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Seychelles retreat

Text Leigh Robertson Photographs Mikkel Vang/Taverne Avency, supplied You might also have experienced the ‘Avatar blues’. The well documented phenomenon came in the wake of James Cameron’s fantasy blockbuster that gave audiences a taste, through their 3-D shades, of the paradisiacal world of Pandora. Returned to a life without all the splendiferous CGI effects, many were left feeling wistful, if not utterly despondent. Which is not unlike how things feel on the other side of a stay in the Seychelles, though this watery wonderland, with its tropical-island check list of powdery-white sand, azure lagoons and swaying palms, is as real as the Hollywood director’s Utopia was fictional. But you do have to pinch yourself constantly to be absolutely sure. Seven degrees below the equator and northeast of Madagascar, the Seychelles seems a million miles away from anywhere yet is just a five-hour flight from Johannesburg. Unlike some other island destinations, it seems strangely untouched by the thronging crowds. With its balmy temperatures, steamy humidity and languorously warm sea, it’s a ferociously sensual destination. Despite your best attempts at looking a vision of unruffled island-style loveliness, it’s too hot and sticky to wear anything but shorts and a vest or, better yet, a bikini and sarong, even off the beach. The air seems perpetually heavy with the smells of frying bananas, coconut oil and vanilla incense. And it’s so ridiculously verdant you almost expect to be swallowed up by the vegetation, or at least the hand-sized spiders quite possibly lurking within. It’s not surprising that more courting couples and well-heeled honeymooners are attracted to the Seychelles than package-tour families. Those who can buy their own private island here think nothing of it – or if not a whole island, usually the reserve of reclusive novelists-turned-environmental benefactors, then at least a slice of prime beachfront real estate. The air of exclusivity is almost tangible. Yet there’s an island for everyone among the more than 115 that constitute the republic of the Seychelles, from the extrovert hub that is Mahé, the largest and most populated, to the more isolated; protected wilderness territories for troops of giant tortoises and sea turtles, or secret retreats for the very rich and famous. From the sibilant sigh of Silhouette to the mysterious whisper of Curieuse and Anonyme, the islands’ evocative names hint at their romantic history, a culture clash of colonists from France and Britain, slaves from Africa, Madagascar and Asia, and even marauding pirates. With their mixed ancestry, the native Seychellois, the Creoles, certainly are a good-looking bunch. But even the intrepid pale-skinned traveller will soon take on a healthy glow from all the sunshine, swimming and a diet your doctor would like: an endless supply of fish, rice, aromatic herbs and luscious tropical fruit. Mahe, Seychelles' Heart And Hub Mahé is all towering granite boulders and mad tangle of jungle; quaint houses in the characteristic French-colonial style barely peek out among the bougainvillea, frangipani and wild hibiscus trees, while gauzy spiders’ webs drape the power cables like they’ve been sprayed on Halloween-style. Bare-chested men languish at the side of the precariously narrow roads that crisscross the island, selling the morning’s catch spread out on banana leaves, while women wearing bright skimpy dresses and jangly earrings sashay en route to the fresh-produce market in the vibrant capital town of Victoria. There’s a headiness to it all, and you just can’t get enough of it. Those who want it badly enough have been snapping up villas on the new Eden Island residential marina development, just the place to berth both yourself and your yacht. (And who knows which off-duty rock star or oil baron might be bobbing beside you.) But for those merely passing through, Mahé has no shortage of suitably lovely lodgings, from self-catering bungalows and small beachy hotels to top-dollar resorts harbouring Russian billionaires and footballers with their stiletto-wearing WAGS. On the upper end of the luxury scale, there’s little to compete with Banyan Tree Seychelles. Located on the island’s southwestern coastline, the hotel comprises 60 private villas discreetly tucked up a hillside among palms and indigenous takamaka trees, overlooking the gloriously scenic Intendance Bay, or set right on the beach. Whether you’re slumming it metres away from the shore or have a room with a view, each villa offers a delectable sense of seclusion, with its own rim-flow pool and sheltered outdoor pavilion – just the place for taking in a dramatic electric storm, Piña Colada in hand. It’s