Travel: Islands of the blessed

The Seychelles are paradise, writes Cleo Paskal. But how to decide: birds or parrot fish, swimming or tropical forests? And alas, heaven doesn't come cheap
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The Independent Online
In the late 19th century, General Charles "Hero of Khartoum" Gordon declared the Seychelles the original Garden of Eden. He based this largely on having taken a good look at the coco-de-mer palm. This is how he described the nut that grows on the female tree: "Exteriorly it is shaped like a heart, when opened out it is like the belly and thighs. Inside is a pink transparent jelly like substance. It is this unique tree which I think is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil."

If he needed further proof, he had only to look at the male coco-de-mer. When it is ready to pollinate the female it grows a long, dangling, er, thingy, which in its most procreative phase is covered in lurid yellowy- red flowers. The coco-de-mer is the national plant of the Seychelles.

But even if botany isn't your favourite indulgence, it's easy to find a private Eden of your own somewhere among the country's 115 or so islands. Geologically, they are spectacular. While the southern part of the chain is your usual perfect coralline tropical island paradise, the northern part is, unusually, granite.

Each island has its speciality, but the best one from which to base yourself is Praslin, a 15-minute flight or a three-hour boat ride from the capital island, Mahe. From there you can take day trips to a range of mini-Eden islands: Cousin, Curieuse, La Digue and others.

Cousin is a bird reserve, a stop-off point for a slew of migratory species and a permanent home to rare fowl such as the Seychelles magpie robin. The birds are so secure on their rat- and cat-free island that some nest on the ground. Ornithologists go a bit nuts here and local rangers are founts of endless knowledge. But if the noise (and smell) of hundreds of thousands of birds doesn't impress, you can track down a giant tortoise. They love having their oddly cold and leathery necks stroked.

Curieuse, a one-time leper colony, is the regional headquarters of the Marine Parks Authority. If you time it right, you can see sea turtles coming in to lay their eggs, or hatchlings scrambling towards the sea.

La Digue, Tony Blair's vacation choice, is a picturesque island with almost no cars but lots of touristy ox-carts. If you fancy biking along the bays without getting run over by maniac Seychellois drivers, this'll be your Eden. But be warned; the beaches are beautiful to look at, yet the island can get very hot and the swimming is lousy compared to the other islands. Tony Blair, no fool he, got around this by renting one of the few air-conditioned places on La Digue on one of the few swimmable beaches.

Some of the best beaches are on Praslin itself. The talc-fine white sandy beach of Cote d'Or bay stretches for miles and fringes the most swimmable waters I have ever been in. The water is warm, calm and heart-achingly clear. But, even so, it is not my personal Seychellois Eden.

The Vallee de Mai, in the heart of Praslin, comes close. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site and home of the only wild coco-de-mer forest. The 800-year-old palm trees create a vaulted canopy that dapples sunlight and shelters from the rain. Well-kept paths follow rivers and wend through pandanus groves. It is silent, except for the rattle of the enormous palms in the wind and the songs of the black parrots and tree frogs. It is like walking through a Hollywood-crafted prehistoric forest: all the atmosphere and none of the danger.

But my own Eden is like one of those ridiculously perfect dreams from childhood. Effortlessly hovering over rippling green glades and dense forests, you see all around you colourful creatures passing by, casting you the occasional curious glance. My Eden is snorkelling in Isle Aux Cocos Marine Park. Just opened to the public, it is accessible and pristine. The park rangers ferried my group to the small beach on Isle aux Cocos from our tour boat moored outside the reef. Overhead, graceful tropic birds with their long white tail feathers played in the thermals.

By the time I had waded out to waist-deep water, I was at the edge of the coral reef. We floated gently a metre or so above the forest of coral, some of it yellow, some blue, some white, all exquisite. A young parrot fish, impossibly turquoise and pink, escorted me as I coasted over swarms of angel fish, blue-striped snapper, gliding rays and hawksbill turtles. I let myself be gradually carried by the current towards the deeper, darker, more complex waters at the far edge of the reef. It was paradise.

Until I spotted the shark.It was like the shadow of a nightmare, and made my heart stop. I looked closer. But not too close. Yep, a white-tipped reef shark. A small one, maybe just over a metre long, probably harmless. But just in case, I headed back to the shallows.

Eden doesn't come cheap. The Seychelles government is focusing on high- end ecotourism. To keep the country from being overrun by grubby backpackers who won't bring in enough money to justify their strain on the environment, the number of tourist beds has been capped at around 4,200. Often, the cheapest way to go is to book a package tour. For example, in the new Distant Dreams brochure from Cosmos (0161-480 5799), a fortnight, half- board, at the Paradise Sun on Praslin in November 1999 costs pounds 1,999 per person.

Travelling independently, British Airways and Air Seychelles each has two weekly flights from Gatwick to Mahe. Fares are likely to be lower on Air France via Paris; through an agency such as Bridge The World (0171- 911 0900), you would pay pounds 631 in June from London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester or Newcastle.

In Victoria, on Mahe, I stayed at the Hilltop Guesthouse for around pounds 25 a night. On Praslin, we stayed at the Paradise Sun, which was superb but expensive - around pounds 150 for a double with B&B - and at the Berjaya Praslin Beach which had an Easter special rate of about pounds 70 for a double with half board. On La Digue we stayed at a place I would not recommend. Tony Blair stayed at l'Union self-catering chalets: pounds 205 for a chalet that holds up to four people in two bedrooms, plus pounds 28 per person half board.