The Seychelles Islands Are the Hidden Gem of Africa
Imagine the perfect island escape: far from everything, with clear blue water and soft white sand. Now add giant tortoises, smooth boulders rising from the sea and coconuts that will make you blush, and you have the Seychelles islands.
You're not alone if you've never heard of this African nation, though you've probably seen its idyllic shores in Tom Hank's "Castaway" and on the cover of high-end fashion magazines. Set in the middle of the Indian Ocean, around 1,000 miles from Kenya, Seychelles plays hard to get (to). But, as with all things in life that demand work, your effort is well rewarded.
Here's what you can expect on a perfect island-hopping vacation in Seychelles.
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A Brief Intro to the Seychelles Islands
Made up of 115 granite and coral islands, Seychelles remained uninhabited for most of human history. In 1770, the French decided to settle the territory to plant the spices and fruits that still lend their fragrance to the country — think cinnamon, coconut and vanilla.
The diverse Seychellois people are descendants of enslaved people, French settlers, British settlers (who took the territory from the French) and immigrants from places like India and China. Creole is the dominant language, but French and English are also widely spoken.
Seychellois people are incredibly proud of their country. And they should be. As my airport taxi driver boasted: There's no pollution, Creole food is delicious, and there are beautiful beaches all around. The nation's allure is so strong that even Prince William and Kate Middleton couldn't resist it, reportedly spending part of their honeymoon here.
And yet, in 2019 — a year of peak travel for Seychelles — only 428,000 people visited the country, making the experience even better for those who've made it all the way out here.
Go Small Cruise Ship or Go Home
Out of 115 islands, Seychelles' 40 granitic islands — made with ancient rocks estimated to be around 750 million years old — are the most popular. Though they share a similar geography, each is distinctive and unique, making island hopping the best way to see as much of the country as possible.
Though there is an inter-island ferry, it only connects the three biggest ports, making it impossible for you to see other worthwhile spots unless you hire a private boat.
Save yourself time and energy and choose a small cruise ship instead. Because of the country's geography and the size of most islands, giant cruise ships simply don't work here — which is a giant positive in my book.
The Small Cruise Ship Experience
My island-hopping adventure was courtesy of the family-owned Variety Cruises, a Greek company specializing in small cruise ships that go to places bigger boats can't reach. The ship — christened the Pegasos — measures 147.6 feet by 36 feet and can host up to 44 guests. But my experience was much more intimate, as there were only 18 passengers and 20 crew members.
This translated to detailed, personalized attention. The crew members not only knew your name but remembered small things like your beverage of choice, so they offered it even before you had to ask. Seychellois Chef Christopher Ruphus made delectable meals with great care that were the antithesis of mass-produced stale buffets meant for hundreds of people. Egyptian Pastry Chef Mohamed Othman Soliman Kamel dedicated himself to delighting us with tempting desserts at every meal.
More importantly, the intimate setting helped everyone on board, passengers and crew alike, to get to know each other. By the end, we all knew the name, nationality and (partial) back story of everyone onboard. Some passengers even got to try and beat Captain Nikolopoulos at board games.
Plus, we didn't have to waste time making long lines for excursions or activities, which meant more time exploring islands, interacting with wildlife and enjoying the sea. The small cruise ship experience was an all-around win.
The World's Most Beautiful Beach: Anse Source d'Argent
On the seven-day cruise, I didn't see a single beach in Seychelles I wouldn't return to. But the two that stand out the most are Anse Source d'Argent and Anse Lazio.
The jewel of Seychelles, Anse Source d'Argent is on the island of La Digue, and it was the highlight of the trip, according to general consensus. I grew up in Miami and have been to over 40 countries and territories. I'm picky (spoiled, even) about beaches. But hand to heart, this is the most beautiful beach I have seen in my entire life.
Though you'll see giant boulders on many other beaches, the ones at Anse Source d'Argent are awe-inspiring. They rise above the sand, some so tall that you have to arch your neck to see the top. Sculpted by wind and water, they all take different shapes. Some are soft and undulating, and others are sharply geometric in a way that would please Brutalists.
As I came upon the beach through a narrow sandy trail, it looked deceptively small. I walked to the "edge" only to find that the boulders opened up a labyrinth in the sand that led to a tree-covered path and another beach, and another and another.
The clear, shallow water swayed over corals, making it difficult to swim. Not that anyone seemed to mind. Kids huddled under arched boulders to collect sand. Friends shared transparent kayaks to venture into the sea without missing a moment of the life teeming underneath. A newlywed couple, as radiant in their happiness as the shining sun, walked around, followed by a photographer who captured envy-inducing pictures.
Every part of Seychelles impressed me, but Anse Source d'Argent is the one I daydream about the most.
