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How a new generation is transforming adventure travel in the Seychelles

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the Indian Ocean’s pin-up paradise archipelago is far more than lazy, diamond-dust beaches and technicolour reefs.

Published 23 Sept 2021, 15:04 BST
Located on the main island of Mahé, Beau Vallon’s soft white sands and pristine, shallow waters ...

Located on the main island of Mahé, Beau Vallon’s soft white sands and pristine, shallow waters make it perfect for snorkelling.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

“I’ve not yet found the perfect shade of green,” sighs Seychellois artist George Camille. 

He’s lamenting his never-ending quest to replicate the jungle and its fresh and fertile hues. From the window of his studio, the painter peers through wire-rimmed spectacles at the palette he’s spent a lifetime attempting to recreate: mosses that sour like pickles, ferns as zingy as lime zest and palms more outrageous than the plumes of a parakeet.

A slender man, whose thought-ruffled brow is softened by a haze of wispy curls, George is one of the country’s few native artists. His studio, on the island of Mahé, is filled with canvases depicting snapshots of local life: a man clutching a bunch of bananas; fresh fish for sale in the market; the contours of a prized coco de mer seed, as seductive as a voluptuous woman’s curves.

“I started with these subjects, because that’s what tourists wanted,” he shrugs, pulling out some of his early canvases. “These days I prefer to get to the core of what’s happening in the Seychelles right now.”

Originally colonised only by drifting coconuts, these Indian Ocean islands were first sighted by explorers in the 16th century and settled 200 years later. Raided by pirates, populated by enslaved Africans, Indians and Malays, and tossed between French and British rule, the Seychelles finally gained independence in 1976. A relatively young country, its culture has always been difficult to pinpoint.

Not until recently has a distinct Creole identity taken shape. And last year’s election of the more liberal Linyon Demokratik Seselwa coalition government — after 43 years of autocratic, socialist rule — signifies a welcome wind of change.

“There’s a different energy,” nods George. “Everything is flourishing.”

Hemmed by diamond-dust beaches and sapphire swirls of ocean, the Seychelles earns its reputation for being a travel brochure cover star and paradise honeymoon escape. But dig deeper and it becomes clear the 115 islands have a lot more to offer. Inland, emerald forests and high peaks present opportunities for hiking. Underwater, a rainbow of exotic marine creatures promises divers a pot of gold.

In the sky, terns and tropicbirds create a spectacle as they flock like cherubim in a heavenly display. 

Hopping between islands for three weeks, I’m eager to do it all. Like George, I’m searching for the colours that paint a picture of the Seychelles today. Plantation-era houses cling to the steep granite hills of Mahé, the heart of the archipelago and international gateway. Bumping along rough roads in a vintage Santana Anibal four-wheel-drive vehicle, local resident Franky Baccus drives me to one of his favourite viewpoints, where a mob of gorged pitcher plants feast at the base of the country’s highest peak, Morne Seychellois.

“Restrictions make adventure tourism tricky here,” admits the energetic young explorer, who takes tourists on Jeep safaris, hikes and packraft rides exploring hidden corners of the island. “You can’t camp, kayaks are forbidden in wetlands and there are issues with e-bikes.”

Not that these are a deterrent for the former athlete, who was — as a younger man — on course to be the Seychelles’ first Paralympian, although failed to qualify. 

Crushed but still determined to make something of himself, Franky, who has Erb’s palsy in one arm, founded White Sands Adventures, which lanched in 2019. 

On a mission to share his passion for adventure with others, he’s ducked through loopholes and sidestepped bureaucracy to transform the interior of the island into a thrilling playground. 

Clever thinking allowed him to secure a licence to guide trips in foldable Oru kayaks at Grand Police, the largest and last remaining pristine wetland on Mahé. Paddling in the complex piece of aquatic origami, we slice through a reflection of basking palms and lazy clouds so perfectly symmetrical that, for a moment, I can’t tell which way is up or down. 

“Almost 90% of our wetlands have been lost to infrastructure development,” laments Franky, as we glide alongside mangroves once threatened by a five-star resort, but saved after a public outcry. 

