independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Paradise found

Nicola Brady goes in search of the 'real' Seychelles and discovers Creole culinary delights, rum tasting and, of course, dream beaches

The lush vegetation and exotic beaches of Praslin

As the helicopter shuddered into action and began its ascent into the dawn sky, I half expected to see a flock of flying dinosaurs follow in its wake.

Since arriving on Mahe Island the previous afternoon, the theme from 'Jurassic Park' had been playing on a loop in my head. Whenever I looked up at the jungle-covered hillsides, I became convinced that a T-Rex was only moments away.

I hadn't expected the landscape to be so dramatic. When I thought of the Seychelles, I pictured tropical beaches, white sands and the odd palm tree. Towering thickets of lush woodland and the huge boulders standing tall on the beaches? Those I wasn't expecting.

The sun was beginning to rise and the air was warm, despite the early hour. The helicopter, alas, wasn't for me. I was standing at the small port on Sainte Anne Island, ready for the boat to take me back to Mahe, then onwards to Praslin.

Splashing out at the Constance Lemuria Resort on Praslin.

The Seychelles are made up of 115 islands, so it makes sense to explore a few when visiting the country. Small ferries link the main ones regularly, which make it easy to hop between them all.

Praslin is the best place to explore the forestry of the islands. The Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve has trails through the towering trees, carefully designed so you won't fall victim to any falling Coco de Mer fruits. Weighing in at up to 30lbs, our guide Shaun made it clear that if one fell on us, "we wouldn't get up again".

The Coco de Mer is a nut you'll see a lot in the Seychelles. It adorns T-shirts, signs, fridge magnets and flags. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to a lady's bottom, which raises more than a few chuckles.

Vallee de Mai is a Unesco World Heritage Site which showcases the incredible biodiversity of the islands. Green parrots call out from the trees and the conservationists working in the park call back to them, as I would to my dog.

Geckos scuttle up and down the palms, seeking out the sap of the Coco de Mer. "But if one of them falls on you, don't panic," Shaun said. "If you panic, it will grip on to your skin and you'll be taking it home with you."

Luckily, my ability to keep calm with a lizard stuck to me wasn't put to the test.

The Kempinski Seychelles hotle on capital island Victoria.

Praslin is also home to Anse Lazio Beach, considered to be one of the finest in the world. It certainly ticks all the boxes. The entrance is through a thicket of trees, from a small and dusty road. Smooth boulders are dotted along the white sands and the sea is warm and crystal clear.

If Praslin is the island of nature and wildlife, then La Digue is the epitome of laid-back rugged charm. Almost car-free, residents cycle along the sandy roads, balancing a child on the handlebars and groceries on the back. It feels as though time has stood still for decades.

We travelled the island on a camion, an open-sided truck with a canopy roof. Children waved from their terraces as we went past, while fishermen took siestas in their boats, pulled under the shade of the palms.

At one point, the road ran alongside a thin stretch of sand before disappearing into dark green woodland. Fronds of fern were peppered with dappled light as the sun passed through the palm trees. We overtook a bride and groom who were touring the island on an ox-cart in their wedding finery.

I had thought that all accommodation on the islands would be in the form of exclusive resorts, but La Digue showed a different side of life.

At the side of the road, small traditional guesthouses welcomed tourists looking for the real Seychelles, where Creole cuisine is served up with gusto. Men at wooden shacks serve up fresh juice and coconut water straight from the shell, mixing it with a little Seychellois rum when cocktail hour rolls around.

Of course, you're never far from a snifter of rum on the islands. On Mahe, Takamaka Bay rum is produced at La Plaine St Andre (laplaine.sc). Located on an old plantation, the grounds are home to a herbal garden and restaurant as well as the distillery.

You can learn how the rum is made on one of the daily tours, or just sit in the breezy garden and taste a few. There are five different rums produced on site – be sure to try the St Andre 8 Year Old, a standout dark rum.

If shots aren't your thing, there's a wide range of cocktails in the bar. Try the Caipirissima, the Creole answer to a mojito, which dates back to the 1500s.

The capital of the islands, Victoria, is one of the smallest in the world. Like La Digue, it offers a taste of the real Seychelles. Between dusty streets and colonial buildings is the colourful Selwyn Selwyn-Clark Market, where tables of tropical fruits and local fish are laid out for locals and tourists alike. It's a good idea to visit the city early in the morning. By midday, the heat was overwhelming and I was crying out for the sea.

Which is, of course, where most visitors to the Seychelles spend their time. And rightly so – the beaches here are what tropical dreams are made of. They're a delight to laze about on, but are best served with a side of adrenaline.

The Kempinski Seychelles hotel (00248 438 6666; kempinski.com/seychelles) has a dizzying array of activities scheduled every day, perfect for those with itchy feet; sea kayaking leapt off the page for me.

Pepe, a Spanish adventurer who had moved to Mahe just days before, took us out into the bay and further down the coast to a secluded beach. The sea was so clear that it felt more like snorkelling. Coral peeked out from below the waves and tropical fish swum just inches below, one leaping from the water in between our paddles.

We hopped out at the empty beach and scrambled up one of the boulders, while I fantasised about 'Lord of the Flies'.

After returning to the hotel, Pepe fitted us out with snorkels and flippers so we could explore the underwater kingdom just meters from the shore. The sea was choppy, but many cast members of 'Finding Nemo' could be found dipping in between the coral.

Back on the beach, a 'Save our Seas' lecture was taking place, led by a woman speaking passionately about the marine life blessing their waters, while a man was setting up a palm-weaving display as part of the intriguingly named Coconut Show.

As I walked past them, thoughts of my looming flight home weighed heavily on my mind. With the hours ticking away, I wouldn't discover the mysterious delights of a coconut show, or stretch out on the beach or fish in the lagoon.

There was only time to sample the bounty of another fisherman's hau and tuck into my last meal of succulent jobfish and raw tuna. As I ate, I watched the sun sink towards the horizon. And even though I was there, I found myself dreaming of the Seychelles.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there

Etihad Airways (01-656 9900; etihad.com) operates 10 services a week between Dublin and Abu Dhabi, with daily connections to the Seychelles. Return fares start at €839 for Coral Economy and €2,738 for their impressive Pearl Business class.

When to go

The weather in the Seychelles is fairly regular throughout the year, with temperatures rarely falling below 24°C or rising above 33°C.

Between October and May it's generally hot and humid, with calm seas ideal for diving. In the summer, when the southeast trade winds blow, the weather is generally cooler.

Where to Stay

The Sainte Anne Beachcomber (00248 429 2000; sainteanne- resort.com) is a stone's throw from Mahe, where international flights arrive. A 10-minute boat ride will take you to this private island in the heart of a marine park. Accommodation is in villas, a short walk from the pool, beaches and restaurants. Rates start at £552 (€649), half-board.

The Constance Lemuria Resort (00248 4281 281; lemuriaresort. constancehotels.com) is on Praslin, with lush gardens and an 18-hole golf course. The suites are all seconds from the beach, where the diving is excellent. Presidential villas have private infinity pools and hot tubs. Rates start at €550 B&B.

On La Digue, Le Domaine de L'Orangeraie (00248 4299 999; orangeraie.sc) is a chic collection of villas, hidden among tropical gardens. The restaurant, next to the infinity pool, serves up an array of Creole cuisine, such as octopus carpaccio and curried job fish.

Rates start at €360 B&B.

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