PRIYA GANAPATHY falls in love with the vibrant beautiful island life of the Seychelles and picks out enriching holiday experiences covering history, culture and cuisine
Nearly a thousand miles off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean lies a cluster of 115 islands that make the Seychelles an unblemished paradise. Apart from lolling in its blissful sun-kissed beaches, here are 10 ways to experience Seychelles’ unique native culture and cuisine.
1) Eat an octopus and pin your visiting card at Marie-Antoinette
Surrounded by a gigantic ocean teeming with aquatic life, Seychelles offers a generous platter of seafood. At weekly night markets like Bazar Labrin, sample Creole specialities like kari zouri (octopus curry) and sosouri (fruit bat). Pizzerias like La Fontaine at Beau Vallon in Mahe draw beachcombers to feast on salade de pieuvre (octopus salad), Assiette de fruit de mer (ocean platters), cigalle grille (grilled slipper lobster) and crispy calamari served on vibrant wooden fish placemats. At Bravo! on Eden Island Marina dig into crunchy octopus salad or grilled octopus with a fabulous view of docked yachts. Beryl and Brian of Glacis Heights Villa, a boutique homestay, consider kordonye as Seychelles’ favourite dish. The small fish makes ladies tipsy as it has an intoxicant tucked in its glands. For time-honoured Creole recipes, there’s no better place than Le Grand Trianon-Marie Antoinette Restaurant at St Louis Hill. Since 1972, thousands of travellers and celebrities have savoured a meal in this historic restaurant and guesthouse owned by Kathleen Fonseca, the grand lady of Creole cuisine. Declared a national monument in 2011, its high red roof, wood interiors, wide verandahs and white louvered windows wear a definitive stamp of tradition and taste. From the very first bite of mango salad and crunch of batter-fried Parrot fish, down to the last spoon of Coconut Nougat; the multi-course meal is divine. The colonial restaurant played home to journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley for a month after he tracked down missing explorer David Livingstone in Africa and uttered the famous words ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume’. Henry renamed Marie Antoinette ‘Livingstone Cottage’ as tribute. Before you leave, do the local thing and pin your visiting card at the notice board!
2) Learn to dance the sega
Another conspicuous facet of Seychellois island life is their love for music and dance. At night markets or by the beach catch locals singing or performing traditional dances like mutzya or moutia and sega around a bonfire. The moutia was an ancient form of protest music and dance of African origin that involves shuffling one’s feet to a rhythm. They say that when the Europeans brought the slaves here, they bound their feet with big chains causing them to drag their feet while they danced their pain away. Some say that the séance-like moutia is almost extinct as it was banned by the colonial rulers. But the sega continues to delight audiences with its irresistible charm. Holding up their flared skirts, ladies gyrate their hips rhythmically, moving their shoulders teasingly, prompting everyone around to join in.
3) Hold the largest seed in the plant kingdom at Vallee de Mai
If you ever wondered what the primeval garden of Eden looked like, drop by at Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Praslin. It is a protected haven for the primitive coco de mer palm and the rare endemic Seychelles black parrot. The coco de mer’s erotic shape led people to believe it was aphrodisiacal and Arab traders of yore made a killing by encrusting the giant seed with gemstones and marketing them as prized collectibles. The guided walk is an eye-opener on the treasured palm which holds two botanical records as the world’s largest and heaviest seed and the largest male flower of any palm! The Morne Seychellois National Park at Sans Souci in Mahe is another invigorating hike that unravels many biodiversity secrets – critically endangered species like the strange jellyfish tree (Medusa tree), evergreen cloud forests atop Morne Blanc filled with mosses and giant ferns and endemic birds like Seychelles bulbul and White-tailed Tropicbirds, their dainty tails trailing like kites freed in the wind. Several nature trails across different islands are just a ferry or chopper ride away.
4) Travel in an oxcart at La Digue
La Digue Island offers a true taste of tradition and a chance to slow down. Barring a few motorised vehicles, only quaint oxcarts, bicycles and walking are the main modes of travel here. Designed by explorer Dr Lyall Watson and one of La Digue’s most influential personalities Ton Karl, the oxcart is emblematic of the island. The contraption has since evolved into a hooded vehicle, adorned with coconut leaves and flowers, making it a well-loved mode of commuting for visitors. Visit L’Union Estate for a peek into the heritage bungalow and copra kiln, discover the antiquated oil extraction technique at an ox-drawn mill and the process of cultivating vanilla in its sprawling plantation. Interestingly, each vanilla stick is etched with UE (Union Estate)!
5) Go on a scented spice trail
No trip to the ‘Vanilla Islands’ is complete without a spice trail. Le Jardin du Roi, the spice plantation at Anse Royale in Mahe provides the perfect DIY experience. Spread across 25 hectares of lush vegetation, the privately owned property dates back to 1854 and is a nature reserve, botanical garden and heritage museum cum restaurant rolled into one. Grab a map and checklist and head down any of the designated trails. The easy Rainforest Trail winds through a coffee estate in the shade of the mystical coco de mer trees, cinnamon and clove plantations, patchouli and ylang ylang valley and giant bamboo groves. The Garden Walk weaves past vanilla and pepper vines, shrubs of allspice and nutmeg, citronella bushes, stunning wild ginger, orchids and exotic fruit orchards. The Ridge Trail and the Gratte Fesses, both steep treks to the estate’s highest points present brilliant views of the island and bay. Dotted with peace gardens, an old cemetery, a distillery and souvenir shop, one can spend hours here.
