Grande Comore in the Comoros is an island within an island

My kind of place: this spot, with its rich culture and laid-back populace, makes tourists feel more like explorers, Emilie Filou writes.

Why Grande Comore?

Located in the island nation of the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, Grande Comore is the largest and most accessible of the country’s three islands. Home to the capital Moroni, it’s an alluring mix of stark volcanic landscapes, languorous beaches and cool tropical forests.

Populated by successive waves of traders from the Arabian Peninsula and nearby east Africa, it displays the same cultural richness that made nearby Zanzibar so famous – carved wooden doors, spices, whitewashed mosques on a background of turquoise sea – but without the high-end finish or crowds of the Tanzanian island.

The Comoros remain relatively undiscovered, which is both exciting and frustrating for travellers: you’ll feel like a trailblazer wherever you go and will be genuinely welcomed. On the downside, the tourism industry is still in its infancy, and Comorian timekeeping is as relaxed as the atmosphere.

A comfortable bed

Located north of Moroni, on the way to the airport, the Cristal Itsandra Beach Hotel (www.cristalhospitality.com/cristalhotels/comoros/moroni/cristalitsandrabeachhotel; 00 269 773 3333) is the best and most comfortable hotel on the island. Rooms are incredibly spacious and themed according to the country's famed spices – ylang-ylang, vanilla and nutmeg. The hotel is on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea, with its own private cove, ideal for swimming. The restaurant and bar have a large terrace that catches the evening breeze. Double rooms cost from €185 (Dh918) per night excluding breakfast.

On the southern edge of Moroni, the charming Retaj Moroni (www.retaj-hotels.com/moroni/; 00 269 333 6542) is another excellent choice. The hotel's trump card is its huge, divine garden full of palm trees, frangipani and hibiscus flowers. There are stupendous views of the cloud-covered Karthala volcano (an active volcano) and postcard sunsets over the sea. Rooms are lovely, with whitewashed walls and colourful fabrics. Service is the friendliest you'll find on the island. The Retaj is upgrading its facilities and future visitors can look forward to a gym, a beach and a luxury finish throughout. Double rooms cost from €84 (Dh416) per night including buffet breakfast.

Find your feet

Grande Comore is a joy to explore and there are numerous walks to do, anything from easy strolls on the beach to more challenging climbs. At the northwestern tip of the island, the Trou du Prophète (Hole of the Prophet) is an exquisite, sheltered bay with two large rocks towering over the crystal-clear water. It is a favourite spot among locals for a stroll and a swim at the weekend.

In the north-east, the Dos du Dragon (Dragon’s Back) is one of Grande Comore’s most distinctive features, a curving headland spiked with towering rocks, which look, you guessed it, like the back of a dragon. You can easily walk to the top from the roadside or drive down the coast to admire it from afar.

If you hanker for lush, tropical surroundings, head to the old colonial plantations of Nyumbadjou in the hinterland. There are panoramic views of the coast and surrounding forest and the one-hour walk to the site is the chance to discover some of the island’s unique flora and fauna.

Meet the locals

Moroni’s medina is small and not as well looked after as other famed medinas in the Middle East or Africa, but take time to wander its narrow lanes and it’ll start giving up its secrets: carved wooden doors, glimpses of the rounded facade and minarets of the Old Friday Mosque, and small, quirky shops.

Book a table

In Moroni, Le Jardin de la Paix (www.comores-jardindelapaix.com; 00 269 773 2800) is a small, delightful restaurant serving excellent creole food – a blend of French and local flavours. Seafood is the house speciality; wash it down with fresh coconut juice (sipped straight from the fruit) and save space for the homemade ice creams and sorbets (vanilla of course, but also mango, soursop, etc). The tables under the awning at the front of the restaurant are perfect to watch the world go by. A three-course meal will cost around €20 (Dh99).

The claim to fame of the Retaj Moroni's restaurant (www.retaj-hotels.com/moroni/; 00 269 333 6542) is that it does the best pizzas on the island – and it's true. Thin, crispy bases with great toppings and sea views on the side. It's a fine choice for lunch. The restaurant also serves local and international cuisine. Allow €8 (Dh40) for a pizza and €12 (Dh60) for other mains.

Shopper’s paradise

In Moroni, you’ll find the island’s famous spices and essential oils (the duty free shop at the airport also sells them in pretty packaging), filigree jewellery and local fabrics worn by women – chiromani, usually white and red or black and white with geometric patterns, and salavona, very colourful with intricate motifs.

Don’t miss

Being an island in an island nation, the sea is omnipresent in Grande Comore, and you'd miss out if you didn't take to the water during your stay. Blue Safari Comores (www.bluesafari-comores.com; 00 269 323 1038) organises cruises around the island on its sailing yacht, anything from sunset outings to day trips and multi-day cruises with accommodation on board.

What to avoid

Although the climate in the Comoros is tropical, it is much cooler in Grande Comore’s heights. Bring a jumper and some sturdy shoes to explore the hinterland.

Go there

Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) flies to Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport from Nairobi five times a week. A return flight from Abu Dhabi to Moroni costs from Dh4,631 return, including taxes. Alternatively, Air Tanzania (www.airtanzania.co.tz) flies to Moroni three times a week from Dar es Salaam; flights cost from Dh1,582 return, including taxes.

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