The ocean ends and the runway begins in the same breath at Mahé’s international airport. Mahé, stretching eight kilometres wide and 28 kilometres long end to end, is the largest of the 115 islands in the Seychelles archipelago. Its capital Victoria, on the other hand, is one of the world’s smallest capitals as well as the nation’s largest city.
About two dozen streets coiled around the Victoria Clocktower form the heart of the city whose foundation was laid in the French colonial era. Nothing shows off Victoria better than a walk around the over-170-year-old Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market or Victoria Market. For an Indian traveller, some of the fresh produce on display is familiar—green, yellow and red mangoes, plump squashes and bananas. There are also rows of snapper, jobfish, rabbitfish and octopus. On some shelves, breads share space with chilli paste and fruit essence. Elsewhere, fat stacks of cinnamon, turmeric, and nutmeg unleash their aromas on passers-by.
Selwyn showcases the Creole heart of the island, a perfect blend of the East and West. This is a fallout of the French and British colonisers adapting their own cooking techniques to tropical ingredients. Fruits were used as vegetables and fish was dried and preserved so the settlers could make do until the next boat of supplies arrived; for all its greenery, the saline earth of the islands does not support cultivation. Vanilla became the main cash crop, and plantation workers were brought in from different parts of the world. With them came a burst of new flavours and gastronomic influences—Indians brought curries; the English brought their love of tea and pudding; the stir frying technique was influenced by the Chinese.
Religion and culture, too, bear the markings of this great merger. A Hindu temple stands a few metres away from Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, the country’s largest Catholic church—both a 10-minute walk from the market. Built in 1892 and renovated in the mid-1990s, the church and the adjacent two-storey granite priest house La Domus are considered the two most impressive buildings in the city.
Catholicism remains Seychelles’s major religion, and tales of the 10-foot-tall Giant of Bel Air—the legendary early settler whose grave is something of a national monument—are narrated with as much enthusiasm as the miracles of Jesus.
Away from the main city, the granite island is verdant. Numerous hiking trails pass through the deep green abundance of soapbush, cinnamon and jellyfish trees. Of the 20-odd trails smattered throughout Mahé, many are part of glacis habitats—areas of poor fertility where natural flora grows but is threatened by invasive species. Recent restoration measures have helped revive indigenous foliage in these habitats.
In the north, most hiking trails including the popular Copolia and Morne Blanc, snake close to the 2,188-foot-tall mountain Morne Blanc, the country’s third highest point. A few kilometres away, the Tea Tavern Glacis Trail brushes along the island’s popular tea estate and factory (Tea Tavern). Keep your eyes peeled for striped forest geckos in the undergrowth and majestic blue pigeons on treetops.
A 10-minute drive from Tea Tavern Glacis will bring you to another chapter of Seychellois history, Venn’s Town or The Mission Lodge. Amidst an old forest stand the ruins of a missionary school built in the late 1800s for children of liberated African slaves. The kids learnt various life skills and studied the Bible. Their parents cultivated spices and trees in the then 50-acre area, and helped take care of the mission. It was in 1972 that a viewing gazebo was built on the same spot where the school once stood, inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II. A path, on either side of which six blood dragon trees stand, leads to creeper-covered steps winding up to the shaded gazebo. The gazebo itself offers a splendid green vista, looking out to the Morne Seychellois National Park.
The 200-year-old La Plaine St. Andre estate has played many roles—originally an estate that housed a copra kiln along with patchouli and cinnamon distilleries, then a national museum, and now home ground to Takamaka Bay Rum since 2006. The restored plantation house is the on-site restaurant at the distillery, surrounded by a now flourishing herb garden and a few ruins from the original structure.
Takamaka Bay Rum is the brainchild of locals Richard and Bernard d’Offay, brothers who returned from their schooling in South Africa to start the business in 2001. An interactive tour, which begins with visitors trying their hand at crushing sugarcane, takes you through the process of rum being distilled from sugarcane grown by 60 farmers especially for the distillery. The comparatively small-scale distillery uses parts of the restored house to age its rums, available in only select places outside Seychelles.
It ends with a tasting session of the brand’s signature rums. There’s the dark spiced rum flavoured with locally grown vanilla and cinnamon; the eight-year-aged dark St. Andre; the extra noir aged for three years and flavoured with caramel; the standard white; the extra strong white rum with 69 per cent alcohol; and the slightly less boozy pineapple and coconut flavours (takamakarum.com; Distillery and Garden Tours with tastings 11.30 a.m. and 1 p.m., SCR250/Rs1,270; Tours can be arranged at different times if booked in advance; La Plaine St. André Restaurant and Bar, open Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-10 p.m.).
Time at leisure in Mahé usually revolves around the beach. There is one night club and one movie theatre in Victoria, and the most popular weekend pursuit is what locals dub as tailgate parties—get your friends, get a car, get your drinks and drive away to a beach or field for a susegad evening. While the posh waterfront restaurants and pubs of Victoria’s recently developed artificial island, Eden Island, attracts the younger crowd, it does little to lure sunbathers away from the beaches. Anse Major in the western coast, accessible only by foot, may not be safe for swimming but is the perfect spot to sit back and wile your evening away. Mahé’s most popular beach Beau Vallon, on the other hand, is the hub of water activities such as diving, snorkelling and parasailing. Head here for some buzz on a Sunday, especially during the annual Creole Festival in October, and cop a taste of local delicacies and handicrafts.
A 90-minute ferry ride from Mahé (usually with a stop at Praslin) brings visitors to La Digue, home to some of the archipelago’s most photographed beaches. The 10-square-kilometre stretch of teardrop-shaped land is the third-most populated island of Seychelles, and yet nurtures a languid, almost forgotten pace of life. No cars, apart from electric buggies, ply the island. While your own two legs should get you to any part of La Digue within an hour, both travellers and locals prefer renting cycles.
