Traveller's guide Exchange winter for the luxury of the Maldives or the Seychelles, the exotic glamour of Zanzibar or the wonderfully weird wildlife of Madagascar, says Harriet O'Brien
No one knows for sure how the body of water separating Africa, Asia and Australasia got its name. The most plausible theory is that the Indian Ocean is so called courtesy of Europe's Great Explorers who were charting sea routes to India's spice riches. No doubt those sailors were as thrilled as holidaymakers are today when they arrived at the palm-fringed islands that lie in that water. The third largest of the world's oceans (after the Pacific and the Atlantic), the Indian Ocean is dotted with intriguing specks of land - such as fabulously exotic Zanzibar and wonderfully weird Madagascar. Hands up who's heard of Tromelin, nesting site for red- footed boobies and uninhabited territory of France? And then there are the Chagos Islands, otherwise known as British Indian Ocean Territory, whose population was deported in the 1960s and replaced by British and US service personnel - tourists not welcome.
Happily there's a warm, stylish and affordable welcome at some of the best-known Indian Ocean islands. These waters are also home to some of the planet's most glamorous holiday destinations - places of sugar-white sands, crystal-clear waters and gorgeous accommodation.
Despite the economic gloom at home, the island havens of the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius still attract a sizeable number of UK holidaymakers. But travellers want to spend less. Mark Duguid, head of market management at Kuoni, sees trends towards "value-for-money deals, all-inclusive options and customers choosing to downgrade from top-end properties".
The usual rule applies over timing: if you can travel during less busy periods - right now, for example - you'll reap the rewards. Shoulder season in the north (Sri Lanka and the Maldives) is November and May/June; in the south (the Seychelles and Mauritius) is generally October/November and April.
The Maldives remains the most popular Indian Ocean destination for UK travellers, despite political turmoil; the islands' first democratically elected president was forced to resign and placed under effective house arrest. "Stay alert, exercise caution and avoid demonstrations and spontaneous gatherings," says the Foreign Office.
A new domestic airport opened last month at Kooddoo island in the south of the Maldives. It puts recently completed resorts such as Robinson Club (00 960 300 9095; robinson-maldives.com) and The Residence (01300 320 865; theresidence.com) within relatively easy reach - which in turn helps to keep hotel rates competitive.
Further south, UK visitor numbers to the Seychelles have dropped this year because loss-making Air Seychelles has stopped flying to Europe. The main approach is now via the Gulf. The good news is that a steady increase in small hotels and guest houses is giving this island group more well-priced options.
South again, Mauritius is just inside the Tropic of Capricorn. You can enjoy a fusion of Asia, Africa, France and Britain on one of the Indian Ocean's most beautiful islands. Costs in this lush sanctuary of luxury hotels are generally high, but good deals are by no means uncommon.
The current Indian Ocean star is Sri Lanka, whose charms have been rediscovered since civil war ended there in 2009. Next March, British Airways returns to the capital, Colombo, though with a stop at Mal in the Maldives. Since the war, many Sri Lankan hotels have been refurbished and their charges have increased. But Carolina Svensson, Indian Ocean product manager at Travelbag, says: "As the majority of hotels are still managed and owned by local companies, the price level is below other Indian Ocean islands."
For the most popular destinations, the bigger the tour operator, the …