Island lore

WT Writer
Nov 10, 2019
Mysterious coconuts, voodoo dolls and otherworldly beaches, Sophia Dyer is spellbound by the Seychelles

Legend has it that a traveller who eats from the breadfruit tree while in the Seychelles is fated to return to its sandy shores. A melting pot of people and cultures, it only seems right that the Creole islands are brimming with local legends, myths and folklore. A self-confessed purveyor of all things mystic, it was the islands ‘more than meets the eye’ appeal that lured me, far more than just its postcard scenes.

First on my numinous pursuit was unearthing the mysterious coco de mer, a distinct palm endemic to just two of the 115 Seychellean islands. Like something from prehistoric fiction, the suggestively curvaceous coconuts looked as if they belonged in the imagination of a weary sailor who had been out at sea for a number of weeks before finally reaching dry land. Yet here they were growing on huge palms so tall they seemingly touched the grey clouds, which were drooping low, heavy with rain. 

An aerial view of Constance Lemuria, Praslin

“People used to think the coco de mer trees grew in a forest at the bottom of the ocean, before the coconuts fell upwards and washed up on the beaches around the Indian Ocean,” Leroy, my tour guide explained with a wry smile. In the 1600s the huge shells that washed up on shores were traded around the Arabian Peninsula for vast sums of money. Those who found the beached husks in the Maldives however, were ordered to hand them over to the king or face the death penalty. It wasn’t until British General Charles Gordon, discovered the Seychelles isles in 1881 that the fate of the plant was changed forever. Taking one look at the mysteriously shaped nut, Gordon declared that he had found the original forbidden fruit. Drawing the only plausible conclusion, of course – that he had stumbled upon the Garden of Eden. 

Gordon’s revelation pleased the local community and saw the coco de mer become a protected species, putting an end to the trading of the fruit and introducing strict laws. Fast forward to today and it’s the reason why I came to be stood in Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve on Praslin island. One of the smallest UNESCO sites in the world, it is fiercely guarded by beefy security guards who patrol the grounds to ensure there is no untoward nut-nabbing, and quite understandably too as they can fetch up to $500. (Even if you could sneak past the guards, I wouldn’t recommend bagging one, as you need an export license to get these hefty nuts out of the country. Not to mention, with the nuts weighing up to 30kg, you’ll almost certainly be over on your baggage allowance.) Hawk-eyed guards aside, walking among these ancient trees felt truly special. Perhaps it had more to do with my love of a good story than the enigmatic palms themselves, but I was almost certain I could feel a subtle magic in the air here. Was Gordon onto something after all? Breaking the spell, I landed back in the site’s gift shop to pricey nuts and the obligatory tourist tat. 

Since Gordon’s discovery, the African archipelagos have been penned as ‘paradise on Earth’ and, like its Indian Ocean counterparts, over the years it has become synonymous with honeymooners. The Seychelles, fitting the seemingly mandatory white sand beach bill, was the postnuptial destination of choice of George and Amal Clooney and the UK’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While I was on a solo pursuit, if the beaches were good enough for the A-list, they were surely good enough for me.  

Coco de Mer on beach of Praslin Island, Seychelles

Known for being one of the nicest stretches of sand in the Seychelles, Anse Georgette was gothically moody. The dark green foliage surrounding the cove swayed rhythmically in the breeze as the ocean crashed into the rocks with a passionate force. Adding a hint of mystery, an ethereal mist floated down from the hills, evaporating as soon as it touched the water. 

Somewhat naïve to the powers of the ocean, I ran straight in as the clouds broke above me, at last relenting their pent-up rain with great catharsis. After a few exhales, the powerful waves threw me back onto the shore, to which I abided willingly. Settling down onto the sand, the rain began to ease and eventually the sun peaked through the clouds in otherworldly defiance. But what was extra special about this beach was that, bar myself and a few other travellers huddled under the trees, it was completely empty. This was probably due to the fact that getting here can be an exercise (involving a boat and hike). That is unless, like me, you are staying at Constance Lemuria, which boasts the beach as part of its grounds. Having just 105 rooms and employing 402 staff Lemuria, earns the right to brand itself as an exclusive luxury resort. Not only providing unparalleled levels of service (thanks to the staff to guest ratio), the resort is also home to nesting hawksbill turtles and a host of five-star dining experiences. 

