The Seychelles, in the heart of the Indian Ocean, remains determined to protect its natural attractions, reports April Hutchinson.
Few places on Earth are as hopelessly idyllic and exotic as the Seychelles, where prehistoric-looking giant tortoises amble between towering granite boulders and flour-soft beaches demand to be adored.
This Indian Ocean archipelago is fairly new to the tourism game, with the international airport only having opened in the early 1970s. The country is still blissfully undeveloped, with the powers that be taking a measured, low-impact approach. Even more commendable is the placing of more than half the country’s land under the protection of national parks and reserves.
The population of just under 95,000 people is spread across 115 jewel-like islands, with much of the tourism and hotels concentrated on the main island of Mahé. The second most touristy island is Praslin. But where the Seychelles comes into its own is in its array of castaway luxury resorts set on their own remote islands. Little wonder then that the country has become the favoured destination of many celebrities, from George and Amal Clooney to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
The Seychelles’ appeal runs much deeper than mere celeb-spotting though. The islands the stars adore for beauty and privacy are actually pioneers in conservation. Take Fregate; the size of Monaco yet with only 16 villas, it’s a Jurassic Park-like retreat. The current 2,200-strong population of Aldabra giant tortoises were bred from a population down to just 150 only 25 years ago, and they now roam freely across the island. Fregate is also responsible for saving the little Seychelles magpie robin from disappearing forever, and there are now more than 200 of these dainty little birds back in the archipelago. Fregate’s popularity is further bolstered by its seven beaches and the excellent Rock Spa resort.
North Island – which has just 11 villas – is also known for its conservation work, with its “Noah’s Ark Project” involving rehabilitation and restoration of a once ecologically devastated island.
Like many in the Seychelles, North Island’s natural state was destroyed by intensive plantations more than a century ago, but the mission since has been a return to its pre-human state: many species of birds have returned, while hawksbill and green turtles nest on its beaches once again.
One of the best examples of the Seychelles’ Eden-like paradise – and one you don’t have to be a guest at a luxurious private island to experience – is Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, the only place with all six of the country’s endemic palm species. Set deep in the heart of Praslin, this UNESCO-recognised site exists almost in its prehistoric state and is famous for being the home of coco de mer, a palm tree that produces the largest seed in the plant kingdom and now found only in the Seychelles. The utter beauty of Praslin’s beaches will impress even the keenest beachcombers; two of the best are Anse Georgette and Anse Lazio, fringed by takamaka trees and bordered by the large granite boulders so typical of the Seychelles. Places to stay include the highly desirable hillside villas of Raffles Praslin, or the more established Constance Lemuria, which has the country’s only 18-hole golf course and three beaches on site.
A ferry runs from Mahé to Praslin, but from May to September, it’s not so pleasant if seas are rough; it is also possible to fly between the two. Praslin is also a handy island-hopping base, with Cousin and Curieuse islands nearby, both with strong conservation stories to tell. Curieuse is the only other island where coco de mer grows today; but in its past, the island was destroyed by fire, pillaged of its resources and tortoise population, and used as a leper colony. Its story now is a very positive one, as it’s managed as a reserve you can visit by day trip. Cousin Island Special Reserve is another success story. This former coconut plantation is now a species-saving sanctuary, and has become the most important nesting site in the western Indian Ocean for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle.
The Seychelles’ third most populated island is La Digue, a charming place where most people use two wheels to get around. Boat tours from Praslin usually include bike hire, so you can soak up local life there and head to beaches such as Petit Anse, Grand Anse and Anse Source d’Argent, one of the Seychelles’ most famous. Félicité is a larger island where the new Six Senses Zil Pasyon took up residence this year, occupying less than a third of the island, with 30 villas and 17 private residences.
The hot new hotel opening for 2018 will be Four Seasons Resort Seychelles at Desroches Island, which will open on March 1, 2018, as the only resort on that island. Home to 40 suites, here days might be spent with a picnic and hike into the jungle, checking out 15km of beaches, or bumping into some of the 150 giant Aldabra tortoises. You could pair a stay at Desroches with the new British Airways flights – after a decade, direct flights will resume from Heathrow on March 24, 2018, with a twice-weekly service to Seychelles International airport in Mahé.
There’s plenty to see and do on the main island too, where the capital Victoria is about as bustling as the Seychelles ever gets. For a moment of respite, step inside Kenwyn House, one of the oldest and best examples of French colonial architecture on the island and a place to shop for arts and crafts. Another popular option on Mahé is the island’s rum distillery, Takamaka, where you can learn about rum making – and get a little taster. If you’re craving healthier, outdoor activities, head to the highest point in Seychelles, Morne Seychellois – at 905 metres. It’s a three-hour hike and sits inside a national park that claims an impressive 20 per cent of the whole island.
Culturally, Seychellois are mainly descended from African slaves brought by the French and later freed by the British, while Chinese merchants and traders also started arriving about 150 years ago, contributing to the Creole mix. Festival Kreol is a big deal for the Seychelles (in late October 2018). If you’re visiting at that time, expect a week of events showcasing the colours, sounds and flavours of Creole culture. Joining in with the hip-swaying, foot-shuffling Sega dance will be a must – especially if you’ve had a drop of that rum to give you a boost of confidence.
- Seychelles Tourism Board seychelles.travel
WHERE TO STAY
- Constance Lemuria constancehotels.com
- Four Seasons Resort Seychelles at Desroches Island fourseasons.com
- Fregate Island Private fregate.com
- North Island north-island.com
- Raffles Praslin raffles.com
- Six Senses Zil Pasyon sixsenses.com
WHAT TO DO