Traveller's guide: Seychelles
Scattered across 650 miles of the Indian Ocean, these tropical islands offer superb beaches, dramatic scenery and a benign climate.
Chris Leadbeater is a full-time travel journalist who has written for The Independent since 2009. He specialises in the USA, South America and Europe, but has covered destinations as varied as Mozambique, New Zealand, Indonesia and Lebanon. Prior to becoming a travel journalist, he worked as a music writer and for men's magazines.
Friday 16 March 2012
As honeymoon decisions go, theirs was an excellent one. When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – seeking a destination where they could hide from the world's attention – picked the Seychelles as their place of post-wedding escape last May, they chose wisely.
For here is a cluster of tropical islands, strewn across a swathe of the Indian Ocean, that may be the ideal enclave for all things quietly romantic. Adorned with grand beaches and thick forests, the 115 outcrops that comprise the archipelago – the 43 hard granite nuggets of the Inner Islands, the five disparate coral groups of the Outer Islands – could barely look more exotic. At their most verdant, their appearance has more in common with the misty majesty of Hawaii than the desert slivers of the Maldives or the soft contours of the Caribbean.
This dramatic picture is made more alluring by the weather, which is a gift to sunseekers. Temperatures change little, moving languidly between 25C and 30C. The six months of May to October are technically cooler, the islands ventilated by south-easterly trade winds, while the half of the year bookended by November and April is vaguely hotter and more humid. But the forecast says "pleasant" whatever the date.
The islands' charm is increased by their remoteness. Though a firm fixture in holiday brochures, the Seychelles ranks as one of the most out-on-a-limb nations on the planet. It is considered part of Africa, yet its scattered fragments lurk over 900 miles east of the continental mainland (specifically Kenya), 500 miles north-east of Madagascar and due north of – but 1,000 miles from – sibling Indian Ocean hot spots Mauritius and Réunion.
The archipelago's location has played a key role in its history – or lack of it, leaving it so divorced from civilisation that it never accrued an indigenous population. Maldivian and Omani sailors probably knew of its existence in the 12th century, and Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama spotted it in 1502 on his epic voyage into the Indian Ocean. But aside from a skull-and-crossbone chapter in the early 18th century, when pirates used its empty coves as a base for high-seas larceny, mankind ignored the Seychelles until France planted its flag in 1756 – naming the isles after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louis XV's finance minister. Britain promptly pricked up its ears, seizing the islands in 1794, before taking official possession in 1810 during the treaty manoeuvres of the Napoleonic Wars. The archipelago stayed tied to London until independence in 1976.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Seychelles is only mildly more accessible – thanks to January's backwards step that saw its national carrier, Air Seychelles (00 248 4 391 000; airseychelles.com), cancel all services to Europe – including its link to Gatwick. Holidaymakers now have to make the journey by a more circuitous route on airlines such as Etihad (020-3450 7300; etihadairways.com) via Abu Dhabi, Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) via Dubai, Qatar Airways (0844 846 8380; qatarairways.com) via Doha and Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; kenya-airways.com) via Nairobi.
Those who make the effort to visit will find that – though high-end resorts, sandy crescents and candlelit dinners are its calling card – the country is more than a honeymoon playground. Some 650 miles separate Bird Island – the northernmost outpost – from the Aldabra coral isles in the far south-west, and what lies between is remarkably diverse.
Even the four biggest islands, set in a relatively compact burst, differ markedly. Mahé, the largest, has the airport, the capital Victoria and 90 per cent of the population. Praslin, the second, is forest coated and features the more celebrated of the country's two Unesco-listed sites, the Vallée de Mai National Park. The third largest, Silhouette, is mountainous and craggy, with five peaks higher than 1,600 feet – whereas La Digue, the fourth, is a flatter, dreamy pocket of sumptuous shoreline and tranquillity.
Happily, it is easier to get around the Seychelles – at least between the core islands. Air Seychelles operates about 15 flights per day between Mahé and Praslin, this 27-mile hop taking 15 minutes for US$215 (£143 return). The Cat Cocos catamaran service (00 248 4 324 843; catcocos .com) plies the same route in one hour, with four there-and-back sailings each day from €86 return (or €112 return if you opt to stay on to La Digue). Inter Island Ferry Services (00 248 4 232 329; seychelles.net/iif) spans the three-mile gap between Praslin and La Digue, the 15-minute jaunt costing €20 return.
This travel network offers scope for island-hopping, and with it, opportunities for hiking and diving. The Seychelles Tourism Board has further information at seychelles.travel.
The Seychelles' warm waters are paradise for scuba diving and snorkelling. Most resort hotels have their own dive centre. Those who wish to go further out may be drawn to Ste Anne Marine National Park, a ring-fenced zone off Mahé's north-east edge that has six pinprick islands – and is blessed with a rainbow swirl of fish, coral formations and seagrass meadows. Fishing is banned but diving is encouraged – as is the case in Curieuse Marine National Park, north of Praslin, where parrotfish dart. Local dive operators include Big Blue Divers (on Mahé: 00 248 4 261 106; bigbluedivers.net; packages of five dives from €194 with equipment) and White Tip Divers (on Praslin: 00 248 4 232 282; whitetipdivers.com; single dives from €55). Alternatively, Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980; www.diveworldwide.com) has longer liveaboard breaks – including a nine-day full-board jaunt that spends a week sailing on the modern yacht Sea Bird. Prices from £2,695pp, with UK flights, transfers and equipment.
Praslin and La Digue
The Seychelles' second island is more rustic than Mahé. Though there are smatterings of settlement (chiefly on the north coast at Anse Volbert), Praslin is a calm prospect where the Vallée de Mai National Park (00 248 4 321 735; sif.sc; SCR320/£15) dominates. This tranche of virgin forest was granted Unesco protected status in 1983 as one of only two sites on the planet where the coco de mer palm is endemic. (The other is Curieuse island, directly north.) This hard-labouring tree produces a type of conjoined double coconut, elegantly curved, which can grow to 65lb in weight and 18 inches in diameter – its size adding to the mystique of a place where the rare Seychelles black parrot flits in the canopy.
Praslin is a good base for visiting the nearby nature-reserve isles of Curieuse, Cousin and Aride. (Creole Travel Services does a one-day jaunt from Praslin that ticks off Curieuse and Aride – SCR2,350/£108.) But the siren call comes from La Digue. Laid out on its west edge, Anse Source d'Argent may be one of the world's most striking beaches, its granite boulders fomenting a Lost World vibe.
Mahé and Silhouette
Mahé revolves around the international airport, on its eastern flank, and Victoria, which lies in the north-east. The colonial era lingers in the capital's 19th-century iron clock tower, halfway along Independence Avenue, an echo of London – and in the National Botanical Gardens, established in 1901 in the Mont Fleuri district, where endemic spice and fruit trees grow (00 248 4 670 537; SCR100/£4.50). But local life swirls in the central fruit and fish markets, where the modern Seychellois (a rich mix of African heritage and French accents) go about the day with unhurried Creole composure.
Good food can be found on Mahé, not least at Le Jardin du Roi (00 248 4 371 313). Pitched on an 18th-century spice plantation, this small eatery occupies an elevated spot that gazes down to Anse Royale beach in the south of the island – and proffers a varied Creole menu that runs from lamb curry with grated papaya to slabs of grilled jack fish.
The island's high terrain comes to the fore again in the north-west, where the Morne Seychellois National Park is laced with upwardly mobile trails. Possible routes can be found at bit.ly/seychelleswalks, while local tour group Creole Travel Services (00 248 4 297 000; creoletravelservices.com) offers full-day "Nature Trails" hikes that dissect Mahé's loftier parts, for SCR750/£35. For those who prefer life at a slower pace, Mahé also shelters several beautiful beaches, of which Anse Forbans (in the south) and Beau Vallon (in the north-west) may be the loveliest.
