Don’t miss the giant tortoise breeding colony on Curieuse Island. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): The tropical Seychelles is made up of 115 islands. // © 2017 Getty Images
There are few places Americans know so little about — yet think so highly of — as the Seychelles.
Whenever I tell people I’m traveling there, they usually “ooh” and “ahh” before pausing for a moment to ask, “Where is the Seychelles?”
The Republic of Seychelles is a sovereign African country in the Indian Ocean consisting of 115 islands located some 930 miles east of mainland East Africa. With a population of about 92,000 people and a year-round tropical climate, it’s easy to dismiss the destination as a farther away, more expensive version of the Caribbean. Although the former is true, the Seychelles easily distinguishes itself from the Caribbean — and is absolutely worth the trip.
Uninhabited until 1609, the islands served as a transit point between Africa and Asia and were under French possession before becoming a British Crown Colony. The Seychelles then gained its independence in 1976. It continues to be a natural paradise, but without the overcrowding or over-commercialization you’ll find in most tropical destinations.
Even if clients don’t stay at one of the country’s exclusive private resorts — such as Bird Island Lodge or the brand-new Six Senses Zil Pasyon — they can still enjoy relative privacy on beaches rated among the best in the world. Because of the dramatic granitic topography of the islands, the coasts are perforated with tiny, easy-to-explore coves and private enclaves, each framed by sensational boulders, crystal-clear waters and few crowds.
International flights arrive into Mahe, the most populous island in the archipelago and home to the capital city of Victoria. For travelers coming from the U.S., a great option is to take advantage of Ethiopian Airlines’ new service from Newark, N.J., to the Seychelles via Addis Ababa, which allows clients to spend a few days in Ethiopia along the way.
Once on Mahe, visitors should enjoy the Seychellois capital by spending a few nights at the new CaranaBeach Hotel in the north of the island, where they can receive five-star service and accommodations starting at just $440 per night. In the south, the sprawling Constance Ephelia resort is home to SMAC Adventures, an operator through which clients can arrange for ziplining in the forest and rappelling or rock climbing on granite cliffs.
Thanks to an impressive network of high-speed catamaran ferries operated by Mason’s Travel, it’s easy to travel independently between Mahe and Praslin island (one hour) or on to La Digue (an additional 20 minutes). Praslin is home to about 7,500 people and the famous Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve, considered by many to be the original “Garden of Eden.” This is the only place on the globe where visitors can find the iconic coco de mer tree, which sprouts the largest seeds in the world. These seeds, sometimes called double coconuts or Seychelles nuts, can have a 20-inch diameter, weigh up to 66 pounds and take more than six years to fully mature. Although most tourists stop at Vallee de Mai for just a brief visit, more adventurous guests should be encouraged to hike the longer trail up to the shelter viewpoint, which rises above the canopy and offers a whole new perspective on the size and scope of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
La Digue is the smallest of the main islands at just under 4 square miles, with a population of 2,800. Because of its size, it’s best explored on two wheels. Those staying at Chateau St. Cloud Hotel can make their own way on complimentary bicycles to the stunning Anse Source D’Argent beach and adjacent L’Union Estate. Here, clients can travel north along the beach and through the boulders until they stumble upon a no-name beach bar complete with coconut drinks and fresh-cut passion fruit.
When it comes to wildlife, visitors will want to get up close and personal with giant tortoises, which exist only in the Galapagos Islands and in the Seychelles. Although these massive animals are more closely associated with the Galapagos, viewing them is arguably more enjoyable in the Seychelles. Clients can even touch them if under the supervision of a naturalist. The creatures can be seen on several islands, but the breeding colony on Curieuse Island, where the animals walk freely on the beach, is the most spectacular.
Even if you aren’t interested in birding, Cousin Island is a must-visit. Its population of rare birds is extremely protected from humans and predators and, as a result, the animals aren’t the least bit phased by visitors getting within inches of them as they hop around on tree branches. Clients may even witness the birds building nests on the open ground. Because of the topography of the island, the only way to arrive is by executing a high-speed beaching by zodiac, which is great fun. (Both Curieuse and Cousin islands are accessible by booking an island-hopping excursion with Mason’s Travel.)
The Seychelles is a destination that’s doable at any budget and offers landscape, wildlife and culture unlike anything that can be found in the Western Hemisphere. For clients interested in Africa, it makes for a perfect combination with a safari. And thanks to the recent increase in air connectivity, it’s never been easier to combine the Seychelles with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania or South Africa.