The Seychelles and Maldives: Winter escapes

1 Dec 2022 by BusinessTraveller
Overwater villas perched in the Indian Ocean - Credit Figurniy/iStock

They are some of the world’s most beautiful islands, but the appeal of the Seychelles and Maldives goes beyond picture-perfect views.


Iconic scenes of overwater villas, turquoise-hued horizons that never end, curvaceous white beaches, and an unbelievable underwater world that leaves you feeling like you’re part of a David Attenborough documentary are all part of the appeal of the Maldives, but there’s even more to this country if you scratch beneath the surface. People have been settling in the Maldives for 2,500 years, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, and the Maldivian language of Dhivehi has its origins in Sanskrit.

The garlanded islands sit on vital trade routes, making them a natural stopover for those transiting the world’s oceans. This includes Abdul Barakat Yoosuf Al Barbary, who introduced Islam to the island nation in the 12th century, and whose tomb is a popular sightseeing spot in the small, densely-packed capital of Malé. As a Muslim country, the Friday Mosque in Malé is deemed the nation’s most important heritage site. It is one of the largest coral stone buildings in the world and has been in continuous use since 1658.

Over on the island of Kaashidhoo – about two hours from Malé by speed boat – one of the country’s largest archaeological sites reveals a Buddhist past, too. The excavated site of Kuruhinna Tharaagandu shows the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery complex, abandoned 900 years ago.

The place to tie everything together is the National Museum in Malé, built by China as a gift to the country. Among its treasures are examples of the lacquer-work boxes for which the Maldives is famous, along with the minutes of the famous underwater cabinet meeting held by President Nasheed in 2009 to highlight the issues of climate change and its impact on the country – some predict it may even disappear by 2050, given the islands’ low-lying nature, with around 80 per cent of the landmass less than one metre above sea level.

The archipelago sweeps down 750km of the Indian Ocean with 1,190 coral islands lying within 26 ring-like atolls. Maldives’ population nudges in at just under half a million, and a third of its people live in Malé, with the rest of the population living on 200 ‘inhabited’ or ‘local’ islands – so-called to distinguish them from the 100 islands which house resorts. Nowhere else does the concept of ‘one-island, one-resort’ proliferate quite the way it does here, with everything from fun three-star options, to incredible ultra-luxury resorts with extravagant villas, top-notch dining, wow-factor wellness facilities and impeccable service, not to mention a plethora of underwater architectural feats – including suites, spas, wine cellars and restaurants.

Scuba diving in colourful coral reefs - Credit Grafner/iStock

As much as 99 per cent of the Maldives’ territory is water. Coral reefs provide natural protection for the islands, but they also bring the drama when it comes to diving and snorkelling, with brilliantly-coloured clownfish, triggerfish, lion fish and butterfly fish among the species darting in and out of these vast underwater gardens. Resorts often have marine biologists onsite, who spearhead projects to monitor and protect underwater life such as coral propagation, which is something you can often get involved in.

The Manta Trust shows the Maldives is home to the largest recorded reef manta ray population in the world, and these stunning, graceful giants are best seen in Hanifaru Bay, a marine-protected area in Baa Atoll, now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Or you might prefer the magical sight of spotting a hawksbill or green sea turtle, and several resorts collaborate with The Olive Ridley Project to help accelerate rehabilitation. One other magnificent sea-based pursuit is trying to witness bioluminescence, where the surf sparkles and glows neon blue at night. The island of Vaadhoo in Raa Atoll is commonly named as one of the best places to witness this nocturnal phenomenon.

The Maldives might not be the first place you think of for surfing, but it is home to what’s billed as the “world’s most luxurious surfing event” – the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy, held in August with a US$25,000 prize. The most popular surf spots are around North Malé Atoll, while Huvadhoo Atoll in the south also boasts some well-known surf points; it’s best to hit the surf between March and May, and September to November. December-April generally is the most reliable time weather-wise to visit the Maldives, but it’s a year-round destination.