Anse Lazio, Another Breathtaking Beach
Located on the island of Praline, Anse Lazio is the second most popular beach in Seychelles. Said to be a favorite hideaway for celebrities, it boasts golden sand and granite rocks. It was the only crowded beach we saw, though you can easily avoid people by walking west along the shore to smaller coves surrounded by boulders. We also stumbled upon a scene that looked straight out of "Jurassic Park": an ochre-colored lagoon surrounded by dark rocks and forested mountains.
If you like a bit of buzz, you'll find restaurants, bars and shops lining the beach. For Pegasos passengers, it's a good chance to buy some souvenirs. Snorkelers can also swim around looking for marine life.
On the day we landed here, the weather was stormy and the sea was choppy, so I decided not to test fate. But I stopped an older German man (who was clearly braver than I am) as he came out of the water to ask if he'd seen anything interesting. His courage had been rewarded with a sea turtle encounter.
These majestic creatures avoided us the entire trip. But according to Genevieve Nicette, our cheerful cruise coordinator, most passengers get luckier than we did.
A Nature Lover's Paradise
Although I would've been happy to spend all my time at the beach, Variety Cruises knows Seychelles has much more to offer. Our mornings were usually dedicated to excursions to different islands, many of which are nature reserves.
In fact, 50 percent of the country's terrestrial area and 30 percent of its marine area are protected. On excursions to islands like Curieuse, Cousin and Aride, we saw endemic flora and fauna, the most exciting of which is the Aldabra giant tortoise. Seychelles is one of two places on Earth where you can see these slow but powerful creatures — the other being the Galapagos Islands, which have their own species.
Though you'll encounter tortoises on most islands, Curieuse Island is practically dedicated to them. Here, the gentle giants have learned that tourists equal juicy fruits and head scratches, so they'll come up to you looking to make friends and extend their wrinkled necks out when they like your pats.
After meeting the tortoises, we did an easy one-hour hike to the other side of the island, passing through forests, mangroves and the longest boardwalk in the country. To our surprise, one tortoise named Obama also did the trek and met us at the end of our trail, where we had a beach BBQ.
The Birds Don't Disappoint
We'd see these magnificent tortoises in Cousin and Aride islands as well. (In Cousin, we had the honor of meeting George, a 110-year-old tortoise with a penchant for flipping other males over.) But birds are the main attraction on both islands. Even before we boarded the zodiac to make a fast and sharp "James Bond dry landing" on the islands, we saw dozens and dozens of birds flying in and out of the trees.
Because they have no natural predators (except the pisonia tree, whose flowers stick to their wings and prevent them from flying), these birds show no fear. They didn't fly away if we made noise and let us get quite close to take pictures. We saw species like brush warblers, fairy terns, the swooping white-tailed tropicbird. As luck would have it, we got to catch fruit bats swirling around in the daytime. Other species that greeted us as we walked from the beach into small jungles and forests were ghost crabs, hermit crabs and the endemic Seychelles skink.
Back on board, there were also opportunities to enjoy sea life. There's no pool on the ship, but who needs that when you have the vastness of the Indian Ocean at your doorstep? We had the option to go snorkeling on three afternoons. Those who weren't interested could stay on board or go swimming, kayaking or paddle boarding around the ship.
Sadly, even a place as remote as Seychelles can't escape the effects of the warming sea, and many of the corals have been affected. We still got to see damselfish, bluestripe snappers, Moorish idol butterflyfish and many other species, including my personal favorite: the awesome-looking trumpet fish.
Welcome to the World’s Smallest National Park
One of the cruise's most noteworthy excursions is to Moyenne Island, the smallest national park in the world. Once a private island, this 14-acre spot became the home of British man Brendon Grimshaw for £8,000 in 1962 (about $166,420 today). Though a few people had lived here before, Grimshaw cleared paths, built a potable water system and brought tortoises and other endemic species to the island.
To save his beloved island from becoming a resort, Grimshaw donated it back to the Seychelles government when he passed away in 2012. Now, the only permanent residents are hundreds of adult and baby tortoises, and Yellow, an old, scruffy dog and unofficial guardian of the island.
Yellow will come running out, expecting treats as soon as you land on the beach. Rather than indulging immediately, he buries these offerings in the sand to be enjoyed at night once the tourists have left. He is an example of the level of willpower I aspire to have one day.
Exploring Moyenne Island
We circuited the entire island on a hike of around 200 steps, walking onto large rocky outcrops to take in the panorama of neighboring islands. Clamshell Rock is the (literal) pinnacle of the hike. Time and weather have carved the top of this large rock to make it resemble an open clamshell that provides sweeping ocean views and great picture opportunities.
Once we finished touring the island, we sat down at the park's laid-back bar. The selection is limited, but we cooled off with a bottle of local SeyBrew beer and mentally thanked Grimshaw — whose nickname is Robinson Cruseau — for giving this island back to the public.
