Africa: Seychelles, Experience another World
Demola Ojo offers a guide to one of the most famous vacation spots on earth, known for its breathtaking beaches as well as the legendary coco de mer nut. it is also visa-on-arrival for Nigerians…
Seychelles is a 115-island country east of mainland East Africa and northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. With approximately 94,000 indigenes, it has the smallest population of any sovereign African country.
It is a relatively virgin place; there is no record of human habitation before the 18th century. You’ll understand why if you check a map; it’s in the middle of nowhere.
One of the most fabled vacation spots in the world, only a fifth of its 115 islands is inhabited. There are two categories of islands: the granitic ‘inner’ that cluster around the principal islands of Mahe, Prasline and La Digue, whose green peaks rise skywards from virgin forests and pristine beaches, and the ‘outer’ islands; an array of flat, coralline islands extending westwards towards the African continent.
The inner islands are the cultural focal point of Seychelles, where the majority of the population lives, while the outer islands remain mini worlds, hardly touched by man thus offering an incomparable island experience.
The rich culture of the Seychelles is a melting pot of the many different types of people who have settled on the islands over the years.
From French settlers and their dependents who established the archipelago’s spice and coconut plantations, to Islamic mariners, British colonials, Chinese traders, and African slaves (many of them originally from West Africa), each wave of new residents have contributed something unique to a remarkable blend of language, music, arts and religion.
English is widely spoken and is an official language along with French and Seychellois Creole.
Under the provisions of the Seychellois constitution, women enjoy the same legal status as men and at 45.8 percent of the total delegates, the Seychelles has the highest percentage of women in its parliament of any country in the world.
In the Seychelles, people of all colors and races mingle freely and racial tensions are almost unknown.
Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, practiced by well over 90 per cent of the population. Members of other Christian denominations can be found there as well, and a smattering of Hindis, Moslems and adherents of the Bahá’í Faith.
When to go
The best thing about the Seychelles islands is that they are blessed with a year-long warm, tropical climate which means it’s always a good time to visit, although different times of the year may be better suited to particular interests.
Conditions for swimming, snorkelling and especially diving are superb all-year round but especially from October to April when the water temperature sometimes reaches 29ºC and visibility is often 30 metres plus. It is no surprise that this period is high season in the Seychelles.
Planeloads of tourists are heading there presently, while the traffic was noticeable lighter during departure.
How to get there
A few major African airlines go to Seychelles. I flew with Ethiopian Airlines which took a little over four hours to Addis Ababa and another three to the airport in Victoria, Mahe Island.
Besides having a fleet of modern planes, Ethiopian Airlines also connects from five Nigerian cities; Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Kano and Kaduna, making it an ideal choice regardless of where you are in Nigeria.
The approach to the Seychelles already gives an indication of what is in store. The view from the plane window is breathtaking; crystal clear blue waters dotted with white-beached, forested islands. It’s all water until touchdown at the airport which was built in 1971 on reclaimed land.
Where to stay
A total of 16 islands, including 12 island getaways with only a single lodge per island provide an authentic tropical island experience and offer a range of accommodation choices, from the homely comfort of rustic beachside bungalows to the pampered privacy and luxury of 5-star resorts.
Mahe is the most populated of the Islands and is home to the capital, Victoria. Ninety per cent of Seychelles 94,000 population resides in Mahe. Mahe is as busy as the Seychelles gets, and is home to the largest selection of resorts and activities, from the hiking possibilities across the rugged interior of Morne Seychellois National Park to diving pristine sites and snorkelling with whale sharks in or just beyond the glorious bays caressed by the gorgeously multihued waters of Mahé.
The west coast, from top to bottom, is one long string of stunning beaches and outstanding accommodation, but there are plenty of secret gems elsewhere. And wherever you’re based, paradise lies close at hand – a bus or car ride of no more than 20 minutes will bring you to fabulous natural attractions.
If you’re looking for activity – rather than being by yourself (and your significant other maybe) on a beach where the only footprints you’re likely to see are yours – Beau Vallon beach is the place to be.
Beau Vallon is a bay on the north western coast of Mahé. The land surrounding a bay often reduces the strength of winds and blocks waves. At Beau Vallon, the surrounding hills with lush vegetation provide extra protection for the beach. Even when the storm gathers, it knows its boundary.
This complements the warm Indian Ocean, making it the perfect site for swimming and other watersports. The beach is a base for diving and snorkelling due to its clear waters and coral reefs.
There is a market lining the promenade on Wednesdays and Saturdays where you can find souvenirs, barbecue fish and other local delicacies, coconut drinks (similar to palm wine in Nigeria) and local rum (more on this), as well as a diverse mix of people to strike up conversations with.
A wide range of affordable, new and refurbished hotels, self-caterings and charming Creole guesthouses are joining the ranks of existing 5-star hotels and exclusive island retreats to offer memorable stays among welcoming Creole people and stunning natural surroundings.
Among the numerous options, you can’t go wrong with the Savoy Spa and Resorts, which is right on the beach.
Nestled amongst palm trees and facing the Indian Ocean on Beau Vallon Bay, this beachfront resort offers sleek rooms with modern facilities you would expect from a spanking new 5-star hotel; free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and minibars, fridges, sitting areas and balconies with sea or garden views.
Polished suites add living and dining rooms, upgraded suites add kitchenettes and outdoor hot tubs. Room service is available 24/7.
Amenities include five casual to refined restaurants serving local and international fare, plus a spa and a gym. There’s also an outdoor pool with a bar and sea views, and a garden with palm trees.
