The otherworldly islands... The Seychelles

| May 12, 2010

The Seychelles…sun, sea, pristine beaches, magnificent granite boulders, idyllic private islands, endemic flora and fauna, endangered bird species and giant Coco de Mer nuts… Cox & Kings’ Alix King drew the short straw and visited this April.

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In April I had the privilege of travelling to a part of the world that is renowned for its warm azure waters, pristine white beaches, spectacular natural beauty and friendly inhabitants; The Seychelles, an otherworldly archipelago of 115 idyllic islands in the Indian Ocean. Whilst the Seychelles is synonymous with honeymooners it is worth noting that many of the hotels have now opened themselves up to the family market as well.

The Seychelles islands are blessed with pleasant temperatures throughout the year, rarely dropping below 24°C or exceeding 32°c. Tropical rains fall more frequently in January and February with July and August being the driest months. Although the islands are only a few degrees south of the equator, the pleasant winter (UK summer) breeze means that the heat is less taxing, making this an ideal destination during the months when many couples get married and children are on school holidays.

The purpose of my trip was to visit the three main islands of Mahé, Praslin and La Digue where most of the hotels and guest houses are located, as well as a few of the private island resorts dotted around the archipelago. With an extensive network of scheduled plane and ferry services, travelling between the islands was relatively easy and added an unforgettable dimension to the whole experience – it was like opening a Russian doll; each island that I visited was smaller than the last.

With low-key hotels and fishing villages dotted around the coastline, Praslin is Seychelles’ second largest island. Not only is it a great base for excursions to neighbouring islands, but two of its beaches, Anse Lazio and Anse Georgette, have appeared on the top-10 list of world’s best beaches in recent years. The main attraction of Praslin however is the Vallee de Mai, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I went on a guided tour through this beautiful forest reserve, where I learned how to identify the male and female Coco de Mer trees, saw all six of the Seychelles’ endemic plant species and was even lucky enough to see two of the islands endangered black parrots. My tour took just 1 hour 30 minutes but with numerous walking trails within the reserve you can spend as much or as little time here as you wish.

From Praslin I went on a day trip to La Digue, which is where the stressed-out Seychellois from Mahé come to unwind on beautiful beaches. Traditional modes of transport such as ox-cart are still used, and the best way to explore the island is by bicycle. I cycled down to L’Union, an abandoned coconut estate, which is now home to a community of giant tortoises, the only remaining Copra mill (Copra is oil derived from the dried flesh of a coconut) that is still operated by ox, and an old cemetery. When I arrived at Anse Source d’Argent, I had to leave my bike behind and walk the remaining few metres to this beautiful beach. With white coral sand, large granite boulders and clear blue waters, Anse Source d’Argent is believed to be the most photographed beach in the world. As one of the island’s main attractions I was expecting the beach to be quite crowded but in reality there were only a handful of other tourists there.

Whilst the beaches of La Digue are wonderful, no trip to the island would be complete without a visit to its tallest peak, Belle Vue (good walking ability required) which offers beautiful views across the island. Whilst a day tour from Praslin is a great option for those with limited time, I would recommend a 1 or 2 night stay if possible to get the most from the island.

My next stop was Desroches Island. To get here from Praslin I took the Cat Cocos ferry to Mahé and from the inter-island quay I transferred to the domestic terminal at the airport. The Cat Cocos is a catamaran that can transport up to 350 passengers (in 3 different classes of seat) between Mahé and Praslin in just 1 hour. The small 8-seater plane took 40 minutes to fly from Mahé to Desroches so I arrived on the island with plenty of time to spare before lunch.

Desroches is the largest island in the Armirants. It is a flat coral island with a completely different feel to the mountainous, granite islands of Praslin and La Digue that I’d just left behind. At just 1km wide and 6km long, the best way to explore the island is by the bicycle given to you at the beginning of your stay. As I rode to the lighthouse (the furthest point from the lodge) I passed a number of secluded beaches, a giant tortoise breeding pen, the island’s conservation centre, an Indian Village where workers build wooden furniture, an organic produce farm, an area called ‘aquarium’ that has some excellent snorkelling sites and the recently renovated Plantation House, which opens for dinner and serves traditional Creole cuisine.

Conservation is a big thing on Desroches, where a full time team of scientists and conservationists monitor the island's turtles, giant tortoise and birds. They also strictly control all water based sports and activities (including fishing) to protect the island’s sensitive marine life. I would highly recommend joining a guided walk with the island’s conservationist during your stay at Desroches.

With a swimming pool, bar/lounge, restaurant, spa, library/internet access area, activities centre and 20 suites and 26 villas, this barefoot luxury island has accommodation options that would appeal to honeymooners, families or anyone needing total relaxation in a wonderful setting. The service levels are superb, the food was some of the best I tasted in the Seychelles and the management team encouraged me to relax and feel like I was in my own private paradise.

