I’m kneeling on a talcum-soft beach, my hand extended with a humble offering of breadfruit. Brutus, its designated recipient, slowly raises his head, pausing to look me pointedly in the eye before stretching his neck forward to nibble at it. He seems as ancient as time itself, but is in fact 154 years old. Brutus is an Aldabra giant tortoise – and there are actually more of them here in the Seychelles than there are people, so our gratifying interaction seems a most appropriate welcome.
A thousand miles from the nearest landmass, the Seychelles are an equatorial nebula of 115 Indian Ocean islands off the eastern coast of Africa. Extraordinarily beautiful, these predominantly granitic, lush and mountainous islands have some of the finest beaches and most beguiling waters found anywhere. With over 1,000 species of fish, 40m-plus visibility and exceptional underwater topography, they are a world-class diving destination. On land, the Seychelles are home to the planet’s largest population of the aforementioned tortoises, one of the biggest seabird colonies in the world and a wealth of endemic flora and fauna.
One thing these islands are mercifully free from, however, is mass tourism. The Seychelles have seen barely any development over the past 25 years, with the little there has been largely a model of eco-conservation.
And until a few years ago, there were only three truly five-star properties on the islands: a Banyan Tree resort, Frégate Island Private and the incomparable North Island. No longer. On the main Seychellian island of Mahé, Maia opened its elemental, Bali-inspired private villa resort in 2006, and 2009 saw the début of the Four Seasons Resort and Villas. 2011 will welcome a Raffles on Praslin island and the ground-breaking contemporary Zil Pasyon resort and residences on the private island of Félicité. There will also be changes at Desroches Island – which is famous for the best diving in the Seychelles and so is, arguably, among the top five diving destinations in the world – in the form of a new spa and four Beach Villas.
History, perhaps, best explains why top-end exclusivity has taken so long to flourish here. In 1976, the Seychelles were a bigger tourist destination than Mauritius, serviced by daily nonstops from British Airways and Air France. But the landscape transformed in 1977, when the coalition prime minister of the time, France Albert René, held a political coup, declaring the country a single-party socialist state the year after it had become an independent republic.
His famous rallying cry of “Brothers and Sisters, never again be a servant to anybody” was admirable in sentiment, but not terribly conducive to attracting foreign investment. Nor were his semidisastrous economic policies, which culminated in a 50 per cent currency devaluation that ultimately resulted in a $26m IMF bailout in 2008. A series of deals struck in the late 1990s to ease these restrictions have been rapidly accelerated in more recent years, doubtless contributing to recent recovery.
The upside of this was a government scarcely inclined (or able, really) to overdevelop the islands – which has resulted in an exemplary low-impact, high-yield tourist model. It was against this background that pioneers such as the Banyan Tree Seychelles opened in 2002. Today, the hotel still has the finest spa in the republic, even though it has been joined on Mahé by two contenders: Maia and the Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons is built on a remote, west-facing hillside on its own private bay, overlooking the beach of Petite Anse and surrounded by lush jungle that clings to cascading cliffs of granite. We were staying in one of the resort’s 67 creole-style villas and suites. Unusually for the Seychelles, each villa is built on stilts; they are utterly private, with verdant jungle concealing neighbouring properties. Inside, serene swathes of space – bleached teak floors, lime-washed plank walls and high, vaulted ceilings – are punctuated by vibrant, cobalt-blue accents. Each vast bathroom boasts a massive, statement sunken marble bath and marble shower. Facing the ocean is a two-tiered sun deck, with a covered day bed cabana and a private infinity pool.
We were keen to discover the resort, particularly as whale sharks had been spotted in the bay the previous afternoon, so we set off on foot (most guests are chauffeured around the sprawling hillside in electric buggies). The main hub is behind the powdery white-sand beach, with bar, restaurant, 30m-long pool surrounded by tall cinnamon trees, kids’ club and dive centre. But the main reason to start a visit to the Seychelles on Mahé isn’t necessarily to sink up to your ankles in the sand of an exclusive beach; you can do that on a private island. It’s to explore the culture of Mahé itself.
Home to over 80 per cent of the 80,000-strong Seychellois population, Mahé life revolves around the capital city, Victoria. The clock tower is an exact replica of one near Victoria station in London; and it must surely be the only capital in the world to have a solitary traffic light. There’s a colourful and jolly local market and an impressive botanical garden with a population of giant tortoises and a grove of the infamous coco de mer. Closely resembling a woman’s buttocks, their fruit used to be prized as an aphrodisiac and was something of a collector’s item among European nobility. For centuries, the received wisdom was that they grew from a forest of underwater coconut trees. The true source wasn’t discovered until the islands were properly explored and documented in 1768.
These days, exploration is best conducted by helicopter. Much of the ocean basin between the islands is around 40m deep and, because of the excellent visibility, during a helicopter transfer you can actually appreciate both an incredible diversity of marine life and the static beauty of intricate sand formations carved into the seabed by tidal ebb and flow.
