Seychelles: by land, Sea, and Air
Written by Will Bendix
In December, Qatar Airways begins flights to Mahé, gateway to the string of islands that make up the Seychelles. Writer Will Bendix takes us island-hopping through the archipelago where ancient mountains rise from the sea and birds flood the sky.
The Seychelles is made up of over 100 granite islands and coral atolls that lie dotted across the Indian Ocean, north of Madagascar. Many of these islands are actually the exposed peaks of an underwater mountain range that has nurtured a staggering variety of wildlife, making the archipelago an eco-tourism jewel.
All trips to the Seychelles begin on Mahé, the largest island and home to the capital city of Victoria. This is where bright Creole houses bump up against colonial architecture and the jagged peaks of Morne Blanc tumble down into the sea. It’s easy to spend an entire holiday on Mahé, but for a true taste of all the Seychelles has to offer, you need to go island-hopping.
The first sight that greets you after stepping off the ferry to La Digue, 53km northeast of Mahé, is rows and rows of bicycles. The island has a strict no-car policy, so if you want to get around its 10 sqkm, you have two choices: walk or pedal. Most people opt for the latter, and this reliance on pedal-power is an enduring part of the island’s unhurried charm.
We hire a pair of mountain bikes from Tatis Bicycles and make our way along the main road, a narrow strip of concrete that alternately hugs the coastline and cuts through the jungle, taking us along shipwreck-worthy beaches separated by huge outcrops of granite boulders. The only traffic we encounter is the Aldabra giant tortoises that hog the entire lane, munching lazily on branches as they cross the road. At one stage, these leathery goliaths were near extinction after being hunted by overzealous sailors, but they have made a remarkable comeback thanks to the efforts of conservationists.
After crossing the island, we cut through the old vanilla plantation of L’Union onto the sands of Anse Source d’Argent, where a dazzling beach melts into the ocean. With no walls and sand for a floor, the thatched Lanbousier restaurant may look rustic, but the Creole menu is exceptional. Over a plate of mouthwatering octopus curry, Dania Morel tells us how she was born and bred on La Digue but travels frequently for work. Her teenage daughter is eager to leave once she’s finished school, but Dania shrugs and laughs knowingly. “When you are young, you always want to go somewhere else,” she says. “But then you get there and realise home is paradise.”
We find more of paradise underwater at Ile Cocos, an uninhabited islet off the northern tip of La Digue. This marine national park is reached via a short boat ride and offers some of the finest snorkelling in the entire archipelago, where you can float amongst a kaleidoscope of fish completely unperturbed by human presence. The park is also known for its large population of endangered hawksbill turtles, and it’s not long before we see one and then another swim up close with barely a puckered glance in our direction. A manta ray glides majestically past as a small blacktip shark darts along the reef.
The saltwater is still dripping off us as we cycle back to our guesthouse amongst fishermen and small children riding side-saddle with their parents.
THE COCONUT OF THE SEA
After abandoning our bicycles, we ferry the 11km over to Praslin. Vallée de Mai is a green smudge of protected rainforest that lies in the middle of the island and is home to coco de mer (coconut of the sea), a gigantic fruit that grows on the endemic Lodoicea maldivica palm tree. The sought-after fruit was heavily harvested for decades but is now strictly controlled and protected by the Seychellois government.
At only 19.5 hectares, Vallée de Mai is one of the smallest UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with its diversity of rare plants, birds, and critters. We walk under a canopy of gigantic palm fronds and tendrils with exotic names like millionaire’s salad (Deckenia nobilis) and thief palm (Phoenicophorium borsigianum), searching for the prized black parrot whose call echoes through the jungle. We stop to examine a diminutive green tree frog perfectly camouflaged on a massive leaf. It’s barely the size of a thumb and would have been completely missed were it not for a passing guide who casually points it out. The black parrot remains elusive, but our patience is richly rewarded further north.
FOR THE BIRDS
Bird Islandlies on the northernmost tip of the Seychelles archipelago, a tiny triangle of sand and sea that is one of the ornithological wonders of the world. Around 700,000 sooty terns call the island home, along with an abundance of other species, thanks to the island’s location along the northern edge of the Seychelles Bank. This is the first place that migratory birds from Eurasia make landfall on their epic seasonal trek, ensuring a plethora of feathered visitors throughout the year.
If you’re not endowed with wings, the only way to get to Bird Island is with the small twin-prop aeroplane that carries guests to the private Bird Island eco-resort. When the Savy family acquired the one-square-kilometre island in 1967, their dream was to create a conservation refuge for sooty terns, whose numbers were dwindling because their eggs are considered a delicacy. The resounding success of the project saw them introduce other birds over the years, while laying a blueprint for eco-tourism in the Seychelles.
It’s not only the sky that’s teeming with life. Just offshore from the rustic luxury of our chalet, the shallow continental shelf drops off dramatically into the depths of the Indian Ocean. This makes Bird Island one of the best places in the archipelago to spot whales and dolphins. Schools of bottlenose frolic around the island throughout the year, but the ideal time to witness majestic humpback whales is between October and November as they follow their migratory route through the islands.
