Mahe and Praslin could prove that the Indian Ocean islands of the Seychelles live up to the hype?
The magic islands of the Seychelles
Off the north-west coast of Mahe, the kayak drifted. I had been there only a few seconds, a few hundred metres from the coast, floating aimlessly and enjoying the silence. To my left was the jagged outline of the aptly-named Silhouette Island; to my right, a handful of large villas clung to a verdant mountainside. I heard a noise behind me. Sharks? I wasn't too far from Shark Bank, a popular dive site. Turning the kayak around, I saw a group of fins sticking up out of the water directly in front of me. Then, farther off, a huge school of marlin leapt out of the water. I looked closer at the fins. Dolphins.
They played around in the water for a few minutes, ignoring the fish, then disappeared. I waited, expecting them to resurface, but I was looking in the wrong direction. They had passed beneath me and emerged some distance away. I paddled after them for a while, then thought better of it - a squall had begun. Against the sudden wind and waves, signalling the coming of the south-east trade winds, I paddled for more than half an hour to get back to my starting point, the previously calm waters of Baie Beau Vallon and the Hilton Northolme Resort & Spa.
This is the spot where, just over 50 years ago, Ian Fleming wrote For Your Eyes Only, a collection of five short stories published in 1960. Fleming's story, The Hildebrand Rarity, has Bond in the Seychelles assessing its suitability as an alternative naval base. "Admiralty are having trouble with their new fleet base in the Maldives," M tells bond. "Communists creeping in from Ceylon. Strikes, sabotage - the usual picture."
Ludicrous plots aside, Fleming, like Bond, had travelled to the Seychelles from a cold, rainy London in March 1958: still, both Fleming and Bond complained of the heat. Back then, the hotel was known simply as The Northolme and the Seychelles was a British colony. In 2005 Hilton rebuilt the property in some style, making it the smallest of its hotels worldwide and reopening it in 2006 with 40 spacious, wood-decked villas nestled over water and on the hillside (for serious 007 fans, there's even an Ian Fleming Suite).
The infinity pool and main restaurant are on a promontory with views across the bay and the spa is perched on a rocky outcrop, so your massage is accompanied by the crashing of waves on rock. Yet the setting is much the same as it would have been when Fleming was holed up here - thick green forest reaches all the way down to the sea, giant granite boulders litter small sandy beaches in hidden coves, and the water is the colour of sapphire and indigo.
Indeed, driving around Mahe, the main island of the archipelago's collection of 115, I'm surprised at how unspoilt the coastline is. There are dozens of hotels here, but most are small, well-spaced and a decent distance from the shoreline. The south-east coast, from the airport to Anse Royale, is a stunning introduction - broad sweeping bays, white sand, swaying coconut palms, crystal-clear shallow waters, coral atolls and wide horizons, with a few fluffy white clouds thrown in. It's unreal, as if all the travel brochure cliches in the world had been thrown into a computer and rolled out for all to see.
Given their geographical isolation, however, perhaps one shouldn't be too surprised. The Seychelles are some of the oldest islands in the world and have enjoyed millennia of isolation. Formed through plate tectonics when they became separated from the first southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland some 120 million years ago, the Seychelles are 1,500km from mainland Africa and more than twice that distance from India, to which they were originally geographically attached. Arab traders were probably the first to use the Seychelles, but it was not until 1756 that the French claimed and then settled them, naming the islands after Louis XV's finance minister, Viscount Jean Moreau de Séchelles. The British began contesting the islands in 1794 and got control of them in 1810, but it was not until 1903 that they became a crown colony separate from Mauritius.
The Seychelles gained independence 34 years ago in 1976, but physical hangovers of the past still remain, particularly in the sleepy capital Victoria, named in honour of the queen (with a population of just 25,000, it's one of the world's smallest). Cast-iron street furniture, yellow road markings, flower boxes, traffic lights and a small replica of the clock tower on London's Vauxhall Bridge called "Little Ben" all lend a curiously parochial flavour to such an exotic location. There are also the Victoria Botanical Gardens, the Victoria Natural History Museum (home to the world's biggest nut, an 18kg coco de mer) and the Victoria National Museum (home to the world's smallest statuette of Victoria herself).
Remnants from the French colonial period are found mainly in the spoken word - Seychellois Creole, which is based on French, is an official language and spoken alongside French and English. My drivers Guyto and Derek, who despite sporting a BMW 5 Series never saw the need to exceed 30kph, spoke English with a soft Creole lilt that seemed to embody a laid-back civility and gentleness. Even when talking about the unemployed, Derek puts it politely: "Well, you see, like anywhere, there are a few who don't want to work, but we believe everyone can get up in the morning and find work, find something to do, maybe in some small business ? but over there on La Digue [the Seychelles' third island, which still uses ox and cart instead of cars] - they look after each other more, they still help each other, ha ha - they do on La Digue."
