We descend the covered steps from the aircraft and emerge, blinking, into brilliant sunlight. The sky above is pristine. Palm trees ripple in the sea breeze. On the plane’s final approach, we’d looked out at a scattering of gorgeous, beach-fringed islands set within the clearest waters we have ever seen. Where are we? A clichéd answer trips easily off our tongues: “Paradise.”
Most visitors don’t progress beyond that conclusion. Everything they experience during their stay will reinforce their initial impression of the Seychelles.
These jewel-like islands in the Indian Ocean, a thousand miles off the coast of Africa, attract the world’s beach connoisseurs. This has long been a favorite vacation destination for the rich, the famous and the regal. It was here, in 2011, Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, chose to spend their honeymoon.
But for geologists, biologists and anthropologists, this isolated archipelago provides other answers to that innocent question: Where are we?
Politically, we are in Africa. The Seychelles are considered to be that continent’s smallest nation, both in land area (174 square miles) and population (84,000).
However, geologists will point out that the main islands are made of granite, indicating they are the remnants of the Mascarene Plateau, which broke off the Indian subcontinent 65 million years ago.
Now the biologists take up the story. They highlight the array of endemic plants and animals, some of which were left stranded when the islands split from the larger land mass, while others arrived by wind or wave from Africa and Asia. Here, in isolation, they evolved into species found nowhere else on Earth.
Anthropologists studying the human population also detect the ancestral legacy of Africa and Asia and add another influence: Europe. Centuries of rule by France and Britain (until independence in 1976) left their mark on the architecture and also in the faces and language of the Seychellois.
The largest island is Mahé, home to 90 percent of the country’s population and the location of the international airport. For many of our fellow passengers, this is merely a stepping stone to some of the more untouched islands.
Not that Mahé has been spoiled. Even here, the touch of civilization is relatively light, and a significant tract of the mountainous interior is protected as a national park.
We will be heading inland soon, but first we must pass through the nation’s capital. The 15-minute journey from the airport introduces us to three of the vestiges of 160 years of British rule. First, we’re driving on the left. Second, the city we arrive at is called Victoria, in honor of the 19th-century British monarch. And third, at the roundabout that marks the center of downtown, traffic revolves around a scaled-down silver replica of the famous clock tower of the Houses of Parliament in London.
Victoria doesn’t feel much like a capital, or even a city. But it does exude a uniquely Seychellois charm. Here, later in our stay, we will get a feel for the distinctive local culture. For now, we turn away from the city, away from the east coast, and follow a winding road up into the green highlands.
This is the aspect of the Seychelles that tends to be overlooked by the tourist brochures, which usually focus on the picture-perfect beaches. With every turn, breathtaking tropical vistas are revealed, offering compelling reasons for tourists to bring hiking boots as well as swimsuits. At the moment, only an intrepid minority take advantage of the trails winding across the contours of this beautiful wilderness.
Having traversed the island, we switchback down the forested slope to the west coast, where we reach our first base, the 5-star Constance Ephelia resort. Although this is the biggest hotel on the island, you wouldn’t know it without being told. Set in 296 acres of gardens and mangroves on a peninsula between two powdery white beaches, the guest chalets are spaced out to provide a sense of privacy.
We can’t avoid using that word again. Paradise. We could easily surrender ourselves to this place, spending our entire trip sunbathing on the beaches, taking dips in the pool and strolling through the fizzing surf. That’s precisely what we do for three days. But there is only so long that we can look at a horizon without being enticed by the prospect of other islands. In all, there are 115 islands in the Seychelles archipelago, and we are eager to experience more of them.
Back to the airport (via an hour of sedate exploration in Victoria) and back into the air. By 19-seat Twin Otter, the flight to Praslin takes just 15 minutes. Again we gaze down on a constellation of idyllic islands lapped by crystalline waters.
Praslin (pronounced prah-lan) is the second-largest island in the archipelago, with a much smaller population than Mahé. The 5,000 inhabitants live in pretty little settlements while the tourists take their pick of the sumptuous beach resorts.
For us, the choice is Raffles Praslin on the north shore, which introduces a touch of modern chic to the laid-back beach life. Golf carts shuttle guests around the sprawling hillside site from which the villas afford superb views looking out to another island, Curieuse.
Although Praslin is only three miles wide at its widest point, the interior harbors an area of hilly tropical forest so stunning it has regularly been cited as a possible location of the Garden of Eden. This incredible fragment of a lost world is now protected as the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The entry fee of 20 euros is perhaps a little extortionate, given that locals are admitted free, though we set aside such prosaic quibbles once we’re immersed in the full wonder of the three-hour forest trail.
The dirt path leads us through a primeval habitat. Bizarre palms rise from the forest floor and arc above us like giant blades of grass. Huge leaves cast shade over us. We begin to feel as though we have shrunk to miniature size in someone’s garden.
The abundant birdlife provides a more realistic sense of scale. Birds hop busily through the leaf litter and flit through shafts of sunlight. Soon we spot a Seychelles black parrot, one of the 15 bird species unique to these islands.
