The Seychelles: Fantasy Travel to the Garden of Eden?
Story and photos by April Orcutt
Wiggling my toes into soft white sand while lounging on crescent-shaped Anse Lazio beach framed by massive reddish boulders and looking out at a turquoise bay with verdant jungle behind me, I couldn’t help but think that the 19th-century British officer known as General Gordon of Khartoum was on to something in thinking that the Seychelles island of Praslin held the real Garden of Eden.
But later, looking at four-acre Cocos Island in Ile Cocos Marine National Park east of Praslin, I decided Gordon was wrong. With its vertically eroded granite rocks, lush green trees and exquisitely framed, petite white-sand beach — a tiny deserted world surrounded by an aqua and cobalt sea — Cocos Island must have been Eden.
Eden in the Indian Ocean
I had expected the Seychelles — 115 islands 1,000 miles east of Kenya and the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean — to be intriguing, but I hadn’t realized how many glorious little beaches, unusual equatorial forests, and dramatic granite cliffs could be found on the three main islands: Mahé, Praslin and La Digue.
Scientists agree the islands’ granite mountains do go back a long time. They were part of Gondwanaland, the supercontinent that broke into Australia, Antarctica, South America and Africa some 230 million years ago. The Seychelles’ larger Inner Islands remain as the world’s only granitic islands in the middle of an ocean.
Mahé: Creole Heritage and Harmony
Flying into Mahé, the largest island, where nearly 90 percent of the country’s 92,000 people live, I couldn’t take my eyes off the gray cliffs rising directly from the sea. Vegetation in myriad shades of green grew from every crack in the stacked layers of granite that rise more than half a mile in Morne Seychellois National Park.
The Seychellois pride themselves on the peaceful ethnic and racial “melting pot” of their country with its Creole mix of East African, Malagasy and European as well as Indian and Chinese heritage. In Victoria, the capital and cultural center, shopkeepers of all races sold colorful cotton clothing, jewelry, fish, mangoes, bananas, avocados, coconut oil, cumin, pepper and cardamom seeds in the lively open market. The scent of cinnamon bark was divine.
But I had come to explore the Seychelles’ extraordinary beaches. Beau Vallon, the most popular of Mahé’s more than 60 beaches, curves as a mile-long white-sand strand backed by resorts and a wide tree-lined walkway with local vendors selling tropical fruits and coconut drinks.
While children played in gentle waves and visitors floated quietly by on paddle boards, I swam and snorkeled. Later, behind a yacht anchored in the bay, the aptly named Silhouette Island stood silhouetted in the vivid oranges and pinks of the setting sun.
Praslin: Tortoises and Palm Forests
The one-hour catamaran-ferry trip between Mahé and the second-largest island, Praslin, passed several tiny rock islands where, alas, only the boating crowd could go.
On the larger islands, many of the coral-sand beaches are bordered by granite-cliff backdrops or bizarrely eroded boulders. In 2015 one of those beaches — quarter-mile-long Anse (meaning “cove”) Lazio on Praslin, where I sunk my toes into the softest sand my tootsies had ever felt — was voted by readers of TripAdvisor as one of the world’s top 25 beaches.
Just inland from Anse Lazio, eight huge primordial-looking native tortoises in a pen munched leaves and cooled off in a pond.
I had another primeval experience on the island: A couple miles inland — Praslin’s only 23 miles long and six miles wide — the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve in Praslin National Park holds a forest like no other. The double-lobed nuts of the 11-story-tall coco-de-mer palms can reach 20 inches in length and weigh 66 pounds. (The record is 95 pounds.)
The unique coco-de-mer nuts, the largest seeds in the world, hold a special place in the hearts of the Seychellois people. They’re pictured on the currency, in jewelry, on logos and more.
“The endangered coco-de-mer palms only grow naturally on Praslin and Curieuse,” said my guide, Dora Rose. “They grow very slowly — only one leaf each year.” But what a leaf: Towering coco-de-mer palms with fronds more than five feet across shelter the park’s pleasant trails from the equatorial sun.
In the quiet of the forest we heard a whistle. “That’s our black parrot,” Rose said. “It’s a threatened species and hard to see.” We heard the parrot whistle again.
