Surrounded by coral reefs, this is the largest of the islands and hosts the main international airport, the port and capital Victoria, the majority of the population (90%) and many of the hotels. It is an island of powdery white sands (there are almost seventy beaches on Mahé alone) and lush vegetation, rising through plantations of coconut palms and cinnamon to forested peaks that afford unparalleled views of the neighbouring islands.
Excursions can be made in the glass-bottomed boats from Victoria to nearby St Anne Marine National Park, which encloses the islands including:
St Anne, Beacon, Cerf (accommodation is available in chalets and renowned for Creole food)
Long (which is closed to the public)
Round (reputed for its wonderful tuna steaks)
Moyenne (privately owned and open to visiting tourists).
Coach excursions, taking in such attractions as the market, the Botanical Gardens (with coco-de-mer, giant tortoises and orchids), and a replica of London’s Vauxhall Bridge Tower in Victoria, and then setting off around the island to visit colonial-style mansions in graceful decline, old plantations of cinnamon and vanilla, and everywhere the greenest of vibrant green jungles.
Tourists may also visit the Morne Seychellois National Park, occupying the highest part of the island. The National Museum in Victoria celebrates Seychellois history, folklore and music, and has particularly fine displays depicting the history of their spice cultivation.
The other Granitic Islands, 41 of them, are all situated within 65km (40 miles) of Mahé. and some of the more notable islands are described below.
The second-largest island is 2 - 3 hours by boat or 15 minutes by plane (25 scheduled flights per day) from Mahé. It is famous for the Vallée de Mai, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and contains the double-nutted coco-de-mer palm. Excursions are also available to smaller islands such as Aride, Cousin, Curieuse and La Digue.
Just over 3 hours by schooner from Mahé or 30 minutes from Praslin, this wonderful island is the breeding ground of the rare black paradise flycatcher. There are very few cars and the ox-cart remains the main means of transport (although bicycles may also be hired). There are beautiful old plantation houses, such as Château Saint-Cloud, and a vanilla plantation, copra factories and fantastic beaches.
The most easterly and isolated of the islands, Frégate is associated with pirates, and Ian Fleming was obsessed with the notion that a pirate’s hoard was buried here. It is also the home of the almost extinct magpie robin. Frégate is 15 minutes by plane from Mahé.
Notable for its rock-pools and tortoise colony and accessible from Port Glaud by a 5-minute boat trip.
From Mahé with a journey time of two hours, Cousin was bought, in 1968, by the International Council for Bird Protection, which operates it as a nature reserve. Amongst the rare bird species thus protected are the brush warbler, the Seychelles toc-toc and the fairy tern. The best time to visit is in April or May, when 1.25 million birds nest. All the visits to the island must be made as part of an organised tour. Local rangers act as guides and a full tour of the island takes between 1 and 2 hours. Local operators can arrange these trips.
From Mahé, Aride is two hours away, the most northerly of the granitic islands. Home to vast colonies of seabirds, in 1973 it was bought by Christopher Cadbury, President of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and is open to visitors from October to the end of April.
Curieuse is covered by lush vegetation and huge takamaka trees, and is about 2 miles long. It has been designated a reserve for giant tortoises. Day trips can be arranged from Praslin.
Thought to have been home to one of the Indian Ocean’s most notorious pirates, Hodoul, this island can be seen from Beau Vallon Beach on Mahé. It has a population of about two hundred. Sights include an old plantation house made of traditional Seychellois timber construction.
The world’s largest atoll, home to over 150,000 giant land tortoises (reputedly 5 times more than on the Galapagos Islands) and listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, consists of thirteen islands which make up about one-third of the Seychelles’ land mass. Until recently Aldabra was only accessible by boat, but Assumption Island, in the south of the atoll, now has a small airstrip. Aldabra remains under strict supervision of the Seychelles Island Foundation which, nevertheless, intends to open it to a small number of visitors.
Five to seven hours by boat or thirty minutes by air from Mahé, Denis is also on the edge of the continental shelf and attracts deep-sea fishermen. Marlin can be caught from October to December. The island’s seabird population has, left rich deposits of guano, which has encouraged the growth of lush vegetation. The minimum stay is 2 days.
Six to 8 hours by boat or 30 minutes by air from Mahé, this island is famous for the millions of sooty terns that migrate here to breed from May and September. Its location at the edge of the Seychelles continental shelf also makes it a favoured destination for fishermen. Another claim to fame is Esmeralda, said to be over 150 years old and the largest tortoise in the world.
The largest of the Amirantes archipelago, Desroches is 193km (120 miles) southwest of Mahé (1 hour by air). The surrounding coral reef keeps the coastal waters calm and makes it an ideal destination for those planning watersports. Although Desroches was only recently developed as a resort, there are facilities for water-skiing, windsurfing, sailing, fishing and scuba-diving and water scooters may also be hired. The diving is very good: there are sea cliffs, tunnels and caves – and, of course, multitudes of fish of many different species. Lessons are also available the visibility is best from September to May. Accommodation is in twenty chalets set amongst casuarina trees and the coconut palms.
As a result of their extraordinary, isolated history, the Seychelles are rich in rare plants which flourish nowhere else in the world. 81 species are unique survivors from the luxuriant tropical forests that covered the islands until humanity’s belated arrival 2 centuries ago. Amongst these is the coco-de-mer (sea coconut), native to Praslin and grows in the Vallée de Mai. Its seed is the largest in nature, and gave rise to many legends when it was washed ashore onto the coasts of Africa, India and Indonesia. Since the islands were unknown, the nuts were thought to have grown under the sea – hence the name. Among the many orchids is the vanilla, once widely cultivated for the essence from its aromatic pods, its ornate leaves and lovely flowers make a wonderful display. It is not, however, necessary to travel the length and breadth of the islands to see interesting plants, as many of them can be viewed at the Victoria’s Botanical Gardens.
The Seychelles are also a major attraction for birdwatchers, millions of terns nest on the islands – among them that most beautiful of seabirds, the fairy tern. Around 2 million sooty terns nest on Bird Island, and on Aride can be found the world’s largest colonies of lesser noddies, roseate terns and other tropical birds. Other species, are less well represented and are rare almost to the point of extinction. The paradise flycatcher has dwindled to some thirty pairs on one island, La Digue. The Seychelles magpie robin is confined to Frégate, the black parrot to Praslin and the melodious brush warbler to Cousin.
It was only twenty years ago that active conservation of endangered species began in the Seychelles. Since then, with the establishment of island sanctuaries and nature reserves, much has been done to make the Seychelles a paradise for birds – and for those who like to watch them.