Report by Paul Critcher
With the huge white sail unfurled and the wind whipping through my hair, I couldn’t help but imagine myself in an 80s pop video as I took the helm and guided the 40-foot catamaran across the aquamarine waters.
In truth, much of this trip to the Seychelles had been something of a fantasy, from the majesty of the exquisite beaches to the ponderous beauty of the ancient giant tortoises to the distinctive shape of the Coco de Mer, it was a journey of contrast and discovery.
While many will associate the Seychelles with the sort of luxury beach holidays that honeymooners aspire to, there is a lot more to this archipelago which is located in the Indian Ocean 1,000 miles off the Kenyan coastline. Yes, it does have beautiful beaches (some would say the most beautiful in the world), but it also has fascinating flora and fauna and a healthy number of marine parks and nature reserves. The country can also lay claim to being home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Crucially, it also has a reputation as one of the world’s best sailing destinations. I say crucially because here was my chance to enjoy a visit to the islands, with a big slice of adventure thrown in for good measure. I was joining a mixed group of sailors and non-sailors for a spot of island hopping and the chance to grapple with the mainsail and do some helming myself.
We boarded the boat at Eden Marina on Mahé the largest island of the Seychelles. Home for the next few days was a 40-foot Sunsail catamaran with four berths, two heads (toilets in nautical speak), a large saloon and a skipper with the not wholly encouraging name of Jeremy Bossy. In fact, the skipper was not ‘bossy’ at all, but happy to share his extensive knowledge about the islands and how best to sail them. Boats can be chartered with or without (known as ‘bareboat’ charters) skippers, and the skippers will tailor their involvement to your needs – so it’s up to you whether the skipper does all the sailing or merely lends a hand with the navigation.
Most sailors visit between May and September, when the southeasterly trade winds guarantee fine sailing with average speeds of between ten and 15 knots. Between December and March the prevailing northwesterly winds average five to ten knots. In April and November when the winds are changing the weather is usually calm and there is little wind.
To truly discover the islands you need to cover a fair bit of ground, or should I say ‘sea’, and our plan was to remain in the archipelago’s inner islands where there is easy access to plenty of safe moorings and lots of nearby islands. After a quick jaunt around Mahe, which comprised a brief visit to the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke market in Victoria, we headed inland and stopped at The Mission Lodge where missionaries once ran a school for the children of liberated African slaves. This celebrated viewing point (sadly overcast on the day we visited) is surrounded by dense forest with mahogany, guava and jackfruit trees competing for space. We met Jeremy and our catamaran, Dou Rev IV, at Port Launay on Mahe’s west coast and motorsailed (when winds are light an engine is called for!) north to Beau Vallon where we dined on fresh snapper cooked up on the beach – suitably Crusoesque.
The next morning an hour’s sailing via brought us to Praslin. Even for accomplished sailors, having a skipper to help locate suitable moorings makes life a little easier, but should you elect to skipper yourself you will be provided with plenty of detail on where you can moor up and the best spots for overnight stays. Accompanied by silver flying fish, we swept past the twin islands of Cousine an Cousin, both of which were resplendent in frigate birds and other ocean-going species. Located 27 miles northeast of Mahé, Praslin is the Seychelles’ second largest island and home to two of the country’s national parks – Curieuse Marine National Park and Vallée de Mai National Park – of which more later. As we arrived at Anse Lazio a short hop around the headland from the marine park, the water was a slice of lurid aquamarine and I felt like Fletcher Christian must have done when he first saw Tahiti from the Bounty – paradise found. That alluring water could not be resisted and I was soon snorkelling amid the granite boulders that fringe the beach. I’ve heard mixed reports about the underwater life in the Seychelles, but while corals were patchy there was a good smattering of fishlife including a group of batfish, and reef regulars such as angelfish, butterflyfish, needlefish, soldierfish and parrotfish. There were even a few mudskippers on the rocks by the beach.
A short walk from the beach, accompanied by a juvenile lemon shark hunting in the shallows, led to the Bonbon Plume restaurant, where we stopped to greet a group of giant tortoises, who having deigned to take a leaf from one of us, largely ignored us and went to back to sleep. This palm-roofed open-sided restaurant is delightful – charming waitresses, an exquisite takamaka tree right on the beach and a tasty octopus salad that was almost ceviche in style, the acidity cut through with fresh fruit.
Another day, another island and Dou Rev IV soon ate up the seven or so miles to La Digue. Although there are a few vehicles on this island, it is largely car free and most people rely on the many bicycles that are available for hire for transportation. The island retains a natural unspoiled look but new hotels have been built in recent years to accommodate the increasing number of tourists. Fortunately, the building here has been sensitive and low rise. Hopefully the island will retain its sensible outlook and protect its natural resources, particularly at places such as Anse Fourmis, where sea turtles come to lay their eggs. Having laid their eggs, these remarkable animals, which come equipped with an inbuilt natural GPS, return eight days later to pat down sand. Giant land tortoises also roam free and while protected are often kept as pets, although they are so long lived that invariably they are handed down from generation to generation. Our guide took us to ‘Belle Vue’, high up in the centre of island to see the, well ‘nice view’. Here we could see beautiful birds whose feathers were tipped white and fruitbats sweeping between the trees. Curried bat makes for fantastic eating we were told, by virtue of their fruit-only diet.
