As I fly over the Indian Ocean, from the sky, I see granite boulders rising like standing stones out of a pristine tropical jungle. Below me, the alluring turquoise Indian ocean and shades of unknown creatures.
I’m on a small twin-engine aircraft, joined by Max, photographer and husband, and six others, including the pilot, for a 15-minute flight from the capital, Mahe, to Praslin, Seychelles. Max and I make sure to accommodate ourselves on the first row. Though I realize that regardless of our sitting position, we all get a view out of the windshield, making our drop to the landing strip particularly exciting.
500 km south of the equator and about 1,700 km east of the African coast, northeast of Madagascar, the Seychelles archipelago extends over an area at a crossroads between Asia and Africa. It consists of 115 islands – where only 26 are inhabited – spread over an area of more than 1 million km².
I can hardly imagine the rush of adrenaline European explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries must have felt as they first set foot in this lost archipelago – an array of paradisiac tropical fauna and flora in such an extraordinary setting – uninhabited until the late 1700s. Yet, thanks to successful and consistent conservation initiatives, much, although not all, of what the first sailors described still survives.
Therefore, after six years, I am coming back to the Seychelles – this time, to hip hop across islands and learn from the people on the ground why this is a slice of paradise worth protecting. I become aware these islands were detached from other landmasses at a time before modern mammals had evolved. No land mammals are occurring here naturally, which has allowed particular kinds of life to develop. Besides, the archipelago is located outside the cyclone zone, which means most islands escape the typical Indian Ocean’s ubiquitous cyclical battering.
In many ways, the Seychelles are a unique part of the world. These are the oldest oceanic islands on Earth. With an outer halo of coral atolls, the islands at the heart of the archipelago are the world’s only mid-oceanic islands comprised of granitic rock, which blushes rose pink in the sun. Such distinctive geography has resulted in rich and unique biodiversity. Here we find ten times more giant tortoises than the Galapagos. There are species of animals and plants that evolved here and are found nowhere else – 80 endemic species of flora and invertebrates alone, contributing to over 2,000 endemic species of fauna.
Our first stop is Praslin, the second largest Island. We stay a few days at the Raffles hotel, a fabulous location – our room with clear views to the blue Indian ocean and lush green hills. We cruise across Praslin’s neighboring islands, such as sister and coco islands, including Felicite – where is the Six senses with its Bond-like concrete, glass, and water super-villas. Not far from Raffles is Anse Lazio, one of Seychelle’s most compelling beaches, with coves that stretch beyond it and are only reachable by foot. It’s gorgeous, the clear, blue waters framing the fascinating granite formations. And just one hour’s walk over Anse Lazio’s hills brings us to another alluring beach, Anse Georgette, with no car access and entirely fringed with palms.
Yet, I come to the Seychelles not only for its divine beaches. I also come for its natural reserves, which among National Parks and Marine Reserves, take over 50% of its territory. Other parts of the archipelago are in private hands and undergoing a lengthy rehabilitation process. The scars from decades of colonization, first the French and then the British (Seychelles independence declared in 1976), slowly fading with the eradication of invasive plants and critters and their replacement with more kindly native species.
The Seychelles has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Aldabra, the world’s second-largest coral atoll situated in the Outer Islands, and the Vallee de Mai, a well-preserved palm forest located right here in Praslin. This forest is where we find the most significant concentration of Seychelles’ flagship species, such as the endemic coco de Mer, the king of its jungle and biggest seed on Earth that weights up to 40kg, and five others endemic palms. The coco de Mer palm tree only grows naturally on two islands in the world: Praslin and Curieuse – its neighbor island 2 km off the northeast coast. It is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. In recent years, the seeds have been at risk from poaching, changes in climate, and forest fires, and because they can take up to 50 years to grow and flower, their numbers in the wild have been shrinking.
I walk through the Valle de Mai, a mystic, even alien, environment, canopied by enormous fan-shaped palm leaves up to 15 feet long. There is nothing more beautiful. The government conservation team guides me through different sections of the forest as I hear about successful educational projects and endangered wildlife. I get particularly interested in the one involving the bird flying over my head. The Black parrot, a protected species endemic to Praslin and Curieuse, is highly dependent on this ecosystem for survival. Their nesting takes place inside dead palm trees, with some of the recognized breeding patterns being transformed over the years due to climate change.
I hear from locals mixed opinions about the current and past governments, but almost everyone cherishes the successful (governmental and private) initiatives implemented to protect their treasured environment. Plastic pollution, climate change, and overfishing threaten to deliver a catastrophic blow to the nation’s marine ecosystem, which sustains more than two-thirds of the economy. The mass bleaching event of 1998, in some areas, destroyed up to 90% of Seychelles’s coral reefs. In 2006, El Nino made the situation worst. This is a nation highly vulnerable to flooding and coastal erosion.
Though, there is also much hope for a brighter future. In a bid to build climate resilience, the Seychelles signed a pioneering deal in 2015: almost $22m of its national debt was written off in exchange for the country doing more to protect its oceans. The “debt for nature” swap involved the US conservation group The Nature Conservancy (TNC) buying the debt to create 13 new marine protected areas across the islands. In the five years since, the Seychelles has progressed from protecting 0.04% to 30% of its national waters, covering 410,000 square kilometers of ocean – an area larger than Germany. Fishing, oil exploration, and other marine development have been banned or severely restricted in the area.
