Looking for Paradise

Seychelles is picture-perfect paradise in many ways. It has white sands, blue waters, palm trees, and richly forested mountains that provide sanctuary for one of the rarest species on earth.  Its the holy grail for salt water fishermen and those seeking the ultimate island experience. So Jenni and I were thrilled to be hosted by Seychelles Tourism on a five-day familiarization trip. We were keen to find out if it is still the ultimate island destination.

The flight with Air Seychelles from Johannesburg to Mahe, took roughly four hours and we arrived in darkness before being whisked off to Beau Vallon where we would spend our first night at the newly completed Savoy Hotel. The Savoy was perhaps more suited for groups and business and conference travellers than romantic travellers with giant blocks of rooms, pools, restaurants, spas and an enormous swimming pool. But it is located in the most sought after area of Seychelles, with the towering 905 meter Morne Seychelles to one side and the blue Indian Ocean on the other. It was certainly not my ideal hotel.

A Seychellois guide named Gilly took us on a morning tour. “Would it be OK to stop and take some pictures?” I asked as we drove up a particularly narrow section of the road in the Seychelles. “Of course,” he said with a charming Creole lilt, “you can park anywhere in paradise.” Gilly was relaxed, easy going and quick to promote the benefits of living in paradise. But I did notice that he also crossed his heart and said a quiet prayer every time he pulled off to allow me to take my pictures. 20170515-DSC_6624

Our tour included Victoria, the island capital, where we walked along narrow streets past plantation style colonial buildings and a melting pot of people. The scent of cinnamon and lemongrass and freshly cut flowers infused the colourful food and spice markets. We were also overwhelmed by the Sri Navasakthri Vinayager temple where holy men were receiving gifts of coconuts, flowers and food from the faithful and we also sat solemnly in a pew in the more formal Catholic Church and admired the exquisite stain glass windows.
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A mountain road wended its way through impossibly large forests of cinnamon trees up from Victoria towards the high mountains, which loom in the central part of the island. At the top of the road we reached Venn’s Town or “The Mission” and the ruins of a boarding school established in 1875 by William Chancellor of the Church Missionary Society to care and educate slaves that were freed by the British Navy. The school’s vistas of vast indiginous forests and coastline decorated with boulder strewn white beaches were as wide and magnificent as his ideals.

Made up of 115 granite and coral islands scattered in the Indian Ocean between 4 and 10 degrees south of the Equator, Seychelles has been visited by centuries of seafarers including Arab traders, pirates and more recently colonialists. The Seychelles has no indigenous human population. The Creole speaking population of people has been made up of freed slaves, immigrants from India, France, Britain and other parts of the world. A British colony until 1976, Seychelles survived a daring coup attempt led by English and Irish Mercenary “Mad” Mike Hoare in 1981. Plans did not go well for Mike and his men who disguised themselves as rugby players and he and 43 of his men ended up behind cold bars rather than under a swaying coconut tree.

According to Gilly there is no racism in Seychelles although hotels do now occupy some of the finest sections of coastline and vast palaces and residences for Russian, Arab and other mega-rich people are signs of a growing disparity between rich and poor, “everyone is equal and beaches are for everyone.”  The local Seychellois apparently enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Africa and there are more than enough jobs to go round. Perhaps it was for this reason that we experienced no touting or selling of goods and services, which is so common in some islands and nor was there any suggestion of security issues. The locals were always welcoming, but even those selling curious seemed a little indifferent to the influx of tourists and the opportunities that they might bring.

After our visit to the Mission we visited Eden Island an entirely man made island off the Mahe “mainland” with shopping centres, luxury homes and a multi-million dollar marina. Our charming and highly educated hostess from the Seychelles Tourism Ministry said that this for her represented the very best of Seychelles. It was here that she and her friends danced at night rubbing shoulders with sheiks, businessmen and other people living the high life.

We set off along winding coastal roads towards the south and past Idyllic beaches, swaying palms, white sands and small islands. This was the real Seychelles, I thought. Russian film producers agreed and was a few hundred meters from the public beach on one of the islands close to shore we could make out participants in a year long reality TV “Big Brother” show. I tried not to look.

Not far away was Constance Aphelia. It straddles a peninsula which has a spectacular beaches and also a protected Mangrove Forest which has been declared a Ramsar Wetland of international Importance. Most of the hotels we visited did have a good news environmental project which it supported and it was also admirable to consider that while much forest, all the crocodiles and many bird species have been lost to development that 50% of the Seychelles Archipelago is now set aside for conservation.

Constance Aphelia is adjacent to one of Seychelles many a marine reserves.  I went for a quick snorkel and met a local diver who was dragging a bag of clams he had collected from the reef and a sizeable rock cod that he had impaled on a simple metal rod. Apparently the no fishing rule in the marine reserve does not apply to locals. I was amazed by the underwater life right off the beach. At 30 degrees, it was like swimming in a bath but these high water temperatures have also bleached the coral badly in places.

