Why the sleepy Seychelles are more seductive than ever
The writer takes the first flight post-lockdown to the Indian Ocean archipelago — and gets an island paradise virtually to herself
Cycling beside a tranquil sea on La Digue island in the Seychelles, I felt transported to a pre-Covid era — as long as you didn't count the obligatory face mask I was wearing, of course. At the time, late last month, there were few active Covid-19 cases in the country and in mid-December there were just 18. In this archipelago, where some tropical islands have more giant tortoises than people, it seems possible to escape the pandemic.
Last month, I took the first flight from SA since March to the Indian Ocean paradise. Through the plane window I got glimpses of the archipelago composed of Mahé, the two smaller islands of La Digue and Praslin, and more than 100 islets and coral atolls floating like an apparition in the cobalt sea.
Before Covid-19, the fish, warm water and bleached beaches of the Seychelles attracted more tourists than its 100,000 inhabitants. Now, the islands are sleepy again.
What sets the Seychelles apart from other languid islands off Africa's east coast are its distinctive granite boulders in the "inner" granitic islands. More than 500 million years old, these rocks are not restricted to the coast but scattered throughout the extensive inland forests and on mountain ridges.
Two Unesco world heritage sites — the Aldabra Atoll, famous for its giant tortoises, and the Vallée de Mai with its unique and giant coco de mer palms — are also lodestones for travellers.
Our group of four journalists had the privilege of experiencing the beaches, marine reserves and mountains on Mahé, Praslin and La Digue without crowds — a situation that will last only as long as lockdowns stall global travel.
IN HIGH SPIRITS
Despite the impact of Covid-19, the current spirit in the Seychelles is one of hope, following the election in October of the first president from the opposition party in 44 years.
The biggest of the islands is Mahé, which has 65 beaches, followed by Praslin and its smaller neighbour La Digue.
We reached La Digue for a day trip from Praslin by catamaran ferry and, on rented bikes with baskets, set out to explore the island, which has cars and fewer roads. Its pace is as unhurried as the ancient tortoises who live there.
Fanned by scented breezes, we cycled through La Union Estate with its French-colonial house, cemetery and vanilla plantations.
Alongside the path, tortoises paced in an enclosure below a giant boulder. At the end of the path we found more boulders, coves and the impossibly sapphire water off the legendary beach of Anse Source D'Argent.
The ocean's temperature couldn't be more different to that of Boulder's Beach in Cape Town, but the shore and lucidity of the water were similar, minus the penguins.
After lunch we cycled north along the west coast, following rolling hills to Bikini Bottom, a beach bar where a free-roaming tortoise is one of the locals along with the now rarely spotted backpackers.
With the ebbing of the sun, we sailed 7km on the cat back to Praslin.
Praslin is more developed than La Digue yet shares its carefree mood. Locals holiday with tourists at resorts such as Le Duc, where we spent three nights, while a lively fishing community provides them with fresh catch every morning.
But Praslin is most famous for the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve and its soaring coco de mer palms, which are either male or female.
Found naturally only on Praslin and the nearby Curieuse island, this palm bears the world's heaviest nuts — up to 20kg.
In these Eden-like surroundings, where harmless wolf snakes lurk in the undergrowth, it seems only fitting that the female coco pods follow the shape of a curvaceous woman's thighs. This forbidden fruit is matched by the phallic-looking male seed needed to produce the nut.
Besides enjoying the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, we spent hours snorkelling and paddling around Praslin's rocky islets. Once while snorkelling off the beach at Le Duc,
a stingray took shape in the sand right under my face.
At 27km long, Mahé is home to 90% of the population of the Seychelles and to its little capital, Victoria, where a tiny clock tower marks the town centre.
Eden Island (where we stayed for three nights) is a man-made haven with a waterfront, luxury shops and a casino. During lockdown, Saudi royalty are said to have commandeered one of its bigger hotels — but the natural attractions of Mahé had the most appeal.
From the waterfront we departed for a snorkelling trip with Michael Moncherry, the pirate-like captain of a glass-bottomed boat. We floated and dived down in the St Anne Marine National Park with myriad fish sporting spots, stripes and blotches in all shades of neon. A turtle cruised below us in the swell and a ray glided past.
The bare-chested captain opened coconuts for us to drink and eat after the dive, regaling us with tales of growing up on Mahé, a haunted island prison across a narrow channel, and a peacock egg. At sunset his temperamental boat, hesitant to start and quick to stop, seemed as reluctant as we were to return to harbour at Eden Island.
(Not everyone comes to the Seychelles to swim with fish. Big game fishermen jet into private islands to catch game fish like marlin and giant barracuda, while the islands are also popular with salt-water flyfishermen.)
On another day, we hiked the 500m up La Copolia trail, accompanied by the song of the orange-headed Seychelles bulbul, and found 360° views at the top.
We were the only people up there, unlike at the similarly elevated Venn's Town Mission Ruins, where the children of liberated slaves were once taught, and where we encountered school pupils taking notes and selfies.
The "Mission Lodge" has a gazebo where Queen Elizabeth II had tea on her visit in 1972.
Also high on a ridge is the Jardin du Roi spice garden with its spices, cocoa trees and unfamiliar fruits like breadfruits.
Like the calafate berry in Patagonia, the legend goes that if you take one bite of breadfruit, you will return. The countdown has begun.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Air Seychelles departs from Johannesburg for Mahé three times a week. The cost is from R8,000 return.
Before you go, you need a negative PCR test, taken no more than 72 hours prior to departure. Once you get the result, you must apply for a Health Travel Authorisation. The fee is R800. It is also compulsory to have a PCR test on your sixth day in the Seychelles, which is free, but if you need to use the result in order to travel (such as to re-enter SA), it will cost R500. If you stay longer than a week, you will need to pay for another test for your return to SA. It costs about R2,500. See tourism.gov.sc/covid-19-guidelines.
SA passport holders do not need a visa.
WHERE TO STAY
• Le Duc De Praslin: The 20 deluxe rooms in the new ocean wing, which overlook the Cote d'Or beach, are airy and attractive. The popular Tapas bar and tropical garden are at the heart of the four-star resort. You can rent sea kayaks to explore the coast.
•Eden Bleu Hotel: The soaring lobby and infinity pool overlook the yacht basin of the Eden Island waterfront, an artificial island about 3.5km from the capital, Victoria. The luxury rooms are modern and equipped to do business, and the hotel is close to Mahé's airport. Next door is the Eden Island casino and mall.
On Praslin, Le Duc's Café des Arts restaurant is famous for its seafood, as is La Pirogue.
On Mahé, Bravo Restaurant at the waterfront has fresh fish and the Jardin du Roi (+248-437-1313) restaurant has alluring Creole dishes.
On La Digue, Le Domaine de L'Orangeraie offers fine dining and an endless ocean view.
ACTIVITIES ON LAND & SEA
• Dolphin Nemo: This Victoria-based tour operator offers snorkelling trips with fresh fish and coconuts to eat at R1,120 ($75) per person. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Vallée de Mai hike: Go with guide Medina Laboudallon to fully appreciate the coco-de-mer and five more endemic palm species found here, plus dozens of birds. R900 for up to three people. Phone her on +248-252-2505 or e-mail email@example.com.
• Claire Keeton was a guest of the Seychelles Tourism Board and Air Seychelles