easy simply to stay in, luxuriating in the plantation-style decor or soaking in the sunken bath with a most impressive outlook through lush foliage to the sea. But you’ll definitely want to venture down to the famous Banyan Tree Spa, where an exotic menu of  treatments, all performed by firm Thai hands, awaits. And you’ll never tire of eating. The hardest part will be deciding at which signature restaurant you’ll be dining from one evening to the next: Saffron with its fragrant Thai and Southeast Asian dishes, or Chez Lamar with its spectacular Creole-style barbecue banquet with flavours as spicy as the local home-brewed rum – you’ll go back for more servings of flame-grilled red snapper and swordfish with lots of fiery chilli on the side. And if you should find yourself feeling restless, you can always charter the twin-hulled catamaran, Banyan Lagoon 1, to the island’s northern shores, where you can sip champagne between leaping off the side to snorkel among the colourful coral reefs. Desroches, The Outer Islands A 40-minute flight southwest of Mahé is Desroches, the largest of the Amirantes group of coral islands and atolls, which are considered the most pristine in the world. Thickly wooded with coconut palms and casuarinas, the svelte, six kilometre-long Desroches is as flat as the former island is hilly. And it’s as blissfully remote as it gets. Unlike most other Seychelles islands, there’s only one resort at Desroches, and part of its ultra-exclusive offering – more six-star than five – entails guests feeling as if they have the place almost entirely to themselves. On the western corner is the laid-back reception area with its shaded pool-bar, lounge and expansive alfresco dining area (you can lunch with your feet just about in the sea). This is flanked by a modest, urbanely appointed cluster of hotel suites, each with a private veranda leading out to the beach. Better yet are the voluminous four-bedroom villas generously spaced along the northwestern shore, where you can shack up with a group of friends (or les enfants with au pair in tow), and while away the days in the rim-flow pool or on your ‘own’ stretch of beach, the only interference likely to be the pleasant thud of a coconut hitting the sand. Desroches Island is a gradual and green-minded work-in-progress, say its eco-wise developers, who are currently building a new phase of villas. The villas are, in fact, privately owned and are leased to Desroches Island as accommodation to hotel guests, a thought that has you scheming furiously (while gently rocking in your hammock) how to join the ranks of the select few who’ve made the ultimate lifestyle investment. Similar to the 25 villas already in existence, all carefully integrated into the environment, these sumptuously sexy pool villas will offer luxurious lodgings perfectly suited to couples wanting an undisturbed retreat. All the villas have central living areas where you can lounge around, and even arrange for a chef to whip up intimate gourmet dinners at the poolside. Space and solitude, if you want them, are yours in abundance here, with each en-suite bedroom having its own patio and outside shower with glorious sea views. While there’s no end to the water sports at your disposal – superb scuba diving to big-game fishing, or just an idle session in a kayak – you’ll be content simply being able to take long swims in the sea at any given time of the day. Or a late-night skinny-dip, when the dark water becomes a cosmic soup of endless stars. Getting around is via the golf carts that scramble along the pathways carved into the forest, but it’s more in the spirit of the place to hop onto a bicycle. It’s the best way to explore the island, moving from one deserted beach to another while looking out for scuttling crabs and mammoth centenarian tortoises. You’ll definitely want to do lots of snorkelling at a beach called The Aquarium for its exuberant displays of technicoloured fish and slow-gliding turtles, where the water’s a luminous pale jade offset by the shadows of the soft sea grass. On Desroches Island the days melt lazily into each other, punctuated by naps and mealtimes. You’ll love emerging from the sea to lunch on jewel-bright sashimi made from just-caught tuna, or savouring exquisitely crafted Pacific Rim, Indo-Asia and Creole dishes washed down with glasses of French Rosé and South African Sauvignon, or rum-based cocktails served in coconuts, sipped well into the early hours. And it’ll all make sense. Even if you can’t have the villa, you can always sell up and pay your way raking stray coconuts on the beach. That way, there’ll be no blues to speak of other than the infinite sea and sky. This article was originally featured in the  August 2010 issue of House and Leisure.