Best of all, a walkway leads you right into the centre of beach in seconds, meaning you can talk a walk in the wee hours of the morning when the crashing waves beckon.
Praslin and La Digue
Praslin is home to the Vallee de Mer, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the famous coco de mer grows wild in abundance (more on coco de mer below). Praslin is Seychelles second largest island and is 15 minutes by plane or 45 minutes by ferry from Mahe.
Divided by a ridge of hills intersected by a road that leads through the Valle de Mai, the island with a population of less than 10,000 people possesses some of Seychelles’ most striking beaches such as Anse Lazio, widely acclaimed to be the most beautiful beach on earth.
Praslin is ideally suited for those who want to island hop to La Digue, Chauve Souris, Curiese, St. Pierre Cousin and the island bird reserves of Cousin and Aride.
La Digue which is 7 kilometres from Praslin is celebrated for its divinely sculpted granite boulders on beaches such as Anse Source D’Argent.
The island where more traditional modes of transport such as bicycles and oxcarts still hold sway, offers authentic island-style accommodation, mainly situated on the west coast while the east remains untouched.
What to do
Seychelles is heaven for watersport enthusiasts and lovers of water-related activities; sailing, diving, snorkeling, surfing and plain old lying on the beach. Hiking is also a very popular activity. And yes, rum tasting, which the group I was part of partook in.
The Trois Frères Distillery, on the main island of Mahé, is the only producer and exporter of rum in the Seychelles. Its rum, named Takamaka after a bay in the country, is exported to many parts of Europe and the UAE.
By the time we were done at the distillery, my group broke into song; “We are H-A-P-P-Y!!! We know we are, we are sure we are…” Understandably so, after tots of eight different variants of the rum distilled, aged and blended in the Seychelles.
This, after we were taken on an educational tour of the distillery and the rum making process.
The 15-year-old distillery is located on an old tropical spice plantation site, La Plaine St André, which dates back to the 1700s. The property is a national heritage site.
Takamaka Rum is made from naturally grown local sugar cane from four different regions of Mahé. It is then crushed on site at the distillery.
The sugar cane juice is fermented and distilled in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, before being aged and matured in French and American oak barrels. It is then blended with aged rums, local spices, fruit extracts, and spring water from the island.
The rum range includes St. André Premium Rum; Dark Spiced Rum; Extra Noir; White Rum; Takamaka 69 Rum; Coconut Rum; Pineapple Rum; and Mango and Passion Rum.
The Coconut Rum was my favourite and I was sure to get a couple duty free on my way back.
Rum is a staple ingredient in cocktails in many of the restaurants and bars across the islands.
Obviously, fish plays a prominent part in Seychellois cuisine because of its location in the Indian Ocean. The Seychelles is a foodie’s heaven as its cuisine has been influenced by African, British, French, Indian and Chinese cuisine.
The use of spices such as ginger, lemongrass, coriander and tamarind are a significant component of Seychellois cuisine. Fresh fish and fruits are sold by street vendors in various places.
Seafood is often accompanied with rice. Fish dishes are cooked in several ways, such as steamed, grilled, wrapped in banana leaves, baked, salted and smoked. Curry dishes with rice are also a significant aspect of the country’s cuisine. Aprt from fish, I found chicken to be another popular source of meat.
Additional food staples include coconut, breadfruit, mangoes and bananas, which has close to 20 varieties as a walk through the market in Mahe attests to.
I noticed meals came in large portions in many of the restaurants, including the Boat House at Beau Vallon. Nothing beats tasty and filling.
Coco de mer
It would be incomplete talking edibles without specially mentioning the coco de mer, a rare species of palm tree native to the Seychelles. The nut is a national symbol, even above the giant tortoises the island nation is also known for.
The name coco de mer is French, and means “coconut of the sea”. The nut of the coco de mer is very large (the largest seed in the plant kingdom) and is oddly shaped, being the shape and size of a woman’s buttocks on one side, and a woman’s belly and thighs on the other side.
Not surprisingly, this nut was viewed by people in other parts of the world as a rare and fascinating object with mythological and even magical properties.
Coco de mer is endemic to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse.
The coco de mer palm has separate male and female trees, unlike the coconut palm. And, unlike the more familiar fruit of the coconut tree, the coco de mer fruit is not adapted to disperse naturally by floating on the ocean water.
When a coco de mer fruit falls into the sea, it cannot float because of its great weight and density; instead it sinks to the bottom.
However, after the fruit has been on the sea bed for a considerable period of time, the husk drops off, the internal parts of the nut decay, and the gases that form inside the nut cause the bare nut to rise up to the surface.
At that time the nut can float, but is no longer fertile, thus when the ocean currents cause the nut to wash up on a distant beach, for example in the Maldives, a tree cannot, and does not, grow from the nut.
The exceptional size and suggestive form of the nut, the circumstances of its discovery, and some unusual qualities of the trees have given rise to several legends.
Even after 1743, when the real coco de mer trees were discovered by early settlers, new legends were formed.
Fruits of coco de mer are developed only on female trees while male trees have long phallic-looking catkins. Because of these unusual, erotic shapes, some people believed that the trees made passionate love on stormy nights.
According to the legend, male trees uproot themselves, and approach female trees. Apparently the love-making trees are rather shy, and the legend has it that whoever sees the trees mating will die or go blind.
The fact that even now the pollination of the coco de mer is not fully understood, is one of the factors behind the legend. The legend of the coco de mer may be one extra reason why the Seychelles is arguably the world’s leading honeymoon destination.