Into the blue

Into the blue

With 115 islands scattered across a swathe of cerulean blue sea, the Seychelles is the poster child for tropical paradise. By Richard Holmes

The writer Mark Twain famously remarked that heaven must have been modelled on Mauritius. Shame, poor Twain. He evidently never made it to the Seychelles. For, in the competitive parade of paradise islands strung out across the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles wins every single time. From the granite-strewn sands of Anse Source d’Argent on La Digue to the lush tropical forests of Praslin’s Vallée de Mai, it is impossible not to fall in love with the Seychelles. Is it a cheap holiday? No. Is it unforgettable? Absolutely.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

If it’s your first time here, there are a few must-see sights to tick off the list. Start your wandering in Victoria, the charming capital city on the main island of Mahé. Stop in at the Sir Selwyn Selwyn Clarke Market – where the concrete tables are piled high with the day’s catch and fresh produce from local farms – for a glimpse of daily Seychellois life. Across the road from the market, it’s all but impossible to miss the striking Arul Mihu Navasakthi Vinayagar Hindu Temple, well worth a visit to admire its ornate carvings and colourful interior. Visitors are welcome, but remember to leave your shoes outside.

Beyond Victoria, the other essential on Mahé is the Jardin du Roi. This ‘King’s Garden’ was planted in 1772 to supply passing ships, and it remains one of the most charming destinations on the main island. Set aside some time to wander through the idyllic gardens filled with cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper trees while admiring the spectacular views down to Anse Royale.

You could easily while away the rest of your days on Mahé by hopping from one gorgeous beach to the next. Top of the list are tourists’ favourite Beau Vallon, postcard-perfect Anse Souillac and family-friendly Anse Boileau. But don’t leave without a trip across to Praslin and La Digue, the two other islands most popular with tourists. Air Seychelles offers daily flights, or hop on the regular high-speed ferry service from the harbour at Victoria.

La Digue revels in its soporific splendour, and most visitors still get around by bicycle or ox-cart. L’Union Estate is popular for the tours of its palm and vanilla plantations, along with the enclosure of Aldabra giant tortoises. The famous Anse Source d’Argent is also just a short walk away.

But it is the island of Praslin that lures most visitors away from Mahé. Praslin has its fair share of idyllic beaches, but it’s also home to one of the two World Heritage Sites in the Seychelles. The lush forests of the Vallée de Mai are home to thousands of the endemic coco de mer palms, as well as healthy populations of the rare Seychelles black parrot. The iconic palms, bearing the largest seed in the world, are considered a botanical marvel. Self-guided walking trails are well marked and worth exploring.

ISLAND-STYLE EATING

After all that exploring, you’ll most likely want to stop and refuel. The local Creole cuisine is a fusion of Indian, Chinese and French influences, with plenty of seafood and fresh produce on the menu. While you’ll probably be happy dining in the comfort of your hotel after sunset, it’s worth seeking out some Seychellois restaurants during the day.

Marie-Antoinette Restaurant, set on the outskirts of Victoria, has been dishing up authentic island cuisine for more than 40 years. Kathleen Fonseka opened her Seychellois eatery in a historical plantation-style house in 1972. Today, her affable son Roy runs the restaurant. The chefs offer a seven-course set menu that meanders through traditional island dishes: think battered parrotfish, grilled tuna, chicken curry and more-ish aubergine fritters. If you request it in advance, they will even whip up the famous local delicacy of fruit-bat curry. Naturally, it tastes a little
like chicken.

The restaurant at the hilltop Jardin du Roi is also worth a visit for its traditional Creole cooking. Don’t miss the delicious salads of papaya and mango served with freshly grilled fish.

Over on Praslin, your choices are more limited, but it’s not hard to find a charming seafront eatery with something interesting on the grill. If it’s your first time, you’ll want to seek out Bonbon Plume, where tables under palm-thatched umbrellas overlook the impossibly scenic Anse Lazio. While you do pay a slight premium for the sea views, the Seychellois cuisine is excellent. The signature dish of crab curry cooked in coconut milk is unforgettable.

TIME FOR AN ADVENTURE

Most visitors to the Seychelles are happy to simply kick back on golden sands, icy cocktail in hand, but if you are of a more active bent, you’ll be spoilt for choice too. Unsurprisingly, aquatic adventures come top of the list, with world-class fishing and scuba diving on the cards.

While the islands have struggled with warming seas and coral bleaching over the years, deeper reefs boast remarkable marine life and the underwater granite outcrops are impressive. The islands are suitable for diving year-round, with the visibility typically stretching past 30m. However, the best diving is to be had in between the monsoon winds: aim for April/May or October/November. You are likely to spot manta rays and whale sharks from July to October.

The deep channels flowing between the islands also make this a paradise for big-game fishing. Off the islands scattered around Mahé, you’ll easily pick up wahoo, dorado and skipjack tuna. In the deep seas around the Amirante Islands, both sailfish and marlin are often hooked from October to March. More of a purist? There is also superb fly-fishing on offer, whether you’re casting across the sand flats for bonefish or into the deep blue seas for hard-
fighting pelagics.

If you’d rather let someone else catch your dinner, take a stroll to one of the main beaches, where you will find jet-ski rentals, snorkelling excursions and kayak adventures on offer. Another tempting option is a lazy day aboard the 80-foot catamaran Catalina. Full-day excursions sail out of Victoria, exploring the southern reaches of Mahé with plenty of time to snorkel and swim along the way.

While you’ll want to spend most of your days near the sea, don’t ignore the jungle-clad hills, where a range of well-marked walking trails offer fine views and a good way to work up an appetite. Pick of the bunch is in the north of Mahé, with a hike that passes through the Morne Seychellois National Park to the stunning beach of Anse Major.

Twain never made it north of Mauritius to this tiny archipelago, but after a fragrant curry at Jardin du Roi and a wander high up above the golden sands of Beau Vallon, I think it’s safe to say he’d change his mind about finding heaven on Earth.

Photography: Alamy/Nino Marcutti, gallo/gettyimages, istockphoto, shutterstock, Courtesy Images

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