In the middle of the Indian Ocean lies an archipelago of 115 islands scattered like giant skipping stones across 1.4 million square kilometers of ocean: the Seychelles. These disparate islands fall largely into two groups: 41 “inner” granitic islands and 74 remote “outer” coral islands or atolls. The outer islands, which include three groups (Farquhar, Alphonse and Amirantes), begin about 1,000 kilometers east of northeast Madagascar and the inner group is roughly another 1,000 kilometers further northeast. The vast majority of the 100,000 Seychellois residents live on three granitic islands: Mahé, Praslin and La Digue. These are the only islands with permanent inhabitants and municipalities.
Last August, my partner, Rob, and I visited these three islands for two weeks, with five days on Praslin, two on La Digue and a week on the largest island of Mahé. The latter is home to the Seychelles’ capital Victoria, named after the late British queen in spite of UK occupation from 1794 to 1976.
Interestingly, the French made a lasting impression with their language as a result of occupation of the Seychelles for nearly 40 years from 1756. A phonetic French called creole is still widely spoken by locals, comically spelled exactly as it sounds. For example, “kwizin” is a knock off of French “cuisine” meaning kitchen.
The Seychelles were uninhabited prior to French occupation but known by traders from the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, the first recorded landing on the Seychelles was in 1609 by the British East India Company but the French occupied the archipelago first, naming it Séchelles. The Brits renamed it Seychelles after war with France led to its surrender to Great Britain in 1810 (formally ceded by the Treaty of Paris in 1814). A positive move by the Brits was the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, which changed the work force and agriculture from the cultivation of labor-intensive cotton and grains to trees crops such as coconut, vanilla and cinnamon. The latter are still cultivated on the islands today. (Unfortunately, traditional crops never returned so produce is imported, low-quality and extremely expensive. Only backyard farmers offer more affordable produce at a daily market in Victoria.)
Fast forward nearly 150 years, the Seychelles proclaimed independence from the United Kingdom, evolving from an agriculture- to market-based economy built on service, public sector and tourism activities. From 1976 to 2015, the country’s nominal GDP grew nearly 700 percent, particularly after it opened to foreign investment in 2010. Today, the Seychelles has the highest per capita GDP of all African nations and the continent’s second-highest Human Development Index after Mauritius. It is the only African country classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank.
Besides French and British influence, Seychellois culture and society is based on a melting pot of immigrants, including Indians and Chinese. Reflecting this diversity, the country is a member of the United Nations, African Union and Commonwealth of Nations.
Given the Seychelles are in the Southern Hemisphere just under the equator, August is during its winter so the Indian Ocean can be rough. Case in point, our ferries to and from the different islands were full of seasick passengers. We knew it wasn’t going to be good when we were handed a vomit bag upon boarding (fortunately, we did not have to use one). As well, several beaches have “swim at your own risk” signs.
Rob and I rented self-catering villas via Air BnB for more local experiences and freedom to explore. (Otherwise, there are all-inclusive, self-contained resorts.) The only challenge was getting to the relatively few restaurants, finding quality ingredients to cook with and obtaining a rental car (be sure to order one on Praslin and Mahé well in advance; you can get around La Digue by bicycle). We ended up with a car with coconut shell dents on the top and a broken door handle as it was the last one in stock. The Seychelles are not known for “kwizin,” just tea, rum and sadly, fruit bat curry.
The Seychellois fruit bat or “flying fox” with bright orange fur is one of the only mammals on the archipelago. This mega bat defies all bat stereotypes in that it uses color vision to navigate, not sonar, and flies at all times of day except in bright sun. Rob and I became obsessed with the adorable fruit bats and even allowed one, a local’s pet, to eat papaya off our shoulders. The thought of eating this bat was revolting (and also discouraged by the government, which is aiming to pass a law to protect them).
Aldabra giant tortoises are the only land mammal in the Seychelles that trumps the fruit bat in size. They are among the largest tortoises in the world, weighing 159-250 kilos (250-350 pounds) apiece. (Note tortoises are land-dwelling whereas turtles spend most of their time in water.) Rob and I – plus friends from Brussels who happened to be in Praslin a few days at the same time – visited hundreds of these tortoises on Curieuse Island a short motorboat ride away from Praslin. The giants were curious indeed, walking right up to us and appreciating neck rubs.
Aldabra in the archipelago’s outermost southwestern island group is the epicenter of giant tortoises with the world’s largest population of this reptile (around 152,000) due to its isolation from humanity. It is one of the largest coral atolls in the world and one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Seychelles. The atoll is comprised of four large coral islands that enclose a shallow lagoon and are surrounded by a coral reef. As it can only be accessed by a private, live-aboard ship and piracy can be a problem, Rob and I did not go there.
But we did make it to the Seychelles’ other UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve on Praslin. This pristine rainforest is known for six endemic types of palm trees that only exist there in the world. The most famous is the Coco de Mer, which has the largest seed in the world (20 kilos) that comically resembles a woman’s pelvis. It is the unofficial mascot of the archipelago. We visited Vallée de Mai when it was raining, which not only authenticated the rainforest but allowed us to use palm trees as umbrellas.
While having a coffee in the rainforest café, a Red Fody bird ate bread out of Rob’s hand. It was not the only tropical creature that got up close and personal. While playing cards on a terrace one night in Mahé, a gecko fell from the ceiling, safely landing on Rob’s baseball cap. At a remote beach we had to hike 2 kilometers to access, a sting ray swam right underneath me in shallow coastal water. Atop Mahé’s highest peak, we were greeted by carnivorous pitcher plants and all kinds of flora were growing everywhere on the lush islands.
The Seychelles are all about nature, exploration and wild remoteness. Don’t go there looking for “kwizin” or nightclubs … just take in all the glory that Mother Nature provides.