Sarah Laurence discovers that the largest island in the Seychelles is luring holidaymakers and investors alike
While the Seychelles is becoming a popular holiday destination for South Africans, we weren’t always welcomed with air-conditioned minibuses and Creole charm. In 1981, “Mad Mike” Hoare and a group of mercenaries arrived on the island disguised as a drinking party, sent by the apartheid government to overthrow the socialist president France-Albert René. What could go wrong? So immersed in their cover were they that one of “Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers” drew attention to himself upon landing. After he stumbled into the incorrect customs queue, the mercenary’s bags were searched by a conscientious official, who found concealed weapons and raised the alarm. Copious amounts of gunfire followed and the unfortunate incident ended when some of the party hijacked an Air India plane, forcing it to fly back to Durban and leaving several compatriots behind.
The Seychelles has long been known for its ring of pristine beaches, exclusive resorts and umbrella cocktails sipped with a view of a gently lapping shore. And before we landed in the muggy, open-air airport peacefully festooned with brightly coloured banners, not much else came to mind. We were soon to find out that during the past decade, the continent’s tiniest country has quietly emerged from its socialist past (when it received financial aid from the USSR and China to stay afloat). Now an industrially competitive nation, the Seychelles is developing sustainable grass-roots tourism and energy production and becoming an increasingly attractive tax and lifestyle haven for expats from SA and around the world.
As well as opening up a free port, head of state James Alix Michel has drastically altered the country’s former tourism policy of only allowing the operation of foreign-owned luxury resorts. Since the turn of the millennium, signs proclaiming family-run hotels, bed and breakfasts and self- catering accommodation have begun to appear among the higgledy-piggledy Indian cafés, local restaurants and the ubiquitous Barclays ATMs of popular areas. The government has also been vocal about its attempts to encourage eco- friendly and sustainable travel so that it can conserve the resources and wildlife that make the islands such a drawcard and sustain tourism as the chief revenue source.
While many an idyllic island holiday has been botched by temperamental weather or inconvenienced by whining mosquitoes, the Seychelles has escaped many of the drawbacks so common to paradise destinations. As well as lying outside the cyclone zone, the Seychelles is malaria- free, despite its tropical location. Scientists aren’t quite sure why the archipelago is immune to the disease that plagues much of Africa but think it might have something to do with the fact the islands were uninhabited until Arab traders discovered them in the ninth century.
One of the smallest capital cities in the world, Victoria is situated on the northeast coast of granite-based Mahé. The largest of the country’s 116 islands despite being only 27km long and 8km wide, Mahé is home to 90% of the population. Its diminutive size makes it easy to explore (rather like visiting a miniature city of a large country) and the public bus network cross-stitched around the island is a bargain and easy to navigate. Many tourists bypass the island for more remote isles Praslin and La Digue (or, in the case of William and Kate, a honeymoon at North Island Resort). However, we found that Mahé offers visitors the most wide-ranging experience of sun, sand, sport and culture.
Only a few kilometres across the island from Victoria is Mahé’s most popular beach destination, Beau Vallon, which is beautiful and unexpectedly quiet considering its status as a tourist’s paradise. A scooping crescent of sand in a protected bay, Beau Vallon is home to several traditional family resorts set back from the beach. The country’s law against private beaches has resulted in a more authentic cultural experience than many sea-and-sun destinations can offer.
While walking along Beau Vallon you may become part of a Creole barbecue, a birthday party or a spirited game of soccer in the surf — all during one impossibly vibrant sunset. It’s also a great base for the active (or just us lazy loungers needing to work off cocktails) as a multitude of water sports are available. From Beau Vallon’s southern point we embarked on a hike that takes you through the winding village Bel Ombre, the path lined with ramshackle houses clinging precariously to the rock, and through the tropical jungle down the coast to the remote bay of Anse Major. The beach — which looks like a Cast Away film set staged with jade- green sea and smooth driftwood on fine white sand — is only otherwise accessible by boat and is perfect for a post-hike swim.
To shop for fresh ingredients, visit Mahé’s most famous market in Victoria. The Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market is a colourful confusion of trestles labouring under the weight of fresh produce, spices and souvenirs. On Saturday mornings, neatly dressed women in coordinating accessories haggle fiercely with stallholders in Seselwa, the Seychellois dialect of Creole, and exit triumphantly with provisions for weekend festivities.
Walk down the pedestrianised Market Street, where cellphone and clothing shops jostle for attention with lottery ticket sellers and kitsch beachwear, past ramshackle rows of wax crayon colonial houses to the city’s landmark — a small silver clock tower unveiled in 1903 and based on London’s Vauxhall Bridge tower. Make sure to visit the (country’s only) Hindu temple, the Arul Mihu Navasakthi Vinayagar, a detailed design marvel, and to stop at the large Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.
On the protected southwest of the island, picture-perfect bays with romantic names are scalloped along the coast: Anse Boileau, Anse Louis, Anse à la Mouche, Anse Soleil. It is in the smallest of these (the apt Petit Anse) that the Four Seasons Seychelles sits, unobtrusively disappearing into the mountain foliage. In contrast to the ostentation of many luxury retorts, the Four Seasons (winner of a host of awards, including best resort in the Seychelles in 2014 from TripAdvisor and second in the Condé Nast Traveller Awards — Overseas Holiday Hotels) is understated and designed with respect for its setting. Reclaimed materials and traditional Seychellois design feature in each of the resort’s luxury villas, all of which have a private infinity pool, view of the bay and sheltered day bed. Even if you’re not staying, a visit to the famed spa at the highest point of the resort (also second in the Condé Nast Traveller Awards – Overseas Hotel Spas category) is bliss-inducing. Perched on the mountain overlooking the resort, it looks out over the ship-spotted horizon. Visitors are offered homemade cinnamon tea and the run of the serene sanctuary and outdoor yoga pavilion, or can sip Champagne while watching the sun set on the viewing deck. Treatments, in private pavilions with a view of the bay, incorporate island elements such as coco de mer, coconut milk, cinnamon and frangipani.