Our first touchdown was on Félicité island, for a look at the Zil Pasyon resort. Félicité has an idyllic position in the archipelago, with cinematic westerly views of the islands of La Digue, Praslin and Grande and Petite Soeur. The island was previously home to a small lodge and five 1970s-style A-frame bungalows, with Tony Blair among those who took them for exclusive hire. Its new incarnation is much bolder. Some 80 per cent of it will remain undeveloped, with the remainder comprising up to 12 private residences and a 36-villa resort. The design, by London architect Richard Hywel Evans, is quite unlike anything else in the Seychelles. The concept is modular stealth architecture, with all structures clad in a Chinese basalt that has been painstakingly sourced to blend in with the local granite. The private residences are particularly futuristic; in each, the glass ceiling of the living room doubles as the bottom of the master bedroom’s swimming pool.
The resort villas are only slightly more restrained, characterised by jet-black infinity pools and hobbit-like circular doors, with a corrugated bronze wall in the suite, strategically lit by UV sources. A key part of the design philosophy was to leave all the naturally occurring stone untouched, integrating the architecture into and among the outcrops. The island’s granite formations are perhaps the most striking in the archipelago.
Steve Hill, who masterminded Frégate Island Private’s internationally recognised conservation development, is the environmental consultant on the project. “[Conscientious] construction is only the beginning,” he says. “The long-term project and the real work is the restoration of the environment.” Four of the residences have been sold to date, but with a starting price of €3.8m, rising to €12m pre-customisation, it’s an exclusive price tag – yet a unique opportunity to buy into what will shortly become one of the most pristine natural habitats in the world.
From Zil Pasyon, we flew on to Frégate to admire some of Hill’s earlier eco-architectural handiwork. Boasting 16 standard villas and a presidential villa, the island has blazed the trail for conservation-led five-star private island development. When the project was initiated roughly 12 years ago, one endemic species, the magpie robin, was on the verge of extinction – there were only 45 birds left on the planet. Today, Frégate is home to over 100 of them and they have been successfully translocated to four other islands. The migrating bird life here is breathtaking, with thousands of breeding fairy terns and lesser noddies keeping us more or less constant company.
The beaches, one of which regularly appears in lists of the world’s top 10, are a favourite spot for nesting turtles, and more than 1,000 giant tortoises roam the island. Today, much of it has been successfully cleared of non-native species. The closer Frégate returns to its natural state, the more migrating and residential birdlife flourishes – and the more captivating it becomes for the visitor. Not that Hill has been resting on his laurels, admiring the flight patterns; a project scheduled for 2011 will cover the resort’s entire back of house with a 10,000sq m solar panel structure, with surplus energy to be converted to and stored in hydrogen form – a truly pioneering technological feat.
Frégate was also the model for North Island, whose 11 beachside villas have historically set the bar for Indian Ocean beach chic. The resort opened in 2004, but over the past year extensive renovations have been carried out. The 750sq m flagship Villa 11 is now virtually a boutique hotel in itself, with a terrace cascading over four tiers, the lowest of which is dominated by a vast fire pit and lounge area, and a study-cum-home cinema adjacent to the vast open-air lounge.
The remaining villas now boast beautifully wrought interiors, crafted almost entirely from indigenous materials. Ceilings of takamaka branches, hammered rosewood floors and screens of beach-harvested coral are offset by provocative, iconic design moments (Arco marble lamps, severely chic Philippe Starck basins) of the sort one would expect to find in Paris’ 7th arrondissement rather than at these subequatorial, middle-of-the-ocean co-ordinates.
North Island’s ultimate dining experience is at West Beach, a 10-minute buggy ride from the villas. At night the beach bar is transformed, with lanterns scattered across the sand and a glowing fire pit, while two chefs busy themselves over the fresh charcoal grill and woodfired oven in the open-plan kitchen. Romantic tables for two by the water’s edge are standard issue here; but in the end, guests may find themselves reluctant (as we were) to take leave of the kitchen bar. Few experiences can surpass that of engaging with a friendly, knowledgeable chef as he prepares your dinner before your eyes, expounding on the ingredients’ provenance and his own techniques. After a barrage of 10 courses – sashimi, crayfish tails, spicy green prawn curry, tuna with ponzu sauce, and duck breast curry among them – we peaked on a fillet of beef, cooked in the woodfired oven on a board soaked in red wine.
After such indulgence, exercise was in order. Despite being hit hard by the El Niño coral bleaching of the late 1990s, the Seychelles still have some of the world’s best diving. Make a point to put Sprat City on your agenda – so-called because of the thousands of tiny sprats swaying in the current above three long fingers of coral, between which sleepy manta rays and nurse sharks skim the sand.
At almost every turn on our foray into the shallows of Sprat City, we saw whitetip reef sharks or turtles, while above us floated shoals of jackfish, wrasse, circling eagle rays and flurries of fusiliers. The diversity of marine life comes close to overwhelming, an irreproducible ecosystem whose fragility is belied by its riotous, sensual colours, its sheer abundance. And now more than ever, the beauty to be found on land – these resorts’ collusion of ravishing luxury, forward-thinking design and seamless integration with nature – is just as compelling.