Paradise doesn’t have to be deathly dull. Alongside the Seychelles’ perfect beaches, Ed Grenby finds giant tortoises, edible bats and a local party scene
I’m pretty sure George & Amal — headed to the same tiny Seychellois island as me — didn’t do it this way, aboard a ferry where holidaymakers and commuters and cargo share deckspace (as well as sick bags). But more fool the Clooneys and their helicopters, because this was exactly why I’d come to the Seychelles.
True, I could live without the nauseous shipmates, but hanging out with islanders? Gawping gobsmacked at vast green mountains? Ambushing my tastebuds with crazy Creole cuisine? These — not to mention the humming towns and fascinatingly weird plant and animal life — were the reasons I’d given Mauritius and the Maldives a miss this year and dropped in on their Indian Ocean neighbours instead.
See, the Seychelles has all the screensaver good looks and endlessly exquisite sandy shores of its brochure rivals, but with more. While the Maldives has nothing but pancake-flat micro-islets staffed by international automata, with little to do but stare at the sea or argue with your loved one, the Seychelles archipelago is a beach paradise with an actual country attached. (The main landmass is Mahé, and there’s 114 more once you’re done with that one.)
Previously, the price you paid for all that was universally indifferent, shoulder shrugging service. But a bunch of new hotel openings has taken the pain out of paradise. And, for the moment at least, it’s still thrillingly exotic.
Take my first stop, the Four Seasons resort on Desroches Island, a half-hour’s flight from Mahé. Here, instead of some desultory strip of sand and an ersatz ‘village’ on stilts, you get a proper island: 14km of fringing beach wound like wrapping paper around chunks of virgin forest, a village of traditional Toblerone- shaped Creole houses, a settler cemetery, a serious conservation centre — and, of course, a nice high-end hotel. Here, between massages performed with a giant ostrich egg (now that could have gone wrong in less expert hands) and sipping drinks perched halfway up a lighthouse, I loaded up the basket of my villa’s bicycle with a picnic of lime-zest-dusted smoked salmon bagels from the deli and set off to explore.
With secluded bays and vibrant snorkel spots mapped out all round the island, it wasn’t hard to find my own perfect stretch of driftwood-strewn sand. And unlike those slightly self-conscious, private sandbank experiences in the Maldives, this was real privacy: no conveyor belt of couples queueing up for my spot, no surreptitious staff hovering behind me.
Even better, the Seychelles does shade: instead of a spindly palm or two, gorgeous thick jade-green jungle has your back here. Fragrant lantern trees, flowering dogwoods, native mulberry, velvetseed…. Then there are the beasts (Sundberg’s day gecko, amberwing emperor dragonfly, marbled mantis) and the birds (wading whimbrel, tropical shearwater, firetruck-red fody), not to mention the prehistoric monsters.
Roaming free-range across Desroches’s interior are 160-odd giant tortoises: cute as cubs, but disconcertingly, agelessly primordial, too, as if Jim Henson got the Jurassic Park gig. I’m introduced to George, 120 years old and the size of a go-kart, but with the khaki colouring and armour-plating and (once he sees food) slow, crushing, single-minded unstoppability of a tank. He was wrinkly and twinkly and genial-looking, but there was something in the coolly reptilian eyes of his companion, Naughty Lulu, that made me want to get out of her way before I found out how she came by the name.
The island’s size comes in handy come nightfall, as well. Try escaping from the lights of your resort in the Maldives and you end up neck-deep in the ocean. But here, you can slip away unnoticed under some of the world’s darkest — and so most star-spattered — skies.
I wandered up to the island’s airstrip, with its 360-degree horizons and 4,000 hectares of inky black above, and saw a true, uncountable infinity of heavenly bodies. Mars glared an angry hot red on one side of the firmament, Venus sheened a cool clear liquid-mercury on the other; and between them, a creamy, full-fat Milky Way was smeared across the sky as thick as the good stuff at the neck of a bottle of gold-top.
The darkness has drama in the Seychelles. Bats wheel overhead, waves crash noisily on those millennia-smoothed granite boulders that bookend the beaches, and (unlike Mauritius or the Maldives) people go out.
‘The Seychelles has all the screensaver good looks and endlessly exquisite sandy shores of its brochure rivals, but with more’
I crashed a couple of the impromptu parties that pop up around the bigger islands’ beaches and parking lots: barbecue smells effervesced into the warm night air along with the seggae, a blend of trad sega and modern reggae, and just the most tropical-sounding music you’ll ever hear. Even the resort islands have a bit of life to them. On my next one, Six Senses Zil Pasyon, guests cheerily pilfer the local rum from mini casks in the (dis)honesty bar.
