Seychelles - paradise on the sea shore

Jeremy Atiyah visited the islands where he was one of the few people not related to an ex-president - and discovered Eden in the Indian Ocean
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The Independent Travel
It can be hard to take seriously a place whose name sounds like it was invented to sound like "sea-shells". A hundred islands sprinkled over four hundred thousand square kilometres of ocean and only 70,000 people living in them? What was this? A corny beach paradise designed by tour operators? A film-set dreamt up for Bacardi commercials? Or a raw, wild country, waiting to be explored by travellers like me?

It was certainly raw and wild 200 years ago when people first started settling here. In those days the population comprised a few dozen French desperadoes who made a living by running after the local wildlife - tortoises. If that wasn't embarrassing enough, they also kept slaves, eight each on average. It was onto this seedy little world that the Brits came to impose 150 years of colonial rule before independence (in 1976).

Even today, arriving at the Seychelles is an unlikely experience, aiming for a speck of land in the Indian Ocean a thousand miles off the coast of Kenya. Our plane was practically in the water before I finally noticed the green, steamy rocklet of Mahe emerging from the waves, wet granite cliffs draped in brilliant green.

In contrast to the environmental hooligans that first settled these islands, latter day Seychellois governments are bent on keeping their islands clean and exclusive - the international airport remains a tiny, colonial relic, with lazy fans swishing over the heads of elegant black ladies in cotton dresses, and tropical rain drumming outside. Raw and wild? I set out for a quick tour of the archipelago to find out.

Mahe

Downtown Victoria on Mahe - the largest island - is the nearest the Seychelles gets to urban life. It even has a fresh-produce market, despite the fact that you can find fat fish, avocado, papaya, breadfruit and mango for free in these islands almost wherever you look.

Men in shorts, trilbies and open shirts stand in porches watching rain fall like glass rods. I noticed a printed notice on a wall, from the Supreme Court of the Seychelles. "An auction is to be held of sequestered goods," it announced. "The goods include three water skis and one inflatable water sausage."

Why shouldn't the sale of a water sausage make legal news in a city where the town centre is marked by a clock tower half the size of a palm tree? In the town bar - the Love Nut (decorated with paintings of floral pubises and penises) - I sat chatting to a local eccentric who turned out to be the brother of the former president. "In a country this small," he chuckled, "just think what proportion of the population are brothers of former presidents."

Praslin

The 5,000 residents of Praslin, the second island of the archipelago, reckon that Mahe represents life in the fast lane. Every inch of shore is a perfect beach. Clothes hang out to dry on bushes. Road signs indicate that drivers should watch for tortoises crossing. I passed a football stadium containing a single spectator, staring at the empty pitch.

By far the grandest building on the island is the Praslin Casino, gleaming with so much white stucco that I temporarily mistook it for the national parliament. Inside, what looked like the local mafia (both of them) were at the gaming tables. Real life? A dark guy with a Clark Gable moustache and dangerously puppy dog eyes, with a floozy in a pink dress at his shoulder ...

But sexy goings on in the casino mean nothing for the island that produces the world's only Coco de Mer trees, the last word in suggestive flora. A century and a half ago, the Vallee de Mai, a jungle in the middle of Praslin, was pronounced by General Gordon - after arcane calculations surrounding the flow of rivers from the Middle East - to be the original garden of Eden.

Curious to see what had so stimulated Queen Victoria's favourite, I shrank to the size of a butterfly as I stepped into this Brobdingnagian forest of gigantic sprouting leaves, stems and king-sized palm fronds.

The male Coco de Mer produces a sticky, semi-erect stamen, a foot or two long, that may have raised brooding questions in Gordon's mind. As ever though, it is the female of the species that gets most attention, with its slow maturing, curvaceous seed (the largest in the world) which bears an odd resemblance to the female pelvic area. Local hotels go to town over this happy likeness, with lewd insignia cropping up on key-rings, murals and table mats, not to mention the walls of the Love Nut pub.

La Digue

Every island seems to be the little brother of another, slower and more laid-back than the last. La Digue is Praslin's little brother, and you get here by boat in an hour. In this place, the fastest moving object is a tourist on a bicycle or in the back of an ox cart.