Pulling up to the hotel’s entrance, most of the passengers in my car were charmed by the pretty view of Lemuria’s 18-hole golf course – its fairways sparkling with dew. But to my golf-ignorant self, there was something far more interesting to the right. Just before the gates of the hotel, standing in solitude, was a solemn grey-hued bungalow. Its cracked walls and missing windows giving it an eerie feel, as if it was abandoned either halfway through a remodel or demolition. 

An aerial view of Constance Ephelia in Mahé

While pondering the reason it stood neglected, I met the eye of a disembodied dolls head pierced by a stick. One of its eyes was sharply open and seemingly glaring at mine, while the other seemed to droop shut in disdain. Before I could react, the voodoo-esque doll was out of sight, as we zoomed through the gates and were hurtled up the winding paths to reach the lobby. 

Large pillar candles lined the path to the grand, mahogany doors, which remained firmly shut until the staff shuffled into position. With the loud striking of a gong, the heavy doors were swung open as the smiley team chorused in unison, “welcome to paradise”. And as twee as it may sound, there was no denying that the vista ahead was nothing short of archetypal utopia. 

‘THe dark green foliage surrounding the cove swayed rhymically in the breeze’

The indoor-outdoor lobby, surrounded by dense foliage, had kestrels flying overhead and peacocks roaming on nearby rocks. It overlooked the swimming pool, before the view seductively unfolded down to the white sand beach and ocean beyond.

“According to folklore, the island of Lemuria was where people and nature lived in perfect harmony before it sank to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. In keeping with the legend, we create a balance between nature and humans at the resort,” the friendly host, Alyona, explained as she showed me to my room. Attesting this, Constance Lemuria was the first resort in the Seychelles to receive a Green Globe award and continues to be one of the leaders for environmental practice among the neighbouring resorts and the local community. A welcome sight for my ‘save the planet’ attuned eyes, the hotel’s green initiatives meant reusable glass bottles of water replaced their plastic equivalents in my suite. Helping myself to a thoughtfully placed, handcrafted dark chocolate, my stomach began to rumble. 

Lemuria’s creole influenced restaurant, The Nest, produced creatively displayed yet hefty portioned and richly flavoursome dishes. The first course appeared to be an elegantly constructed melon salad. However, a few bites in and I was pleasantly surprised by the white fruit’s uncharacteristically moreish, carbohydrate-rich taste. It turned out that the incognito fruit was, in fact, breadfruit. Breadfruit trees (suitably named after the fruit’s starchy consistency) were brought to the Seychelles along with a host of goods and folklore from around the globe by the archipelago’s first settlers. And much like my appetite for the lore, I couldn’t help but dig into a second serving of the fruit.

Another fine moment for my taste buds came a couple of days later while sunning myself on a beach in Mahé. With an expert whack of a knife, the coconut stall man handed me a green nut from which the nectar was now mine to slurp. Sipping away merrily, I watched local children play football to a soundtrack of hip-hop classics being pumped out from a Bluetooth speaker. A stark contrast from the quiet beaches of Praslin, Mahé’s beaches were, much to my enjoyment, abuzz with life. Quite rightly so, all the beaches in the Seychelles are open to the public, so here on the main island it is commonplace to be milling among the locals even inside the confines of your five-star resort. 

A wild peacock

This resort, named Ephelia, another of Constance’s hotels, spans over 120-hectares of land and caters mainly to families (or couples who easily bore of one another) with a solid line up of activities. Opting for a spot of snorkelling one afternoon, I headed to the beach, passing the vibrant red hibiscus trees that lined the path in an orderly fashion. By this point, feeling suitably settled into the island spirit, I picked a fresh flower from the ground and placed it behind my ear. 

“Do you know what that means?”, the watersports shack assistant asked me, pointing to the flower in my hair. 

“Err…” I mustered while wracking my mind for hibiscus trivia. 

“No,” I concluded. 

“It means you’re open to meeting someone special,” he laughed. And while this was not on my atoll agenda, not one for abiding to convention, I decided to leave the flower in my hair as I waddled into the ocean, flippers on feet, snorkel in hand. As I swam beside the entire cast of Finding Nemo, apart from Nemo (aptly) the hibiscus flower floated into the ocean along with the last of the Seychelles folklore I had time to uncover.

When my five nights on the Creole isles drew to a close, I had gotten more than I bargained for, with an awakened lust for island living that made returning to the city seem near impossible. The Seychelles is not only profoundly beautiful, but vivaciously full of life and grit. And if you’re mystically minded, the island’s deep-rooted legends are the gifts that keep on giving. Days later as I sit dreaming up ways to return to the Seychelles, I wonder if perhaps there’s something in that breadfruit legend after all.