Her skin was shiny black, her curves glistening from a downpour that burst through the tense jungle air. She is coco de mer, the forbidden fruit of Praslin. Victorian explorer Gordon of Khartoum once dubbed this Indian Ocean island the Garden of Eden – and it is easy to see why. Towering palms arc into a hushed emerald cathedral, the air hangs heavy, light barely filtering through dense foliage where black parrots flit and waterfalls trickle over granite boulders
It is here in Praslin’s Vallée de Mai nature reserve that you will find the only naturally growing coco de mer, the world’s largest nut. Its Greek name means “beautiful rump”, and it is an accurate description; the womanly curves of this up to 16kg nut are enough to make anyone blush. And that is nothing compared to the male plant, whose phallic length can grow to be 10m long. But the fruits of this Unesco World Heritage Site are protected – it is illegal to taste them. The penalty? Expulsion from paradise.
That is a general theme in the Seychelles, a pristine archipelago marooned 1,800km off the coast of Madagascar. With 10 times the number of giant tortoises than the Galapagos, biblically lush jungles, kilometres of reefs teaming with Technicolor fish and almost painfully picturesque beaches, this should be one of the most touristed places in the world. But the government has avoided the temptation to over-capitalise on it, preventing buildings taller than a palm tree, prohibiting camping on beaches and creating an abundance of national parks and protected species.
My home for the week, the swish Raffles Praslin on the northeastern tip of Praslin, felt much more lush and wild than you would expect of a three-year-old resort. That is because the government mandated that each and every plant removed for the hotel’s construction be replanted back on the property. The result? Palm-shrouded villas dotting a carpet of green that meanders down to the sapphire sea. Tomato red crabs scuttling over crystalline tide pools in the sugary white sand. And plucked-from-the-trees bananas and papaya on my breakfast plate.
You could happily while away an entire week just on the seafront property, lazing under a palm along Anse Takamaka, the beach fronting the hotel’s infinity pool, paddling out in a sea kayak or stand-up paddleboard, or grabbing a snorkel to explore the surrounding reefs. Open-air pavilions usher sea breezes into the spa, the largest in the country, which uses local ingredients like crushed pearls in its massages and body treatments.
But it is also just a 10-minute boat ride across the turquoise waters to Curieuse, a red-soil island that was once a leper colony and is now a refuge for more than 500 giant tortoises. You can hike a trail that starts at the Baie Laraie (the entry point for all visitors to the island) and continues through dense mangrove forests and amid granite cliffs that form otherworldly blue and red arches along the water. You will pass the remains of the former leper colony, now almost totally reclaimed by the jungle, before reaching the near deserted beach of Anse St Joseph on the other side of the island. Though there are outside tour operators, it is best to book through your hotel, which will arrange the fees and paperwork for visiting the marine reserve island.
Things are equally pristine back on Praslin at Anse Lazio, a sleepy curve of sand capped by two granite outcroppings which is consistently named the best beach in the world by publications such as the Daily Telegraph and Lonely Planet. You will find nary a stray plastic bag or soda can on its sugary sands, no aggressive beach vendors, no jet skis or banana boats. Just large takamaka trees arching gracefully to shade beachgoers, shapely boulders forming clandestine coves and an ombre stretch of water fading from lapis to aqua to white as the water gently laps the shore. “This is our island, of course we all work to keep her beautiful,” said the barman at Bonbon Plume, a palm-thatched restaurant right off the sand.
But no place is more protected than the Unesco World Heritage site Aldabra Atoll, located more than 1,100km from the main island of Mahe. The government halted plans in the early 2000s to build a five-star resort in the area in an attempt to protect the delicate ecosystem, and travellers must get special permission through the Seychelles Island Foundation to visit. Small ship cruise companies such as Silhouette can arrange also special charters. The remote location has allowed Aldabra to remain largely unchanged for thousands of years, supporting the world’s largest population of giant tortoises (more than 100,000), oceanic flamingos and the world’s largest land crabs. The island group is ringed in reefs teeming with tropical fish, manta rays, hammerhead sharks and barracuda. But do not get too comfortable lolling about with the tortoises, your time in this atoll will be limited to no more than a day on each of the four islands (sleeping on ships moored off their coasts at night). Paradise is lost so that it might found by others in years to come.