There is a well-established touristic cycling route round the island: the rambling wooden house in the grass was where Goodbye Emmanuelle was shot; the decaying old cemeteries are full of dead pirates; a pen overlooked by drooping banyan trees is the stomping ground of giant tortoises, the survivors from those turbulent early days.

The main reason for coming to La Digue, though, is to make the pilgrimage to Anse Source d'Argent, said to be the most photographed beach in the world. Cycling along a path through giant boulders, the approach recalls the road to Petra, another tourists' holy grail. A pile of colossal, smooth granite rocks lapped by bright green water decorates the sand, while palm trees lean over at fetching angles. The lucky, happy few who have consummated the Western dream by making it here seem apologetic about actually bathing, as though they are trespassing on sacred land.

The abundance of fish is another embarrassment. Tired after a morning cycling in the sun? Then stop for a creole fish lunch under a verandah. Choose fish according to the ones which looked prettiest when you were snorkling. I chose parrot fish. Others swear by the octopus curry.

Aride

This is another island within easy reach by boat from Praslin; unlike La Digue it contains no permanent human settlement. But as a protected nature reserve, it is the island you should visit if you want to know what the Seychelles looked like before the arrival of people. Casual visitors are forbidden from Aride, and simply making a landing is hard enough - motorised dinghies ram the beach at high speed to be sure of sticking fast.

The island contains a forested mountain and millions of birds. One of the four resident park-keepers will take you along a shady path up the mountain, pointing out the chicks nesting under almost every rock. Giant spiders and zillions of beefy lizards add to the effect. Work is being done to remove those species artificially introduced by settlers (coconut trees) and reintroduce others that have been exterminated (the magpie robin, the tortoise).

Denis

Flying around in tiny local planes gives a strange perspective on the country. Popping across a hundred kilometres of azure ocean, dancing around storm clouds, feels like taking a local bus-ride. My furthest outing was to a flat coral atoll nearly 100km from Mahe, named Denis.

Despite its unpromising name, Denis has recently been turned by its French owner into an exclusive desert-island hideaway, a place where tourists can enact their Robinson Crusoe fantasies: basically there is no room for more than a couple of dozen of them at a time.

When we eventually spotted Denis from the sky the pilot had to buzz around it several times so that the boys using the grass runway as a football field could finish their game. The airport comprised a couple of waving women with wrap-round skirts; the only piece of machinery was a rusty old weighing machine. When we suddenly landed, one of the women propped up the back of the plane while the other opened the door.

The island consists of sand, grass, palm trees and lots of crabs; the main events are falling coconuts. I was escorted to my chalet by the manageress, an island queen with silver ear-rings called Fiona who would have looked more at home in Manhattan. "Oh, but Americans don't care for it here," she declared. "It's too rustic. There's no air-conditioning. There are banana-tree leaves on the roof and open-slats on the windows and doors. You Europeans love it. The rusticity is the beauty of Denis of course."

Of course. Playing castaway doesn't come cheap (reckon on pounds 300 a night, full-board, for a two-person chalet) but Denis does lend new meaning to the phrase "getting away from it all".

FACT FILE

Further information

The author travelled as a guest of the Seychelles Tourist Office (0171- 224 1670).

More islands

Highlights include Silhouette (whose mountainous, seductive profile resembles a classic treasure island), Bird (a coral atoll similar to Denis, home to the world's heaviest tortoise) and Desroches (very remote, and strong on water sports).

Getting there

Air Seychelles (01293 596656) fly direct twice a week, as do British Airways (0345-222111). Return flights before July start from around pounds 570, rising to about pounds 770 in July/August.

Getting around: air

About 20 scheduled flights a day from Mahe to Praslin; a 15-minute flight costs about pounds 43 return. Flights to more remote islands including Denis, Bird and Desroches are chartered by respective island hotels. Sample prices include Mahe to Denis, a four-times-weekly 25-minute flight, which costs around pounds 114 return.

Access to Silhouette is by helicopter (about pounds 100 return).