But what of those world-class beaches, of which La Digue is so renowned? Grand Anse Beach on the south coast was suitably spectacular, with big waves that matched the splendour of the beach’s sculpted granite rocks – worn down by time, wind and sea to create the perfect photo opportunity. The attached beach bar – again, with the ubiquitous barbecuing fish completing the illusion.
But apparently this was not the most heralded beach in the Seychelles, that honour belonging to Anse Source D’Argent on La Digue’s west coast. Entry is via the L’Union Estate, and it costs 100 Seychellois rupees (about £5) to get in, which allows access to the aforementioned beach, a vanilla plantation, coco oil factory and a cemetery where the original settlers are buried. But the beach is the star, just one glorious holiday brochure shot after another – you go round another bit of headland and it gets better and better. The supremely complementary sky, water, palms, rocks and sand going somewhere that other beaches cannot reach.
An onboard barbecue of fish and chicken teriyaki (you do your own catering onboard or can eat at one of the many coastal hotels and restaurants) accompanied by a few beers and some star spotting was a suitably al fresco way to spend our last few hours in La Digue. The following morning we were returning to Mahé and with the wind getting up, I grabbed my opportunity to helm the boat. With the engine finally muted, the only sounds are the splash of the sea and the majestic sail buffeted by wind. Guided by Jeremy and the more accomplished sailors on board, I helped set the sails and then followed a heading. Scoring through the water we circumnavigated La Digue before heading homeward enjoying various sightings of dolphins, turtle and flying fish. The truth is that these catamarans largely sail themselves, and you can set waypoints that can guide you all the way to your destination, but the chance to pilot such a vessel rather than relying on crew or equipment is all part of the fun.
A last potter around Mahé led us to a final Seychellois meal where we pulled out all the stops and tried a plethora of dishes which arrived tapas style. Would I come again – I wouldn’t miss it for the world, the idea that you can simply pull up the anchor and head off whenever you choose is incredibly liberating and there’s nowhere better than the Seychelles to do it.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Vallée de Mai is a 19.5 hectare area of palm forest on Praslin which has been described as the Garden of Eden as it is largely unspoiled. It’s worth a visit, if only to wonder at the size of the seeds of the endemic Coco de Mer – the largest seed in the plant kingdom weighing in at 30kg, which is, dare I say it, reminiscent of a female bottom! Entry to the forest is a touch expensive at 350 rupees (£21) and the numbers of visitors necessitates strict adherence to the paths. But take a guided tour early in the morning, when there are fewer visitors and more chances to see the endemic black parrots and a variety of geckos and lizards hidden amid the towering palms.
The Seychelles’ other UNESCO World Heritage Site is Aldabra Atoll, which is comprised of four large coral islands that enclose a shallow lagoon. The island group is surrounded by a coral reef. Its remote location meant that we didn’t sail to Aldabra, restricted as we were to the inner islands. However, it is those difficulties of access and the atoll’s isolation, that have protected Aldabara from human influence. UNESCO cites it as ‘an outstanding example of an oceanic island ecosystem in which evolutionary processes are active within a rich biota.’ The atoll is also home to more than 100,000 giant tortoises and is an important habitat for green turtles and for a number of bird, including endemics such as the Aldabra brush warbler and Aldabra drongo.
This island is a curiosity indeed, home as it is to 150 giant tortoises, the largest free number of free-ranging Aldabra giant land tortoise in the inner granitics. A bioreserve located 1km off the coast of Praslin, Curieuse is currently under the management of the Seychelles National Parks Authority. Between 1829 and 1965 it was a leper colony which helped protect the ecosystem from human influence. The Curieuse Marine National Park was designated on the 11 June 1979 in order to protect its outstanding natural beauty and for the ecological importance of its marine life. It hosts a multitude of dynamic ecosystems both terrestrial and marine and a number of endemic and native plant species are found here. Important ecological areas include turtle nest beaches, mangrove forests (with six of the seven mangrove species found in the Seychelles) and Coco de Mer palm forests. Warden Jason explained that there is a total population of more than 150,000 giant tortoises across the Seychelles and that they are among the world’s most long lived animals, living well past 100 years, although none of the 150 tortoises on Curieuse is more than 115 years old. The tortoises are territorial and will fight in the mating season. Interestingly, the temperature of the nest determines what sex the young will be. As Jason puts it ‘chicks are hot and guys are cool’.
NEED TO KNOW
Price for a week’s yacht charter with Sunsail costs from £4,214 for a Sunsail 404, four cabin catamaran yacht (sleeps up to eight people) in the Seychelles. This includes a fully equipped cruising yacht for the duration of your stay including all sailing, navigation and safety equipment, linen including bath and tea towels, starter pack, snorkelling equipment, dinghy and outboard, full cylinder of cooking gas and full tank of water, one tank of yacht fuel, yacht cleaning and Yacht Damage Waiver (insurance). Flights from Gatwick to Mahé with Emirates cost from £500 per person. For more details visit www.sunsail.co.uk or to book call 0330 332 1188.