A TRIP TO PARADISE?
The white sandy beaches, crystal-clear turquoise water and lush vegetation certainly contribute to the impression that these 115 islands are somewhere close to heaven. Their actual location is in the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 miles east of the Kenya coast. They consist of an inner group of 41 granite islands, notable for the dramatic rock formations which provide a structure for the interior and a backdrop to the beaches. The outer islands are formed of coral and none is higher than about 15 feet above sea level. These include the islands known as the Amirantes, and the most remote of all, the Aldabra group.
Aldabra is more or less off-limits to tourists; access is by charter boat, and no one is allowed to land without prior permission from the Seychelles Department of the Environment. The reason: the area is a nature reserve, with large colonies of turtles and giant tortoises.
WHEN SHOULD I 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. The skies can be overcast, which can detract from the traditional image of blue skies and clear water. Overall, though, the climate in the Seychelles changes very little during the year. Expect temperatures in the mid-80s, with very little cooling during the evening and night. During the rainy season, downpours can be very heavy, although they rarely last too long. And the south-east trade winds that blow between May and September mean seas around the south-east of the islands can be a little rough.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Since BA dropped its flights to the archipelago, Air Seychelles (01293 596656; www.airseychelles.co.uk) is the only airline that flies direct from the UK. There are two or three non-stop flights a week from Heathrow to the international airport at Mahé, which take around 10 hours and start from £600 return this summer. On other days, and from alternative UK airports, you will have to change planes somewhere. You could take a short hop to Paris or Rome for the onwards Air Seychelles flight, or travel via the Gulf. Qatar Airways (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) flies from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester via Doha; Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com/uk) flies from the same airports, plus Birmingham and Glasgow, via Dubai.
WHAT SHOULD I DO ON MAHE?
Few visitors linger in Victoria, the tiny capital of the Seychelles; but if you have a spare half-hour, the National Museum (00 248 321333), located in the National Library building on Francis Rachel Street, provides an interesting introduction to the island. It opens 8.30am-4.30pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9am-1pm on Saturday, admission 10 Seychelles rupees (R10/£1.10).
Away from the relative congestion of the capital, Mahé has plenty to offer. One of its most beautiful beaches is Port Launay, a gorgeous little sheltered spot on the north-west side of the island. Beau Vallon, about three miles north-west of Victoria, is more popular; it has a small village, several good restaurants, a choice of hotels and a long, sandy beach.
Much of the island's interior has been designated a national park, the Morne Seychellois - a lush, mountainous area ideal for walking. There are several trails through the park, clearly well-marked with yellow signposts. These include a short but steep track to the summit of Mahé's highest peak, Morne Blanc (2,188ft). A map of the trails is available from the Botanical Garden (00 248 224644) at Mont Fleuri, just outside Victoria. After the rainy season, some of the trails become too muddy to attempt safely.
I WANT TO GO ISLAND-HOPPING
The nearest isles to Mahé fall within the Sainte-Anne Marine Park, one of the first sites in the Indian Ocean to be classified as a nature reserve. It covers the area surrounding six small islands: Ste-Anne, Moyenne, Longue, Cerf, Round and Cachée. The area is rich in marine life, with nearly 1,000 species of fish. There are no scheduled ferry services to these islands, but full- and half-day trips are organised by the Marine Charter Association (00 248 224679) with stops on Cerf and Round Islands, as well as the opportunity for snorkelling in the park. A private ferry service to Ste-Anne Island is organised by the Sainte Anne Resort (00 248 292000; www.beachcomber-hotels.com), but this is available only to paying guests, or visitors who have booked to have lunch in the resort.
A little further away is the Seychelles' second-largest island: Praslin, 22 miles north-east of Mahé. It is more relaxed than the main island. The main draw is the shoreline; it has magnificent beaches, which include the secluded Anse Lazio on the north coast, and the Côte d'Or further east.
SOMETHING MORE PETITE?
From Praslin, it is a short hop to La Digue, an island small enough to walk around - although most of the locals ride bicycles. Visitors can take tours on ox-carts, or rent bikes; Chez Michelin (00 248 234304; www.seychelles.net/chezmich), across the road from the jetty charges R50 (£5.50) for a day. La Digue's beaches are dominated by dramatic rock formations, which divide the sand into small, secluded coves. If you are prepared to take a short walk along a beach like Anse Source d'Argent you will easily find a deserted spot where you can spend the afternoon out of sight. *
I WANT TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL
One of the most magical places in the Seychelles is the most northerly isle, Bird Island. This coral island is home to, well, birds: thousands of white terns, noddys, fregates, as well as more unusual visitors that get blown off-course as they are migrating to South Africa for the winter. From the end of March until October, 1.5m sooty terns descend on Bird to breed, forming a noisy carpet across half the island.
If you walk along the beach between October and February you may spot a turtle crawling up the beach to lay her eggs. Bird Island is the only place in the world where the hawksbill turtles lay during the day. Hawksbill and green turtles, both endangered species, are found on the island and visitors are encouraged to help the monitoring programme by reporting any sightings. Bird is also the home of Esmeralda, the oldest giant tortoise in the world at somewhere between 150 and 200 years old. She roams free around the island, as do about 20 of her younger friends. Accommodation on Bird is in simple, but comfortable, chalets at Bird Island Lodge (00 248 323322; www.birdislandseychelles.com) and costs €430 (£307) for two, €335 (£239) for single occupancy, including all meals.
HOW DO I HOP BETWEEN ISLANDS?