The place is deservingly special and otherworldly. Pockmarked by lunar-like craters, a slim sandbank separates ebony waterways from the ocean’s ivory surf — a contrast as stark as the republic’s generational divide.

“Those of us born in the 1980s and 1990s have a different mentality,” says Franky, who speculates former generations were guilty of being lazy in the past and too dependent on a nanny state. “We care more about the environment now and we have big ideas.”

Part of a new wave in favour of sustainability, many resorts have also upped their green game.

Sandwiched between the popular Beau Vallon public beach and the jungle slopes of Morne Seychellois National Park, newly revamped property Story has worked with the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles to protect a lagoon in its grounds. 

Walking into my beachside suite, with its own private gateway and plunge pool, I barely realise I’m in an eco-hotel. But glossy good looks can be deceptive: regular beach clean-ups, a coral restoration project and the introduction of an osmosis plant to supply fresh water to the guest rooms are all part of a greater effort to keep the Seychelles’ natural jewels sparkling.

It’s a similar set-up on neighbouring island Silhouette, where hotel giant Hilton deftly runs fancy five-star resort Labriz without encroaching on the remaining 93% of protected national park. Most guests retreat to a spa built into the volcanic rocks or beaches scattered with a gallery of sculpted boulders, but I’m here to tackle the toughest hike in the Seychelles. 

Even by 7am, the heat is stifling, gripping me like a vice. Connecting the port with Grand Barbe beach on the other side of the island, the four-mile-long, steep and slippery trail follows a route historically used by plantation workers who left when the coconut industry crashed like a bunch thudding to the jungle floor.

Shielded by leafy turrets and ramparts of towering ferns, today the forest is an impenetrable fortress. Her shady arcades are empty, save for the slithery trails of skinks, and paths crunch with the skeletons of dead leaves decaying in an open grave.

My escorts are two twentysomething conservationists working for the Island Conservation Society (ICS), a local NGO established to restore and conserve island ecosystems in consultation with the government. Bringing a streetwise swagger to the wilderness, Vanessa Dufrene sports dreads, combat boots and a chunky,  rapper-worthy chain — a far cry from the fuddy-duddy academics of the past. Her focus is the rare sheath-tailed bat, native to Silhouette, while her equally laidback colleague Said Harryba monitors a population of Aldabra giant tortoises at Grand Barbe.

Along the way, the nature fanatics point out chirruping bulbuls, meaty millipedes and squirming caecilians, a limbless amphibian resembling a worm. But the strangest encounter occurs at the end of our trail, when we meet Abdullah and Elvi Jumaye, two septuagenarian hermits who live among the ruins of an abandoned village at Grand Barbe. 

Red hibiscus flowers hang like welcoming kisses above the manicured grounds, where an allotment flourishes with vegetables and a medicine cabinet of herbs and spices. “I’ve only ever been sick once,” exclaims Abdullah proudly. He’s a sinewy man, as resilient as the tough coconut husks washed up on his shore. Like Said and Vanessa, he relishes the quiet life on Silhouette.

“I love the silence,” he muses, raking at sun-scorched grass. “Nothing is impossible here.”

A fairy tern in flight on Aride, where birds outnumber people by 1.25 million to 10.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Birds and bold ideas

Historically, the Seychellois have shied away from islands beyond the inner sanctum of Mahé, Praslin and La Digue, leaving most conservation roles to be filled by foreigners. But an interest in nature is emerging in the younger generation, assisted by the new government’s focus on giving nationals priority for most jobs.

Filmmaker, photographer and conservationist Dillys Pouponeau, who works for ICS on avian paradise Aride island, is a prime example of the new guard. In a place where birds outnumber people by 1.25 million to 10, she admits the appeal of living here is still niche — despite being only a 40-minute ride from neighbouring Praslin.

Landing on the island is an adventure in itself. In an effort to avoid the spread of invasive species, ICS collects visitors from larger boats offshore in its own rigid inflatable boat. Waiting to catch the right wave, we zoom forward at full throttle, surfing the crest of a mighty white horse as it thunders onto the beach.

“I crave the easier life,” beams Dillys, as we sit with a pair of sociable magpie robins, an endangered species successfully translocated from Fregate Island. “I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want this.” 

