Indian Ocean: Like scraps of Africa

The Seychelles: `the most romantic place on earth'. Well, yes. If you like that sort of thing. But what else are they good for?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Nowhere else, I think, has quite the effect. You have to admit that the Seychelles has become the universal fantasy-holiday destination, the place people save up for; a place to dream of going to, to boast of having been to. As it happened, there was a dense cloud over Mahe, the biggest island, as we began to descend. Worse; it was actually raining. Stacked over Mahe, the plane circled round and round, waiting for its turn to land, bumping heavily through the storm clouds; round and round, thudding and sliding nauseatingly through the unreasonable weather. At last, the clouds started to thin; glimpses of a mountainous, heavy luxuriating green, dotted with houses, a smooth sea, and flashes of what had been so lavishly billed, beaches white and big as the smile of a child. My neighbour turned to me. "I think I'm going to be sick," he said.

The Seychelles is a biggish group of islands, dotted around the Indian Ocean in a casual sort of way. On the map, they look like bits of Africa, torn up like paper and thrown down where they happen to fall. They are surprisingly different from each other in mood and appearance. The granite ones, like Mahe, are high and lush, green spikes in a blue sea. Others are mere coral outcrops, and rise a metre or two above sea level; in a few decades, if global warming carries on, some of these are going to disappear.

And each island has its own mood, a quick and appealingly clear sort of character. On the main island, Mahe, the colonial influences seem very near the surface. At the centre of the capital, Victoria, the British Empire certainly left its mark. There is a highly disconcerting set of modern British traffic lights in the middle of the little town - it's the only set in the whole country, and the guides, driving carefully on the left, all point it out to visitors. Everyone drinks tea; the signs outside the shops still inform the populace, with perfect seriousness, that "Guinness is good for you". And - another source of local pride - there is a town clock, "an exact replica," as they say, of the clock which stands outside Victoria Station in London. I had to rack my brains to think which clock they were talking about.

But the language those schoolgirls in their fresh white blouses are talking under that unremarkable clock isn't English, but a creole of French, and the other bustling flavours of the little island are much more extravagant. The food is as vivid and frank as it is in New Orleans; fierce onion- papaya relishes, octopus curries, the delicious blandness of breadfruit, snapper and mullet slathered with a fruit and chilli salsa and quickly grilled. In case you can still taste anything, there is always an anaesthetic bowl of pure chilli relish standing by to numb the senses.

Mahe feels like the nearest thing to a proper place, where people might actually live. It isn't somewhere given over entirely to the tourist industry, and there are plenty of quiet little corners, away from the big hotels, with, perhaps, one little shack to serve you lunch and no one much to distract you from your book or your contemplation of the crashing force of the waves. All the same, to get the full Robinson Crusoe experience, you probably have to leave Mahe and travel out to one of the smaller islands.

There's a good range of these. La Digue is a charming, rustic little island where you lumber about on the back of ox-carts, or by bicycle. It has some spectacular beaches, white as paint, scattered with smooth, grotesque granite boulders. The beach of an advertiser's dream, one of them is actually promoted as "the beach where they shot the Bounty advert", if that is the basis on which you choose your holiday destination.

Praslin, on the other hand, feels like a wild place, with an ancient and exotic forest which is now a World Heritage Site. This is where the famous double coconut of the Seychelles, the coco-de-mer, grows. So called because when the seeds washed up on the shores of Africa, the locals came to the weird conclusion that they grew on underwater palm trees, they bear an exact resemblance to the female pudenda. It's become a bit of an emblem for the country, and every tourist shop sells little gold replicas of it to wear as a pendant. I don't quite see why anyone should want to hang a front-bottom round their neck, as Dame Edna would say, but the Vallee de Mai is an intensely atmospheric spot; the stiff leaves of the palm creak and rustle against each other in the primeval gloom. General Gordon, perfectly seriously, proposed this as the Biblical Garden of Eden, and it certainly feels like an extraordinarily ancient forest.

Full of interest though the country is, the would-be visitor should be warned that the whole of the Seychelles is not far from honeymoon hell. The hotel restaurants are filled at night with couples doing the once- in-a-lifetime thing, dining by candlelight to the recorded strains of "Strangers in the Night". They don't surface before 10 in the morning, return to their rooms after lunch and go to bed straight after dinner; they spend most of the intervening time snogging dutifully in the surf. From one point of view, the whole place is a gigantic knocking shop. You're constantly coming across a new wife, perched on a rock looking out to sea, a look of indefinable dissatisfaction on her face as she comes to the realisation that this may very well be the most romantic place on earth, but her husband has tragically failed to metamorphose, is still only Andy-from-Accounts.