6) Get curious on Curieuse Island
Just 1km off the coast of Praslin lies Curieuse Island, an erstwhile leper colony that now offers hiking, birdwatching, snorkelling and swimming opportunities. Go on a 1-hr guided trail past the tortoise sanctuary, climb stunning granite boulders hewn by wind and water, and trudge down boardwalks past mangrove swamps crawling with giant crabs, newts, salamander and shellfish twirling in the tangle of submerged roots. Doctor’s house, home of late Dr William MacGregror, a Scotsman who treated lepers at Anse Jose has been converted into a national museum showcasing the island’s fascinating history. For 136 years this quarantined island remained cut away from human influence, which helped protect its natural ecosystem. En route, see the remains of Curieuse Causeway, a seawall built in 1910, that blocked off the mangroves and created a pond for breeding Hawksbill turtles for shell trade. Struck by disease, the turtles died, but the wall served as a walkway for visitors until the 2004 tsunami almost wiped it out! Currently a Marine National Park, Curieuse Island has several rare endemic plant species. Besides the coco de mer palms, the other old-timers include giant tortoises who don’t mind sharing beach barbeques! In fact, the island has numerous free ranging Aldabra Giant land tortoises who love getting curious about you and your food! A 15 minute boat ride takes you to St. Pierre Islet, a haven for snorkelling and diving.
7) Sey Beer, Sey Brew, SeyTe
Besides being one of the finest viewpoints in Mahe, the famous Seychelles Tea Factory showcases how tea is grown and manufactured. The Tea Tavern by the gate is a convenient place to enjoy a brew or buy a range of classic SeyTe, with blended varieties like Special Vanilla, Green Tea, Bio Tea, Indian Ocean, Orange and Cinnamon. The “Spirit of The Seychelles” flowed steadily at the renowned rum distillery Takamaka Bay at La Plaine St Andre, a 200 year estate and homestead. We discovered that the fascinating process of rum-making from sugarcane to shot glass actually began with an old sugarcane crusher imported from India! The noisy cast iron contraption had ‘Chabavak’ (chewer) embossed in Devnagiri script! After a heady tasting session of their extraordinary range of award winning spirits including White rum, Dark rum, Spice Rum and Vesou, we voted the premium St Andre 8 Year Old with its woody aroma and Coco Rum (a delicious blend with coconut extract) as favourites. The in-house restaurant La Plaine St Andre has a hearty Creole-inspired lunch of Millionaire salad with palm hearts and fish, Red snapper, chicken coconut curry and a sweet potato-banana-nutmeg dessert.
8) Catch the Carnival spirit at Victoria, the smallest capital in the world
When the Carnaval International de Victoria hit the streets, the infectious festive spirit paints the capital in a riot of colour, dance and unabated fun. International and local acts, flamboyant costumes, music and vibrant tableaux create an electric mood as everyone whirls to capture the raw energy and beauty of the spectacle on camera. The much awaited carnival takes place around the third week of April every year.
9) Visit the only Hindu temple in Mahe, the largest island of Seychelles
Not far from the heart of Victoria, the capital city, the spire of a South Indian shrine carved with rainbow hued gods and goddesses looks like it has been directly transplanted from a temple street in Tamil Nadu! From within the Sri Navasakti Vinayagar Temple, priests chant Sanskrit shlokas in soulful Carnatic style as bells, drums and nadaswara music resound inside. Clearly, the Hindu Tamils in Seychelles contribute to its multicultural ethos.
10) Learn scuba diving at Big Blue Divers
Beau Vallon in Mahe is the chosen hub for adventure seekers who come to sail, snorkel, dive, fish or parasail. With dive sites varying from 8-30m, Seychelles is suitable for both beginners and experienced divers. The waters are ideal between March-May and September-November. Big Blue Divers, run by Gilly and Elizabeth Fideria, offer diving sessions in crystal waters and coral gardens around Willy’s Rock. The treasures in this watery world with a coral reef swarmed by myriad fish can keep one rapt for hours. Elizabeth says, “People only have to dive once to know if they like it or not. Seychelles helps you figure out whether you’re a sea loving turtle or a land dwelling tortoise!”
Getting There: Jet Airways has flies to Mahé via Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Colombo. Air Seychelles flies direct from Mumbai to Mahé (4 hr 10 min) three times a week. For inter-island travel, hop on to Cat Cocos www.catcocos.com or local ferries from Mahé to Praslin and La Digue.
Where to Stay: Choose from private island resorts like www.fregate.com, www.north-island.com or www.denisisland.com to chalets, villas and luxury resorts like Hotel Savoy Resort & Spa (www.savoy.sc) in Beau Vallon (Mahé), Hotel L’Archipel www.larchipel.com (Praslin) to boutique homestays like Glacis Heights Villa (Mahé), farmstays and retreats. For budget holiday options visit www.seychellessecrets.com
For more details visit www.seychelles.travel
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the September 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.