Fleets of seaplanes shuttle awe-inspired travellers around the Maldives from a dedicated terminal in Malé to chosen resorts, usually landing right next to the jetty of each; this scenic transfer can set you back anywhere from US$300 to US$900 for a round trip. The country also has domestic airports serving various atolls, and while not as exotic, these scheduled flights can make for a more comfortable experience than the hot, cramped seaplanes. There are plenty of resort islands within an hour’s speedboat ride of Malé too, which makes for an easier arrival, so always consider the ‘getting there’ when you’re sizing up the myriad resorts and their locations.


Arulmigu Navasakti Vinayagar Temple in Victoria, Mahe Island, Seychelles - Credit vuk8691/iStock

These two destinations may share the Indian Ocean, but they offer very different experiences. The Seychelles is made up of much larger islands – 115 of them, either hewn from granite or built up from coral – and has a much more vibrant local vibe. There is a degree of ‘one-island, one-resort’ here, but many of the country’s high-end hotels can also be found on the largest island, mountainous Mahé, which is home to the capital Victoria as well as the international airport.

The British named the city after Queen Victoria and it has enough hustle and bustle to warrant your attention for a short visit, including ‘Little Big Ben’, as the Clock Tower has become known – it’s actually a replica of one at Vauxhall Bridge in London – and the lively Sir Selwyn-Clarke Market, with its colourful corrugated roofs, and stallholders selling everything from catch-of-the-day to spices and souvenirs. Go there to mingle with the Seychellois who come to gossip and shop, or for an arty stop, make a visit to Kaz Zanana, a recently renovated gallery and café in a landmark 1900s building. Just as colourful as the market is the Arul Mihu Navasakthi Vinayagar Temple, the country’s only Hindu temple.

Seychelles’ charm lies in its relaxed, laid-back way of life and its natural raw beauty, a landscape that remains largely untouched and barely discovered, with relatively few tourists compared to its regional cousins, and less than 100,000 people who call this piece of paradise home.

The second largest island is Praslin, home to several hotels and an airport, as well as one of Seychelles’ biggest claims to fame. It’s said to be where Arab merchants and pirates used to come and hide their treasure in the 18th century, but also where you will find the primordial

Vallée de Mai, a UNESCO-listed natural wonder that is home to the coco de mer palms, known for their incredibly large and erotic-looking seeds – the largest of all in the plant kingdom, weighing up to 20kg. Another island, that is often considered sleepy, is La Digue: its laid-back, infinitely tropical vibe a magnet for those taking a break from the rat race. You might find yourself hopping on the back of an ox-drawn cart to get around, although this is slowly dying out with the introduction of electric buggies.

Many countries may claim it, but Seychelles really does have some of the world’s best beaches, many looking as if a giant has dropped granite boulders into a bowl of flour and sprinkled them with bowing palms. Some of the finest examples on Mahé range from the ever-popular Beau Vallon, to the quieter Anse Intendance in the south, while one of the country’s most iconic is Anse Source d’Argent on La Digue.

Anse Source d'Argent, La Digue Seychelles - Credit fokkebok/iStock

Seychelles was not really settled by humans until the 18th century, and many of the islands are still uninhabited. Society here has its roots mainly in Africa, with French, Canadian, Chinese and Arab influences; locals speak English, French and Creole – greet people with ‘Bonzour’ in the morning, and you might win a smile in return.

A fun time to see the country come alive is October, when Creole crafts, music, dance and delicious cuisine is celebrated during Festival Kreol. One of the many features of creole culture is Moutya, a dance that was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage in 2021, becoming the first cultural tradition of the island nation to receive such recognition. Brought to Seychelles by African slaves who arrived with French settlers, it was used as a psychological comfort in their harsh lives, as they would come together to dance, drum and sing at the end of a hard day’s work.

One prized place is Aldabra Atoll, home to as many as 150,000 eponymous giant tortoises, the world’s largest population of this reptile. Aldabra is around 1,120km from Mahé and, thanks to its isolation, has been protected from human influence with access to this UNESCO World Heritage Site still tightly restricted, but there are a few cruise options that could get you there. Also nearby, however, are the Astove and Cosmoledo atolls, which are achingly beautiful, like an other-worldly paradise, and more easily accessible. Beaches, culture and nature – the Seychelles has it all.

Words: April Hutchinson

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