Pungent aromas, deep tropical colours, lush vegetation, coral-sand beaches: from the Antilles to Zanzibar, the world's spice islands present a happy combination of bounty and beauty. Nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and vanilla – even the names of their piquant crops seem redolent of richness.
There's also a wealth of intriguing history attached. These luxury foodstuffs were the making of fortunes, the cause of battles and pirate ventures, and the origin of empires. Manifestly, life was extremely difficult for some people, while for others there was the thrill of adventure and the dream of a gilded future.
To add context: Europe's compulsive desire for spices dates back centuries – to ancient Greece and possibly even before. Certainly by time of the Romans these goods were considered domestic, if precious, items: an ingredients list found in a Roman spice-chest shows that a reasonably well-moneyed household in the imperial city would routinely keep a supply of saffron, pepper, ginger, cloves, cardamom and more. Fast-forward to the 13th century and Venice monopolised the European spice trade through its tight control of Mediterranean ports. These were supplied with cargoes of spices from the East by Arabian merchants. It wasn't until Vasco da Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa to India in 1498 that Venice began to lose its pre-eminence. As the competition for spice routes intensified, so the great era of exploration began – with Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Britain battling for the fabulous wealth from these aromatic plants. The Molucca and Banda islands of the Indonesian archipelago, source of the world's nutmegs, initially attracted the fiercest interest.
Sadly, for the Molucca and Banda islands, the answer is "no", today. It is currently inadvisable to venture to the area that was first dubbed The Spice Islands by European explorers. The thousand or so islands of Indonesia's Maluku and North Maluku provinces are now very troubled. The region's mix of Islam and Christianity, an almost even split, resulted in serious unrest between 1999 and 2002. Since then the islands have continued to experience outbreaks of violence; the Foreign Office warns against travel to the area. Fortunately for travellers, however, there are other peaceful spice islands elsewhere in the world – some being places to which nutmeg trees from the Molucca and Banda islands were transplanted by European colonists in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Have nutmeg, will travel?
From East Indies to West Indies: Grenada's first nutmeg trees were planted in the 1840s. Nutmeg saplings had arrived elsewhere in the Caribbean some years earlier, but it was at this lush and lovely Windward Isle that the plant thrived. The interior is a magical area of mountains, rivers, waterfalls and rainforest where plantations of cinnamon, ginger and cloves also flourished – so much so that Grenada became known as the Spice Island of the Caribbean. You can fly in direct from Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com ) or Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com ), though both flights stop en route, in Antigua and Tobago respectively.
Where can I sniff about?
The nutmeg industry in Grenada is in the throes of recovery after the damage wreaked by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, but to see this and other pungent plants growing you can visit spice gardens such as Laura Herb and Spice at St David's (001 473 440 2604; www.spiceisle.com/minorspices ; admission US$2/£1).
Some of Grenada's most secluded beaches – white sands and palm trees gently swaying on the fringes – lie within easy reach of St David's. This charmingly sleepy little island boasts 45 or so stunning sandy stretches, from the 3km of Grand Anse in the south west to little-visited Sauteurs in the north. Near Quarantine Point in the far south-west you can find superb, isolated sandy shores. And you can also find one of Grenada's most chic hotels. With just 16 cottages set on a beautifully landscaped hill overlooking the sea, Laluna (001 473 439 0001; www.laluna.com ) is a glorious hideaway decorated with great flair and more than a hint of Indonesian-style sleekness. For an exceptional chill-out holiday Caribtours (020-7751 0660; www.caribtours.co.uk ) offers a week here from £1,830 per person based on two sharing, as are the other prices below. The cost includes room-only accommodation in a cottage suite with plunge pool, return flights from Gatwick and private transfers on the island.
Grenada is an island nation, and apart from its eponymous chunk of beach-fringed land it also embraces the islands of Carriacou, Petit Martinique and Ronde. It is a great place for laid-back exploration, the surrounding reefs of the islands offering good diving and snorkelling while dolphins and whales can sometimes be spotted in the waters beyond. A Sugar and Spice two-week itinerary offered by Trips Worldwide (0117 311 4402; www.tripsworldwide.co.uk ) taking in beaches, reefs and rainforest. The holiday starts in the south of Grenada island from where you move on to Carriacou staying either in beach accommodation or at a secluded research station where you can follow nature trails and watch turtles nesting – or indeed become involved in projects. Back on Grenada island you spend a few days at a plantation-house hotel in the scenic north before returning south. The holiday costs £1,867 per person low season (£2,065 high season), which includes flights from Gatwick; two weeks' accommodation (10 nights with breakfast, four room only); ferry transfers; and eight days' car hire.
One of the most intriguing islands under the sun: Penang. It's three times the size of the Isle of Wight, and rather more exotic. You'll find it firmly within the tropics, about 5km off the east coast of Malaysia, the country of which it is part.
