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Natural Mystic
As well as boasting the world’s most stunning beaches, the Seychelles offers an evocative blend of culture and nature. Christopher Kanal succumbs to vibrant colours, rich Creole history and thriving wildlife in a magical mystery tour of Mahé, Victoria and Coco Island.

Maybe it was the blushing rouges and soft cobalt blues arching the sky at dusk, or the chattering of a conference of birds in the trees behind me, or even the warm taste of the sea on my lips. Whatever the explanation, there is a hyper-reality to the Seychelles. Standing on the beach, the air is humid and the land is lush, electric and teeming with life.

It's a sultry island oozing sex and untamed nature. The alluring coco de mer, which resembles a vulva, could only come from here.

The beach at Anse Louis is at its most surreal at this time; the shadowy, languid movements of a giant fruit bat are silhouetted against the luminous sky, which is rapidly deepening from blue to black. The long powder white beach is deserted in the near-dark, save us and two other guests in the distance: attractive girls jumping into the surf.

Fruit bat is on the menu at the exclusive Maia Luxury Resort & Spa, but there is no actual menu to speak off; the chef will create whatever you want.

This intimate hideaway is on the quiet, southwestern coast of the archipelago's biggest island of Mahé. The 30 villas are set on a peninsula so that each one, with its soaring Balinese-style thatched roofs, has spectacular views of the island or the sea.

Immediately after landing, we are met by the resort's staff, who escort us through passport control in the blink of an eye, and into a world of pampering that makes us feel a bit giddy at first. There are four staff for every guest and every villa has its own personal butler.

Upon arrival we are warmly greeted by Maia's staff and soon dispatched into chauffeured buggies along windy paths to our 'hillcrest' villas. The higher we get, the more spectacular the views. Through the lush foliage I catch glimpses of the sparking sea and mountainous terrain while parrots and doves eye us from age-old palm trees.

On reaching the villa, my warm Seychellois butler Teresa greets me at the wooden gate, opening it to reveal a stone path that unwinds like a well-guarded secret. After a turn my eyes adjust to the sparking waters of the villa's blue infinity pool perched on the edge of the cliff, but as I look ahead, I am transfixed by the view.

Each villa offers incredible views of the island and the ocean.  

The vast bay ahead opens up, with the waves reaching across to a mountain outcrop on the other side, which drops into the deep fathoms of the ocean, the surface of which fuses with the sky in the heat of the afternoon.

The large Balinese-inspired bedroom, decked out in simple wooden furnishings, looks onto the pool. The large mosaiced bathroom includes a gorgeous tiled walk-in shower, complete with a choice of chic La Prairie products.

Outside, there is an open-air day bed and under a thatched roof a bath big enough for two, which Teresa discreetely prepared for me after a day of snorkelling, filling it with hot water, hibiscus petals and rejuvenating oils. It's perfect for lovers but I had to make do with a gecko that fell in and had to be fished out of the hot water and brought back to life with a cooling bottle of Evian.

That evening we discovered our ‘wine sign’, which is the wine that best suits our palettes and personalities. Maia’s own expert sommelier guided us through several bottles of fine wine from what is reputed to be the best stocked cellar in the Indian Ocean – accompanied by fresh sushi caught that afternoon by the resort’s own fishermen. Like manna from the sea, the blue fin tuna and snapper melt in my mouth.

I enjoy one last walk along the beach under the stars and their thousand points of light, and then to bed with my senses reawakened. Sleep is an under-ocean.

All villas have an outdoor day lounge and a kitchenette, where chefs can prepare dinner on request. You can play music outside on the Bose system but the calming sounds of waves and birds are enough for me.

  Balinese therapists give massages with tropical oils

After freshening up for lunch we made our way through old verdant palms to the powder white sandy beach. Over red grilled snapper and wine, the charismatic managing director Frederic Vidal introduced us to luxury life on the Seychelles.

Ever-so-slightly Bond-esque Frederic is a perfect advert for it and tells us that tomorrow he is going to take us on his boat to snorkel off the most beautiful island in the world. All the while, we are watched over by a lifesize sculpture of a giant tortoise.

The real ones are somewhat shyer but making a comeback after being almost hunted to extinction for their tasty meat. Bat curry might be on the cards but tortoise terrine is not - even at Maia.

Afternoon massages beckon at Maia's Aspa, secluded amongst the jungle foliage. Under the cover of open wooden pavilions, Balinese therapists give massages using tropical oils.

‘Too far away to be colonised by mass tourism, the seychelles remain an exclusive hideaway. This is how the locals want to keep it.’

Maia is full while we're here but you'd never know it. The gentle hum of the friendly staff going about their work has a hushed rhythm like the sea. Frederic tells us that to work here you must pass an emotional quotient test. There is also yoga every morning; no wonder everyone seems so happy.