Getting around: boat

Mahe to Praslin once daily, taking about 21/2 hours, costs pounds 16 return. Mahe to La Digue, once daily, taking three hours, costs pounds 20 return. Praslin to La Digue (five daily; 30 minutes) is pounds 10 return. Praslin to Aride is by organised excursion only - for a reasonable pounds 48 you'll get transport, a fantastic lunch and a guided tour of the nature reserve, altogether about six hours.

Places to stay and eat

Self-catering accommodation, guest houses and tourist hotels are plentiful though by no means cheap; double rooms are rarely cheaper than pounds 100 a night though two couples sharing can get a chalet for about pounds 25 a head. Few people coming from the UK book their own accommodation - it is usually cheaper to book everything from the UK in advance, including stays in two or three different islands.

Tour operators

Most major operators deal with the Seychelles including Abercrombie and Kent (0171-730 9600) Elite Vacations (0181-8644431) and Kuoni (01306 740888). Sunsail (01705 222225) offer the chance to sail your own yacht round the islands for a few days.

THE Indian Ocean combines a clean, unspoilt environment with accessibility from Europe - most of the following can just about be reached within half a day from the UK by air. Venture into these idylls and you'll realise that all those brochure shots of turquoise waters and icing sugar beaches overlooked by palm trees really are true. One popular holiday is to combine a few days on the beach with a safari in east Africa.

Mauritius

A tiny volcanic island a few hundred kilometres east of Madagascar, Mauritius is uncharacteristic of the Indian Ocean insofar as it is overcrowded and, in parts, even industrial. This is, after all, the island where the world's most famous extinction occurred, that of the Dodo. What Mauritius does have going for it are luxurious hotels and a tradition of fine service. There is also a range of much cheaper hotels and restaurants here than in, say, the Seychelles, not to mention a degree of urban and cultural life. Some fairly cheap packages are available from the UK.

More than 60 per cent of the population is Hindu but the atmosphere can seem remarkably French despite the fact that this was a British colony from 1814 to 1968. Although English is an official language, it is French and Creole that are more widely spoken.

Mauritius is actually two islands, and the smaller - Rodrigues - remains unspoilt by industry or tourism. It is, however, remote, and takes 24 hours to reach by ship, or one and a half hours by plane, from the main island.

For more information, call the tourist office on 0171-584 3666.

Madagascar

By far the largest of the islands (it is the world's fourth largest) and very much a part of Africa rather than a product of colonialism. As such it is not a "resort" at all, and is characterised by grinding poverty as well as natural grandeur. Boasting high mountains, areas of rain-forest and savannah and vast numbers of unique species, the island is a naturalists' paradise. If you are travelling around, don't expect problem-free connections. Visas are required but are easy to obtain from the consulate at 16 Lanark Mansions, Pennard Road, London W12 8DT. Getting to Madagascar is not particularly cheap; the best deals usually involve flying via Moscow with Aeroflot.

The Maldives

If anything, these beat the Seychelles as far as pure unadulterated island paradises go, though the population is considerably greater, at 250,000 - scattered over no fewer than 198 islands. But with no hill higher than eight feet above sea level, they do risk becoming dull, and a serious consideration is that as an Islamic society the Maldives do not permit the consumption of alcohol. The highlight here is diving among the coral reefs, though historically and culturally the Maldives form a surprisingly distinctive nation. For tourist information in the UK, call 0171-351 9351. Flights to the Maldives are best on Emirates (via Dubai) or Air Lanka (via Colombo); the cheapest way is to book a package.

Reunion

A fantastically beautiful volcanic island near Mauritius. Unlike the other islands around here which fell into British hands, Reunion has remained a piece of France. The highlights of Reunion are its mountains, which are dotted with gites. The trekking can be as spectacular as in the Himalayas, though it can only be done during the dry season from April to October. Note that Reunion is an upmarket destination. For flights, you'll need to go via Paris; some French charter flights from there can come as low as pounds 500 to pounds 600. For more information, call the French tourist office on 0171-493 6594.

Sri Lanka

Despite some problems (see the front page of this section) Sri Lanka has beautiful palm-fringed beaches, lots of elephants, and can be reached cheaply on package deals. It also carries relics of thousands of years of civilisation. Watch the weather though - there are two monsoon seasons, bringing rain to the northeast in winter and to the southwest in summer. For information, call the High Commission on 0171-262 5009.

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