Closer inshore is where you will find the beneficiaries of Bird Island’s latest conservation programme, the green and hawksbill turtles, who come ashore to nest in their hundreds between October and February. We arrive too early to witness the show but still find the slippery tracks of a lone turtle that has made its way down to the water’s edge.
We follow suit and lie on our backs in the shallows. Floating in the azure water, watching the terns wheeling around in the sky, it’s hard to imagine any place on earth you’d rather be.
The Treasure Islands
The Seychelles is heavily steeped in pirate lore and was a favourite hunting ground for the greatest Franco pirate of them all, Olivier Levasseur. Levasseur accumulated a legendary fortune while marauding the high seas until he was caught and sentenced to death by hanging in 1730. Moments before he met his sticky end, he tossed an encrypted map into the crowd with his last words: “My treasure for he who understands!” The map disappeared for more than a century and resurfaced in the Seychelles 200 years later, setting off a chain of treasure hunts that continue to this day.
Luxury: Fregate Island Private
A favourite with celebrities like the Beckhams, Bill Gates, and royalty, Fregate Island Private is an exclusive slice of paradise that caters to every whim and need. There are no rooms; opulent private residences overlooking the sparkling ocean come as standard, with your own infinity pool and gourmet chef on call. The resort prides itself on its eco-tourism credentials and offers a plethora of water activities like kayaking, diving, and sailing in the protected waters. Or simply relax at the exquisite Rock Spa with the house speciality: a 90-minute Fregate massage.
Timeless Boutique: Crown Beach Hotel
The understated but excellent Crown Beach Hotel lies tucked away in the corner of Pointe Au Sel on the east coast of Mahé. Fourteen spacious suites make up this boutique hotel that spills onto the beach. Right around the corner is Anse Royale, described as one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in the Seychelles, but you’ll also be perfectly happy wading in the bath-warm water of Pointe Au Sel’s pretty cove. Meals are served on the beachfront terrace framed by the peaks of Morne Blanc in the distance.
Classic: Casa de Leela
Built in the traditional Creole style, Casa de Leela features a handful of breezy bungalows set against a lush tropical jungle in the heart of La Digue. The comfortable bungalows are ideal for families and come fully equipped for self-catering, or you can dine on Creole cuisine that gets served on your private balcony. The beaches, restaurants, and shops are just a short pedal away but still feel distant enough to enjoy Casa de Leela’s main attraction: tranquil bliss.
Zip Through the Forest
Based at the Constance Ephelia resort on Mahé, SMAC Adventures run forest canopy zip-lining tours for the whole family. You’ll take a buggy ride up the forested hillside overlooking Port Launay, then it’s a short walk to the summit, where the first of several zip lines whizz you through the treetops to the bottom of the hill. Kids still not worn out? Get them rock-climbing up a nearby 18m-high natural granite rock face.
+248 4 395 180
With its calm, shallow waters and dazzling array of marine life, the Seychelles is an ideal place to take the kids for an underwater adventure. Each island features a number of excellent operators who do snorkelling tours or, for those who’d rather not get wet, glass-bottom-boat trips. Ask your hotel for a recommendation. Many hotels also provide guests with snorkelling gear included in the package.
Treasure Hunting on Moyenne Island
Moyenne is the Seychelle’s smallest national park and lies a short boat ride off the northeast tip of Mahé. A series of trails crisscross the tiny island where, legend has it, pirates buried their treasure amongst the ruins of the two old houses. Besides the promise of hidden loot, there is a resident population of giant Aldabra tortoises who love being petted by kids, as well as excellent snorkelling.
A Craving for Creole
Besides adventuring, the next best thing to do in the Seychelles is eat. Creole cooking is infused with the subtle flavours of France, the exotic spices of India, and the smoky aroma of Africa. On Mahé, Bravo is a popular option, with a wide menu that includes Creole and Western dishes. The marlin sashimi is first class.
+248 4 346 020
Victoria Marketon Mahé is a maze of stalls spilling over with fresh vegetables, tea, spices, curios, and huge fish. The bustling but friendly atmosphere is a great place to get an authentic taste of the island’s cultural melting pot, both literally and figuratively. Sunday is the choice day to shop for fish, when a loud gong is sounded to announce the arrival of a fresh catch. Get there early or all the good stuff will be gone.
Pirogue on Praslin
Started as a shack on the beach by the Bediers, a local fishing family, it has grown into a renowned institution. Home to possibly the finest seared tuna fillet in the southern hemisphere.
The Fish Trap
A firm favourite on La Digue, and for good reason. Dig your toes into the sand while digging into an elaborate combination of prawns, line fish, and squid. The red chicken curry makes for a delicious break from the seafood.
+248 2 636100
Distance: 3,335 km
Flight Time: 4 hours, 55 minutes
Frequency: Beginning December 12, Qatar Airways will operate a daily service from Doha