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Heaven on Earth

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Beyond the stunning beaches and the sybaritic lifestyle, Karl Cushing discovers a rich diversity in the Seychelles


As I hiked through Praslin's Vallée de Mai, I gazed around in wonder as the humid air heaved with a cacophony of wildlife noise and rampant flora, barely changed since prehistoric times, towered above me. To visit the reserve, famed for its coco de mer palms with their suggestively shaped seeds, was to enter another world. No wonder it was once believed to be the original Garden of Eden.

 

With its lavishly exotic hideaways and dreamy beaches, The Seychelles has long been a favourite among discerning travellers and escapists. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you'll find a whole different side to the islands - a tantatalising glimpse of which I had seen in the Vallée.

 

Thanks to a combination of granitic bedrock and unimaginably white sand, The Seychelles has more of a desert island look than its volcanic or coralline Indian Ocean counterparts like Mauritius or Réunion. Besides being home to some of the world's best beaches, its 115 islands support a staggering array of wildlife, much of it endemic.

 

From Jellyfish Trees to Vanilla Orchids, the natural diversity is evident as soon as you land on the main island, Mahé. A good way to explore is to take one of the excellent marked walking trails. I opted for the easy hike up Glacis Trois Frères but tougher slogs like the Dan Gallas, a steep climb involving wooden steps and occasional ladders, with dazzling views down over the granite beaches of Victoria, and Mare aux Cochons, through marshland and waterfalls, promise even more spectacular scenery.

 

Many of the islands are either uninhabited, or have no tourist accommodation; this tends to be concentrated on just 10 of the 43 inner islands, mainly on Mahé, Praslin and La Digue. With many of the inner islands within close proximity you can easily arrange popular island-hopping combinations such as Mahé plus Praslin (45km away) and La Digue, another 30 minutes' boat trip beyond, using the clutch of scheduled services and avoiding the need to get on another flight. La Digue is the location of that beach, Anse Source d'Argent, one of the world's most iconic, where powdery white sand is edged by giant, smooth granite boulders and gently waving palms.

 

eco credentials

 

Conservation is taken seriously in this paradise. Cousin Island, a popular excursion off Mahé, has been protected for 45 years and is an important nesting ground for endangered Hawksbill turtles and seabirds and reputedly has the highest density of lizards in the world. Exclusive private island resorts such as Frégate and North Island, where William and Kate spent their honeymoon, also display strong eco-credentials. The best I've experienced, though, is Denis, whose birdlife and giant tortoise protection programmes blend seamlessly with its glorious barefoot-style luxury, while the more affordable Bird Island is a paradise for twitchers.

 

Some islands have no accommodation but can be explored on day trips. Take Curieuse, a former leper colony, and the only island other than Praslin where the coco de mer grows naturally. Or Aride, the northernmost granitic island and an important wildlife breeding ground. Conservation is taken so seriously here that access is restricted to three days a week, leaving the island free for the birds for the other four, including the world's only hilltop colony of sooty terns, as well as red-tailed tropic birds, which breed here, roseate tern and the world's largest colony of lesser noddies.

 

For many, divers especially, the Holy Grail is remote Aldabra Atoll, whose reefs, mangroves and seagrass meadows support a dizzying array of wildlife, including 100,000 giant tortoises. The raised coral atoll, the largest in the world, consists of a dozen islands bordering a lagoon so vast the whole of Mahé could fit inside its perimeter.

 

Many of the all-inclusive hotels offer 'international cuisine' but if you opt for some of the more authentic accommodation featured in the Seychelles Secrets programme, a collection of small guesthouses, Creole-style villas and privately-run hotels, you are more likely to dine out and have a chance to try the delicious Creole cuisine. Diverse historical influences, from European and Asian to African, have forged a unique language and culture and a cuisine that is big on fusion. Alongside staples such as coconut milk fish curry and fish stews sit favourites such as grilled octopus, tuna and kingfish, often basted with garlic, chillies and crushed ginger.

 

underwater marvels

 

Rice and chatinis, local chutneys made from veggies and fruits, are frequent accompaniments, and chicken, beef and breadfruit figure largely, with bony flying foxes on offer for the more adventurous. Wash it all down with bacca rum, Seybrew beer, or the 'toddy' palm wine, kalou.

 

Opportunities for gentle exercise are plentiful. The fly and deep sea fishing are both excellent, as are the diving and snorkelling, with abundant sea life, dramatic underwater rock formations and warm waters year round. Head there between August and October and you'll also get the chance to glimpse whale sharks, remarkable creatures, several metres long, but harmless.

 

Cycling can be a great way to get around the islands, especially sleepy La Digue. Cars were banned here until recently and bicycles and ox-driven carts still rule the roads. It's hard not to love La Digue. This beguiling island community is instantly relaxing, bumpy ox cart hotel transfer from the jetty notwithstanding. Its sprawling Union Estate is a kind of open-air museum based around a former plantation house and its lush, landscaped gardens. Here you can take a horse ride, hike up Belle Vue or simply luxuriate on Source d'Argent beach.

 

Back on Mahé, don't miss the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market in Victoria for local colour. Named after an English doctor who after the end of the Second World War became Governor of the Seychelles, the market is packed with fish stalls and fruit and vegetable sellers, as well as handicraft stalls selling coco de mer shells, hand-made organic soaps and fragrances made from island flowers.

 

For an added twist, time your visit for April 25-27, 2014 for Carnival. Victoria may be tiny but it knows how to party, putting on a riotous display of music, dance and colourful costumes, a world away from the sleepy beaches and sybaritic retreats.

 

take the family

 

The Seychelles is surprisingly family-friendly and the tranquil island of Desroches, a 45-minute flight from Mahé, is ideal for young children, having just opened Kids' Haven, a club offering activities such as yoga, conservation walks, kayaking, snorkelling, kite flying and tortoise feeding. Stay in beautiful beachfront villas and enjoy snorkelling, diving, other watersports, splashing around in the gentle waves or bonding with the resident giant tortoises. While away time at the spa, beachcomb or have the staff pack a picnic. For details, visit www.desroches-island.com.

 

Consider trying out some of the more authentic accommodation on the islands, from small guesthouses to Creole-style villas and family-run hotels. Try Seychelles Secrets (www.seychellessecrets.com) or Villas de Maitre (www.villasdemaitre.com).

 

Naturetrek offers 14-day holidays focused on opportunities to spot the local wildlife, from Seychelles Wild Orchids to endangered Hawksbill Turtles and Bird Island's breeding colonies of Sooty Terns. 01962 733051 / www.naturetrek.co.uk.

 

Dive Worldwide features a range of underwater options, including packages that offer the chance to snorkel with whale sharks, run in association with the Marine Conservation Society. 01962 302087 / www.diveworldwide.com.

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