Ferry services are thin: only two scheduled inter-island ferry services operate in the Seychelles. A fast catamaran run by Cat Coco (00 248 324843) links Victoria harbour on Mahé with Baie Sainte Anne on Praslin twice a day in each direction. Crossings take an hour and cost €80 return (£57). Between Praslin and La Digue there are frequent boat services run by Inter-Island Ferries (00 248 232329). Return tickets cost €20 (£14).
These services apart, you will have to fly. Air Seychelles (01293 596656; www.airseychelles.co.uk) operates flights between Mahé and Praslin for €118 (£84) return, and Helicopter Seychelles (00 248 385858; www.helicopterseychelles.com) flies from Mahé to Praslin, Silhouette, La Digue, Cousine, Denis, Félicité, Frégate, Bird and North. Flights to other outer islands are normally booked when hotel reservations are made on those islands.
HOW DO I GET AROUND EACH ISLE?
Mahé and Praslin are the only islands with cars; among the hire companies is Austral (00 248 232015; www.australcarhire.com), which has depots on both. The buses that go around and across each of these two islands are excellent; where there is a road, there will be a bus service. Bicycles are the main means of transport on La Digue; the smaller isles can be explored on foot.
IS IT ALL VERY UPMARKET?
The country has a reputation as a ritzy destination, and there are some lovely five-star hotels and resorts. The finest is the Banyan Tree, beautifully located on a secluded beach at Anse Intendance, Mahé (00 248 383500; www.banyantree.com). Each of the luxury villas is built on a hillside amid dense vegetation and has a private pool; many also have an outdoor Jacuzzi. Double rooms start at €1,050 (£750) a night for bed and breakfast. The Constance Lémuria Resort at Anse Kerlan on Praslin (00 248 281281; www.constancehotels.com) is the only place in the Seychelles that has an 18-hole golf course; other activities include sailing and snorkelling, and there is a club for children. Smaller, but still exclusive, resorts have been built on some of the outer islands, including North (00 248 293100; www.north-island.com) and the private island of Frégate (00 248 282282; www.fregate.com).
On a slightly less grand scale, but offering wonderful beachside bungalows and an excellent restaurant, is the four-star Desroches Island Resort (00 230 698 22 2; www.naiaderesorts.com) in the Amirantes islands. Rather than contacting the hotels direct, it can be cheaper to book through a tour operator. These include companies like Stylish Resorts (020-8255 1738; www.stylishresorts.com), which offers tailor-made trips. Thomas Cook (0870 443 4447; www.thomascooksignature.com) and Kuoni (01306 743000; www.kuoni.co.uk) include a wide range of Seychelles options in their brochures.
ANY BUDGET OPTIONS?
Although there is a shortage of good three- and four-star accommodation, there are plenty of reasonably priced small hotels and guest houses. Most of them are clustered around the main beach areas, like Beau Vallon on Mahé; options here include the Coral Strand Hotel (00 248 621000; www.coralstrand.com), which has rooms from €151 (£108). Another option is to look south of the airport, where there are plenty of small hotels and guesthouses, including the Casuarina Beach Hotel (00 248 376211; www.aspureasitgets.com). Rooms here start from €101 (£72). Note that it is illegal for hotels to charge foreigners in the local currency, Seychelles rupees, so prices are always quoted, and should be paid, in a foreign currency - usually euros.
WHAT WILL I EAT?
The local cuisine consists of a lot of fish and seafood, much of it unfamiliar to European tastes: look out for kingfish, job or parrotfish, or octopus served raw and thinly sliced. Tuna and red snapper are staples, and curries are popular. Tropical fruits include varieties not often seen in Europe, including jackfruit and soursop. Many hotels serve international dishes, so the best place to try creole food is at one of the buffets that are served in a lot of restaurants. One popular with locals is served at 1pm every Sunday at Chez Batista on Anse Takamaka (00 248 366300; www.chez-batista.com).
WHICH ISLANDS ARE GOOD FOR WATER SPORTS?
Because much of the ocean around the Seychelles is protected, motorised water sports are limited. Deep-sea fishing is allowed and there are some local sailors who are prepared to negotiate a deal, as well as a number of registered operators. Striker III (00 248 511958) is a boat based on Beau Vallon beach, although it can be found for part of the year at Port Launay. Full-day trips for up to six people cost €650 (£464); a half-day is €450 (£321). A number of diving centres operate on the islands, either independently or running out of the luxury hotels. Look out for Big Blue Divers (00 248 261106) or Le Diable des Mers Diving Centre (00 248 247104), both of which are on Beau Vallon beach.
Some of the best snorkelling can be found around the tiny island of Saint Pierre, just off the north-east coast of Praslin, and off Félicité, a mile or two north-east of La Digue. Sunsail (0870 777 0313; www.sunsail.com) has a selection of boats based on Mahé and available for charter, enabling sailing enthusiasts to explore the islands at their own pace. These are available from £1,245 per person, including flights from the UK.
GOING LOCO OVER COCO
There are five varieties of palm tree native to the Seychelles, the most unusual of which is the Coco de Mer. The seeds produced by the female tree are the largest and heaviest in the world, weighing up to 20kg, and are shaped like the female pelvis.
The best place to see them is in the Vallée de Mai (00 248 516293), a nature reserve in the heart of Praslin that contains some 8,000 palms, and where the Coco de Mer is protected. Souvenir seeds are on sale in the reserve, but they are part of a strictly controlled quota - if you buy one, make sure that it has a label that authenticates its origins.
While you are in the park, listen out for a whistling sound. This is the call of the black parrot, a smallish, dark-brown bird found only on Praslin. The Vallée de Mai is open 8am-5.30pm daily, admission €15 (£11).