A Seychelles adventure

Exploring Mahé, Praslin and beyond

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“Pass the bat!” is not something you often hear at the dinner table, unless of course you’re sailing in the Seychelles. Sunsail’s UK Marketing Manager found out as much and more besides on a voyage of discovery around this unique sailing holiday destination. Read on to find out more……

Mahé

As you soar in over miles upon miles of blue sea, it is wonderful to look out of the small plane window and spot some tropical islands in the distance. The Seychelles really are in the middle of nowhere. Mahé airport is small and relaxed. There is definitely not the chaos of London. A quick nip in a taxi (10 mins), brings you to the immaculate Eden Island Marina. I learnt from the Sunsail base manager that the Seychelles government pump so much money into cleanliness that you just don’t tend to find rubbish anywhere. The marina facilities were only built around two years ago and include everything from a supermarket and yacht services, to a bank and smoothie bars and an eclectic mix of restaurants.

 We were introduced to our boat for the trip, the brand new 404 called ‘Reve Dou II’ (translated as ‘Sweet Dreams 2’ from Creole). A spacious catamaran with 4 cabins, we quickly settled into our new abode. Whilst half the crew caught up on sleep, the other half went out to source some food for the boat and the start of our adventures. As always when visiting new places, I tend to go into a local food shop and choose a random selection of unidentifiable items. This time the selection ranged from deep fried jack fruit to coconut and banana cake.

 We started our trip with lunch at Bravo! one of the local marina restaurants. The King fish steak and smoked fish in Creole marinade went down a treat. We then went off on a tour of the island. People often pass Mahé and head straight out to Praslin and La Digue but it does have a fascinating history and is worth a visit. Our first stop was, Victoria, the capital. It has a rather amazingly silver painted version of Big Ben in the centre of one roundabout. We visited the famous fruit and veg markets. If you are after local spices, this is the place to buy them, and includes the option to buy some of the more unusual items such as cinnamon and lemon leaves. You can also buy fresh vanilla essence and coconut oil. The market is set in an old building, painted in a wonderfully eclectic mix of primary colours and with the colourful array of fruit and veg, makes for quite the photograph.

Heading up out of Victoria as we started to climb the mountainous ridge that acts as the spine to the island, we passed Belair cemetery where rumour has it that the Seychelles giant was buried. Dropping off the other side of the ridge, we passed the Indian tea factory, where the local Sey Tea is made.

 Jeremy, our skipper, picked us up from Port Launay – a chilled out sandy bay, with locals offering fresh coconut water decorated in hibiscus flowers. Apart from a discreet 5* hotel and some hidden lodges, this bay is considered a nice peaceful anchorage and worth a visit if you have time. Time definitely slows down here as the elders relax on the beach with youngsters floating around out on a wooden boat, fishing on the reef.

 As the sun started to set, we sailed around to Beau Vallon. The beach stretches for miles and is perfect for long walks. En route there, we had our first glimpses of the dramatic tropical landscape of Mahé and the shoals of flying fish that become the norm. The first sighting often takes you by surprise, as this hummingbird-like creature catapults away from your bow wave as you sail along in the evening light. That night, we went ashore to grab some local beer. Jeremy took us to a shack on the street where Didieu, a local fisherman, cooked us up an absolute storm. Street food at its best. I’m not sure how big Jeremy thought our stomachs were though as he pre-ordered four emperor fish for us, each the size of a forearm and meaty, along with rice, local creole papaya salsa and salad all for only the equivalent of £10 each. We took the food back to the boat and sat out under the stars, listening to the flying foxes chattering away on land, eating our way through the delicious feast. After a long day, we were in bed by 9pm.

Praslin

Up at six to welcome the sun rising, with clear blue skies and a gentle 10knots of breeze, we sailed to Anse Lazio on the island of Praslin (considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), around 30 nautical miles from Mahé, passing some of the key areas to see Whale sharks and manta rays. We passed the amazing privately owned Cousine, and its male equivalent Cousin. The bird life is staggering, with frigate birds circling on the thermals above the boats and white long tailed tropic birds and sooty terns soaring past us. We had a really easy flat crossing and arrived earlier than predicted at around 10am. You can snorkel straight off the boat here, and the fish life is abundant. From bat fish welcoming us as we dropped anchor to blue spotted ray, damselfish, surgeon fish, unicorn fish and needle fish, there was something for everyone.