The first settlers of La Digue can be traced back to the 18th-century French colonists and their slaves. While many left for mainland Europe in the following centuries, a small population remained on the island to make it their home. The islanders took to fishing, coconut farming and vanilla cultivation. Colonial churches and buildings with a distinct French colonial style flank the cycling routes across the island. In the southwest, L’Union Estate has on display vestiges of this past: the old Plantation House, a graveyard for prominent early settlers, a kiln to harvest copra, and a vanilla plantation that tails the route to the popular Anse Source d’Argent beach. Today, L’Union also houses a rustic waterfront café, and a four-year-old shop and art gallery that showcases the work of local artists. Think colourful paintings depicting myriad scenes from everyday island life, past and present.
Surrounded by the Giant Rock, La Digue’s tallest granite boulder and highest point, lies the centrepiece of the estate. You are looking at a vast circular pen housing a family of Aldabra giant tortoise, its 50-odd members between 30 and 100 years old. The prehistoric animals once roamed the forests of many a Seychellois island including La Digue, but the only remaining wild population today is found on the eponymous coral atoll about 100 kilometres from La Digue. A few of them can also be spotted roaming free along the island’s roads, pets that venture out of backyards to explore nearby beaches.
Owing to its small size, the ocean is always visible from any part of the island. The main road hugs the shoreline and kilometres of pristine beaches stretch out as far as the eye can see. La Digue’s famous beaches span its length and breadth, from the dramatic boulders of Anse Source d’Argent in the southwest to the northern lighthouse at La Passe, or the turquoise waters of Anse Coco and Petit Anse in the southeast. Having your private beach experience here is as simple as parking your bike by the road and walking down to an unclaimed stretch of sand (check signage for safety regulations). Those looking for a rush can rent snorkelling gear at the main jetty, or head out on a chartered boat tour of the nearby islands. Walking off the main road along the island’s many trails can lead you to stunning vistas of the ocean, and surprise brushes with flora and fauna that grow wild and unruly. Spot the rare black paradise flycatcher flit through canopies, or terrapins wading in shallow waters. In the mood for nothing? Take a vacation from your vacation as you soak up luminous sunsets at Nid Aigle, La Digue’s highest point (Regular ferries from Mahé and Praslin islands ply to and from La Digue; www.seychelles.travel.; seychellesladigue.com for details on tours, activities and accommodation; Rent cycles at Tati’s near the jetty, approx. SCR100-150/Rs500-550 per day).
A 15-minute ferry ride from La Digue, Praslin shelters the Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve, one of the archipelago’s most treasured biodiversity zones. With a population of around 8,000 people, the slow-moving music of the island is accompanied by velour greens, and water the colour of dragonfly wings.
Towering palm fronds make the sunlight dance in speckles on the wooden boardwalk of nature reserve. The 19.5-hectare UNESCO site within Praslin National Park is one of two spots in the world where the coco de mer grows naturally. (The second is nearby Curieuse island.) The “coconut of the sea” is named such because it was first discovered bobbing along the ocean and was believed to grow underwater until the trees were discovered in the 1700s. It has many a legend to its name.
In Seychelles, this endangered tree, which bears the world’s biggest and heaviest seed—almost 25 kilograms—is spoken of like one would about a human. It is believed that on stormy nights the male and female trees of the species embrace to create the uniquely shaped coco de mer fruit; it is compared to a woman’s buttocks on one side, and the belly and thighs on the other.
Along the three well-marked walking trails that run through the forest past gurgling streams, the indigenous wild of the island unravels. While coco de mer trees (often introduced as families: father, mother and juvenile) are the stars, Vallee de Mai is also home to five other palm species, their leaves creating a multi-tiered umbrella canopy over the trails. Seychelles black parrots, the national bird, can be spotted flitting through the palms. Groves of bamboo grow in isolated clutches, and hoots of the Seychelles blue pigeon are heard intermittently. Watch out for “falling nuts” as the signage warns, but also keep your eyes peeled to the spaces between trunks for a palm-sized arachnid (seychelles.travel; The best way to get around is by car, self-drive cars approx. EUR50/Rs4,000 per day and taxis between EUR150-200/Rs11,800-15,700 per day; Valle de Mai open 8 a.m.-4.30 p.m.; entry SCR320/Rs1,630; free guided tours at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.; private guided tours and self-guided tours are also available).
Coco Blu, Victoria, Mahé Right in the heart of Victoria, overlooking the city centre, this restaurant done up in ocean colours has a relaxed vibe and a pretty good selection of creole favourites. Must try The citrusy octopus salad. Rockpool Seafood Bar & Grill, Glacis, Mahé Opening up to vistas of the ocean and Silhouette Island, the European fare here has a touch of creole flavours. Must try Pastas with creole sauces, and a dip in the rock pool by the restaurant. Bravo Restaurant, Eden Island Mahé The open-air Bravo is a great spot to kick back and watch people—or boats—while sipping on local beer. Must try The grilled fish and fruity desserts. Fish Trap Restaurant & Bar, La Digue Dip your toes into the sand and sip a cocktail at this waterfront eatery. Must try Prawn in coconut sauce, grilled fish platter, coconut rum cocktails.
Air Seychelles has direct flights from Mumbai to Mahé. All other airlines have at least one stop at an African or Middle Eastern gateway city. Indian travellers can get a visa on arrival for up to three months provided they have a valid passport, a return ticket, confirmed accommodation in Seychelles, passport size photographs and enough funds to support themselves during their stay.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.