In the absence of rats or cats, Aride’s winged residents are fearless. At my feet, fluffy white-tailed tropicbirds huddle in the clefts of tree roots, while above me, delicate, pure-white fairy terns flit between the cascading tendrils of a banyan tree, creating a spellbinding scene. It’s breeding season and everyone is hard at work: noddies dart through waves collecting seaweed for nests, while their partners nibble on washed up pieces of coral for a calcium fix.

Aride is one of several islands where efforts have been made to increase seabird populations. Local business owners Mr and Mrs Mason (the Seychellois have an intriguing habit of using formal titles) spent more than $40,000 (£28,700) eradicating rats and Indian myna birds, an invasive species that preys on native chicks, when they purchased Denis island, a Robinson Crusoe coral castaway some 40 miles north of Mahé. 

Although a huge investment, efforts have paid off. When I arrive, the sky is aflutter with feathers.

“It was such a quiet island when we purchased it back in 1996,” recalls Mr Mason, climbing down from the cabin of his tractor to greet me. “But now we have so much noise.” As if on cue, a bird poos on his head.

Split between a resort and a working farm, Denis island is a model of sustainability. Pigs, chickens and cows provide food for guests, with any surplus sold at a farm shop in Mahé. A mine of bright ideas, sprightly Mr Mason has introduced several innovations: grey water from the laundry is used to irrigate paths and palm leaves are shredded into fodder for livestock. 

On a walk through a forest of native takamaka and almond trees, Wilna Accouche, who works for Denis’ NGO arm, Green Islands Foundation (GIF), tells me about an ambitious project to entice sooty terns to nest on Denis. Crafted in onsite carpentry workshops, painted wooden replicas of the birds are spread across an open area, where speakers boom with recordings of sooty terns’ calls. 

Operational for 10 years, the experiment has so far yielded little success. Some experts claim it’s an issue of too much wind in the location, Wilna tells me. But judging by primitive paintwork on the decoys, I suspect maybe these birds just aren’t so easily fooled.

Regardless, day and night, the skies are still a frenzy of activity. On a dawn standup paddleboard ride, I cruise alongside tropicbirds as they head out to fish for the day. At night, I fall asleep listening to a symphony of trills and whistles, like the calls of sailors navigating dark seas.

 Gerard Payet, host at Secret Villa on La Digue, with a coco de mer tree.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

A golden land in the big blue

Dominated by ocean, less than 1% of the Seychelles is dry land. Last year, in a pioneering deal allowing the country to free up $21.6m (£15.5m) in foreign debt, the government agreed to extend protection to 30% of its waters — an area twice the size of the UK. Now NGOs like GIF are discussing how this change can be implemented. The best opportunities for exploring below the ocean’s surface can be found in the outer islands — around Denis and in the far south of the archipelago, where a collection of coral atolls and lagoons is spread between Mahé and the northern tip of Madagascar. 

It takes me an hour by air to reach Alphonse, where South African company Blue Safari manages an eco and fly-fishing resort. Washed by a tie-dye of inky blues, the beaches are empty. Hermit crabs scurry for cover in their rented homes and spindly-legged herons tiptoe over palm trunks bent double like flexible yogis. Once a regimented plantation, the inland forest is now in delightfully dishevelled disarray, crisscrossed by a lattice of sticky spider webs designed to keep intruders at bay. 

“Many Seychellois still refuse to work here, on principle,” explains British-born Elle Brighton, the resort’s ecology and sustainability manager. “And young children are forbidden, according to an old colonial law.” 

Instead, the dominant residents are Aldabra giant tortoises, first introduced to the island from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aldabra atoll in 1999. A nursery is one of several active conservation projects on Alphonse, including tagging giant trevally fish to monitor the impact of catch-and-release fishing, and a citizen science initiative to identify manta rays.

“The diving here is very special,” insists Elle when I join her on a trip to new scuba site Mogul Canyon. “I’ve never seen so many turtles or varieties of fish.” 