 I even took my fins off at one point and just climbed up onto a deserted beach, sat looking back over our boat moored up. If you are looking for white sands, turquoise beaches and overhanging palm trees, this is definitely somewhere you should visit. After snorkelling, we took the dinghy ashore and walked along the beach to a restaurant called Bonbon Plume, watching some young lemon sharks darting in and out of the waves. Do not fear, they are completely harmless. Bonbon Plume offered us the first sighting of giant tortoises. Very docile creatures, they definitely tend to move at a slower pace. Sitting just off the beach in the shade of the tamarind trees (native to the Seychelles), we ate a selection of local dishes from Octopus salad to prawns and banana with lentils, pilau rice and a very fiery chilli sauce. Although I wouldn’t have naturally cooked prawns with bananas, I was pleasantly surprised and rather enjoyed the dish.

 The afternoon took us to one of the two UNESCO sites found in the Seychelles – the Vallee de Mai – a forest with 6 types of palm and home to the very rare and famous Coco de Mer. Discovered by Marianne North in the 1960s, the Coco de Mer fruit rocketed to fame when its medicinal properties were discovered. The trees can only be found on the islands of Praslin and Curieuse and you cannot sell the fruit unless you have a license from the government. It is one of the few trees that has a male and female variety. Males tend to grow to 30m and females roughly 24m. At the end of the tour, you can get a photo with a Coco de Mer (the national symbol) and find out just how heavy they actually are!

From Vallee de Mai, we were picked up from Cote d’Or and headed to Curieuse Island, a stone’s throw away from Praslin. At 100 rupees each, you can land on the island and visit the sanctuary and the Giant Tortoises which wander around the island. In fact, there are twice as many giant tortoises in the Seychelles as there are people with over 200,000 found on all the islands – a much bigger population than the Galapagos, the only other place on earth they live. Jeremy told us some wonderful facts about them as we landed. Once upon a time, young girls were given tortoises at birth, keeping them as pets until the girl’s wedding day, when they were eaten at the wedding feast. Now they are protected, handed from one generation to the next, and kept in locals gardens.

 On arriving on the beach via dinghy, you could see the giant figures just strolling along the beach. The team of people that look after them are just wonderful and so interesting to listen to. The oldest tortoise on the island is 110 years old and was introduced as a baby when the population was revived. There are a few legendary tortoises in the pack, from one called Mike Tyson, because of his tendency to creep up on you from behind and bite you; to Captain Morgan, who only has three legs. I became particularly enamoured by one who loved having his neck rubbed and eating leaves out of my hand. For such a big slow creature, he actually moved at quite a pace and ended up following me around.

 As we got back on the dinghy, a baby grey reef shark came cruising past before we picked up anchor and sailed around to another anchorage on Praslin and home to some interesting reef to snorkel on. We headed ashore for a drink in a local hotel, scattering ghost crabs on the beach, before going back to the boat to gaze at the stars.

 

La Digue

My favourite thing to do on a sailing holiday is to wake up at the crack of dawn, jump off the boat and go for a morning snorkel. On this particular morning, I was lucky to see a number of different rays, a rather large striped needlefish and sea cucumbers in all shapes and sizes. I climbed back onto the boat, greeted by more batfish and we set off for La Digue, eating breakfast on route. It was a little grey on waking up but after Emma’s excellent sun dance on the bow, the rays of sunshine were soon breaking through the clouds. We had more flat seas and light breezes to push us on our way.

We arrived at La Digue and anchored just outside the marina which you can go into for fresh water if needs be. I was rather nostalgic on arrival as the place reminded me hugely of the Pacific islands with only a population of 3k, there is a sense of true ‘island life’ where the world slows down and everyone enjoys the simpler daily pleasures in life. You can’t help be sucked in as well. Our wonderful driver, Amir, took us off on an exploration of the island in his taxi, first visiting Anse (means beach in Creole) Fourmis where green and leatherback turtles often come ashore to lay their eggs. The island is abundant with Takamaka trees, another natural Seychelles plant with which the local rum is named after as well – also worth trying.

 If you want to see the island in its true form, you should hire one of the many bikes. Locals will offer them to you left, right and centre as you land on the jetty. Either that or an ox and cart. Amir took us up to the highest point on the island, reached by road which I admit is one of the steepest roads I have ever been up and probably feels even steeper if you’re on a bike (take lots of water) but the views over Praslin, Curieuse and Felicity are worth it! This view point was followed by a trip to the wild Grand Anse beach which has rolling waves crashing over the reef, backed by stunning boulder formations and thick vegetation. It is wonderfully wild and less touristy. There is also a great beach shack there that sells fresh fish, fresh off the BBQ marinated in local spices, plaintain chips and coconut water and Sey lager.

