The Seychelles are God’s gift to holiday-makers
by Hermione Eyre
London Evening Standard
1 October 2010
Gentler and sleepier than the Caribbean, greener than the Maldives, and more expensive than Monaco, the Seychelles are bejewelled treasures scattered in the Indian Ocean. Black parrots eye you curiously from ancient palm trees; doves brood beside the quiet main roads; and pizzas from beachside cafés cost £15. The locals proudly assume, such is the specialness of their home, that all visitors are honeymooners or oligarchs.
The biggest town on the biggest island is Victoria, but even that has a villagey calm. The local music is a soft, can’t-be-bothered calypso called contombley; tuna and snapper are fat and plentiful. For the brave, there is fruit bat curry. The traditional fermented coconut milk called kalu is once tasted, best forgotten. There aren’t many cultural sights, so beach lounging comes guilt-free. Sea-swimming, bird-watching and orchid-gazing are all you need to do. The highlight of my trip was when, out snorkelling, I shook hands with a smiling hawksbill turtle. Its flipper felt like a vintage handbag.
My fiancé and I were staying on the main island, Mahé, at Maia, a resort of mind-bending luxury. Landing at the airport at Victoria, Maia guests have their own private passage through passport control. When our hotel car pulled into Maia’s lush grounds, 25 minutes from the airport, three porters leaped out of nowhere to welcome us (had they been waiting in the undergrowth?). Maia employs 231 staff (65 per cent Seychellois) to serve 60 guests. The staff actually gave us the T-shirts off their backs to stop us getting sunburned – we forgot our spares for snorkelling, pampered by day two into a state of second childhood.
Behind a wooden gate, guarded by a darting, emerald green gecko, our villa was a miniature palace, a hideaway with 360-degree privacy. A tiny fountain gurgled next to a deep day bed. Tucked beside the bathroom was an outdoor lovers’ bath, surrounded by a shallow Balinese sky-reflecting lake. A small infinity pool jutted over the wide, wide ocean view.
Our personal butler, always on hand to drive us the short distance down to the beach by buggy, was George, a Balinese whose deference and dedication were like something from the ancien régime. Tidying away an open book, he would thoughtfully place a leaf inside as a bookmark. He ended every communication by placing his hand on his heart in a graceful salute. If we had brought children, he would have looked after them 24/7. As it was, he contented himself with arranging our clothes into jaunty shapes and scattering our baths with hibiscus petals. His English was sometimes imperfect. Catching a spider and gently releasing it into the garden he told us reassuringly, ‘All the animals here are harmful.’
The archipelago is free from malaria; its ugliest creatures are land crabs. Sensitive plants curl obsequiously to the touch. But most Seychelles coral has been bleached after a rise in water surface temperature caused by global warming, although the marine life still looks glorious, all humbug-striped damselfish and gaudy parrotfish. The main islands, Mahé and Praslin (pronounced praline), are granitic peaks flung across the semi-precious ocean, too far apart for island-hopping, but Maia will organise day trips by yacht to the stunning silver Source d’Argent beach on La Digue with its Jurassic Park boulders. The fly-sized Air Seychelles plane that goes between Praslin and Mahé takes 15 minutes and provides postcard-perfect views. By sea, there is only one public ferry, Cat Cocos, which takes 50 minutes. In the downstairs cabin, locals bored by the sight of paradise watch television reruns of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. There is an Anglophile tendency here – despite their French names, the islands were British from 1814 until independence in 1976. English visitors have dwindled of late, however, and everywhere we went we were greeted with surprised enthusiasm. The Seychelles has never gone in for mass tourism, though luxury developments are busily going up near Mahé’s airport on reclaimed land called Eden Island.
At present, though, crowds are unknown at marvels such as the Vallee de Mai, the UNESCO-protected park on Praslin where the indigenous coco de mer grows. Its nut is smooth, brown and bottom-shaped, double-creviced like something the Chapman brothers might create, while its stamen is a pointy phallus. Looking for this strange plant, we walked the paths through the virgin forest where huge, corrugated palms, some thought to be 400 years old, blocked out the light. We ducked under webs spun by spiders the size of sparrows and finally found the famous nut, split and rotting on the ground. Local lore has it that seed and stamen enjoy passionate congress under cover of nightfall. The nut takes 30 or 40 years to grow into a tree and its unwarranted export is punishable by 15 years in jail. Stamped in silhouette on your passport when you leave the Seychelles, the coco de mer has become the symbol of these loved-up islands.
‘A stay at Maia gives you back your humanity,’ the manager told us as he waved us off. I don’t know about that, but I do know that the unspoilt Seychelles are God’s gift to holiday-makers.
But don’t take our word for it -See for Yourself – take the Virtual Tour of Maia Spa, Seychelles
See for Yourself – take the Virtual Tour of Maia Spae, Seychelles
Vallee de Mai
Don’t miss this atmospheric World Heritage Site on Praslin. Visiting in 1881, General Charles Gordon was convinced that this was the original Garden of Eden, and the coco de mer the Tree of Knowledge. Invasive alien plants are gradually being removed to preserve native species. As well as the coco de mer, look out for jackfruit, the medicinal gecko-foot, and bird’s nest ferns. Take mosquito repellent and sturdy shoes, but don’t worry too much about sunscreen – palms the size of windsurfing sails block out the sun. The native black parrot (left) is more likely to be heard than seen. Entry $20; guided tours $10. Open daily 8am to 5.30pm. Maps provided.
Where to stay
On Mahé, Maia’s mini-villas look down to Anse Louis. Fatigued footballers and film stars dine in-room on lobster thermidor, or venture down in flip-flops to the dining room (there is no dress code) for four-course dinners served by the light of flaming, poolside braziers. From $1,252 per night, including dinner and four nights for the price of three 00 44 421 240 730; http://www.myMAPofSeychelles.com).
On Praslin try the more affordable Paradise Sun, where rooms overlook the azure sea of Anse Volbert. The grounds are landscaped by the same gardener as Maia, but in the evenings there is more of a party atmosphere, with live local Creole bands playing beside the buffet every night. From $340 per room (00 44 421 240 730; http://www.myMAPofSeychelles.com).
What to take
A camera with a case. Humidity can reach 80 per cent in the hottest months (December to April) and a case – or protective wrapping – helps safeguard cameras against dramatic temperature changes as you go from air-con to sweltering. Keep up with Maia’s A-listers in a Melissa Odabash bikini (odabash.com).
Hunted almost to extinction, the native giant tortoise now thrives only on Aldabra Atoll, where their killing was prohibited in 1891. There are now about 100,000. On Mahé, there are tortoises at the Botanical Gardens in Victoria; Curieuse Island also has a growing population, as do the private islands of Frégate and Cousin. You may also gasp at the sight of a life-size giant tortoise in the grounds at Maia, before realising it is a sculpture.
What to read
Tell your bulbuls from your sunbirds with the help of local writer Adrian Skerrett’s Birds of Seychelles (Helm Field Guides, £29.95)
Maia’s spa, set in a jungle dell, is made up of open timber pavilions, so your treatment is accompanied by wafts of frangipani and cinnamon and the sound of swooping bird calls. Balinese therapists offer intuitive massage (from £50) using tropical oils or La Prairie products, which also stock guests’ bathrooms.