Of all the endemic species found in Vallée de Mai, there is one that takes star billing. This forest is home to the fabulous coco de mer, a variety of palm tree that has inspired a thousand legends. Among its many oddities is the fact that the trees are either male or female. The male trees produce sausage-like flowers that droop suggestively, while the female trees give rise to the world’s largest seed. Coco de mer nuts take up to seven years to mature, curvaceously echoing the human female form.
Mahé and Praslin have already fulfilled our expectations, but we add one more diversion to this trip. A local on Praslin urges us to visit the neighboring island of La Digue. “It’s so relaxed over there,” he says, lounging in a beachside bar in boardshorts and flip-flops. Unable to imagine how life could be any more relaxed, we decide to go and find out.
We board a passenger ferry for the short, surprisingly choppy crossing from Praslin.
On first view, La Digue is more of the same. Smooth granite boulders stand as sentinels on near-deserted beaches. Palm trees cast spindly shadows across the white sand. The hilly interior is densely cloaked in tropical vegetation.
Our first hint of La Digue’s particular ambience is when we learn that all motorized watersports are banned here to preserve the tranquility. That ambience is further emphasized by the mode of transport waiting to carry us to our hotel. On Mahé and Praslin, we whizzed about by taxi or golf cart. Here the favored vehicle is more sedate. We clamber into a wooden ox-drawn cart and languidly set off. Thus the rhythm is set for the remainder of our Seychelles sojourn.
For these last two nights, we base ourselves at Le Domaine de L’Orangeraie, a Zen-inspired property of 55 villas. The main agenda here is pure indulgence. More sunbathing, massage treatments and soothing dips in the pool.
We tear ourselves away from this hypnotic routine in order to spend half a day on a beach a little way down the coast. This is not just any beach that we are heading to, this time using the island’s other common mode of transportation, the bicycle. Anse Source d’Argent has often been labeled “the best beach in the world.”
Our natural cynicism toward such claims is undermined at first sight. Here the familiar Seychellois elements are arranged to absolute perfection: clearer water, softer sand, artfully arranged palms and clumps of granite boulders that could have been sculpted by Henry Moore. You can’t help but run your hands over the rounded stone surfaces. This beach isn’t just beautiful, it’s sensual.
Inevitably, finally, we join the other tourists back at the international airport, preparing for the rude awakening of our return to the frenetic realities of the modern world. As the aircraft takes off, we look out at a panorama that seems designed to beckon us back.
There is Silhouette Island with its steep green flanks. And beyond it is the smaller outline of North Island, the exclusive retreat that hosted the royal honeymooners in 2011.
As well as boasting one of the most exclusive Seychelles resorts, North Island is celebrated for its conservation efforts. A healthy proportion of profits from tourism is invested in restoring the natural habitats (cats, pigs, rats and invasive plant species have been removed) and in reintroducing native flora and fauna.
The Seychelles is one of the pioneers of ecotourism. Astonishingly for such a small country, almost 50 percent of the total land area is permanently protected from development, and large portions of the territorial waters are designated as marine reserves.
The plane tips, and more islands come into view. These are the granitic Inner Islands with which we have become familiar over the past week. But we have also heard people raving about the farther-flung Outer Islands, a speckling of coral atolls reaching up to 700 miles south of Mahé. Enticing names are added to our wish list: the Amirante Islands (which incorporate Desroches Island, to which there are daily scheduled flights) and the impressively remote Aldabra Atoll.
When we rise above the clouds, we are left with only our suntans and an enduring sense of calm contentment as reminders of our time on the Seychelles. We have already resolved to return to — there really is no better word — paradise.
SEYCHELLES INFO TO GO
International flights arrive at Seychelles International Airport (SEZ), which is located on the shore of Mahé Island, eight miles from the capital, Victoria. In 2012 the national airline, Air Seychelles, scaled down its longhaul operations and entered into a codeshare agreement with Etihad Airways. Most international passengers now arrive via Abu Dhabi. From the international airport, there are transfers by airplane or helicopter to the outlying islands.
Where to Stay in the Seychelles
Desroches Island Resort The 20-suite resort on this coral island, a 40-minute flight southwest of Mahé, is a perfect base for diving and game fishing. Desroches Island $$$$
Frégate Island Private A whole-island resort, now managed by the Oetker Collection high-end hotel group, includes 16 residences with butler service; 2,000 giant tortoises; and seven beaches. Frégate Island $$$$
North Island Resort A resort fit for a royal honeymoon, this private island has just 11 guest villas, providing Robinson- Crusoe seclusion with all the comforts and amenities of a luxury hotel. North Island $$$$
Restaurants in the Seychelles
Anse Soleil Café Enjoy barefoot beachside informality with a uniquely Creole twist. This unpretentious little café is one of the best places to sample the de facto national dish of the Seychelles: bat curry. Anse Soleil Beachcomber, Mahé $$$
Le Château de Feuilles Indulge in fine dining by candlelight. The ingredients are as fresh as can be: fish and crabs caught offshore and vegetables plucked from the chef’s garden. Le Château de Feuilles Hotel, Pointe Cabris, Praslin $$$$
Le Repaire Restaurant Remo, the authentically Italian chef, incorporates local ingredients in his pasta dishes and homemade pizzas — Italian cuisine, Seychelles-style. Anse Réunion, La Digue $$$
Read more about wildlife in the Seychelles.
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