Derek hasn't been abroad, and something in me never wants him to go - not to see the grime of cities like London or their housing estates, or sit on a crowded Underground train - but to carry on living here and going to Praslin or La Digue on weekends - that was something to hold on to. Continuing our tour of the island, the wild Anse Intendance, accessible only via a shady road through mature forest, is home to the colonial-style Banyan Tree hotel and spa - the resort is also selling property here but, like the hotel villas, it's virtually hidden from view in the jungle. Next is Anse Takamaka, another large, gorgeous beach, more accessible and conventionally attractive, with shallower water and a more exquisite shoreline.
Further north still, at Anse Boileau, the white sand seems to get more powdery and the water more translucent - even the boulders look better here - until the road cuts in from the coast and sweeps us around the base of the island's highest peak, Morne Seychellois, which stands 905 metres high. Before we head inland, we carry on along the north-west road as far as we can go, to Port Launay Marine National Park, a rich expanse of mangrove swamps, coral reefs and deserted beaches - well, almost. It's disturbing to find a large brand new resort here, given that until recently Port Launay was one of the last true wildnernesses on Mahe. The Constance Ephelia Resort, however sensitive its design, has introuced bars, swimming pools, landscaping and air con to an area which Lonely Planet described as "Mahe's forgotten corner" and "the end of the earth". I love forgotten corners, and in my view such places should be left to intrepid hikers and campers.
We head back to Victoria through the mountains of Morne Seychellois National Park, stopping at the ruins of Mission Lodge, the first school for the children of slaves freed by Britain in the 19th century. There's not much left of the school, but at the end of a shady avenue of sandragon trees is a peaceful lookout across the mist-covered mountains. Again, the hiking trails here alone demand a return trip.
Somewhat ironically, we board a motor yacht called the Pasadena to reach the most isolated parts of the coast further north - the Baie Ternay National Marine Park, the deserted beach of Anse Major and the Cap Ternay and Anse Jasmine estates. It is possible to hike and scramble along the coast to Anse Major from Beau Vallon, but my guide, Maxwell, a virtual encyclopaedia of information and reliably sensible, warns me against doing it alone. I make a mental note to do this when I have time on my next trip. Sadly, the beach may not be quite as deserted by then - Maxwell tells me that a restaurant is planned, along with further development in the valleys behind.
We arrive back at Victoria's marina and find the bar and restaurant there to be one of the liveliest places on the whole island. Unlike most city centres, Victoria seems deserted most evenings. "There must be a film on TV tonight," says my driver Selby as we coast through empty streets just after 9pm. He drops me off instead at the night market at Beau Vallon, where, beside the beach under takamaka trees, a long string of food stalls is selling freshly barbecued fish, spicy creole chicken and delicious chapatis alongside handicraft stalls and street entertainers. Without the honking of car horns, the roar of traffic or the blaring of music, the atmosphere among the crowd is so civilised - hushed, almost - that I almost forget to go home.
Our tour of Mahe complete, we board the large Cat Cocos catamaran the next day to Praslin, just under an hour away. Praslin's Baie St Anne makes a lovely arrival - verdant, low-rise and low-key, but we make our way straight to the Vallee de Mai National Park. The Vallee de Mai is a World Heritage Site on account of its forest of coco de mer palm trees: the coco de mer, a gigantic nut which is surrounded by a double-lobed woody shell, is native to Praslin and Curieuse and thanks to over-exploitation is now a protected species: sales of the nuts are tightly controlled but a certified coco de mer costs around 200 euros (Dh877) in souvenir shops. We take an hour-long guided tour along walking trails through the dense jungle, learning that the luxuriant trees come in male and female varieties and grow to around 30m in height, with young trees comprising several long leaf stems with huge fan-shaped leaves, but do not develop a trunk until they are around 15 years old. The trees are hardy but very slow to mature: the female variety grows for 25 years before it bears fruit, the nuts take around seven years to develop and the trees can live for up to 1,000 years.
Praslin's Anse Lazio beach is one of the Seychelles' best known, thanks to its enticing waters and thick palm tree-line framed by granite boulders at either end, but we spend the afternoon at Anse Georgette, a smaller, more private version of Lazio. Access to Anse Georgette is controlled by the Lemuria Resort, which limits numbers to several dozen people per day, guaranteeing an uncrowded experience. Accessible only by foot or golf buggy, and without any sun loungers, food stalls or lifeguards, the beach feels wild. The water is the perfect depth for swimming and so clear and untrammelled that we swim among baby sharks sheltering from the swells out to sea. As we prepare to leave an Italian couple arrive to take our place. "Splendido - spiagge bianchissime!" the woman says to her husband. I have to agree.