Tropical bliss - JSE MAGAZINE

Tropical bliss

Boasting some of the best beaches in the world, a rich biodiversity and mix of traditions and cultures, the charm of the Seychelles will appeal to those looking for an authentic island experience

Tropical bliss

Right, I’ve found it. You can all stop looking. Paradise, I mean. I’ve found it. It was hiding in plain sight all along, just four degrees south of the equator. If you’ve not yet met, let me introduce you to the Seychelles. With dozens of islands scattered across a swathe of gorgeous Indian Ocean, there’s little not to love about the archipelago. From the forested hills in Mahé to slivers of sand cast away in turquoise seas, it’s an area never short on tropical grandeur.

Seen the snap of white-sand beaches fringed by granite boulders and rustling palm trees? Yup, the islands here certainly know a thing or two about dishing up Instagram-worthy Utopia. And of all the sandy beaches and charming coves I’ve visited across the islands, few can compete with Fregate Island Private. That my arrival begins with a helicopter flip across the impossibly blue seas of the Indian Ocean doesn’t hurt of course. From the air, the coral reefs around Fregate hide coyly beneath cerulean waters, while the lush interior promises a Robinson Crusoe escape in five-star style.

Five-star might not even do justice to the 16 ‘residences’ scattered along the shore of this secluded retreat. From a light-filled entrance hall my villa splits in half – left to an elegant living area with a well-stocked minibar, or right to the expansive bedroom where billowing mozzie nets and a lazy fan add a touch of tropical romance. Both give onto the enormous private deck, where a hot tub and day bed take up one shady corner, and a massive rim-flow pool makes full use of the dramatic cliff-top location. I’m tempted to drop my bags and never leave.

However, as appealing as that may be, there’s more to Fregate than unfettered poolside luxury. This remarkable corner of the Seychelles is as much about conservation as luxury escapism, and it’s a poster child for the potential of high-end ecotourism. In the north of the island, green and hawksbill turtles come ashore in summer to lay their eggs on coral-strewn Grande Anse beach. Endangered Aldabra giant tortoises thrive in the lush woodlands, while the establishment of the area as a conservation sanctuary helped bring the Seychelles magpie robin back from the brink of extinction.

To help guests tap into this impressive natural history, the island employs a number of well-trained field guides that lead walks and excursions. Best of all, your journey will likely end with brunch in a bough-level tree house, seated amid the chattering fairy terns or enjoying afternoon tea atop the island’s highest point.

Whether you spend your days exploring life in the forests, learning about the lodge’s self-sufficiency initiatives and sizeable vegetable gardens, or snorkelling over pristine coral reefs, you won’t be hard-pressed to fill your waking hours. Just be sure to leave some time for lazing on one of the island’s seven private beaches. Anse Parc has all the wild enchantment of a pirate’s cove, but the remote Anse Macquereau was far and away my favourite.

While Fregate is easily the most memorable of my island stays in the Seychelles, it’s not the only sandy show in town. With more than 115 islands in the archipelago, there is one to suit just about any traveller. And most visitors spend at least some time on the main island of Mahé, home to the international airport and the quaint capital of Victoria.

The city centre stretches across just a few blocks, so it’s easy enough to sightsee on foot. Start exploring at the striking Arul Mihu Navasakthi Vinayagar Hindu temple. You’ll struggle to miss it, thanks to the ornate statuary on the roof and colourful interior. While islanders frequent the temple for prayer throughout the day, visitors are still welcome. Just remember to leave your shoes at the door.

Right across the road is the other highlight of the city centre – the bustling Sir Selwyn Selwyn Clarke market, which offers up everything from handmade tourist trinkets to concrete tables piled high with the day’s catch. On the ground level – where the fresh produce is laid out – visitors are tolerated rather than welcomed so try not to get in the way of traders and locals on a shopping run.

Beyond Victoria your choices are simple – off to the beach or into the hills. In the hills above the city, one destination well worth a stop at is the charming Jardin du Roi. This ‘royal garden’ was first planted in 1772 to replenish the stores of passing ships and, more than two centuries on, this delightful spice and tree garden remains one of the most charming attractions on Mahé.

However, if you’re looking for a helping of authentic Seychellois cuisine, you should head straight for Marie-Antoinette restaurant, a short drive from Victoria. The seven-course set menu covers a wide range of classic Creole dishes, from chicken curry to aubergine fritters and battered parrotfish. Another highlight – though you’ll need to order it in advance – is the local delicacy of fruit bat curry. I’ve tried it and, unsurprisingly, it tastes a bit like chicken.

For a post-prandial dip, head off to one of Mahé’s idyllic beaches. Cosmopolitan Beau Vallon is lined   with hotels, bars and restaurants, and is the place to see and be seen at, while the quiet cove of Anse Souillac is a more relaxed option with safe swimming and fine sands. If you’re travelling with kids, the calm waters of Anse Boileau or Anse à la Mouche are also excellent options.

Though perhaps my preferred stretch of sand on Mahé is found behind the gates of Constance Ephelia, one of two resorts the hotel brand runs in the Seychelles. Port Launay beach overlooks the marine park of the same name, and the crystal-clear waters and wonderful corals make it a fine place to snorkel, kayak and sail. While all beaches are public in the Seychelles, it makes perfect sense to hole up at this lovely resort for a few days. Spread across a private 120 ha peninsula, this has fast become one of my favourite destinations in the Seychelles simply because it has something for everyone.

Looking for a little romantic seclusion? Book one of the gorgeous hillside villas, complete with private pool and jaw-dropping views. You can also make full use of the expansive U Spa by Constance. The dedicated spa suites are ideal. And for those with kids in tow, the junior suites are surrounded by lush gardens with easy access to the beach, boathouse and kids’ facilities. For the adventurous, the resort even offers a treetop zip line adventure, alongside regular kayak excursions through the nearby mangrove forests.

You could happily while away a week at Ephelia, but daily ferries and flights make it easy enough to explore the other outlying islands. La Digue is the most laid-back of the three major islands, with most visitors trundling around by bicycle or ox cart. Aside from the change in pace, the island is particularly worth a visit for the historic L’Union Estate, where coconut groves and vanilla plantations give a glimpse of life in the Seychelles before tourism took off. La Digue also offers the opportunity to Instagram what is surely the most-photographed beach in the archipelago – the undeniably exquisite Anse Source d’Argent.

If La Digue feels a little too relaxed, not to worry – a 15-minute ferry ride away is Praslin, something of a Goldilocks option. Quiet enough for some serious island R&R but with enough to keep you busy when you tire of the sunlounger.

That could mean a round of golf at Constance Lemuria, home to the only 18-hole course in the Seychelles, or a visit to the prehistoric forests of the Vallée de Mai – one of the Seychelles’ two World Heritage sites. On the north coast of Praslin, Bonbon Plume is as famous for its island cuisine – don’t miss the fragrant Creole-style prawn curry – as its idyllic location on Anse Lazio. Offshore, the islands of Cousin, Curieuse and St Pierre can also be discovered on full-day catamaran trips that incorporate snorkelling, sailing and a barbecue at sea, for a memorable time out on the Indian Ocean.

They’re all fine ways to discover the tropical paradise that is the Seychelles, and where you stay and what you do will be limited only by your definition of unforgettable.

By Richard Holmes
Images: Gallo/GettyImages, Richard Holmes