1 April 2009 by Pete Mathers
Despite being over 120 years old, Adam clearly has a way with the ladies. In the past decade, he and partner Jospehine have had 22 babies. Their love-making is both public and exceptionally noisy.
Adam, it should be said, is a tortoise. In fact, he is one of the few remaining Seychelles Giant Tortoise, thought to be extinct until 1995. Integral to their survival has been the island of Silhouette.
I came to Silhouette in search of something to do. AA Gill once wrote that ‘there’s nothing better than doing nothing’. If that’s how you feel then you will love the Seychelles. What could be better than doing nothing among 115 paradise islands, 1,000 miles off the coast of east Africa, on white-sand beaches clean enough to eat your dinner off, where going for a swim is like falling into a tropical fish tank?
Then again, what if your idea of a worthwhile holiday involves more than just lying on a beach watching honeymooners rub noses? What else does the Seychelles have to offer? To find out, I went island hopping. From Beau Vallon on Mahé, the Seychelles’ main island, I was whisked by boat across the Indian Ocean. Silhouette loomed large on the horizon, the slopes of its high peaks carpeted in a shagpile of tropical vegetation. Though the third largest island in the archipelago, development has been limited. There is only one hotel, Labriz: a 5-star resort comprising 116 beachfront and garden villas, all beautifully integrated with the natural environment.
“Silhouette is regarded as one of the most important biodiversity spots in the Indian Ocean,” informed Christophe Victor, Sales and Marketing Manager for Labriz. “Every plant cleared during the hotel’s construction has been replanted and is flourishing. We even need permission to bring bouquets in for weddings.”
And herein lies the lure of the Seychelles. Yes, it’s a little more expensive than the various other jewels in the Indian Ocean, but it’s leading the charge in sustainable development. Government is demanding that both natural resources and the carrying capacity of each island be carefully considered before development takes place. It takes twice as long to build a hotel here than anywhere else in the world.
If you’re after the sense of freedom that only unspoilt natural beauty can deliver – but would still like a massage, room service and a glass of Chateau Latour – then you should seriously consider the Seychelles, even if it might cost a little extra. Life on Silhouette is generally slow – there are no roads and no vehicles, except for electric hotel buggies that’ll whiz you from spa to bar. But for those who want it there is plenty to do. Diving and snorkelling are first class, fishing trips can easily be arranged, and a number of easy-to-follow paths bisect forests of sandalwood and orchids, or climb over headlands to deserted beaches.
The real must is a visit to the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles (npts), begun in 1992 by naturalist and former Wexas member, Ron Gerlach. The npts works to protect the natural habitat of Silhouette, restoring degraded areas and protecting the wildlife within. It was outside its small information centre that Ron introduced me to the Seychelles Giant Tortoise. “When people first arrived on Silhouette, in around 1770, they thought they’d struck gold,” explained Ron. “Selling tortoises was a very easy way to make money.”
Prior to 1830, all the granitic islands of the Seychelles had been home to these prehistoric creatures. In 1609, the first recorded visitors found ‘tortoises so numerous that a man can catch twenty dozen in one day’.
A source of both oil and fresh meat, tortoises became an 18th century convenience food. Within a few generations, populations on the granitic islands had been decimated. Only later were large numbers discovered on Aldabra, a distant coral atoll on the fringes of the Seychelles group. “Almost all tortoises you see today in the Seychelles are Aldabrans,” Ron told me. “In 1995 we were able to identify two other species: the Seychelles Giant Tortoise and the Arnold’s Giant Tortoise. Six of each were brought here to Silhouette. The Arnold’s produced 130 babies. Two years ago we released them on the far side of the island – the first wild tortoises to roam freely on Silhouette in 200 years.”