Silhouette, 20 miles north-west of Mahé, is visible from Beau Vallon. Largely untouched, and preserved as a "Nature Protection Trust", it is riddled with lonely paths that wind through hardwood forests beneath the 2,428-foot Mont Dauban. Access is really feasible only if you are staying at the Labriz Resort & Spa (00 248 4 293 949; hiltonseychelleslabriz.com), a five-star hotel that sits on the east coast – and runs the sole regular boat transfer (which docks on Mahé at Beau Vallon). A seven-night B&B stay starts at £2,550 per person with Emirates flights and transfers via Scott Dunn (020-8682 5420; scottdunn.com).
Where to stay
With many holidays to the Seychelles cast in a post-nuptial or sun-worshipping haze, it should be no surprise that much of the accommodation fits into the sophisticated bracket.
On Mahé, the stylish spa retreat of the Banyan Tree (00 248 4 383 500; banyan tree.com) overlooks the idyllic Anse Intendance at the very south of the island. A seven-night stay starts at £2,289 per person via Tropical Sky (0844 332 9349; tropicalsky.co.uk), including flights with Qatar Airways, breakfast and transfers. Similarly, the Raffles Praslin (00 248 4 296 000; raffles.com/praslin), pictured, opened a year ago on Anse Takamaka, on the south coast of the second isle. A seven-night stay costs from £2,605 through Carrier (0161 491 7660; carrier.co.uk), including flights with Emirates, Etihad or Qatar Airways, breakfast and transfers.
However, for a real sense of exclusivity, you might want to fly 142 miles south-west of Mahé, to where the lone ranger of Desroches Island revels in A-list chic (00 248 4 229 003; desroches-island.com). A seven-night all-inclusive holiday starts at £3,545 per person with Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk), including flights with Qatar and transfers. And if you really want to blow the budget, Frégate island, 34 miles east of Mahé, is notable for its abundance of birdlife and the luxuriousness of its 16 private villas (fregate.com). A seven-night full-board stay costs from £10,300 a head, including flights with Emirates and transfers, via Elegant Resorts (01244 897 516; elegantresorts.co.uk).
That said, it is possible to see the Seychelles without reaching your credit limit. The Constance Lémuria Resort (00 248 4 281 281; lemuriaresort.com), a swish bolthole with an 18-hole golf course on the north-west corner of Praslin, can be enjoyed for less than £2,000 – Turquoise Holidays (01494 678 400; turquoise holidays.co.uk) dispenses five-night stays from £1,553 a head, including breakfast, flights with Emirates and transfers.
If you fancy a more frugal approach, less pricey options exist. Kot Babi (00 248 4 234 747; kotbabi.sc), a cosy four-room guesthouse in the village of La Passe on La Digue island, offers double rooms from €90, on a half-board basis. Chalets d'Anse Forbans (00 248 4 366 111; forbans.com) has 16 comfortable self-catering bungalows tucked into the south-east corner of Mahé on the beach of the same name – from €118 per night.
Ghosts on the horizon
Two final reminders of the Seychelles' gloriously shy location wait on the map. The first, the Aldabra Atoll, is of such importance that it stands as the country's second Unesco site. Almost entirely removed from human influence, its four central coral islets are home to 152,000 of the once-endangered Aldabra giant tortoise, pictured. Any journey to the atoll is, by necessity, a considerable one. It is some 700 miles south-west of Mahé, and can be reached only by yacht charter (try Seyexclusive: 0844 800 9722; seyexclusive.com; catamarans from £136pp per night, full-board).
More "tangible" is a ghost story. The Seychelles' pirate era finds its most notorious form in Olivier Levasseur, a French buccaneer who stalked the region in the 1720s – notably in 1721, when he stormed the Portuguese ship La Vierge Du Cap and plundered a huge bounty that included a seven-foot diamond-encrusted crucifix known as the "Fiery Cross of Goa". Levasseur was caught and hanged on Réunion island in 1730, but the haul was never found. Focus has fallen on Mahé, his likely lair, and the Bel Ombre portion of Beau Vallon bay, where symbols carved into rocks may be a "map". Whether or not they denote buried loot, the secrets they hint at are tribute to the Seychelles' long-held position far off the beaten path.
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