As we descend, delicate gorgonian fan corals usher us into their underwater kingdom with a royal wave. Garish nudibranchs decorate reefs like an array of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts, and day octopuses flash their neon tentacles in a disco display. But the highlight is a gathering of smooth groupers, longface emperors, napoleon wrasse and nurse sharks ganging up on bluestripe snapper — a rare form of collaborative hunting Elle believes is unique to this part of the world. 

Only 60ft below the surface, it feels like we’re in another world. But the reality of outside influences strikes home on a beach clean-up the following morning. “We once collected 2,800 flip-flops in three days,” sighs Elle, using a litter picker to wrestle free another shipwrecked shoe from a tangle of mangroves. 

An estimated 8.9 million tons of plastic enters our oceans every year — the equivalent of a truckload every minute, damaging reefs, turtles, marine mammals and, ultimately, people. One of the best places for a global wake-up call, I learn, is at the beach. Jungle-backed, boulder-strewn and toe-sinkingly silky, these photogenic stretches are where the Seychelles has always won hearts — and there’s no better location to drive the message of conservation home. 

I’m reminded of the archipelago’s beauty during my final stop on La Digue, a cycle-friendly island renowned for its glorious beaches and affordable guesthouse accommodation. More than anywhere else in the archipelago, this is the place to sample local life. 

To explore the coastline from an alternative perspective, I join a coasteering tour with fresh-faced adventurers Sunny Trail Guide. A Spiderman capable of scaling vertical cliffs, guide Warren Bibi leads me through an obstacle course of lobster-pink rocks and palm-woven tunnels spilling onto a string of fantasy beaches framed by the surreal forms of a Picasso painting. It’s no surprise local artist George Camille found much of his inspiration on La Digue, eventually opening an exhibition space here. 

The gallery is just a few steps from my temporary hilltop hideaway, Secret Villa, an open-air cabin jutting from the hillside like the prow of a ship. A cross between Jim Morrison and Salvador Dalí, bare-chested, bohemian host Gerard Payet proudly shows me around his self-sufficient Eden, where pots and pans hang from a wall of granite and the jungle climbs right into rooms.

“I’ve been in paradise for the last 21 years,” he reflects, handing me a freshly picked custard apple. “I have my dogs and cats. I talk to the trees to make them grow.”

Woken by the premature rays of a pink dawn, I cycle across the island the following morning to Grand Anse — the island’s longest beach — for a final glimpse of the ocean. On my way, I freewheel through a tunnel of greenery, propelled forward by gravity and the lure of the roaring waves. Macrame hammocks swing from the open arms of takamaka trees and a giant tortoise dozes below a beach bar as if recovering from a big night. 

Birds whistle. Billows of sea mist roll. Mountains glow red. No sun, sea and sky are ever the same in the Seychelles. An artist mixing its own palette, she expresses herself in so many ways.  

Franky Baccus from White Sands Adventures tours Police Bay on Mahé, where rain creates circular impressions in the sand.

Photograph by Sarah Marshall

Getting there & around

British Airways (and codeshare partner Qatar) flies daily to Mahé from Heathrow via Doha. Other options include flying with Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Emirates via Dubai and Kenya Airways via Nairobi.

Average flight time: 14h

To reach the outer islands such as Alphonse and Denis, it’s necessary to take a light aircraft. Hilton Labriz offers a boat or helicopter transfer service to Silhouette from Mahé. hilton.com 
The inner islands can be reached by ferry. catcocos.com  seyferry.com

When to go

Temperatures are consistent year-round, generally between 25C and 32C, but there are two monsoon seasons (December to March and May to October). Diving on the outer islands is best done from October to December and April to May when visibility is clearest and it’s not too windy.

Where to stay

Story, Mahé. From £209, B&B.
Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort and Spa, Silhouette. From £282, B&B.
Denis Island. From £856, full board.
Secret Garden Villa. From £231, half board.
Alphonse Island. From £688, full board.

More info

White Sands Adventures
Aride Island.
Sunny Trail Guide.
George Camille Gallery, Mahé and La Digue.
Seychelles Tourism.

How to do it

ABERCROMBIE & KENT offers a 12-night trip to the Seychelles, from £6,799 per person based on two sharing, including accommodation, flights and transfers.

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK). 

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