Needless to say I was sad to leave, but my next stop was Frégate Island, the most isolated of the granite islands. Unlike flat Desroches, Frégate has some very steep hills, so walking and cycling certainly isn’t for the faint hearted. However, each villa is given an electric buggy on arrival so you can travel independently around the island. There is so much to see and do on Frégate but for me one of the highlights was the nature walk accompanied by the resident ecologist. Together we walked through the island’s fragile ecosystem, which is home to some of the world’s most endangered species. With his guidance I got to see the rare Seychelles Magpie-robin, the rare Seychelles White-eye and the critically endangered giant tenebrionid beetle. As you walk through the forest you also see numerous giant tortoises roaming freely and many endemic plant species.

Frégate has seven beaches including Anse Victorin. During my stay I was lucky enough to have this amazing beach all to myself, although I wouldn’t recommend swimming here, as the ocean’s current is strong. As they offer an island dining experience where you can dine anywhere, anytime, I could have had my lunch delivered to the beach but I decided to try out Frégate House restaurant. Two of the other dining experiences that I would highly recommend are High Tea at Glacis Cerf and breakfast or BBQ lunch in the Tree House.

A stay on Frégate Island does not come cheap, but for those who can afford it, it is worth every penny. Each villa has been positioned to guarantee ultimate privacy and to maximise the stunning views of the ocean and beaches below. They all have a private infinity pool, jacuzzi, large day bed and dining pavilion as well as a private butler who is on hand to provide anything, anywhere, anytime on the island. Everything about the island – the attention to detail, the service, the facilities and activities available, the food, the forest and indigenous birdlife, the giant tortoises and the stunning private beaches – is just wonderful.

From Frégate Island I travelled via Mahé to Denis Island. The domestic Air Seychelles flight took 30 minutes and, as I flew on a clear day, I had some amazing aerial views of the other islands in the Seychelles archipelago.

Denis Island, like Desroches, is a coral sand island and therefore flat. Bicycles aren’t provided for you to explore Denis though as the island is much more rugged, with more dense vegetation and pathways haven’t been cleared for bikes to ride over easily. The island is a nature lover's and walker’s paradise and a guided walking tour to experience the island’s natural wonders first hand is recommended. Since the mid-90’s Denis has worked with various national and international partners on conservation and ecosystem rehabilitation projects. In 2004 the endemic Seychelles warbler & the Seychelles fody were successfully introduced to the island. In 2008 the critically endangered Seychelles magpie-robin was successfully transferred from Frégate Island to Denis and the Seychelles paradise flycatcher was successfully introduced. Today, there is nowhere else in the world where you can see all four species in one place and during a guided tour you will also learn about the island’s indigenous flora, search for the giant tortoise that roam freely and try to spot the hawksbill or green turtles (depending on time of year) that swim off shore.

On a tour of the island I also got to see the working estate where vegetables, herbs and spices grow; the poultry farm with chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits, a pig and cattle farm and an ever-expanding tropical fruit orchard (I got to sample what is organically produced during dinner that evening). When I returned to the lodge I relaxed on the secluded white sand beach, accessible directly from my cottage, before doing a little swimming and snorkelling. For those who prefer not to swim in the sea, there is a small pool in the main lodge area by the bar and restaurant.

Overall, whilst Denis isn’t a deluxe 5-star island resort, it has a special quality of its own that some 5-star resorts elsewhere may find hard to match. It is a complete getaway from the pressures of everyday life and to this end there are no TVs in the cottages and villas or mobile phone reception. It ticks all the boxes of a romantic and peaceful escape for honeymooners and for those seeking a relaxing island experience.

After the idyllic isolation of these private islands, I was ready to see the rest of Mahé and to explore ‘Africa’s smallest capital’ Victoria. Victoria was a complete contrast to everywhere I’d been previously, with its crowded uneven streets, lively markets, numerous shops and ‘traffic jams’ - but for me this was part of its appeal. At a leisurely pace you can explore the area by foot in less than an hour, seeing the Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, a Hindu temple, and the Sir Percy Selwyn Clarke Market, all set around Victoria's most famous landmark; a mini replica of Big Ben, which was unveiled in 1901 to commemorate the Seychelles becoming a crown colony in its own right.

Wherever you decide to stay on Mahé, the largest island of the Seychelles, I would definitely recommend exploring the island for a day with a car and guide. There are many great drives around the island as the roads cut across and through the mountains, so you get some wonderful panoramic views. Between Grande Anse and Anse Royale you will find the Vacoa Trail and the Mangrove Board Walk, both walks take around 30 minutes but offer a chance to see some of the island's natural habitat. If walking and nature is your thing then a visit to the Morne Seychellois Park is a must. Covering an area of 3,045 hectares (one fifth of Mahé) it has many different trails that can be explored on half or full day excursions.

If you are not staying in a hotel in or around the Beau Vallon area then this too is worth a visit. It is regarded as Mahé’s top tourist spot on the west coast and is the only place in Mahé where motorised water sports are allowed. In the area you will find local shops, bars and restaurants and because of this Beau Vallon beach can get very crowded, especially at weekends when the locals are in the area as well. If you want a secluded beach then this isn’t the one for you.

Even after an unexpected extension to my trip due to Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupting and causing chaos all over Europe, all too soon I found myself on an Air Seychelles flight back to the UK flicking through my photos and already wishing that I could return.

Click here to view a wide variety of hotel options in the Seychelles.


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