Nestled off the coast of East Africa, the Seychelles lie firmly within the tropics, jewels of green in an otherwise aquamarine expanse of Indian Ocean. They are famed for their beautiful beaches; the white sand, palm trees and rounded black granite rocks make the islands the very definition of paradise. And once I heard that this was the destination of choice for Wills and Kate’s honeymoon… well, how could I argue with royalty?
Approaching the island, I found myself doing my best Lord Attenborough impression: ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park!’ The darker ocean gives way to the sparkling turquoise of the shoreline and the famed white beaches, behind which endless tropical vegetation stretches back to the foothills of immense granite mountains. The sight was intoxicating. In the early morning the first thing that hit me was the humidity and smell, both alien and alluring, a reminder (as if I needed one) that I really was far from home.
My hillside pool villa at the Banyan Tree Seychelles resort on the south-west coast of the island of Mahé opened on to a decked terrace with an infinity plunge pool and Jacuzzi, all perched on top of the rocks and surrounded by trees, with an uninterrupted view over the ocean. Through a shuttered sliding door lay a bathroom with a sunken tub perfectly positioned for a romantic stargazing bath for two. Everything in the resort was geared for honeymoon levels of smooching romance. I quickly learned a basic but crucial lesson: never come to paradise alone.
Anything you could possibly need, from maps, to guides, carhire, a doctor, suggested evening hangouts and excursions, the resort staff will happily arrange. But you won’t want to venture far without first trying the epic breakfasts (every type of fruit, juice, pastry, cold meat, cooked breakfast, curry and local speciality you can imagine). The main reason I was in the Seychelles was for some serious R and R, so my first appointment was for a signature Thai massage. Reclining, post-treatment on the spa veranda as the sun set was one of those moments of tranquillity where I couldn’t believe my luck. Then, as if it couldn’t have got any better, I saw my first fruit bat. Those things are prehistorically big: ‘Welcome to Jurassic park… again!’ Suddenly, the air seemed to fill with ‘flying foxes’ as they are known locally, waking up for their evening feeding session – and later providing the vital service of shitting all over the islands, therefore ensuring plant dispersement.
As the stars rose I drifted down to the beach for a swim in a haze of post-massage calm. As I bobbed around, some of the bats broke off for a dip in the sea. Surrounded by all this magic I did a length of the bay and by the time I stepped out of the shallows the bioluminescence of tiny plankton lit up every movement of my body through the water. It’s impossible to do the experience justice in words but it was one that I repeated most evenings. I rounded off the day with dinner at one of the three in-house restaurants. It was fish night, with scallops, bouillabaisse, and job fish (a filling, fleshy fish) on the menu, followed by white chocolate parfait with passion fruit jelly, raspberry jus and dark chocolate. Out of this world and reasonably priced.
I was keen to get my flippers on, even though I had been told that a particularly hot El Niño in the 1990s had done substantial damage to the sea life and coral. But I wanted to find out for myself, so the following morning, having overslept, I rushed off with a Tupperware container of breakfast (the smiling resourcefulness of the dining staff was one of the best aspects of my stay). With my Panama hat and Hawaiian shirt, I was a cliché of the hapless Brit abroad, so no wonder a loitering man who looked like a well-tanned walrus gave a smoky laugh: ‘Didn’t want to you miss your breakfast, then?’ Leo, a Dutchman, flashed a smile and my diving adventures on Mahé began.
The joy of being out on the ocean and my first view of the dramatic coastline was transfixing. We headed for a site called Adam’s Apple, named for the rock that marks the dive spot. Diving is like meditation: the serenity of the weightlessness, the buoyancy that enables you to swim with the fish , the noise of the slow inhaling and exhaling of pressurised air, the fascinating landscape of coral and rock on the seabed, and the inhabitants of this otherworldly space. Over the next couple of days I swam with giant barracudas, white-tipped reef sharks, humphead parrot fish, chocolate dips, lobsters, turtles, angel fish and stingrays. For my money, the variety of dive sites and sea life in the Seychelles is on a par with both Cuba and Mozambique.
After that I rented a car (the smallest I could find to try to avoid being hit by the careering local buses) and asked for directions to a good local beach. Everyone I met was friendly and willing to help, but some of the directions weren’t very reliable. After a winding descent past waterfalls I broke through the cool shade of the forest canopy and the most beautiful golden sunshine afternoon spread before me. Glaud Bay is the most quintessentially laid-back Seychellois experience, a tiny village boasting little more than a church and a bar. After a dip I kicked back with a beer, a plate of delicious grilled fish and a killer creme caramel in the warm sunshine and surveyed the bay, with Bob Marley singing on the radio. Everything felt like it was gonna be alright.
On my way back I stopped at Maria’s Rock Café. It’s an oddity that must be experienced, a Dali-esque raft built around a granite outcrop and littered with some pretty racy sculptures. The lovely staff, headed by the ever-smiling Maria, bring ingredients for you to cook at your table on paraffin-candle heated rocks. Once the oil starts smoking, you chuck on prawns and chicken and whatever else takes your fancy. The mixture of surf and turf is fresh and, with generous portions of homemade relishes your appetite is the only guide to how much and how quickly the food should be eaten. It’s full-on, sweaty, sticky-fingered fun and definitely a child-friendly experience (although you might have to avert their eyes from the more explicit artworks and ask the artist responsible, Maria’s Italian boyfriend, not to perform his more risqué magic tricks).
Before I knew it my time at Banyan Tree was up and I saddled up onto a local charter flight that took me straight to my next stop, the island of Praslin. I was to stay at La Reserve resort at the invitation of Peter Mountford, the charming British manager who took over the running of the hotel from his parents, only to be saddled with the unenviable task of rebuilding the whole resort after the 2004 tsunami. He gave me a few home truths about running a hotel in the Seychelles. The daily headache seems to be trying to accommodate the demands of Western diets at the breakfast buffet; apparently fights can break out over boxes of kiwis and other non-indigenous fruits at the local market.
I took off for a day-trip around the nearby island of La Digue. There are regular ferries and once there all you need to get around are your two feet and a rented bike – the tiny island’s 2,000 inhabitants are only too helpful with directions and a smile. Following the path to the beaches of Anse Source d’Argent you realise why they are often voted the best in the world: a series of small, golden coves separated by gigantic granite boulders weathered into the most extraordinary shapes by time. Sheltered by a reef, the sea is shallow and calm, perfect for snorkelling and sunbathing. But even in paradise it seems there are possessive tourists with towels and even later in the day there was a race to find a perfect spot. As I basked, a French beauty and her friends passed by, snapping photographs as they went. It was only as her beautiful bottom wiggled out of view that I realised it was in fact Emmanuelle Bé art.
Back on Praslin, I hired a car to explore, stopping for roadside fruit juices, curried fish, a few final night swims and a day-trip to see the deliciously rude coco de mer nut and catch a rare glimpse of a native black parrot. The trek through the well-labelled reservation is best done at an amble as the humidity climbs while you navigate the steep, airless paths. But it is fascinating.
I spent a lazy final day on Anse Lazio beach and with that my time was up. The Seychelles is a paradise on earth and the islanders and their smiling welcome will ensure that you will never want to leave. But don’t panic, you can always return. I know I will.
Seven nights at Banyan Tree Seychelles from £2,299 per person, including 20 per cent early booking discount (must book 60 days prior to arrival), breakfast, private transfers and Emirates flights are via Dubai. Book with Seychelles specialist Turquoise Holidays(01494 678 400)
Benedict went diving with Dive Resort Seychelles on Mahé (seychellesdiving.net)