Zil Pasyon has adventures on tap, too. One morning I canoe to the next islet along. Another, I hike a path, ducking beneath umbrella-sized spider webs (I felt very Indiana Jones, but the critters are harmless) to a secret beach, big enough for just two. And on a third, I snorkelled early, right off the beach, and saw an eagle ray soaring through the water, serene as a seraph, then a turtle, just as benignly beatific, fading in and out of sight like a dream. Unsure what ancient wisdom the visitation was trying to impart, I interpreted it as ‘Have the scrambled-eggs-with- crab for breakfast’.
Most guests get between the Seychelles’ outer-island resorts by helicopter, and that’s certainly the quickest and most glamorous way to do it (though you may not feel quite so Clooney when they weigh you before take-off).
I loved the views from up there — the water’s neon blues glow even brighter from above — but I loved chuffing about by boat and bus, too, for a taste of island life you wouldn’t get in a month of Maldives. I saw impish schoolkids gambolling through their break-time games on the beaches beside their classrooms (who needs playgrounds?), picnicking families pulling cars over en route to siphon crystal water from roadside natural springs (who needs Evian?), and bantering fishmongers selling the morning’s catch off upended crates at street corners, the fish so fresh and many-coloured you’d think they were for the aquarium, not the plate.
At Port Glaud, I got a bit damp myself. Here, just metres from a luxury resort in Mahé’s northwest corner, is a 1km path that winds through a hamlet (and shortcuts through someone’s back garden, for which privilege he’ll charge you $2 odd) to the Sauzier Waterfall. It’s pretty rather than dramatic, but at its base is a deep, cool, green natural pool, utterly irresistible, where I whooped and wallowed alongside a bunch of local lads until my fingertips wrinkled.
That resort, Constance Ephelia, sprawls across two delectable bays, a handful of thickly forested hills and a mangrove swamp, so to tick off a few more items in my ‘I-Don’t-Spy’ book of things you wouldn’t expect on an Indian Ocean holiday I zip-line through those forests and kayak through those mangroves, scrumping milky-sweet cocoplums as I go.
I also spent a day in the capital (which is more than I’ve managed in eight trips to Mauritius and the Maldives). Victoria has a real working fruit and fish market (you can tell it’s not for tourists because it’s early and it smells), named after one Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke (who seems, idiosyncratically, to have been named after himself). There’s the Botanical Gardens, too, where you can feed giant tortoises; and the Natural History Museum, where a dusty roomful of pickled mini sharks stare forlornly from their formaldehyde.
It’s not just museums that are cheap in the Seychelles, either. You can get a decent beachside hotel for $150 a night, and a lovely one for $200 (my favourite is Mahé’s Anse Soleil Beachcomber). And — take that, Maldives! — there are plenty of self-catering options. (You won’t be spoilt for choice in the supermarkets if you go that route, mind, but there are good Creole restaurants all over. Do order: octopus curry, a fizz bomb of spicy-juicy fusion flavours. Don’t order: fruitbat — a gamey-but-boney, grit-your-teeth-so-you-can-say-you’ve-done-it affair.)
‘North Island is the most understatedly indulgent place I’ve ever stayed’
In fact, with every beach a beauty round these parts, the main difference between the Seychelles’ megabuck resorts and its mom-&-pop guest houses is privacy. The resort that hosted George & Amal’s honeymoon — and Kate & Wills’s — is North Island, and they came because every one of the 11 villas sits in its own hectare or two of gardens, secreted among an island-wide jungle. (The discretion extends to the staff. Whenever I try to draw anyone into sharing even the tiniest detail about those other guests, I’m told firmly ‘I won’t tell you about their stay, and I won’t tell anyone about yours either’.)
North Island is the most understatedly indulgent place I’ve ever stayed — it wears its luxury as lightly as a linen shirt — but it’s not the five showers in each villa, or the supernaturally good service, or the personally tailored menus and drinks list drawn up for each guest, that get me. It’s that I essentially have all this to myself: 200 hectares divided by a maximum of around 22 guests equals never having to share your sunset.
So, every evening I barefoot a few paces across the sherbet-soft sand for the (full multi-sensory) show. Waves shush, their dayglo ultramarine mellowing to mere aquamarine; the early-evening breeze on my forearms tempers the late-afternoon warmth on my face; the scent of woodsmoke and herbs and chargrilled langoustines drifts down from the barbecue; the citric zing of grapefruit washes over my tongue; and I watch the sun, blazing defiant, incandescent orange as it slowly drowns on the watery horizon, bleeding pink into the sky behind it.
But, turning back inland towards the mountains and the bats and the people and the food and the waterfalls and the tortoises, I’m aware that, in the Seychelles, the life-changingly beautiful beaches and #inspirationalquote sunsets aren’t even half the story.
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Credit: Ed Grenby/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing