moray eels, Dredger Wreck is just 20 minutes by boat from Ephelia and is suitable for divers with open-water experience. There's a small dregder to explore and a variety of tropical fish can be spotted too.
Ephelia Resort offers some of the best value in the Seychelles with two beaches, a kids club, a variety of activities and facilities on offer and dramatic hilltop villas to take in the exceptional scenery.
Best for: wreck dives and night dives, beginners courses, a full-scale luxury resort experience.
Find out More: Ephelia Resort.
Mnemba Island Lodge, Zanzibar Archipelago
Lying just off the northern tip of Zanzibar, tiny Mnemba Island is surrounded by vibrant coral reefs bursting with life. Conditions here are ideal: warm water, excellent visibility, and sites ranging from shallow coral gardens to advanced drift dives. You also have a good chance of swimming with pods of playful dolphins, their squeals and clicks filling your deep blue surrounds.
A tropical island paradise in every sense of the word, Mnemba Island has just 10 palm-frond bandas tucked away in a forest fringed by white powdery sand - it's the kind of place where you take your shoes off on arrival and don’t put them on again until you leave. Your butler sets up private dinners in surprise locations; green turtles nest on the beaches you stroll on, and you’re never expected to share your perfect stretch of sand with anyone else.
Best For: Dives for every level of experience, an exclusive and romantic getaway.
Find Out More: Mnemba Island Lodge
Rocktail Beach Camp, South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Coast
The protected waters of Rocktail Beach Camp offer South Africa’s most exclusive diving experience. Expect thriving reefs with busy cleaning stations; richly coloured corals; green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles; and a staggeringly diverse display of fish (over 1 200 species). As for the bigger creatures, there’s a very good chance of seeing manta rays and whale sharks year round, and there are frequent shark sightings from November to March.
Rocktail Beach Camp sits on the wild Elephant Coast in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, its tented rooms hidden away in thick coastal forest. Wander down the sandy track leading from the lodge and you’ll pop up on a dune overlooking a long and empty stretch of soft, toe-wiggling sand – the kind of beach that conjures up the child-like thrill of your first seaside holiday.
Best For: Swimming with whale sharks, a safari and beach self-drive adventure.
Find Out More: Rocktail Beach Camp
Coral Lodge 15.41, Mozambique Coast
Once an important but treacherous trading route, this part of Mozambique’s northern coastline is littered with numerous shipwrecks dating back centuries. Their hulking remains have created the foundations for teeming reefs and you may see broken Chinese porcelain, trading beads or even old Portuguese coins lying on the ocean floor.
Coral Lodge 15.41 has an incredible location, set as it is on a tip of land between two sand-rimmed bays. From the lodge’s infinity pool you can gaze across at Ilha de Mozambique, the capital of colonial Portuguese East Africa and now a World Heritage Site. And there’s plenty to do between dives: snorkel in the warm lagoon, canoe through mangrove forests, visit a local village or catch the dhow across to Ilha - its crumbling buildings and twisting alleyways make for fantastic photography.
Best For: Wreck dives, a classic beach holiday with a historical and cultural twist.
Find Out More: Coral Lodge 15.41