A rare treat: Kate Humble in the Seychelles
On a tiny island in the Seychelles, Kate Humble discovers a conservation success story, samples untold luxury... and steers clear of her fellow guests
Saturday 10 January 2009
Just a few short weeks ago there was nothing for me that constituted sheer self-indulgence more than lolling in a hot bath with a bottle of red wine, a good book and the telephone switched off. Now that simple pleasure has been usurped by the less attainable luxury of birdwatching from a private infinity pool overlooking the Indian Ocean. I should never have gone to the Seychelles.
These 115 islands are geographically located about 1,000 miles east of the coast of Kenya, but spiritually are somewhere close to heaven. They hadn't even been on my wish list. I'd always imagined a clichéd tropical island paradise – all sand and coconut palms where real life is shelved for a week or two and replaced by lots of lying down and drinking things with pineapple juice in. Yet it was clear as we approached Frégate island from the air that my preconception of the archipelago being a collection of featureless sand bars was wrong.
While the smaller, outer isles are low-lying coral, the 43 inner isles are made of granite and are much more high-rise. Below us, however, was a compact rocky outcrop, thickly covered in trees and shrubs. We were supposed to be staying in a resort, but there appeared to be no sign of anything that resembled the sprawling mass of concrete, swimming pools and plastic loungers I was dreading; in fact there were few signs of human habitation at all.
Frégate is privately owned. Its one extremely exclusive resort – there are only 16 villas – is called Frégate Island Private. You might say that privacy is almost an obsession here. As we landed we were met not by a queue at a reception desk, with forms to fill out and plastic keys to lose, but by a smiling Kenyan named Amos and a solar-powered golf cart.
Our embarrassingly scruffy luggage was magicked away and Amos drove us along a narrow concrete road which wound up and down through a riot of tangled vegetation, with the scent of frangipani thick in the air. My husband and I felt more than a little self-conscious on a form of transport we normally associated with large, lazy vacationers in Florida, but it didn't matter. In the 15 minutes it took to reach our villa we didn't see another soul. Phew! Our rugged integrity was still intact. Until, that is, we walked into the villa. This had nothing rugged about it at all (unless showering outside in a private garden is your idea of rugged).
"I bet," I said to Amos as he guided us around a bewildering array of bathrooms, fridges and drinks cabinets, "that some people never leave the villa." "You are right," he replied, as we walked out onto the deck with its own private infinity pool overhanging the infinite blue of the ocean beyond. "People come here to relax."
"Well, we're not here to relax," I said briskly. "You can relax when you die. We want to do things."
Amos gave me a look of barely disguised scepticism and asked what time we would like breakfast bought to us in the morning. I said seven o'clock; Amos suggested nine; I said we'd have eaten all the furniture in the villa by then, and we settled on 8.30am. He gave us his mobile number and instructions to phone him at any time whenever we wanted anything and then he left.
Frégate may be a luxury resort with Emma Thompson's name in the guest book. It may have what has been described as the world's most perfect beach. It may have a pillow menu with – I kid you not – 20 different sleeping supports to chose from, including a "vitamin E-treated anti-ageing pillow". But it is also a place where the conservation of the native wildlife and its habitat is as important as the wellbeing of the guests. The products in the bathrooms are biodegradable and made from fruits and herbs grown on site; an impressive vegetable garden and hydroponics system supplies the French chef with most of the ingredients he needs for the kitchen.
It isn't about jump-on-the-eco-bandwagon marketing – Nick, the manager, told me that few, if any, of the guests that come to the resort have chosen it for its green credentials – it's the genuine interest and passion of Frégate's publicity-shy German owner. He bought the island more than a decade ago, built a house for himself and started to develop the resort which he hopes one day will be completely carbon neutral. There are plans to put in a football pitch-sized area of solar panels to replace the four huge generators needed to run the resort at the moment and to look at alternative fuels for the island's fleet of boats.
Before the island was bought, most of its native trees and plants had been cleared to make way for cash crops such as coconuts and cinnamon. This brought about the dramatic decline and even extinction of many of the island's animals and birds. Now, with the advice of a resident ecologist and a recently appointed zoologist, Frégate's owner is working to create the perfect environment not just for his guests but for the wildlife too. Thousands of native trees have been planted; nest boxes have been put up and large swathes of the island are left wild and unmanicured. Working alongside international conservation organisations such as Birdlife International, the island has been vital to the recovery of some of the rarest species of bird in the world.
Evidence of the success of all this work came the next morning. In the midst of a deep, dreamless sleep I became dimly aware of a bell ringing. At the door was Amos with a huge tray and an even bigger smile. "What time is it?" I asked. "Nine o'clock," came the reply. "You drugged us!" I said, but Amos just laughed. "It is Frégate fever!" He laid out breakfast on the deck and we tucked into fruit salad and home-made croissants watched by several pairs of hungry eyes.
The Seychelles' equivalent of the sparrow is called a fody and they are every bit as cheeky as our own sparrows. The male Madagascar fody is particularly splendid, with bright red-orange plumage and a belligerent manner. Yet it was the appearance of a bird that looks very similar to our blackbird but with large flashes of white on its wing that almost made me fall off my chair.
In the mid 1960s there were barely more than 10 magpie robins left in the world. Found only in the Seychelles, the bird was heading fast for the extinction list, the result of habitat destruction and introduced predators such as cats and rats. Now, owing to the work on Frégate, there are more than 100 magpie robins here and populations have been established on three other islands.