This is the ideal time to visit Penang, since the rainy season has just ended. The main approach is from Heathrow on Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysia-airlines.com ) via Kuala Lumpur, though connections in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong are also available. Shop around for fares: often the prices are lowest if you also buy accommodation at the same time. The capital, Georgetown, has little in common with many Asian cities. While you see a huge amount of life on the streets, it's good-natured, friendly and welcoming. And what a spicy mix of people: the majority are Chinese, but there are significant groups of Indians, Thais, Arabs and, of course, Malays.
From Georgetown, the island's colonial capital, most visitors head north to the beaches at the main resort of Batu Ferringhi – a long string of hotels and all the side-industries, such as massage and parascending. Yet close by there are intriguing alternatives. For example, if you just go five more minutes down the road to the delightful named End of the World Restaurant, then you'll find an entirely deserted and very beautiful arc of silvery sand.
Or head for Teluk Bahang, and the Tropical Spice Garden (open 9am-6pm daily, admission 13MYR/£4). More than 100 types of herbs and spices, from cinnamon to jasmine to wild ginger, are grown at this new agro-tourism project, paid for by a local rubber company. Guides are on hand to explain the benefits – real and imagined – of the plants grown here. You can also find out more about the spice trade at the Spice Museum. The attraction even deploys a natural mosquito-control procedure, burning coconut husks sprayed with citronella.
Head to Zanzibar. Besides the supremely romantic name, this Indian Ocean archipelago has a fairytale quality resulting from its heady blend of glamour and tropical beauty coupled with an air of mystery. Zanzibar is imbued with a sense of (black) magic. And it has seen both immense wealth and immense suffering. About 30km off the coast of East Africa, Zanzibar has lured traders and adventurers for centuries: Assyrians, Phoenicians, Persians, Portuguese and most of all Arabs from Oman. They set up great trading colonies here, dealing in ivory, slaves and spice. Ultimately spice plantations were created. Ginger, cumin, cinnamon and pepper became well-established, but it was cloves, introduced in 1818, that created vast fortunes. By the mid-19th century, Zanzibar was both the world's biggest producer of cloves, and one of Africa's largest slave-trading centres. The slave market was abolished in 1873 (that's 66 years, incidentally, after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in Britain). The clove plantations continue to do business, today reviving after the industry collapsed in the 1980s.
Now a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, Zanzibar, for all its tangled past, is a traveller's dream of sugar-white sands, unspoilt rainforest, and amazing aquamarine waters. Stone Town, its capital, on Zanzibar island, is an ancient place of winding alleyways and busy bazaars suffused with the scent of spices. From here you can sign up with local guide companies, such as Sama Tours (00 255 24 223 3543; www.samatours.com ) for half-day spice excursions in the western and central parts of the island. The trips cost about US$85 (£43) per person.
Most of all, though, this is a place for perfecting the art of relaxation. One of the prettiest and quietest places in which to do so is the Menai Bay Conservation Area on the west coast of Zanzibar island. Here the Fumba Beach Lodge (00 255 777 860 504; www.fumbabeachlodge.com ) has 26 rooms scattered across extensive grounds that give on to white-sand beaches. The tailor-made holiday specialist Audley Travel (01993 838 500; www.audleytravel.com) suggests a six-night stay here as part of a Tanzania trip that also includes three nights on safari at the Selous Impala camp on the mainland and two nights at Emerson and Green Hotel in Stone Town. The cost, from £2,190 per person, covers flights to Dar es Salaam from Gatwick or Heathrow, domestic flights and other transfers, full-board accommodation on safari, half board at Fumba Beach Lodge and B&B in Stone Town.
With warm, wonderfully clear waters and abundant marine life, the Zanzibar archipelago presents excellent diving opportunities. Pemba island, in particular, has spectacular reefs where dive sites are seldom visited. Wrasses, eagle rays and barracuda are among the fish to be seen here. Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980; www.diveworldwide.com ) has a 17-day Undiscovered Spice Islands trip, including six nights on Pemba and seven nights at a beach hotel in the south of Zanzibar. The price from £1,669 covers flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Dar es Salaam or Nairobi, onward flights to Zanzibar, all accommodation and some meals.
The most evocative spice?
Vanilla: highly fragrant and aromatic, it derives from a type of climbing orchid. The story of its use and propagation is captivating. The plant is indigenous to Mexico, where the Aztecs developed a technique of curing and drying its fruit, or pod, to obtain an intense flavouring that they used in their drink xocolatl. In the early 1500s Spanish conquistadors brought bags of the spice back to Europe along with gold and silver. Not only was its scent glorious, but vanilla was also deemed to have aphrodisiac and therapeutic properties. However, despite the increasing popularity of the spice, attempts to transplant the vanilla orchid outside Mexico failed. The problem was solved when a Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, established that only tiny Mexican bees and hummingbirds were able to pollinate the plant. He subsequently devised a method of pollination by hand, and shortly afterwards the French began trying to cultivate the plant across their tropical colonies. After just a few years, in 1841, a convenient and efficient pollination technique was created by a 12-year-old slave, Edmond Albius, on the island of Réunion. Voilà, the global vanilla industry was born, and Réunion was put on the map.