La Digue: Bicycles and Beaches
It’s a 10-minute ferry ride from Praslin to six-square-mile La Digue, where cars are banned. (Dream-come-true: no truck or automobile noise.) Locals and tourists walk, bicycle or ride in golf- or ox-carts to reach the dazzling white sand of Grand Anse or the beginning of the dramatic string of tiny beaches nestled among boulders along Anse Source d’Argent.
Waiting for the ferry I strolled the village at La Passe and watched locals cruise by on bicycles, children play around kiosks selling souvenirs, and yachtspeople load supplies onto their crisp white boats. Ah, the quiet life!
The Fantasy: Floating and Privacy
Still, it’s the small-boat trip from Praslin to go snorkeling south of Ile Cocos in the astoundingly clear water that most fulfilled my own tropical-island fantasy. Perfect air and water temperatures combined so I felt like I was soaring over rocks, coral, turquoise parrot fish, striped convict tang, black and orange triggerfish and a moray eel without even the sensation of being in water.
Others must agree this islet is gorgeous because Ile Cocos adorns the covers of many Seychelles travel brochures.
With spectacular beaches and fewer than 240,000 visitors each year — some of those visitors being celebrities hiding out in exclusive resorts on remote islands where they won’t bother the rest of us — the Seychelles tops my list for fantasy travel.
When you go:
Getting there: Emirates flies from the U.S. to Mahé with one stop in Dubai.
Getting between islands: Cat Cocos Inter Island Ferry, Victoria, Mahé; tel: +248- 432–4843 or +248–432–4844; catcocos.com
Where to stay:
Mahé: Hilltop Boutique Hotel, Victoria; tel. +248–252–6870 or +248–426–6099; seychelles.travel/en/plan-your-visit/accommodation/bed-breakfast-guesthouse/1301-hilltop-boutique-hotel
Mahé: Savoy Resort & Spa, Beau Vallon; tel: +248–439–2000; savoy.sc
Mahé: Augerine Small Hotel, Beau Vallon; tel:+248–247–257; augerinehotel.com
Praslin: Acajou Beach Resort, Côte D’or; tel: +248–438–5300; acajouseychelles.com
Praslin: Castello Beach Hotel, Anse Kerlan; tel:+248–429–8900; castellobeachhotel.com
La Digue: Le Relax Luxury Lodge, Anse Gaulette; tel:+248–4–23–43–43; seychelles.travel/en/plan-your-visit/accommodation/small-hotels/1107-le-relax-luxury-lodge; recommended for couples only
Where to eat:
Mahé: Marie Antoinette, Victoria; tel: +248–426–6222; marieantoinette.sc; traditional Seychellois Creole dishes including grilled fish, curries and fish stew
Mahé: Jardin Du Roi (Spice Garden), Anse Royale; tel: +248–437–1313; seychelles.travel/en/explore/attractions/1903-le-jardin-du-roi; traditional Seychellois Creole cuisine including chicken curry and grilled fish using spices grown in their garden
Mahé: Bravo Restaurant, Eden Island; tel: +248–434–6020; seychelles.travel/en/explore/restaurants/1711-bravo; casual, trendy dining with a multi-page menu including salads, fish, curries, pastas, pizzas and burgers
Praslin: La Pirogue, Côte D’or; tel: +248–423 7766; piroguelodge.com; local and international cuisine
Praslin: Le Duc De Praslin, Cote D’or; tel:+248–4–294–800; leduc-seychelles.com/en/
La Digue: Zerof; tel: +423–4439 or +258–7463; seychelles.travel/en/explore/restaurants/1715-zerof-restaurant; local Creole and Continental dishes
La Digue: Fish Trap Restaurant, La Passe; tel:+248–2–636–100; facebook.com/www.fishtraprestau.sc/?_rdc=1&_rdr; seafood
La Digue: Chez Jules Restaurant, Anse Banane; tel:+248–2–584–432; tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g477968-d4437263-Reviews-Chez_Jules-La_Digue_Island.html; seafood, Cajun and Creole cuisine
What to do:
Water and land tours, excursions, and activities: Marine Charter by Mason’s Travel Services, Victoria, Mahé; tel:+248–428–88–88; masonstravel.com
Snorkel or fishing trips: Starfish Boat Charter, c/o L’Hirondelle Guest House, Côte D’or, Praslin; tel. +248–256–5881 or +248–277–4966 or +248–423–2243; email email@example.com; seyguide.com/fr/praslin/detente/excursion-mer-peche.html