As for Adam, he seems singularly determined not to let his species die out, and once his offspring are too big to be carried off by poachers, they too will be released on the island. Not so well protected is the fruit bat. I’d heard of the national penchant for currying this animal, and wasn’t going to miss out when I saw it as a special at Labriz’s Creole restaurant. The restaurant (one of five at the resort) is in the old plantation house of the Dauban family, who farmed coconuts here in the 19th century. The restorers have done a beautiful job, as did the chef. The fruit bat, a cross between an umbrella and a Jack Russell, does not offer a great deal of meat, but what there was he had cooked to perfection.
The next morning I was collected by private boat and escorted to North Island, another single-resort island with an exemplary conservation ethic. Wilderness Safaris, the South African company that owns the island, is surprisingly quiet about its numerous accolades – such as ‘#1 in the World, Best of the Best’ in Condé Nast Traveller’s Readers’ Travel Awards, and Tatler’s ‘Most Consistently Brilliant Hotel for 2008’. Then again, there is no need to shout, the place speaks for itself. There is every accoutrement the discerning traveller could ask for, from highly attentive but pleasantly informal private butlers (thank you Godfrey) to your own personal buggy in which to roam around the island, observing the tortoises that graze between the palm trees. The food is exceptional and the ‘no menu’ concept is a perfect example of personalised service. The island’s chef talks to individual guests about their likes and dislikes, then recommends meals that are tailored to their tastes. Where and when you eat is also up to you.
I took lunch on the beach beneath a takamaka tree, enjoyed evening cocktails at the Sunset Bar on the far side of the island, and had dinner and breakfast in my oversized villa. And what a villa! There are 11 in total, each facing sunrise and a private patch of beach. Entering into the outdoor lounge, I was immediately hit by the private plunge pool and thatch-covered daybed. The main bedroom is all light and polished wood, the bathroom akin to a private spa, complete with massage suite, glasstone bath for two and indoor and outdoor shower. Add a kitchen, a study/ second bedroom and thoughtful touches like a pre-loaded iPod.
The look is Robinson Crusoe meets haute couture, with upsidedown takamaka trees used throughout the build, their bleached roots snaking across the roof. This was paradise with elbow room. I spent most of my time with Linda Van Herck, North Island’s resident ecologist. When the island was abandoned in the 1970s, many species remained that would never have been there had it not been for man. Coconut palms smothered the indigenous plants, rats decimated the bird life. Linda and others like her are on a mission to restore the island to its former glory. “Twelve per cent of the land has been fully rehabilitated – removing the exotics and planting indigenous or endemic species,” said Linda. “Getting rid of the rats was the turning point for wildlife. We’re the biggest island in a tropical area to have successfully done so. Now we’re playing host to endangered species like the Seychelles white-eye.” In July 2007, 25 of these little brown birds were introduced from Conception.
As we climbed Spa Mountain the following morning, Linda told me how proud she felt to have them here on North. The views from the mountain were astonishing, but nothing to the myriad blues and patchwork corals that I saw through the window of the tiny Twin Otter that flew me to Denis Island. Unlike North and Silhouette, Denis is a flat coral island, a mere 120 hectares of emerald-green forest and white-sand beaches. Being right at the edge of the Seychelles Bank, the waters nearby plunge to depths of up to 2,000m, supporting an extraordinary concentration of marine life.
World records for dogtooth tuna have been set here, and marlin, sailfish and huge barracuda can be hauled in on big-game fishing trips. Hawksbill turtles are known to nest near the entrance to the restaurant. My most memorable snorkel occurred slap-bang in front of my villa. It was here, among the parrotfish, angelfish and countless other species that I won’t pretend to know, that I chanced upon a nine-foot nurse shark. I could have easily dived down to touch it, but not knowing then that they’re relatively harmless, I doffed it a flipper and headed back to shore, pirouetting frequently to make sure I wasn’t followed. Spa treatments on Denis are delivered ‘in-villa’, and the new Belle Etoile residences, revamped versions of the existing beach cottages, have open-air bathrooms with massage beds set in a corner-plot gazebo. I was impressed to learn that the coconut oil so expertly applied to my back was made right there on the island. Later, Front Office Manager Shane Jean-Louis took me on a tour.