There are moments on this trip when I feel a rare excitement and utterly free from the wish to be anywhere else. One of them is when I set foot in La Dique, a tiny island with no cars, where most people ride bicycles. Creole houses nestle under papaya trees, their window boxes and plant pots overflowing with flowers. Fishers dawdle along the road carrying sticks hung with fish while wooden pirogues glide across the water. There is much to love about this place: the simplicity, the laid-back vibe, far away from Seychelle’s reputation as a five-star -hotel destination.
Reachable only by boat or Ferry, La Dique is more like a backpacker’s place, popular among Instagrammers, though, thanks to its remoteness, it has never been cheap to get to. In July 2021, the lack of tourists allows me to legitimately experience this piece of heaven without distraction. I bike throughout the day around the Island, passing the neat rows of vanilla vines (introduced by French settlers) to land in Anse Source d’Argent – arguably Seychelles’s most revered beach. The massive granite boulders punctuate the dazzling white sand and swaying palm trees, the turquoise Indian ocean water all around. It’s hard not to call it paradise.
Another memorable moment is when we take a short chopper ride from La Dique and fly West. From the sky, as we approach an isolated granitic island, I see bush, after beach, until we land in North – a private Island billed as the greatest resort on Earth, a far cry from La Dique. This mini, car-free Island, with a perimeter of 7.55km, is about the same size as Monaco, with varied topography, ranging from grassy plateaus to undulating granite peaks and covered in tropical forest. It’s only accessible by chopper or boat. There are four beaches heaped with some of the Seychelle’s softest sand. With only 11 impossibly chic 5,000 square feet Crusoe-style villas set along a sensational lick of white sand splendor, North Island is undoubtedly among the world’s most exclusive addresses. No wonder the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge chose the place for their honeymoon.
A former fruit, spices, and copra plantation, the Island was abandoned in the 1970s and riddled with rats and wild cats. Since its purchase in 1997 by Wilderness Holdings Limited, an ecotourism company, and opening in 2003, it has also been a serious player in conservation. Later in 2010, a Russian billionaire bought it for $47.5 million, but by all accounts, the Island has remained committed to keeping it true to its conservation-led roots.
North Island employs environmentalists and takes on volunteers in a continued effort to rehabilitate its ecosystem. Crushed coconuts surface the roads, and primordial forest encases the villas. Takamaka woodlands replace alien vegetation, while hawksbill and green turtles are protected, as are the surrounding coral reefs. North Island’s remarkable success story in conservation comes with solid evidence: Seychelles Blue Pigeons, breeding populations of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and White-tailed Tropicbirds returning on their own accord; Hawksbill and Green Turtles nesting on North Islands’ beaches in ever-increasing numbers.
Then, just a 20-minute chopper ride from North takes us to Mahé, Seychelles’ capital, a place I fell in love with during my honeymoon in 2015. This time, on my babymoon, I’m staying at the Four Seasons, opened in 2009 but still at the top of its game. With vast, light-soaked villas secreted among 69 hectares of wonderfully landscaped grounds, the hotel is set by the turquoise waters of Petite Anse bay – a fabulous, white-sand secluded beach.
But as much as I enjoy FS’s Mahé, for a change in scenery, I take a short propeller flight to stay a few days at the newer Four Seasons’ property at Desroches. 227 Km southwest of Victoria, Desroches belongs to the Outer Islands, providing a truly different vibe. Unlike Seychelles’ more accessible and granitic Inner Islands, this remote outpost in the Amirantes Bank is coralline: flat, sandy, far off, cast adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean millions of years ago.
I love Mahé, though. The largest island in the archipelago is home to almost 90 percent of the country’s 80,000 residents. It is particularly alluring: for the unique culture, the bustle around the capital of Victoria, its exquisite scenery – the thick jungle covering the Island with lemongrass limes and flowering cardamon. Mahé is also part of the inner circle of oceanic granitic isles, therefore, peppered with smooth grey boulders.
Along with the rest of the Seychelles, Mahé scaped the plague of cheap mass tourism that reached some of the world’s superb coastlines in the eighties and nineties, thanks to a coup d’état in 1977. Guesthouses and locally owned hotels were the order of the day until the 1990s when the government adopted a more pragmatic approach to foreign investment. Money has arrived ever since, mainly from Arabs and Russians. But conservation efforts continue strong. Preservation in Mahe exists on almost every tree, with beaches— there are 70 of them on this 17-mile-long island —backed by vegetation rather than concrete guesthouses.
But, more than anything, Mahé – and the Seychelles – has a soul. And that’s the reason why I’m so fond of it. It’s more than a beach destination with five-star hotels, where I can observe local life if I choose to. Unlike Mauritius and Maldives – Seychelle’s biggest competitors in the Indian Ocean – Mahé feels real. A place that besides raw nature, exposes me to its vivid creole spirit.