Through the crook of my arm on each stroke was an anchored three masted schooner, or gleaming white yachts, unspoilt greenery, white sands, the blues of the water and sky. I didn’t need my goggles in the clear water to see the resident nest of shy stingrays in the sand below, the colourful fish or the leatherback turtle that accompanied me part of the way. That swim across the beautiful bay of Anse Lazio on Praslin Island, and the most amazing sunset I’ve yet seen, are just two vividly imprinted memories from my Seychelles trip. Like some unrequited love, I yearn for more. So what is it that beckons?
For starters it is very, very beautiful, but I have to put the Seychelles in context- compare apples with apples. The islands of Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar and Reunion have similar attractions – resorts, beaches and natural beauty. However, besides Reunion (my other favourite Indian Ocean destination), they do not have the level of commitment and care for their natural heritage- the very thing that put them on the tourism map- that the Seychellois exhibit.
Reunion is also- in the main- more about the hinterland- mountains and volcano- than a beachgoer’s must-do, although it has very good surfing and kite boarding spots.
Mauritius is very commercialised and possibly appeals most to those who don’t like something too different. For a South African (Durbanite) like me, it’s not really that different from ‘ome- with South African retail franchises in abundance.
Madagascar has major environmental and socio-political issues and, as in Zanzibar, the chasm between have and have-nots, foreigner and local, is vast. Of course you are a foreigner in the Seychelles but, hey, you are their bread and butter too. And they probably know about you. The Seychellois I met were educated, worldly, relaxed, chilled. And why wouldn’t they be chilled? If Mauritius and Madagascar are pretty, this is prettier- the quintessential island paradise pics, attracting royalty of all types- George Clooney of the Hollywood variety, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge- and a list of who’s who that flock here for lavish do’s no doubt, though it seems most come simply to relax: less speedboats, skiers and jet skis, more slumbering under palms.
No other country has such a percentage of protected land and water. There is almost no litter, rivers and streams run clear, conservation has been part of the school curriculum for decades. A trade-off for preserving the natural beauty is that nearly everything humans use is imported, so leave your exchange rate calculator at home as things aren’t cheap.
The majority of the 115 islands in the Seychelles archipelago, scattered across the Indian Ocean, are uninhabited: old granitic islands, atolls and coral blips on the map. Mahe, Praslin and La Digue islands form the inner group, with all but 500 or so of the multi-cultural population of less than 100 000 (stats vary) on these three- 80 000 on Mahé where I began my trip.
The huge Constance Ephélia resort sprawls between two stunning sandy bays, around forested hills and below granite outcrops- and sits between the marine reserve of Port Launay and a mangrove wetland. It’s not often that Photoshopped brochures or websites pale in comparison to the real thing, but this is a great example. You can kayak across the bay and through the mangrove forest or windsurf, head out on a pedal boat, snorkel, hike through the reserve, zipline, climb, relax. The staff are great, accommodation is spread out and varied- even the junior suites are pretty grown up. You could spend days in the U Spa village- one of the best spa facilities I’ve had the pleasure of- if you haven’t gone the whole hog and booked a spa villa with private pool, dry sauna, hammam and Jacuzzi.
We wound up, down and around Mahé with delightful, impish Eugene Esparon of Mason’s Travel at the wheel. Catholic churches, icons and roadside shrines dotted the landscape- plus a splendidly refurbished Hindu temple near the colourful market in the capital, Victoria. Colonial French and English architecture, with creole influences, stand cheek by jowl in this postage stamp town, which was left behind as we headed for a Creole lunch at Jardin du Roi – a picturesque spice garden-cum-museum which has wonderful views from up high. Yummy, simple food: Cajun-style Job fish with outstanding chutney accompaniments – papaya, mango, cassava, pumpkin and golden apple for example. The cuisine is reason enough for a trip- a celebration of every nation that passed through and marked by a fragrant combination of herbs and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, chilli, lemongrass, coriander, mint basil – and the local beers and rum are really good too. I confess I gave the shark dishes a miss though a friend is a fan- and I am not keen to acquire a taste for fruit bat (lots of little bones and I prefer them on the wing).
A 15 minute flight (it’s a 45 minute ferry ride) took us to Praslin Island and Constance Lémuria- a paradise for golfers, tortoises and turtles. Constance Lémuria has a very successful turtle conservation programme headed by South African Adrian Allison whose enthusiasm has rubbed off on colleagues, who even sleep on the beach to safeguard about-to-hatch eggs, and returning regulars. The 18 hole championship golf course on the steep hills behind must have some of the best views of any course.
Patricia Battin was our excellent guide and companion for a tour which incorporated the must- see Vallée de Mai Forest, home to the endemic Coco de Mer, the largest seed in the world. The biggest recorded fruit from these slow-growing palms weighed 42 kg; the seeds weigh up to 17.6 kg and the male and female plants have bits that resemble human bits, hence the “love nut” nickname.
We paid a visit to little La Digue – population around 3000 and accessible only by ferry . Cars were only recently introduced. Mostly people walk, bicycle or travel by ox cart. Very chilled. We didn’t have time to visit the Veuve Nature Reserve to spot the endangered Black paradise flycatcher, or take in the famous Source d’Argent beach.
Next time…which has to be for longer, as I just scratched the surface. I can only imagine what the far flung atolls must be like.
THERE AND BACK
Mason’s Travel (Pty) Ltd for itineraries, transfers, excursions and tours. Visit www.masonstravel.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The Holiday Factory- visit www.theholidayfactory.co.za
Seychelles Tourism Board: visit www.seychelles.travel, e-mail email@example.com
Constance Resorts: www.epheliaresort.com, www.lemuriaresort.com
Air Seychelles flies between Johannesburg and Mahe, and Mahe and Praslin