In the Indian Ocean, not far from Madagascar and the island of Mauritius. Today, in the south of Réunion, you can still visit vanilla cooperatives and farms, such as Maison de la Vanille (at 44 rue de la Gare, St André; 00 262 46 00 14). But this little-known Indian Ocean island offers much more besides.
Réunion's topography is extraordinary – as is its culture. About one-third larger than the Isle of Skye, this island presents dramatically wild and varied landscapes of mountains, primeval forest and volcanoes, while fringing its coastline are black volcanic cliffs and golden sands. It also offers an appealing cultural mix.
Even though it is nearly 10,000km from Paris, Reunion remains a département of France, legally with the same status as the Pas de Calais or the Dordogne. You'll find more than a hint of its Gallic identity in the Creole food here, while the population is a jumble of Tamils, Chinese, Vietnamese and Creole descendants of slaves and white planters.
This being a small and fantastically varied island, visitors can be intensely active and then immensely relaxed in a relatively short space of time: hiking in the alpine-like interior; visiting the lunar landscape of the volcano Piton de la Fournaise ("furnace peak" – the name giving more than a clue as to its active status); and then heading for the laid-back attractions of St Gilles-les-Bains, the island's main beach resort.
The African and Indian Ocean specialist Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk ) offers an independent 14-day trip taking in the highlights of this astonishing island. The price, from £1,675 per person, includes flights via Mauritius from Heathrow; car hire; and accommodation with breakfast in guest-houses and hotels.
Make tracks to Madagascar. The world's fourth-largest island (after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo) lies in the Indian Ocean about 400km off the coast of Mozambique. That it produces the lion's share of the world's vanilla is testimony to the natural abundance that permeates the island. At least 12,000 species of plant grow here, of which about 10,000 are endemic to Madagascar, five varieties of the bizarre baobab tree among them. The diverse vegetation provides habitats for an equally remarkable range of animal and insect life, from weird hissing cockroaches and Dracula ants (found, fortunately, only in Madagascar) to puma-like fossas and more than 60 species of lemur.
Wildlife Worldwide (0845 130 6982; www.wildlifeworldwide.com ) offers a 16-day Madagascan Highlights trip taking in the Mantadia National Park, home to numerous types of lemur; Ranomafana Park, best known for its bamboo lemurs; Ranohir Park and its dwarf Baobab trees; the beaches of the south coast; and the Berenty Reserve, filled with ring-tailed and Vereaux's Sifaka lemurs. The price, from £2,600 per person, includes flights from Heathrow to the capital, Antananarivo, via Paris; all accommodation, transfers and guidance; and most meals.
Formerly a French colony, Madagascar has been independent since 1960 and its culture is well worth exploring in addition to the natural wonders: the old colonial town of Antsiranana with its pretty harbour; the numerous hill villages with brightly coloured houses; and, best of all in terms of spice trails, the town of Sambava, the vanilla capital of the island, where you can literally smell your way to the processing outlets.
The usual approach is via Paris to Antananarivo, but Trailfinders (0845 050 5871; www.trailfinders.com ) currently has a deal costing £923 return on South African Airways via Johannesburg.
Tropical trading post
For remoteness coupled with natural good looks you couldn't really improve on the four Comoros islands, lying between Madagascar and Mozambique. In terms of beauty and mystique there's an air of Zanzibar here, but without the tourists. The beaches are spectacular, the old Arab trading towns wonderfully atmospheric and the greenery prolific – including vanilla and ylang-ylang plantations.
These beautiful islands remain as yet unspoilt and undervisited, however, due to their instability. Since Comoros gained independence from the French in 1975, this nation has been politically troubled. Today, although there is still some unrest, this is contained to the island of Anjouan, where elections were held in June this year, and the other islands are currently trouble-free.
Undiscovered Destinations (0191 296 2674; www.undiscovered-destinations.com ) offers a 12-day itinerary on Grande Comore and Moheli islands where, quite apart from pure white sands, attractions include dolphin- and whale-watching, snorkelling in gin-clear waters and taking guided hikes through near-pristine rainforest. The price, from £2,150 per person, includes flights from Heathrow via Nairobi to Moroni on Grande Comore; all transport around the islands; and all accommodation with breakfast.
Connecticut in the USA is nicknamed "the Nutmeg State" – but that's not because the spice ever actually grew there. Legend has it that among the state's early settlers were a shrewd and ingenious lot who were well aware of the prevailing cost of nutmeg from the Molucca islands. They cleverly carved fake nutmegs of wood and sold them at exorbitantly high prices to very willing buyers. The term "wooden nutmeg" subsequently came to be used as a description for anything fraudulent.