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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

Discovering the island charms of Victoria

The quaint capital in the Seychelles has interesting history and architecture – and just enough to interest travellers who are in relaxation mode

Seychelles' tourism revenues are not enough to fund its energy import bill and meet renewables targets. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder
Seychelles' tourism revenues are not enough to fund its energy import bill and meet renewables targets. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder

Why Victoria?

One of the smallest capitals in the world, Victoria, the central hub of the Seychelles – a group of 115 volcanic islands in the Indian Ocean – is located on the main island of Mahé and is also the commercial, shipping and tourist centre.

First settled by the French in 1772, it came later under British rule, and the town was named after Queen Victoria. Set against a picturesque backdrop of mountains, Victoria is home to one-third of the population of this island country, and most people are employed in its tuna factory or the tourism industry.

Most people miss the charms of this pint-size capital in their hurry to explore the pristine beaches of islands such as La Digue and Praslin. But exploring Victoria can be a primer to the Creole culture and an insight into the spectacular bio-diversity of this island nation. With a botanical garden showcasing the rich flora of the islands, and a frenetic market, as well as mosques, churches, and even a Hindu temple, it is a microcosm of the ethnic diversity of the islands.

Victoria's Hindu temple. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder
Victoria's Hindu temple. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder

Victoria’s architecture is a mix of French colonial and Creole houses with painted facades and louvred windows. Eden Island is a new residential-leisure area created on reclaimed land, offering luxury villas, bars and restaurants, a marina and a shopping centre.

A comfortable bed

Stay at the ultra- luxurious Savoy Hotel and Spa (www.savoy.sc) overlooking Beau Vallon Beach. It’s a world in itself, with a gargantuan pool, spa and several restaurants serving Creole and international cuisine. Minimalistic rooms cost from about US$260 (Dh955) per night, including breakfast.

For a good budget option in the heart of town, try Hotel Bel Air (www.seychelles.net/belair), a short walk from the market, with simply furnished but clean rooms. Doubles cost from about Dh600 per night.

Victoria and Mahé Island have many apartment and self-catering options for the budget-conscious. Ocean Spray (www.airbnb.com), two kilometres from the city in Anse Etoile, is a newly renovated villa featuring a three-bedroom apartment, a two-bedroom apartment and two studios that come with kitchens. Apartments cost about Dh340 per night.

Mountain View Palm Villa (www.airbnb.com) is another self-catering two-bedroom villa midway between the airport and Victoria, with great mountain views. The villa costs about Dh700 per night.

Find your feet

Start at the centre of town, where you will find the miniature silver painted Little Ben – a replica of the clock tower of the same name outside Victoria Station in London – which was erected to mark the status of the island as a crown colony.

'Little Ben' in Victoria. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder
'Little Ben' in Victoria. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder

The National Museum, located in the National Library building on Francis Rachel Street, provides an interesting introduction to the island. Peek into Kenwyn House (www.seychelles.travel) opposite the imposing National Library. it is one of the oldest houses on the island and, today, home to a jewellery store. Admire the old French houses with steep roofs and pretty trellises rubbing shoulders with a typical vibrantly painted South Indian Ganesha temple.

The Museum of Natural History is a great place to get a sense of the island’s evolution and has artefacts dating back to the earliest settlers.

End your walk at the Bel Air Cemetery, where crumbling tombs, vaults and shrines house the famous citizens (including pirates) from the first days of Victoria.

Take a taxi to the National Botanical Gardens, established in 1901, on the outskirts, where you will find endemic and exotic spice and fruit trees from breadfruit and nutmeg to the iconic coco de mer (the large palm emblematic of the nation) and different varieties of orchids.

Meet the locals

Walk to Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market, where the locals shop for fruit, vegetables, spices, fresh tuna and snapper fish.

Stalls staffed by plump women in sundresses and straw hats sell exotic fruits such as mangoes, pineapples, watermelons, star fruit, cantaloupes and paw-paws, with the air fragrant with the smell of spices including cardamom and nutmeg.

You can also head to the Bazar Labrin Market on Wednesdays on Beau Vallon Beach, where there are many stalls selling grilled snapper.

Book a table

Creole cuisine is a melting pot of various cultures with items on the menu such as palm-heart salad and cassava chips.

Head to Le Jardin du Roi, a historical plantation that is more than 150 years old, with a walking map, spice trails, giant Aldabra tortoises and a cafe-restaurant.

Creole meals made with fruits and vegetables grown on the premises are served, overlooking Anse Beach (Domaine de L’enfoncement Anse Royale). Lunch costs $36 (Dh132) per person.

Book a table at Mahé’s oldest restaurant, Marie-Antoinette (www.marieantoinette.sc), which is housed in one of the old colonial mansions.

Feast on home-cooked-style Creole cuisine such as mango salad, papaya chutney and smoked fish. A meal for two costs $80 (Dh294).

Sample a Creole dinner buffet, with local items on the menu including golden apple salad, lentils and breadfruit chips, as well as the fresh catch of the day, at the Boathouse (www.boathouseseychelles.com) in Beau Vallon. Dinner is $32 (Dh120) per person.

Shoppers’ paradise

The Selwyn-Clarke Market in the centre of town is also the best place to pick up multi-hued pareos (sarongs), woven baskets, seashell jewellery and coconut-shell artefacts. You can also fill your bags with vanilla pods, bottles of vanilla essence and fragrant cinnamon.

The colourful cit centre. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder
The colourful cit centre. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder

If you buy the coveted nut, the coco de mer – which costs as much as $246 (Dh909) – remember that it needs an export license.

For some unusual jewellery and crafts, visit Kreolor (www.kreolorseychelles.com), which has wooden trays, mirrors, jewellery, and wooden desk accessories.

Don’t miss

Hire a local guide and trek through the jungle-clad hills of the Morne Seychellois National Park, spotting pitcher plants, the world’s smallest frogs and rare birds such as the Seychelles blue pigeon, stepping over weather-beaten granite boulders to a little known white sand beach: the Anse Major.

If possible, time your visit to coincide with the Seychelles’ Carnaval International de Victoria, an annual event that showcases the island’s cultural offerings, that takes place every March.

What to avoid

One of the real dangers in the Seychelles is sunburn. Wear sunscreen and a large hat. To protect the country’s unique and unusual tropical fauna and flora, visitors are discouraged from collecting seashells or picking any flowers or seeds.

Getting there

Etihad (www.etihad.com) and Emirates (www.emirates.com) fly direct to Mahé from the UAE, from about Dh2,875 return, including taxes.

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