He showed me where the coconuts are husked, dried, mulched, filtered and bottled, and the small but successful farm that helps the island to be virtually self-sufficient. We spotted several of the endangered birds to have been introduced to Denis, such as warblers, fodies and most recently of all, magpie robins and paradise flycatchers. “Being rat free, we’re used as a banking system for rare and endemic species,” explained Shane. The results are astonishing. Having breakfast was like eating in an aviary. Though there’s plenty to do, it would be easy to do nothing. As one couple told me who’ve been coming for fi ve years, “We only bring hand luggage; one bag full of T-shirts, the other full of books”.But as tempted as I was to slap on the sun cream and dip into Treasure Island, I still had one more resort to visit. Like everywhere I stayed, Sainte Anne Resort & Spa occupies its own exclusive island. The diff erence here is that it’s only four miles off the main island of Mahé, meaning that should cabin fever set in, you’ll fi nd a bustling market, beautiful botanical gardens, a miniature replica of London’s Big Ben, and the very jolly Pirates Arms pub just a ten-minute boat ride away. Though why you’d need to leave Sainte Anne I don’t know.
The resort itself, part of the Beachcomber hotel group, is the centrepiece of the surrounding marine park. The waters are iridescent and teeming with life. I joined a snorkelling trip to neighbouring Moyenne Island, the smallest national park in the world, and saw my share of the 150 fi sh species that thrive among the corals. There are fi ve restaurants, including the wonderfully romantic Le Robinson and the brand new, feet-in-the-sand Takamaka, as well as an ultra-modern gym and sports centre. Then there’s the Spa by Clarins, a Zen-like place where fl ower petals fl oat atop cool refl ecting pools and smiling masseuses work magic with their hands. From my Providence Pool Villa it was a short walk to the beach, one of three on the island. Villas come in diff erent shapes and sizes, some with ocean views, others with private pools. Yet even with so much on off er, only 10% of the island is used for the resort.
Once again, I found Sainte Anne to be particularly on-message when it comes to conservation. Alien species of fl ora are being carefully removed and replaced by indigenous varieties. Local Seychellois lead guided treks to the wilder corners of the island: secluded bays, historical ruins and provocative coco de mer trees. The male trees sprout metre-long, phallic-shaped fl owers, while the nut of the female is the world’s heaviest seed. Its real fame, however, lies in its unusually erotic shape, looking uncannily like female sexual parts, complete with pubic tuft and rounded black buttocks. Sadly, I ran out of time to see the plants for myself. And not because I was lazing on the beach. I’d been busy, really busy, and I felt fantastic for it. In fi ve days in the Seychelles I’d hiked, swum and snorkelled. I’d eaten fruit bat curry and fresh-from-the-sea job fish. I’d seen giant tortoises found nowhere else on earth, and perhaps glimpsed the future of sustainable tourism. Yet still there was more to do: diving, fi shing, sailing, and it was a shame to miss out on the coco de mer. Pondering these thoughts, I failed to pay attention as my passport was stamped at the airport.
It was only as we took off , and the forested mountains of Mahé began to blur beneath me, that I looked at the stamp on the page: an elegant drawing of the Seychelles’ sauciest seed – I’d got to see it after all
The author travelled to the Seychelles as a guest of Air Seychelles and Mason’s Travel. Labriz offer: book for 2, pay for 1 – 7 nights bb from £1,750–£2,318 pp; 7 nights ai at north Island from £12,526–£12,742 pp; 7 nights fb at Denis Island from £2,683–£3,347 pp; 7 nights hb at Sainte Anne Resort & Spa from £2,210–£3,120 pp. A 7-night island-hopping itinerary (3 nights Denis, 3 nights Labriz, 1 night Sainte Anne) costs from £3,627 pp. All prices incl. Air Seychelles fl ights & either boat or air transfers.
To tailor your trip to the Seychelles call a Wexas Africa specialist on 020 7838 5968 or email [email protected].