We were invited for a very fancy crayfish dinner in the beach restaurant and were mesmerized by the romantic songs of Michelle Marengo and the French wines that were lavished upon us by Lindor – a charming and eloquent sommelier from Zululand and explained that had been given a fantastic start in his career by Gary Player’s daughter.20170515-DSC_6701

Our next destination, which was in an even quieter part of the southern island, was Banyan Tree. Banyan Tree is a Singapore based hotel group and the service is very discreet and elegant, as you would expect from the East. It had a row of private villas where you can step out from your private room (each has its own pool) directly onto the beach, where waves meet amazingly white sands fringed by granite boulders. The dinner that night, in the Saffron Thai Restaurant was probably the finest that I had in the Seychelles.

The ethos at Banyan Tree was evident in is its terrapin conservation project. There are several critically endangered species that occur here and their numbers are closely monitored by the project.

 

 

After a night at Banyan Tree we drove north again to the airport and took a short 15-minute domestic flight to Praslin. This is the second largest island in the Archipelago and we were a little sad that we had just 5 hours to explore. We drove through the Vallee de Mai Unesco World Heritage where 7 different types of palm include the famous Coco de Mer. The seeds, which is the largest on earth and closely resembles a shapely pair of human buttocks, have become and iconic symbol of these islands.

Anze Lazio, which is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world is the attraction on Praslin and there were many holidaymakers lying on the beach, snorkeling in the clear waters, and living the life on luxury yachts boats moored off the beach.  Spectacular Anse Lazio does become busy during the windless tourist season especially from January to March but we found it quiet and almost deserted. We ended our morning with a poolside feast of world-class sushi at Raffles Hotel, which is a grand five star hotel built in a prime location nearby.

It is said that people from Mahe visit to Praslin to relax and those living on Praslin find their relaxation a 30-minute ferry ride away at La Digue. It seemed a world apart. There were only a handful of cars and the most popular transport on the island is the bicycle.  We pedaled along the island’s single road to reach the breathtakingly beautiful Anse Source D’Argent beach (below). The granite boulders and spectacular white beaches seemed to have been created by an artist’s hand.

We stayed one night at the Le domaine de la Orangerai Hotel and spa in a room that was set high on the mountainside and looking down on the ocean.  The gardens were infused with the delicious scents of the orange trees and there was a spa, garden and mountain rooms and a relaxed waterside restaurant.  We loved this wonderful island, which has large undeveloped areas, excellent snorkeling and a laid back almost Bohemian atmosphere.

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We were rapidly reaching the end of our stay in paradise.  Early the next morning we returned to Mahe and the Four Seasons Hotel. The Canadian owned hotel impressed me not only for its wonderful rooms, spa and restaurants but by the warmth and genuine welcome of its staff. A non-profit team of marine bioligists who are based at Four Seasons, giving instruction to guests and also monitoring the recovery of the reefs and its fish population. I just had to go snorkeling and was greeted by schools of moonies, batfish, trigger fish, a hawksbill turtle and also a Napoleon wrasse.

 

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We spent our final night back where we began – in the relatively populous Beau Vallon area – at the H Hotel which was a trendy 5-star establishment with all the impressive rooms, villas, spas and facilities that you would expect from a five star hotel. It was our last night and we took a last balmy walk down the beach considering the high road that Seychelles Tourism has followed.

I was very impressed with the five star establishments on the island that we saw. For families, romantic travellers there are outstanding options and visitors are really spoiled for choice with hotels that can match the very best in the world. But I did also keep a keen eye out for the smaller, owner run places that I find have an even greater appeal. I would love to return soon to explore smaller more intimate establishments including guest houses and boutique hotels and hopefully find my way to Bird Island, which sounds like a very interesting sanctuary, as well as some of the Outer Islands. And of course North Island and the fabulous outer islands including Desroche do remain the absolute cream for holidaymakers.

From a photographers point of view here were some of my take aways.

You will not find more spectacular beaches anywhere.  The combination of intensely blue waters, finely powder white beaches and tall mountains laced with forests make this a spectacular destination for photographers.

•    Most rooms are air-conditioned – so make sure you leave your camera outside in natural room temperature. If you do not the lens will fog up as soon as you leave your room.
•    An underwater camera – or at least a Gopro – is a must. The opportunities for underwater photography are awesome.
•    Drones are no longer permitted in Seychelles unless you have permission from the aviation authority in that country.
•    Most rooms are air-conditioned – so make sure you leave your camera outside in natural room temperature. If you do not the lens will fog up as soon as you leave your room.20170515-DSC_6591-Pano
•    Don’t worry about waking up too early here. Most of the island hotels have their back to the rising sun. They are all about sunsets and romance. I found that the best light was at midday when the sun made the sea its bluest colour and at sunset when there was soft light.
•    The Seychelles is virtually on the same latitude as Nairobi and it could be an exceptional add on to anyone after a safari in the Masai Mara or the Serengeti.