I got buttonholed by one couple in the bar at Praslin, and it was like being mobbed by a pair of dogs, let off the leash. He was that worst of bores, a pathological teller of jokes; I concentrated on not getting my eye poked out by the umbrella in my startlingly pink drink. The wife looked on complacently for a while, occasionally turning to admire the picture-postcard spectacle of the equatorial sun plunging into the ocean. "I've got a joke," she announced after a while as her husband took a breather. "There's this Irishman who says to his father, I want to marry this girl who lives in town, and her name is..." "No," her husband said. "No, no, you're not telling it properly." He started again. "No, let me tell it," she interrupted, and carried on. If I smile and nod any more, I started to think, my head is going to fall off. "So then his mother says," she wound up, "that's all right, because I'm not your mother." "That can't be right," I said after a moment. "Yes, that's right," she said. "Do you get it?" "No, he's right," the husband said. "It ought to be `No, that's all right, because he's not your father'. Do you get it?" "Oh, right," I said. They were looking at me balefully; I tried not to ruin their once- in-a-lifetime holiday, and laughed, rather rustily.

For truly obscene levels of luxury, there probably isn't much in the world to touch the service and comfort you get on Fregate Island. It's a small, granite isle, dramatically dense with forest, with half-a-dozen truly incomparable beaches. And you are absolutely assured near-solitude, because on the whole island, there are only 16 suites of rooms; a vast drawing-room, an outdoor Jacuzzi, a sun deck, and complete privacy, apart from the regular stream of maids turning down the bed, refilling lotions in one of the three showers, or just generally treating you like an invalid.

If you need to get around the (surprisingly big) island, you have your own little golf cart; if you feel like anything to eat at all, any time of the day or night, the small army at the command of room service will find you. Arriving on the plane to be greeted by the charming, commanding girls who run the place, you feel rather like James Bond, penetrating Mr Big's secure little empire. Departing on the plane, you and your luggage have to be weighed, and you feel like Mr Creosote.

Of course, all this comes at a price. The Seychelles is generally a pretty expensive proposition, since everything, down to the screwdrivers, has to be imported and the government has no desire to encourage mass tourism. All the same, Fregate Island is one for the super-rich at $1,400 per night. A drink from the minibar? That'll be pounds 50 for half a bottle of bog-standard Johnny Walker. And if you were thinking that you could stretch to tacking on one night after the rest of your Seychelles holiday, forget it; the minimum stay is five nights.

"To discourage the riff-raff, I suppose?" I jested to one of the staff; she saw no reason to do anything but agree with me. Well, I wouldn't do it, but there are plenty of people who would - mafiosi, rock stars, the daughters of German bankers, I expect. It does give you perfect privacy, since there's not much reason ever to leave your suite. But there's something a bit naff about it; the food is OK, an American's idea of a medieval banquet - elaborately carved pineapples and whole suckling-pig, that sort of thing - but I had better elsewhere in the Seychelles.

And it's remarkable how the super-rich seem to like to sit in tropical mock-rustic bars and listen to the worst sort of German muzak. Still, there are those amazing beaches - one is regularly described as "the best in the world", and I must say, it certainly knocks Whitley Bay into a cocked hat. And at least for your money it's big enough to let you find a bit of solitude.

If you want to get away from all that oppressive honeymooning, though, the best place is probably Bird Island, which attracts a pleasant range of interested and curious people. It's a coral outcrop, one of the outer islands, and feels utterly remote. The range of wildlife is a constant delight, even for the non-twitcher. Hundreds of thousands of birds hover constantly over the island; vast cawing crowds of sooty terns, fairy terns, common noddies; a single, vivid red blossom suddenly takes wings and flies off. Not a hibiscus flower, after all, but a brilliant little bird.

Here, too, the turtles come to lay their eggs, half- a-dozen giant tortoises congregate outside the dining-room to poo massively, observing those humans with gloomy disinterest who are, after all, just passing through.

The underwater life is as amazing as the vast liberated aviary. Though the coral here is now all dead - a disastrous rise in temperature last year saw to that, caused by El Nino - the fish don't seem to have gone anywhere, and I spent long happy hours lying face-down, snorkelling in the lagoon. The rooms on the island are very simple wooden bungalows, but pleasant, clean and relaxed. I can think of nothing nicer than to go and find an uninhabited stretch of the single beach which circles the island, to sink down into the fine sand and take solitary possession of the long, hot, stupid afternoon.

The Seychelles is not a budget destination; no charter flights are permitted. For more details, contact the Tourist Board: 0171-224 1670

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