It's not just the birds that are thriving. The tenebrionid beetle, a tiny armoured bug with spikes on its back which give it the appearance of a medieval club, is found only on Frégate and it, too, is benefiting from lack of predators and the protection of trees.
Then there's the unmissable Seychelles giant millipede, a slow-moving beast about the size of a frankfurter and upholstered in black, shiny segmented armour, that likes to visit the villas and has caused some guests to pack their bags and flee, despite it being harmless and vital to the ecology of the island.
Rather more endearing are the tortoises. Frégate is home to around 600 Aldabra giant tortoises, a species once brought to the brink of extinction by hungry mariners (who would tip them onto their backs and take them away to eat later on board their boats). They are now protected. These great prehistoric-looking beasts can live to be over 100 years old and weigh up to 250 kg, but it is surprisingly easy to miss them. Often we found ourselves walking along, only to hear the rustle of leaves and look back to see that the granite boulder we had just passed was, in fact, walking along the path behind us.
The island is also visited by another mighty reptile. After that lazy start on our first morning, we were determined not to slip into a life of complete idleness, so we walked to Anse Victorin beach. It is a steep climb down a heavily wooded slope. We emerged at a place so beautiful it might have been designed for a film set. Big rounded boulders flanked a perfect crescent of pale gold sand, which was gently pounded by turquoise waves on one side and shadowed by huge trees full of swooping long-tailed tropic birds on the other. And guess what? We had the beach entirely to ourselves. I was beginning to like this idea of "private".
Then we noticed some curious tracks in the sand and it dawned on us that the beach wasn't totally unoccupied. Hidden beneath a bush, a hawksbill turtle was carefully scooping away the sand with her flippers in preparation for laying her eggs.
If there were turtles on the beaches, what other prizes would we find if we ventured underwater? The Seychelles have never been touted as one of the great diving destinations and our first dive seemed to explain why.
Not far off the eastern shore of the island we jumped into the warm, clear water and descended down to the sea bed. It was covered in a thick layer of coral rubble – bleached, broken and dead. The archipelago is an area that bears the brunt of the El Niño effect, which raises sea temperatures and kills coral; and the 2004 tsunami took its toll, too.
We decided to try a site further out to sea, which Steve, the recently appointed dive guide at Frégate, hadn't dived in before. The contrast couldnot have been greater. Beneath the surface, huge ridges, slabs and monoliths of continental granite stood out of the sand. We spotted a rarely seen guitar fish – a big one – lying motionless below us.
Nearby, shoals of unicorn fish, snappers and fusiliers were so dense we could not see through them. Gaudily patterned fish called sweetlips lurked in the crevices; goatfish foraged between the boulders. We found lobsters and moray eels and on one dive came across three large bull sharks, which set our hearts racing. We returned to the site again and again. On our final dive it was almost as if all the marine life of the Seychelles had come to wave us off. We slipped quietly away from five or six white-tipped reef sharks, circling, clearly in hunting mode; I spotted a giant reef ray swimming with four smaller stingrays, something I've never seen before; and while we were doing our safety stop something made us look down. Right below us a turtle was cruising slowly above the sea floor.
So, despite Amos' scepticism and the almost-impossible-to-resist temptation just to lie around with a glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice, we did do things, but mostly in splendid isolation.
Frégate takes the privacy part of the experience it offers to such extremes that we contemplated hiding in the bushes along the main track just to see if there really was anyone else staying there.
There are two restaurants. One is in the main building. The other, in an old plantation house. serves delicious Creole food, but the tables are set so far apart and the chairs angled in such way that it iss scarcely possible to see, let alone hear, fellow diners. Whenever brief eye-contact was made, we would self-consciously nod to each other and look hurriedly away as if we were all naked. Even when there were other people who wanted to dive, arrangements would be carefully scheduled so we wouldn't have to dive together, which occasionally – and slightly frustratingly – meant we couldn't dive when we wanted to. While having a perfect beach all to oneself is a joy, a cocktail in an empty bar is not to everyone's taste. This is not a place for the sociable, but it is a place where simple indulgences, such as dinner in the villa wearing a dressing gown and watching Breakfast at Tiffany's from the DVD collection in the library, are positively encouraged.
When we weren't diving, or walking, or having breakfast in a tree-house surrounded by fairy terns, we would return to the villa. Binoculars in hand, I would slip into the warm water of our private infinity pool. There I would watch the blue pigeons cooing in the trees, the sunbirds flitting amongst the hibiscus and the long-tailed tropical birds swooping over the ocean. Life really doesn't get much more luxurious than that.
When to go
Any time, though you might think twice about escaping to the Seychelles during the depths of our winter; the rainy season lasts roughly from mid-November until mid-February. Overall, though, the climate in the Seychelles changes very little during the year. Expect temperatures in the mid-80s, with little cooling after dark.
You can fly on Air Seychelles (01293 596 656; airseychelles.com) non-stop from Heathrow to Mahé, the largest island in the Seychelles, on Fridays and Sundays.
The usual alternative route is via the Gulf. Qatar Airways (020-7399 2577; qatarairways.com) flies from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester via Doha; Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) flies from the same airports, plus Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle, via Dubai.
Once in the Seychelles, inter-island connections can be made using Helicopter Seychelles (00 248 385858; helicopterseychelles.com), which flies to Frégate. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint.travel).
If you book before the end of the month, Elegant Resorts (01244 897 516; elegantresorts.co.uk) has a deal for a week at Frégate Island Private (frégate.com) for £8,025 per person, based on two adults sharing a villa on a full-board basis. This includes economy flights with Air Seychelles and helicopter transfers. The offer is valid for departures from 11 May to 30 June 2009.
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