Published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2009
In the centre of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, is the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke indoor market. Trestle tables are piled with locally caught fish; there are mangos, papaya, bananas, pineapples and water melons, sweet potatoes, peppers, christophines and carrots. A vendor proffers a coconut pierced with two straws: “If you drink coconut milk and think of the Seychelles, you will return in three months,” he says. The milk is sour and watery but at 10 rupees, or 40p, it’s worth a go.
Who wouldn’t want to return to this necklace of islands, nearly 1,000 miles from the east coast of Africa? The mystery is why it’s taken me so long to come here. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect island and it was here all along. Such beauty doesn’t come cheap, of course, though the Seychelles is good value at the moment, with the pound buying 60 per cent more than it did in June 2008. The problem now is to work out which, among the 115 islands, is the most perfect – and, as this is only a fleeting visit, I only have three days in which to do it.
The Seychelles is made up of 43 “inner” and 72 “outer” islands. The three largest inner islands, Mahé, Praslin and La Digue, are where most of the population lives and where most of the resorts are concentrated, although you can stay on 10 of the other inner islands, the best known of which is Frégate. I’ve opted for Mahé. It has the Seychelles’ only international airport and is the transportation hub for all the other islands. This makes it the sensible solution if you don’t want to waste time transferring to your final destination. It also offers the greatest range of accommodation, from self-catering chalets and guesthouses to five-star luxury, all within half an hour’s drive or so from the airport.
I’m staying at Maia. I love Maia, and not just because the brochure assures me I will “arrive as the bud of a lotus flower” and “grow and blossom in the warmth of the Maia experience”. It’s the perfect mix of chic, contemporary design and traditional comfort with a dash of Eastern spirituality, overseen by a charming, French general manager with an obsessive eye for detail. The resort is made up of 30 villas – some on the beach, some on the hillside – scattered over a promontory on the island’s south-west coast.
Each villa has indoor and outdoor living space and a private infinity lap pool; some also have an alfresco sunken bath. Each has a terrific view and a butler who doubles as chambermaid, room service waiter and general factotum. It’s my butler Gemina who points out the dolphins playing in the bay; who lights the candles on my terrace while I’m at dinner; who folds my discarded sarong into a flower. There’s a spa where tiny Balinese therapists perform Herculean tasks on knotted muscles to a backbeat of birdsong; and a lovely pool and terrace restaurant by the beach. If you need to orientate yourself, you can take the road that winds past Maia’s front gate and walk to the next bay. Nobody will bother you or try to sell you anything (which applies to everywhere you go in the Seychelles), though when you reach the next bay, you will discover that Maia bagged the better spot.
But there’s no time for loafing about on beaches – there are 114 islands to see. Maia suggests a boat tour of those nearest to Mahé and draws up an itinerary. First up is the cluster of six islands in the Ste Anne Marine National Park, a couple of miles east of Victoria. The first settlers lived on Sainte Anne, the largest of these islands; the novelist Wilbur Smith once lived on another; while a third used to be a prison. Girdled by white-sand beaches, they are picture-postcard pretty but the itinerary rules out stopping so soon. We press on, until we spot a ribbon of white sand unfurling to our left. It’s punctuated by the enormous granite boulders peculiar to the Seychelles and lies between lush palm trees and turquoise shallow waters. This, our captain says, is La Digue’s famous Source d’Argent beach, thought by many to be the most beautiful beach in the world. In the way of beaches everywhere, visitors cluster together in one spot, but a little farther along it’s deserted. I long to stop for a swim but we aren’t scheduled to land here either.
Finally, four miles north of La Digue, we drop anchor a few yards from a tiny island called Ile Cocos. This is Maia’s secret snorkelling spot (several other boats are obviously in on the secret) and minutes later I am swimming with turtles – OK, it’s one turtle and it’s trying to get away – and all manner of exotic reef fish. The Seychelles is among the top diving spots in the world but you don’t have to go very deep to appreciate its subaquatic beauty.
Then it’s back in the boat and on to an even smaller island, called Curieuse, known for its coco de mer palms and giant tortoises. The Seychelles is mad about coco de mer, partly because the palm is endemic to the islands but mostly because its seed is shaped like a woman’s bottom. Staff at Maia will proudly show you a carefully cultivated coco de mer palm in its grounds, although the palms only grow wild on Curieuse and Praslin.
We reach Praslin, the second largest inhabited island, at lunchtime. As we approach Anse Lazio beach – another beautiful stretch of white sand – the captain kills the engine. “That’s your table,” he says, pointing to
a wooden table and chairs between the trees. “They do a delicious crab curry.” He will be ferrying towels, sarongs and sunglasses across to the BonBon Plume restaurant on the inflatable; I will be swimming. It’s no Ursula Andress moment but the captain is right about the crab curry. The restaurant also keeps several giant tortoises in a pen. Did you know that if you tickle a tortoise under the chin, it elevates like one of those old Citroëns?
On the way back to Mahé we pass a few more ravishing islands: Cousin, Cousine and Aride. Only 101 to go. But the boat is booked for the next couple of days and then I’m flying home so my odyssey is at an end. The other islands will just have to wait until I return – alas, it won’t be in three months.
- 2014 update: more on Maia Luxury Resort & Spa at www.maia.com.sc/