Splendidly isolated in mid-ocean between Africa and India, the Seychelles are perfect island-hopping territory; hop aboard a local ferry to access rainforest walks, gin-clear waters ripe for snorkelling, and some of the world’s oldest animals.
Mahé: Best for walking
Spears of sunlight slice through the forest canopy as Terence Belle tramps into the jungled heart of Mahé, the largest and most mountainous of the hundred-odd islands that make up the Seychelles. He picks his way along the overgrown trail, hacking through ferns and palm fronds, stopping only to squeeze past a granite boulder or step across a brook. Overhead, unseen birds screech and hoot among the treetops, and palm leaves rattle like paper in the breeze.
A spine of craggy granite peaks runs along the centre of Mahé, crossed by a network of trails tramped by generations of Mahélois. Some are packhorse routes that date back to the days of the early settlers. Others were cut by spice traders during the 17th and 18th centuries, who planted tea, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, long since abandoned and now growing wild on the hillsides.
Mahé’s trails open up the island’s secret corners. While much of the coast has been cleared for agriculture, at higher altitudes large tracts of virgin rainforest survive. Here, geckos and skinks dart through the foliage, and pitcher plants dangle among moss-covered palms. Some of the islands’ most endangered flora and fauna is found here, including the Gardiner’s Seychelles frog, tinier than a human fingernail, and the fabulously rare jellyfish tree, which gets its name from its starfish-like flowers.
One of them, Aldabra atoll, a circlet of islands surrounding an immense tidal lagoon, lies 1,000 km south of Mahé and can only be visited by special arrangement. The other is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Seychelles, the Vallée de Mai on Praslin, one of a trio of islands (along with Mahé and La Digue) that are the most accessible to visitors. Praslin lies just five miles from La Digue and, like its smaller neighbour, remains a quiet place with no real town or central settlement to speak of. Arriving at Baie Sainte Anne, I negotiated the swarms of sun-kissed couples on the jetty and was met by a man in a smartcafé au laittunic who took my bags and ushered me into yet another air-conditioned four-wheel-drive, where I was given iced water and cold towels and asked if the vehicle temperature was at the correct level. Neddy Pool, who is originally from Mahé, was to be my driver during my stay at the new Raffles hotel. ‘I like it here,’ he said as we cruised along the winding roads on the northern coast of the island. ‘People are kinder to each other than on Mahé. It’s really a place to take it easy.’
Raffles Praslin Seychelles is the latest, swishest addition to the hotel portfolio in Seychelles. It occupies a prime position on a small bay looking directly out towards the island of Curieuse, a great rumpled cushion of greenery about a mile offshore. A leper colony until the 1960s, Curieuse is now a nature reserve popular with day-trippers who explore the island from a boardwalk-path through the mangroves. There’s a pretty wooden house on the island, which was the home of the Scottish doctor who lived with the lepers from 1873 to 1875. Dr (later Sir) William MacGregor had a distinguished Colonial Service career, going on to become governor of New Guinea, then Lagos, then Newfoundland and finally Queensland. A clearly sign-posted walk leads from his house (now a museum) to Baie Laraie, where the remnants of a turtle farm can be seen in the old stone wall that encloses a narrow sea channel. Turtle shell was an important export in the 19th century and the meat was prized locally until the reptiles were protected in the 1970s.
Cousin: Best for giant tortoises
Cut off from the rest of Africa by nearly a thousand miles of ocean, the isolated location of the Seychelles has led to the development of many natural curiosities on the islands, and they don’t get more curious than the giant tortoise. These huge reptiles are a distant relative of the world’s other species of giant tortoise, and are thought to have descended from a common ancestor that roamed across the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana some 200 million years ago. The endemic Seychelles giant tortoise is thought to have been hunted to extinction by the 19th century, but its close cousin, the Aldabra giant tortoise, can still be found in large numbers across much of the Seychelles – particularly the little island of Cousin, a government-owned nature reserve that’s famous for the abundance and diversity of its wildlife.
Well over a hundred giant tortoises live on Cousin, some of which have reached truly enormous sizes, measuring more than a metre long and weighing in excess of 350kg. The island is also home to over 300,000 nesting seabirds and the world’s longest millipede, not to mention the highest density of lizards on Earth. It’s one of the few islands where the endemic Seychelles magpie robin survives, and between October and April, it’s an important nesting site for hawksbill sea turtles, which crawl ashore to lay their eggs in the island’s fringing circlet of sand.
La Digue: Best for escapism
It’s rush hour on the little island of La Digue, but here, the traffic isn’t nose-to-tail buses and cars – it’s bikes. Islanders in flip-flops, the ladies in floral dresses, clatter past on their rickety steeds, while shouting schoolkids whizz along three or four to a bicycle, with extra riders perched on the seat-stays and handle-bars. The island’s taxi service – otherwise known as an ox-cart – trundles slowly past, carrying passengers from the afternoon ferry. In half-an-hour it’s all over, and the coast road falls quiet again.
For many people, La Digue sums up the essence of island life in the Seychelles. In contrast to the larger islands, development here has been kept to a minimum, and life meanders along at a sleepy, tropical pace. There’s just one road, which runs most of the way around the island’s west coast, and a single village, situated beside the main boat jetty at La Passe; the rest of La Digue is still mostly cloaked by old-growth forest and fringed by virgin coast.
Riding along the island’s back-roads, the only signs of human habitation are a few tin-roofed shops and single-storey houses hidden amid the coconut groves, and the odd wooden shack selling fresh coconuts and glasses of papaya juice. It’s an island that’s frozen in time, and La Digue’s residents seem perfectly happy for it to stay that way.
La Digue’s relaxed lifestyle makes it an irresistible draw for those seeking an escape from the outside world. The island’s largest beach, Anse Source d’Argent, is one of the most famous and frequented in the Seychelles: a series of golden crescents of sand backed by a chaotic jumble of gigantic granite blocks. While the west coast may be relatively well-known, it’s a different story on the island’s southern and eastern sides. Here, the road gives way to tangled bush and wild forest, and a dusty trail connects a string of pristine coves – including the spectacular trio of Grande Anse, Petite Anse and Anse Cocos, where gnarled palms teeter above the turquoise water, and the sand shimmers white-hot in the haze. Most secluded of all is the tiny inlet of Anse Marron, a patch of powdery sand tucked away at the island’s southern tip, which can only be reached by crossing the rocks at low tide.