Discovering paradise in Seychelles
There is a small island in a secluded corner of the Indian Ocean, just off the east coast of Africa that is so old and so beautiful that it is thought to be where the Garden of Eden was located. The island is called Praslin and the site now is known as the Vallée de Mai, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and holds many amazing prehistoric plants. Praslin is one of the 115 islands that make up the archipelago nation of the Seychelles. Whether the Garden of Eden was located here or not, there is no denying the fact that the Seychelles are spectacularly, even breathtakingly, beautiful. One of the reasons they are so special compared to the other Indian Ocean islands is that they’re the only granite and coral islands in the middle of the ocean that are not of volcanic origin. Some experts even say that they’re the oldest oceanic islands on earth. Their impressive granite boulders make the islands’ scenery so astounding that film crews, models, and photographers are regular visitors. These boulders come in every shape and size and in an array of colours from light pink to black, and pop up across the picture perfect beaches and amongst the lush green vegetation inland. Only 20 of the islands are accessible to tourists, the most popular ones being Mahe, Praslin, and La Digue, each with its own unique beauty and offering visitors something different.
Mahe is the largest island, and where the international airport is located. One of its best resorts (there are many accommodation options to choose from; five-star resorts, smaller hotels, B&Bs and villas) is the Banyan Tree. The Banyan Tree has resorts all over the world and is known for its five-star luxury, beautiful spas and environmental ethics. Each resort is eco-sensitively designed, and they befit the area’s terrain and local community. For example, the villas in the Seychelles are hidden, dotted around Intendance Bay, and no villa is any higher than a palm tree so it doesn’t spoil the vista. Another green initiative involves turtles; Intendance Bay is a nesting ground for the Hawksbill Turtle, which is an endangered species. The Banyan Tree has got together with the Marine Conservation Society to implement the Turtle Nesting and Beach Dynamics Observation Programme. So when you check out of the hotel, US$1 is added to your bill for every night you spend at the resort, but you can choose to contribute or not.
The villas are amazing but don’t be tempted into not leaving them for the time of you’re stay (because you could do so easily). You’d be missing out on the beautiful beach, award winning spa, the four amazing restaurants and, of course, you wouldn’t be able to explore the islands. Victoria is one of the world’s smallest capitals, but despite this, there still is a lot to see and do: shopping, viewing some traditional Creole colonial style architecture, and visiting Sir Selwyn Clarke Market where there is a colourful array of fish, fruit, flowers, and vegetables. And if you fancy a spot of Creole lunch, then visit one of the oldest restaurants in the Seychelles: Marie Antoinette – an impressive historic colonial mansion, which is more than 100 years old. You’ll be served traditional Seychelles cuisine, which is a heady and delicious mix of African, Indian, European and Asian – the main cultures on the islands. Being a tropical island, fish and fruit are the obvious main ingredients: red snapper, octopus, squid, sea urchin, parrot fish, rabbit fish, papaya, pineapple and mango. But other common ingredients are bat (you’ll see many flying about at night), chilli, coconut, and chutneys of every persuasion. Curries are spicy but they also love using coconut milk so they’re quite mild. Also, the chutneys are freshly made with local fruits such as papaya or golden apple. They’re not the thick, saucy, preserve chutneys that we’re used to, but are much more fresh and light; the main ingredient is finely cut and fried for a few minutes with other spices and then served. Some other national favourites are grilled fish or octopus basted with a light sauce of crushed chillies, ginger, and garlic or parrot fish fried in a curry batter – very moreish!