 

One thing you notice is the number of giant tortoises strolling around, from hanging out in the tidy cemetery to standing in the middle of the road, causing temporary traffic jams, albeit one car and a few bikes. Another rather more peculiar but funny site is all the chickens strolling around. We were never clear who exactly owned them but they seemed happy enough, rooting through the dead leaves for grub. The island is a lot less populated than other islands and you can really smell the forest undergrowth and hear the birds.

 Amir was making us laugh throughout including one of how there wasn’t a big enough choice of women on La Digue plus everyone knowing everything so he located his wife on the mainland in Mahe and brought her back. A much safer option apparently.

 We dined at the Fish Trap – a relatively new addition to the island and considered one of the best restaurants in the islands. The décor is wonderfully alternative and very nautically themed. Starting with a fish tartar in a passionfruit marinade followed by a Creole seafood curry and homemade coconut ice cream, it had to be one of the best meals I’ve had in ages. So fresh and delicious. The waiters were also lovely. Though do bear in mind that you might not be able to move very rapidly after eating three courses!

 Coconut farming used to be the main industry on the island until not so long ago. It was centred around  L’Union Estate coconut plantation, south of La Passe. These days it is more of an attraction than a fully functioning coconut farm but offers visitors the chance to see the Old Plantastion house, a colonial-era graveyard and out of nowhere a boatyard working with epoxy and fibreglass, hidden amongst all the vanilla vines and coconut palms. Not what you’re expecting when you’re learning about spices. They give you a lesson on how dessicated coconut and coconut oil is made using traditional methods. We learnt that green coconuts are grown to make oils for cooking and cosmetics and yellow coconuts are made for alcohol. It leads onto a thin beach where we watched young sharks chasing schools of fish in the shallows – again not harmful so do not worry.

 The place also acts as the entrance to Anse Source d’Argent which I personally thought was the best beach in the islands. My advice is to not stop at the first boulders but to wade around some boulders and keep heading along the beach and you will find a much more deserted version. The backdrop is breath-taking and albeit a little shallow in places, the swimming is protected behind the reef with lots of fish to see whilst snorkelling including some of the biggest parrotfish I’ve ever seen. Someone was even getting married in a little gazebo that fitted four people in it. We spent the rest of the afternoon here before having a lazy walk back into town and along the bustling yet very relaxed high street. You will notice the plethora of colours not only that the locals are wearing but the shop displays.

 We collected a selection of chicken wings, Coramunga fish and veg along with BBQ coals and went back to the boat for the most idyllic sundowner as the BBQ started cooking away. More star gazing, eating and drinking lemon leaf tea called for the most relaxing evening.

 

Return to Mahé

We had a really lazy morning, swimming, drinking tea and generally relaxing before we set sail back to Mahe. The seas were flat as we broad reached back to the mainland, hitting around 7.5knots. We put the lines down for a couple of hours and caught 7 Bonita (a smaller member of the tuna family), releasing them back each time. It was a time for reflection, relaxation and enjoying the sound of the sails as we eased along in 30 degrees.

 More birdlife and shoals of flying fish also kept us occupied and at one point we had a school of dolphins playing in our bow waves. I had bought yet another eclectic mix of local food for lunch and we had another tapas style tasting session, testing out rice balls with marinade, some interesting battered frankfurters and some cheese and ham balls.

 That evening on arriving back in Eden Marina island, we thought we would test out the local tradition that we had heard on the grapevine, ‘fruit bat curry’ and some breadfruit chips. Everyone we spoke to said the Marie Antoinette restaurant was the place to try out everything so off we went. They give you a set menu for four people so you can try an array of local dishes from golden fruit chutney, fruit bat curry and parrotfish to seafood dishes and aubergine. It was quite the feast. Would I try fruit bat curry again? Let’s just say it was an experience. Rather like pigeon – a red meat and very fruity in taste. Our verdict – by far the best way to see these islands is by boat!

British Airways have just announced new twice weekly direct flights from Heathrow to Mahé. These non-stop services, with departures from March 2018 will fly on Wednesdays and Saturdays aboard the airline’s newest fleet of aircraft, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. So now there's even a direct way to get straight into the heart of the Seychelles.

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