A historical hideaway
Once a refuge for the shipwrecked and a favoured hiding place for pirates on the run from the Caribbean, the Seychelles is now the favoured haunt of the well-heeled jet set, particularly the French, Germans, Scandinavians and Arabs.

Too far away to be colonised by mass tourism, the islands remain an exclusive hideaway. This is how the locals want to keep it.

Development is tightly controlled and environmental concerns top national policy. You could get 15 years in prison for smuggling a coco de mer.

Explorers discovered the Seychelles while mapping the coast of Africa and it soon became a stopping off point to take on tortoises and coconuts for the long

journeys to the deserts of Arabia and India. The far flung French colony became a British one from 1814, until independence in 1976. It is a mix of former African slaves, Chinese, Indian and Arab settlers, and Creole and the French.

Mahé, like the other large island Praslin, is essentially granite peaks hurled into the ocean from Africa millions of years ago. Frederic reels off the evocative Gallic names of some of the archipelago’s 100-odd islands: Silhouette, La Digue, Curieuse, Félicité, Frégate... Assorted points of palm, beach, mountains and coral scattered over a vast 1.3 million square kilometres of the Western Indian Ocean.

We are a long way from the rest of the world – Madagascar is the nearest large land mass which is 1,800km away, but Cape Town is a four-hour flight. The Air Seychelles plane that goes between Praslin is a 15-minute hop from Mahé; Frederic hopes to have a helipad tucked into the grounds next year.

  Snorkelling in the crystal clear waters of Coco Island.

I should Coco
Refreshed the next morning, we head to Victoria’s harbour. Gliding out into the big blue by boat is the best way to fully take in the sheer vertiginous scale of Mahé and its tropical forest terrain. The underworld beneath us is teeming with life and when you least expect it, reveals spectacular natural wonders. As we pick up speed and cut through the foamy waves, one of the crew tells me that only a few weeks before they had spotted a gargantuan whale-shark gliding just beneath the surface. They even got close enough to swim alongside her.

Today, we are on the look out for giant turtles and head north-east towards La Digue. We shadow the island, taking in hidden coves and beaches, including Grande Anse with its signature granite rocks stacked against the waves. Small yachts anchored here lazily rock back and forth as we pass making our way beyond Félicité to Coco Island.

After anchoring off Coco, we split into two groups. While the others explore the deeper waters off the boat, we decide to swim off the pristine islet seeking shells and, hopefully, turtles. In our trunks and bikinis, we slip into a dinghy and are released into the warm, transparent water.

The equatorial sun is hottest at noon so we add T-shirts to cover our backs. Coco Island is deserted and very beautiful in the hot whiteness. A raised cluster of wild palms at its heart rustles against the sky with luminescent leaves like lizard skin. The coral reef here is a garden of aquatic life, although colours aren’t as bright as they once were due to the rise in sea temperature from global warming. Nevertheless, the fish compensate with their colours and curiosity.

Luminous yellow surgeon and parrot fish move around us as small snappers probe our feet. As the sea opens up, the coral stretches out like a web, fish weaving around the wildly imaginative twists and turns of this surreal organic sculpture. We drift along with them, enticed by their colours and ignoring the cuts from sharp coral. Frederic and the others who venture into the deeper water encounter larger emperor fish and a solitary moray eel.

Maia managing director, Frederic Vidal  

Green Victoria
It is only when you cross the mountainous spine of Mahé to reach Victoria that you see how green and abundant with life the island is. We drive to Le Jardin du Roi spice plantation up in the mountains and at the wooden decked terrace and enjoy fantastic views of the island over a Creole lunch, which includes an unusual but very tasty salad of grated green papaya, breadfruit, star fruit and ripe papaya. Exploring the gardens afterwards and taking in overwhelming smells of vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg from the trees, we encounter the plantation’s large family of gentle giant tortoises.

In the wild these most ancient of reptiles can be found on the islands of Curieuse and the private islands of Frégate and Cousin.

Despite having its own small replica of Big Ben donated to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, the capital that bears her name is more a village. Life moves slowly here to a soundtrack of contombley, calypso and reggae.

Victoria is a thriving place but big cultural sights are thin on the ground, although there is a small but striking Hindu temple to Ganesh in the centre of town.

Gecko beach
On our return to Maia, any sunburn was spirited away with soil-fresh aloe vera from Maia’s garden, and then a bath with my gecko. En plan, another blood-red sunset and the smell of incense as torches are lit for the night along the paths leading down the resort.

Maia Luxury Resort & Spa, Anse Louis, Mahé, Seychelles. Villas start at £990 per night with breakfast. Tel: +248 390 000, website: www.maia.com.sc. We flew courtesy of Air Seychelles.


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