Popular drinks amongst the locals are toddy, which is fermented coconut juice, and jangle juice, which is homemade alcohol (so watch out as it can be quite potent!) made from the fermented juice of various fruits. You also can experience Creole cuisine at The Banyan Tree (although it’s more contemporarily presented in a haute cuisine style.) The restaurant – Chez Lamar (where I had one of my favourite meals) – will give you an entirely different perspective of the island’s dishes. It’s probably best to try local food first before you go to Chez Lamar because you’ll see how The Banyan Tree chefs have adapted the basics of the island’s cuisine. The best way to describe it is fine dining Creole-style. I recommend the tasting menu to give you an extensive run-through; you can try sea urchin soup, bat curry (tastes like rabbit), green papaya chutney, and octopus curry. And if this gives you a taste of Seychelles cuisine, you even can have a cookery lesson, leaving you with the skills to make these dishes at home. The lessons are fun and the chefs will guide you through step-by-step, even if you’re a beginner in the kitchen. Legend has it that if you try the island’s breadfruit, then you’ll definitely return. I don’t think I need that excuse.
I also stayed on Praslin, which is a short 15-minute flight from Mahe. You can get a ferry there but you’d miss out on the spectacular views. If you’re on Praslin, it’s kind of an unspoken rule that you have to visit the Vallée de Mai. The national park not only is famous for being thought to be the site of the Garden of Eden but also for being the indigenous home to the Coco-de-Mer, the world’s largest seed that weighs 15kg plus and looks like two coconuts merged together. It is, however, more commonly visually compared to a woman’s private part; with the male part of the plant looking very similar to a man’s – sniggers are pretty much guaranteed to ensue! We stayed at the relaxed, unpretentious and friendly La Reserve Hotel, a family-run establishment, which is pretty and quiet with bright, tropical flowers all over the place and a large collection of giant tortoises that will keep you (at least it did for me) entertained for hours. The Seychelles actually has the largest population of giant tortoises in the world, with around 150,000, and also is home to Esmeralda, the world’s heaviest (304kg) land tortoise living in the wild. What I loved about this hotel was its small, private beach, which actually is located in a Marine National Park. The waters are clear and gentle and it’s great for spotting brightly-coloured tropical fish very close to the shore. It has one restaurant that has different themes each night and good food. It’s located on a wooden jetty going into the sea and is lit up at night, but it’s the mornings that are particularly glorious. Enjoy fresh fruit, coffee, and pancakes in gentle sunshine, overlooking clear blue water with hundreds of bright tropical fish swimming under your feet. It’s the only way to start your day and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
A great day trip from Praslin (although there is accommodation on the island) is a ferry ride to La Digue, which has quite a lively (Seychelles style) atmosphere. The best way to get around on this island is by bicycle. Riding around the island in 30°C heat is surprisingly exhilarating, but remember to take water and sunscreen with you. As there aren’t many vehicles to contend with, except other bicycles, ox carts, and a few birds with a death wish that waddle around the road, you can go at a leisurely pace. There are many gorgeous beaches to explore and little cafés to stop off at and have a much needed rest and cool down with some fresh ice cream. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, visit L’Union Estate. This beautiful estate is home to a copra factory where you can learn how coconuts are turned into oil using traditional methods, a vanilla plantation, horse riding facilities with beautiful white horses (very romantic and picturesque), and it’s also home to the famous Anse Source D’Argent beach. This protected beach – the most photographed on earth – was nominated as one of the top beaches in the world; the pink powdery sands, gentle clear blue waters and pink and black granite boulders make it hypnotic. When you walk toward it you’ll notice a little stall that sells fresh tropical fruit salad: do not walk past! The charismatic fruit sellers cut up every fruit imaginable in front of you, filling the tub till it’s bursting full of wonderfully delicious delights. If that hasn’t quashed your appetite, there also is a restaurant just outside the entrance of the beach called Lanbousir. A hit with tourists and locals alike, it serves good, local, authentic Creole style food.
With an average yearly temperature of 28°C, the Seychelles is a great year-round destination. Accommodation includes villa hires, family-run establishments, resorts – or you even could hire a whole island to yourself! But no matter where you’re staying, you’ll fall in love, as I did, with its natural beauty, friendly locals, safe environment, and fabulous cuisine. Some may describe it as paradise found.