A UNESCO Site That’s (Coco)Nuts
It is said that when British general Charles George Gordon came to Seychelles in 1881, he thought he'd found the Garden of Eden. What convinced him was not just the paradisiacal nature of the islands, but the coco de mer, which he believed to be the Bible's forbidden fruit.
The story may sound strange, but anyone who has seen the world's largest seed can understand his thought process. When open, the seed of the female tree resembles a butt on one side and a stomach and thighs on the other. As proof that nature has a sense of humor, the male tree's catkin is shockingly phallic.
Appreciating the Coco de Mer
Endemic to Seychelles, the coco de mer palm and its unusual seed are best appreciated in Vallée de Mai on Praslin Island. In this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we got to hold one of the surprisingly heavy seeds, which measure up to 19.6 inches and weigh up to 55 pounds. Because they are fiercely protected, these palm trees can only be seen in Seychelles.
As we toured through the about 94 acres with our guide, Samantha, we saw 70 species of palm trees, including the six that are endemic to Seychelles. We also caught a glimpse of the Seychelles black parrot.
This is one of the two tours not included in the cruise, but if it's your first time in the island nation, it's worth paying to see the fruit that cost humanity paradise.
Enjoying Seychellois Culture
Excursions aboard Variety Cruises also include opportunities to learn about Seychellois history and culture. Before settling into the sand at Anse Source d'Argent, Samantha joined us once again for a tour of La Digue Island, where bicycles are the preferred form of transportation.
We went to Notre Dame de L’Assomption Church and L'Union Estate, a former spice plantation built by the island's first settlers. Since it is now solely dedicated to the production of coconut products, Samantha took us through every step of the coconut oil-making process, pointing out cool flora and fauna. The one thing lacking from the tour was any mention of the conditions of the enslaved people one can assume were forced to work on the plantation. This tour isn't included either, and I'd recommend booking a similar one on your own to save money.
Variety Cruises also brings some of the local culture onboard during Creole Night. This special dinner solely serves Creole dishes, which paired perfectly with some smooth Takamaka rum. Local entertainers also performed (and later taught us) traditional dances like sega and moutya, which UNESCO has declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Finally, take some time before or after the cruise to explore Victoria, the capital of Seychelles. Located on Mahé Island, the city has landmarks like the bustling Victoria Market, the National Botanical Gardens and the Seychelles Natural History Museum.
Where to Stay in Seychelles
Unless you're willing to risk a delay ruining your trip, you'll need a place to stay before the cruise (and, perhaps, after).
If you want to begin your stay in Mahé in absolute luxury, book the Four Seasons Seychelles. Perched on a hill and offering a private pool in all its 10 guest rooms, this coveted property is opulent in an understated way.
But for those of us who can't drop thousands of dollars per night, Villa Chez Batista is a great option. For $130, I had access to a quiet beach that I shared with a handful of other guests and locals. The onsite restaurant serves international and Creole food at good prices, and the rooms were large, cozy and clean.
Flying Into Seychelles
If Seychelles has managed to avoid the pit of other tropical islands, it’s because of its remoteness. The only way to get here is by flying into Seychelles International Airport in Mahé. Ten airlines service the airport, including Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and Air Seychelles.
The latter is mostly used for those who want to skip the inter-island ferry to go to Praslin and would rather take a short flight. Given that the ferry only takes about 60 minutes, I'd recommend taking the ferry to avoid airport security lines and to cut back on emissions.
Words of Wisdom: Rent a Car
There is no way around it: Seychelles is an expensive country, which is to be expected given its remoteness. My biggest mistake was underestimating just how costly taxis are. Even after negotiating the price, I paid about $60 to get from the airport to my hotel. The next morning, I paid another $60 to get back to the port in Victoria.
But my fellow passengers and I disembarked the Pegasos wiser than we'd been at the beginning of the trip. This time, no one (to my knowledge) took a taxi. Instead, most people opted to rent a car in Victoria. Ironically, it was a much cheaper decision, as it came out to around $35 for the entire day. Genevieve was more than happy to help everyone arrange this.
There are also local buses that take you around Mahé. They're safe and inexpensive, but carrying your luggage on the bus can be a hassle.
Save yourself the headache and simply rent a car.
Variety Cruises' Seychelles Itinerary
Leaving a beautiful place is always difficult. But the sting is sharper when you know you won't find something similar elsewhere.
It helps to remember that out of almost 8 billion people on the planet, I'll be one of the 400,000 people this year who'll get to see giant tortoises, meet a smart dog guarding a tiny national park and feel the sand as I walk amongst rocks that formed when alga was the most complex lifeform on the planet.
And if you feel a pang of jealousy for those who get to call Seychelles home, it's only natural. Not everyone gets to live in the Garden of Eden.