PRIYA GANAPATHY goes beyond the beaches to capture the spirit of Seychelles through nature and historic trails, plantation walks, Creole culture and cuisine
As the plane edged out of the coastline, I watched the Indian Ocean spread like a Persian blue tile calligraphed by tufts of clouds. Backlit by the sun, the water was a sheet of sapphire strewn with glistening green islands. It was a magical touchdown at Mahe Airport. As we disembarked, excited tourists exclaimed “Seychelles! Seychelles!”
Unknown to civilization for eons, these little dots off Africa’s East Coast were too remote to merit notice except for Arabs traders who found great profit in selling the rare coco de mer nuts, regarded as aphrodisiacal fruits from the Garden of Eden. Embellished with shells and precious stones, these endemic nuts with feminine curves became exotic collectibles. Vasco da Gama, who spotted the islands on his return from India to Africa in 1502 named them Les Amirantes or Admiral islands. Few years later, the Portuguese surveyed the region and christened the granitic islands as Seven Sisters. It became a perfect perch for pirates raiding merchant vessels enroute the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
French explorer Lazare Picault mapped Mahe, the largest granitic island and the Stone of Possession was laid in 1756. Renamed Isle de Séchelles after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Minister of Finance to King Louis XV, the tag stuck for the entire archipelago. The French established huge spice gardens and plantations and brought slaves to work on the plantations. After the French Revolution, the British wrested power until the island nation finally gained independence in 1976.
Unlike other leisure destinations, Seychelles possesses an unaccustomed innocence of a remote archipelago lost at sea. Its hassle-free entry protocol with no visa requirements, low crime rate and promise of privacy tempted even Prince William and Kate to make Seychelles their chosen escape. Home to the rarest species of plants, birds, animals and geology dating to prehistoric times, the Seychellois culture, cuisine and lifestyle bears the influence of many communities that populated it. As we whizzed towards our roost, virgin beaches bordering the road, red-roofed cottages tucked in sunlit cliffs and dense green forests came to life with the suddenness of a flipbook.
Glacis Heights Villa, a boutique homestay atop a steep hillock in northwest Mahe overlooked the famous Silhouette Island jutting out of the ocean like a humped whale. The sunset quietly painted the sea flamingo pink as our hosts Beryl and Brian initiated us into the world of tropical delights – exotic fruits, juices and Creole cuisine. “Creole food is really about the spices, a blend of African food with colonial influences. It also mixes Chinese, Indian and French cuisines, so it’s hard to classify. However, we use a lot of coconut milk. We have a little fish called kordonye. It is very rare. You fry it and can even eat the bones!”, Beryl explained.
“The hill is a bit steep… so that works as our gym” Brian winked. Just 200m down the driveway, waves dance across Sunset Beach and a 10 minute walk leads to other quiet beaches and the lovely Bliss Hotel. Ideal for shore swimmers, waders and walkers, the rough sea here is unsuitable for diving. But Beau Vallon, the island’s most popular hub for beach activity was a 10-minute drive away where one could go sailing, snorkelling, diving, sport fishing and parasailing.
The weekly night market at Bazar Labrin was an instant barometer of Seychellois spirit. Set in an open ground, the happy meet-up of locals buzzed with smoky stalls selling fries and fritters, tropical juices, beer and palm liquor. Locals hawked homemade soaps and art n’ craft souvenirs. Entertainment came easy with spontaneous mirth as people danced while local bands played trop-rock, reggae and Creole music.
Victoria, the tiny capital port city to the north of Mahe Island, bustles with eateries, museums, bars, discos, resorts and boutiques in French colonial buildings like Kenwyn House. The Lolroz or “Little Ben” stands proud at the intersection – a silver clocktower mimicking its counterpart that stood in central London. Sir Sewlyn Sewlyn-Clarke Market is the local market echoing the colour and flavour of Seychelles. An open-air fish market since 1840, the place spills with vegetables, fruits, spices, flowers and souvenirs.
Florist Marie Antoinette displayed her unusual flower buckets filled with Wild ginger, Torch Ginger and Rattlesnake, which resembles a serpent’s tail! “People love to come here because it is a peaceful country and for the water and sun!” she confided. A wide array of spices, packets of vanilla and neatly rolled cinnamon sticks, tea boxes, fruits like carambola, soursop (corossol) and exquisite seashell souvenirs made us linger as pretty girls selling printed beachwear and pareos (sarongs) smiled from their terrace shops. We hopped into Victoria’s most talked about restaurants for a quick bite – Pirates Arms and Bravo! on Eden Island Marina, a super yacht facility.
A winding drive to San Souci and a trek in the Morne Seychellois National Park unearthed some of Seychelles’ best kept biodiversity secrets. While the cloud forests on the peak tantalised us with majestic aloofness, Terence Belle, a walking encyclopedia on natural history chose an easier route for us. He indicated, “This palm was originally from Kew Gardens in England. A guy stole it and brought it here. That’s why it’s also called Latanier feuille or Thief’s Tree. They use it as roof thatching. During rains, we use it is as an umbrella!” We tried to keep pace with his hat of surprises.
“There are 6 endemic palms here. That’s Deckenia nobilis, a protected palm species whose heart was used to prepare salade palmiste or ‘millionaire’s salad’, a local delicacy. But the whole palm had to be sacrificed to reach the palm heart. Today it cannot be cut. Restaurants only serve the heart of the coconut tree! That’s a sunbird, our national bird. We have the world’s smallest frog here.” he rattled on. The trail ended at a dense tract of pitcher plants rambling over the cliffside, like green lanterns lit by the sun. Peeking into this deadly carnivorous plant we found its hidden lethal pools of death that attracted insects to their doom.
Rum tasting at the Takamaka Bay Distillery on La Plaine St Andre estate kept our spirits high and post lunch we strolled down Bilenbi Avenue for a scented spice trail past historic ruins. An ancient baobab tree with supposed healing properties and an old plantation bell stood as a memorial to the men, women and children who toiled here. Aurelie, our guide explained “Long ago, the bell stood atop a tower. The huge property had many slaves working from dawn to dusk. Under the French, it was a plantation of cotton, rice, coconut and tobacco. Later when the English arrived, they abolished slavery and gave a plot of land to every slave which gave it a nice happy ending.”
Venn’s Town, named after Henry Venn, an Anglican missionary better known as ‘Mission’, was another offbeat yet beautiful reminder of the triumph against slavery. In a wooded patch stood the ruins of a boarding school founded in 1875 by Rev William Chancellor to educate children of slaves freed by the British Navy. The Cat Cocos ferried us to Praslin and Hotel L’Archipel became our haven of luxury and a great base to experience the mesmeric beauty of Curieuse Island and La Digue.
With the joy of swimming at spectacular beaches like Anse Source d’Argent, Grande Anse and Petit Anse, Seychelles is indeed paradise. There is a Creole saying “Jete coule je ne coule camin” meaning “look with your eyes and keep it in your heart”. It holds true for the unblemished beauty of Seychelles.
How to go: Seychelles is a cluster of 115 islands nearly a thousand miles off the coast of Africa. Air Seychelles flies from Mumbai to Mahé (4 hr 10 min) three times a week, besides flights via Colombo, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Hop on to Cat Cocos or local ferries from Mahé to reach Praslin and La Digue.
Where to stay: Seychelles has excellent beach resorts like Hotel L’Archipel at Praslin, boutique homestays like Glacis Heights Villa at Mahe and colonial bungalows in spice plantations.
When to go: With an endless summer it’s great to visit all year round. The Carnaval International de Victoria takes place in the last week of April.
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 8 Feb 2015 in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu.