The perfect trip: The Seychelles

There is much more to the Seychelles than meets the eye – beyond the paradisaical beaches, discover wild national parks, laidback local life and extraordinary flora and fauna.

Splendidly isolated in mid-ocean between Africa and India, the Seychelles are perfect island-hopping territory; hop aboard a local ferry to access rainforest walks, gin-clear waters ripe for snorkelling, and some of the world’s oldest animals.

Mahé: Best for walking
Spears of sunlight slice through the forest canopy as Terence Belle tramps into the jungled heart of Mahé, the largest and most mountainous of the hundred-odd islands that make up the Seychelles. He picks his way along the overgrown trail, hacking through ferns and palm fronds, stopping only to squeeze past a granite boulder or step across a brook. Overhead, unseen birds screech and hoot among the treetops, and palm leaves rattle like paper in the breeze.

‘I haven’t walked this trail for six months,’ explains Terence, who runs botanical walks around the island. ‘And in that time the forest has already changed so much. Everything grows so fast that if we don’t walk the trails regularly, before too long we can’t find them again!’ He steps off the path into a thicket of bamboo stalks as thick as drainpipes. ‘This bamboo is only a few years old,’ he says laughing. ‘And look at the size of it! I think if you just stood still and waited, you could almost see it grow.’

A spine of craggy granite peaks runs along the centre of Mahé, crossed by a network of trails tramped by generations of Mahélois. Some are packhorse routes that date back to the days of the early settlers. Others were cut by spice traders during the 17th and 18th centuries, who planted tea, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, long since abandoned and now growing wild on the hillsides.

Mahé’s trails open up the island’s secret corners. While much of the coast has been cleared for agriculture, at higher altitudes large tracts of virgin rainforest survive. Here, geckos and skinks dart through the foliage, and pitcher plants dangle among moss-covered palms. Some of the islands’ most endangered flora and fauna is found here, including the Gardiner’s Seychelles frog, tinier than a human fingernail, and the fabulously rare jellyfish tree, which gets its name from its starfish-like flowers.

‘Most people never explore beyond the beaches,’ says Terence, as the trail emerges onto a plateau overlooking the misty summit of Morne Seychellois, the island’s highest mountain. ‘But it’s in the forest where you find the greatest treasures. You just have to know where to look.’

As he begins the tramp back down the trail, and is soon swallowed up by the jungle, the holler of bulbul birds booms from the treeline, and white clouds spill over Mahé’s jagged peaks.

Ste-Anne Marine Park: Best for island-hopping
A skein of spray arcs over the boat’s prow as it sculls across the waves, heading for a chain of islands framed against the afternoon sky. Beneath the keel, the water flashes through a kaleidoscope of ocean colours: lime-greens, aquamarines, cobalts, china-blues. Sometimes it’s like peering through frosted glass; at others, it’s as pure as crystal. As he nears one of the islands, captain Eric Lafortune cuts the motor and lets the boat drift on the swell, allowing his cargo of snorkellers to slip into the water without the faintest trace of a splash.

Situated just off Mahé’s northeast coast, the Ste-Anne Marine Park encompasses six islands spread across five square miles of the Indian Ocean. In previous centuries these islands were home to just a few scattered residents – as well as a leper colony and a prison – but since 1973 the underwater habitat around them has been protected as a marine reserve.

Each island has its own topography: Ile Cachée and Round Island are little more than specks of scrubby land peeping out above the ocean, while Long Island and Ste-Anne Island are jungled and hilly. They are divided by channels filled with coral banks and meadows of sea-grass, providing the perfect habitat for all kinds of underwater life: spiny sea urchins, striped sergeant majors and shiny parrotfish.

Boatman Eric Lafortune grew up on the little island of Moyenne, and learned the layout of the bay’s channels and sandbanks from his grandfather, a lifelong fisherman. ‘Much of the bay is very shallow,’ he explains. ‘In many places it’s only a metre deep, so you have to be careful not to become beached. But I have a map of the whole bay stored inside my head, so I’m never worried about that!’

Moyenne itself is now run as a private reserve thanks to the work of the late Brendon Grimshaw – a Yorkshireman who purchased the island in 1962 and spent the next fifty years restoring its natural environment. His efforts set an important precedent: Ste-Anne’s precious coral reefs are facing serious challenges thanks to the effects of increased construction on nearby Mahé, and the pace of climate change.

‘There’s no doubt the seas are changing,’ Eric says. ‘The seasons are different and the weather is more unpredictable. To me, the islands are like members of my family, so of course I notice the change. Everyone in the Seychelles knows what a special place this is, and we must do all we can to protect it.’

Praslin: Best for coco de mer
‘Now that’s what I call a nut!’ laughs Shaun Larue, pointing into the branches of a coco de mer tree somewhere in the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve. Nine metres up, a cluster of yellow coconuts clings to the tree-trunk like a bunch of giant’s grapes, each the size of a rugby ball. Around the tree’s base, the forest floor is littered with the husks of others which have crashed to earth and exploded into shards of coconut shrapnel. ‘You wouldn’t want to be underneath it when it falls, that’s for sure,’ he giggles.

As if to underline the point, a crash and thud rings out from the trees, like a bowling ball tumbling to the forest floor. ‘See what I mean?’ he says. He picks up a fallen nut and turns it over in his hands, shaded by fronds suspended from the overhanging palms. ‘I’ve had some close calls, but thankfully my head is still in one piece.’ He sets off in search of another specimen and before too long is lost in the undergrowth, a tiny figure dwarfed by dinosaur-sized trees.

The gargantuan coco de mer – the world’s largest coconut and seed of any type – is produced by one of the Seychelles’ most precious endemic plants. It grows only in a couple of narrow valleys on Praslin, the archipelago’s second-largest island. Each nut takes six years to reach maturity, measures up to half a metre in length and weighs between 15 and 30kg – roughly 10 times the weight of the average coconut.

The plant wasn’t discovered in the wild until the 19th century, but its nuts had long been known to sailors and explorers, who found them washed up on beaches all over the Indian Ocean and concluded that they grew in a magical underwater garden (hence the name, which is French for ‘coconut of the sea’). But it wasn’t the nuts’ size which piqued the men’s curiosity; it was their shape. Inside each nut is an enormous double-lobed seed that bears an uncanny resemblance to the female posterior – complete with intimate anatomical details that would make even the saltiest of sailors blush.

Unsurprisingly given their erotic shape, the nuts have long been rumoured to have aphrodisiac qualities, and for centuries have been used as a boost to male potency and fertility. These days, they’re highly prized by botanical collectors, and their export is strictly controlled by the Seychelles government. Prime specimens can fetch upwards of £400, but have been known to sell for much more. The Vallée de Mai itself remained untouched until the 1930s, but the introduction of other tropical tree species in the ’40s and ’50s damaged its fragile ecosystem, and it was eventually made a national nature reserve in 1966, and a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983.

‘We’ve worked hard to return the valley to its natural state,’ explains Shaun, who works here part-time as a forest guide. ‘Thankfully it’s healthy again now, as you can probably see from the size of the trees.’

He lays a hand on a palm trunk and listens to the soundtrack of the jungle: the chatter of parrots, the clink of streams and the creak of coconut boughs. Somewhere amongst the trees, there’s a snap, then a smash, then a thump – and Shaun breaks into a grin.

‘Sounds like it’s time for us to find another coconut, eh?’ he says.

Cousin: Best for giant tortoises
‘This is George,’ announces guide Ryan Morel, scratching the neck of a giant tortoise which is munching its way slowly through some green leaves. ‘He’s the old man of Cousin Island. We think he’s definitely over 150, but he could be as old as 175. I suppose we should call him Grandfather George, really,’ he laughs, stroking the tortoise’s tessellated carapace as it lumbers off towards the nearby palms.

Cut off from the rest of Africa by nearly a thousand miles of ocean, the isolated location of the Seychelles has led to the development of many natural curiosities on the islands, and they don’t get more curious than the giant tortoise. These huge reptiles are a distant relative of the world’s other species of giant tortoise, and are thought to have descended from a common ancestor that roamed across the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana some 200 million years ago. The endemic Seychelles giant tortoise is thought to have been hunted to extinction by the 19th century, but its close cousin, the Aldabra giant tortoise, can still be found in large numbers across much of the Seychelles – particularly the little island of Cousin, a government-owned nature reserve that’s famous for the abundance and diversity of its wildlife.

Well over a hundred giant tortoises live on Cousin, some of which have reached truly enormous sizes, measuring more than a metre long and weighing in excess of 350kg. The island is also home to over 300,000 nesting seabirds and the world’s longest millipede, not to mention the highest density of lizards on Earth. It’s one of the few islands where the endemic Seychelles magpie robin survives, and between October and April, it’s an important nesting site for hawksbill sea turtles, which crawl ashore to lay their eggs in the island’s fringing circlet of sand.

‘Millipedes are one of the tortoises’ favourite snacks,’ Ryan explains, plucking one of the creatures from a hollow beneath a boulder. ‘They nest in the higher areas of the island, and we often find the tortoises have wandered right up into the hills looking for them.’

He reaches up and picks a fruit from a low-hanging shrub: an Indian mulberry or noni, a tropical fruit known for its nutritional value and notoriously rancid smell. ‘For some reason they also seem to like these,’ he says, grimacing as he sniffs the fruit’s yellow-white flesh. ‘Like most things which taste awful, they’re supposed to be good for you. Perhaps that explains why the tortoises live so long!’

He emerges in a forest glade somewhere near the centre of the island, shaded by a curtain of banyan, ficus and pisonia trees. Around the grove, a group of giant tortoises roots in the dry earth, their shells banging together as they jostle for the juiciest leaves. ‘Most of our tortoises recognise us by sight now,’ Ryan says, tickling one of the animals affectionately on its hind leg.

‘They might not be the prettiest creatures on Earth, but to us, they’re like old friends.’

La Digue: Best for escapism
It’s rush hour on the little island of La Digue, but here, the traffic isn’t nose-to-tail buses and cars – it’s bikes. Islanders in flip-flops, the ladies in floral dresses, clatter past on their rickety steeds, while shouting schoolkids whizz along three or four to a bicycle, with extra riders perched on the seat-stays and handle-bars. The island’s taxi service – otherwise known as an ox-cart – trundles slowly past, carrying passengers from the afternoon ferry. In half-an-hour it’s all over, and the coast road falls quiet again.

For many people, La Digue sums up the essence of island life in the Seychelles. In contrast to the larger islands, development here has been kept to a minimum, and life meanders along at a sleepy, tropical pace. There’s just one road, which runs most of the way around the island’s west coast, and a single village, situated beside the main boat jetty at La Passe; the rest of La Digue is still mostly cloaked by old-growth forest and fringed by virgin coast.

Riding along the island’s back-roads, the only signs of human habitation are a few tin-roofed shops and single-storey houses hidden amid the coconut groves, and the odd wooden shack selling fresh coconuts and glasses of papaya juice. It’s an island that’s frozen in time, and La Digue’s residents seem perfectly happy for it to stay that way.

‘We’ve seen how some of the other islands have been changed by development,’ explains Rhondi Payet, a native La Diguois who knows every inch of the island’s backcountry. ‘And no-one wants that to happen on La Digue. Everyone likes the island just the way it is. Quiet!’

La Digue’s relaxed lifestyle makes it an irresistible draw for those seeking an escape from the outside world. The island’s largest beach, Anse Source d’Argent, is one of the most famous and frequented in the Seychelles: a series of golden crescents of sand backed by a chaotic jumble of gigantic granite blocks. While the west coast may be relatively well-known, it’s a different story on the island’s southern and eastern sides. Here, the road gives way to tangled bush and wild forest, and a dusty trail connects a string of pristine coves – including the spectacular trio of Grande Anse, Petite Anse and Anse Cocos, where gnarled palms teeter above the turquoise water, and the sand shimmers white-hot in the haze. Most secluded of all is the tiny inlet of Anse Marron, a patch of powdery sand tucked away at the island’s southern tip, which can only be reached by crossing the rocks at low tide.

‘La Digue never really changes that much,’ Rhondi muses, as he leans against the counter of his roadside stall beside the island’s harbour at La Passe. ‘Of course there are more buildings now, more people, even a few more cars. But this is still where you’ll find the real spirit of the Seychelles. We prefer life to be simple here. Personally, I think the other islands would do well to follow our example.’

Dusk falls and he shuts up shop, swings a leg over his battered bicycle and pedals away down the road, as reggae music drifts out from an open doorway, and a troupe of fruit bats traces lazy circles in the twilight.

The article 'The perfect trip: The Seychelles' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.