For those looking to "get away from it all," the Seychelles may be the perfect get-away. After all, the most important feature of the Seychelles is their isolation. This 115-island archipelago is located about a thousand miles off the eastern coast of Africa, smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The islands are scattered over 150,000 square miles (400,000 sq km) of the Indian Ocean and range from granite rock islands with lush vegetation to coral atolls that barely rise out of the sea.
This geographical isolation has manifested itself in nearly every aspect of life here. The Seychelles history, for example, has been relatively tame, as the islands were uninhabited until modern times. Though the French and English maintained colonial control until 1976, there was no bloody revolutionary to speak of. This geographical isolation has also had ecological consequences, as much of the Seychelles flora and fauna cannot be found anywhere else on earth. Most visitors are drawn to the scintillating beaches and turquoise waters that dot the sea like an exquisite pearl necklace. The coral atolls are home to giant lagoons chock full of marine wildlife.
Aldabra—a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to over 150,0000 giant land tortoises—happens to be the second largest atoll in the entire world. Aldabra has been billed as one of the wonders of the world by prominent naturalists due to its pristine coral reef ecosystems and is still protected from full-scale tourism. Mahé, home to the international airport, the capital city and a vast majority of the country's inhabitants, is surrounded by coral reefs, making its powdery white sandy beaches optimal for a dream island vacation.
Nearby St. Anne National Park, a short boat-ride away, is one of the best places in the Indian Ocean to view marine life. Terrestrial fans will want to visit Praslin, which is home to Vallée de Mai, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This tropical forest is the best place to check out the coco de mer, which is the famous palm that yields the world's biggest fruit (and one of the most interestingly shaped ones at that).
Desroches, the main island in the Almirantes Group, is renowned for its scuba diving. Other islands are even more off-the-beaten-track, such as La Digue: with ox-carts dominating the streets and an easy-going spirit, visiting La Digue is like taking a trip back in time. These islands are also a favored destination of migratory birds who travel thousands of miles to frequent these spectacular islands. Drawn to the idyllic surroundings and ideal weather, they also endure punishing long flights, except they don't pay for airfare. With nearly half of the country's land preserved as natural parks, the Seychelles are an ecologists dream.
Vallée de Mai
Located on the quintessentially tropical island of Praslin, this virgin forest was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for good reason. This park is the best place to ogle at the coco de mer palm, which produces the largest fruit in the world and vanilla orchids. Some of the Seychelles rarest birds are also found here such as the Seychelles Bulbul and the endemic Black Parrot. This valley was once thought to be the Garden of Eden by early explorers and it will sure make you wonder.
This quaint little island, is renowned for its stunning beaches, made famous in a number of advertisements and swimsuit shoots. The array of deserted beaches, each seemingly more beautiful than the next, is stunning. Visitors are specially attracted to Anse Source d'Argent considered one of the most beautiful and unique beaches in the world or the exquisite shores of L'Union Estate.
Morre Seychellois National Park
On the largest island of Mahé lies the impressive mountain range that is home to this national park. The peak is the highest in the country, offering exquisite views of the sea beyond. Enjoy a day hike into the lush forest, with breaks along the way to appreciate the visually-vivacious vistas.
National Botanical Gardens
The fifteen acres of lush vegetation of these gardens are a relaxing getaway for those holed up in the capital city of Victoria. Among the most noteworthy of the plants here are the famous coco de mer palms. The orchid garden is worth seeing and the restaurant serves up tasty fare.
Ste Anne Marine National Park
There aren't many "parks" that are made up of six islands, but this is indeed the case here. With boat trips departing from Victoria Harbor, this park is one of the Seychelles most easily accessible and is a great place to see where the Hawksbill turtles nest. The calm clear waters and well-endowed coral reefs make for super snorkeling conditions.
This annual festival held the last week of October in the capital Victoria is a celebration of Creole culture, with plenty of music, dancing and theater productions going on all week. There is plenty of food to sample, drinks to be enjoyed, local art to purchase and fun to be had.
George Camille Gallery
Museum honoring this fine local painter who so effectively captures the Creole culture and life in the Seychelles. His studio at Cote D'Or on Praslin Island is a popular spot for tourists looking for a cultural attraction.
Beau Vallon Bay
On the northern coast of Mahé lies the scintillating Beau Vallon Bay. With its natural beauty, its easy to see why this was developed as a beach resort area. The bay itself is fantastic for scuba diving, as there are two shipwrecks and several coral reefs.
People and Culture
Unlike so many tropical islands around the world, the Seychelles do not boast any indigenous cultures, as the islands were devoid of human inhabitants until French colonists settled in the 1700s. The country's present-day culture, however, does reflect the many ethnic groups that call the Seychelles home. The African slaves, which were imported from the mainland, brought their music, dance and religion. In fact, much of the country's traditional music can be traced back to the slaves' prayers, which were turned into work chants and are now expressed as songs, accompanied by dance. The most well-known, the sombre moutia, is a slow repetitive participatory dance that also displays a Malagasy component, as Madagascar is just a few hundred miles south.
Another cultural trait left over from the slaves is the belief in supernatural spirits. Even among the majority Catholic population, these magical gris are believed to exert magic as well as spells of good and bad luck. Though the government outlawed "sorcery" nearly fifty years ago, these beliefs remain strong, as the presence of spirit practitioners called bonhommes and bonfemmes will attest. These priests and priestesses concoct potions that are used to bring good luck or love to many Seychellois.
Language in the Seychelles is a cultural marker as well. Though most people speak French and/or English, French Creole, locally known as kreol seselwa, is the most popular language spoken on the streets. Interestingly, the Creole spoken here is different from that spoken in the Reunion Islands, though it is quite similar to the creole of Mauritius. In the last twenty years, Creole has become more socially accepted and is now printed in newspapers and literature. In addition, the government has recently created a music school and national dance troupe to promote their Seychellois culture.
Local music is a fascinating blend of African, European, Indian, Chinese and Arabic styles, combining European instruments such as violins, accordions and banjos with native instruments such as African skin drums, the sitar-like zez and the stringed makalapo.
Unlike many other tropical islands, the Seychelles were not exploited with much colonistic fervor. It is assumed that early Phoenician and possibly Indonesian traders were the first visitors to these islands. Arab mariners also arrived on these shores, as they had established a complex trading network throughout the Indian Ocean, ranging from the Arabian Peninsula to India and all along the east African coast. But these merchants were not the colonizing type, so they left little mark. Even the Europeans who visited here in early times seemed to take little interest, probably due to the lack of precious metals or natives that could be used as slaves.
Old maps indicate that the Portuguese had visited these islands by 1505—led by famed captain Vasco da Gama who named the islands the Amirantes after himself. Nearly a century and a half after da Gama's visit, the French sent a mission under the command of the French Governor of Mauritius, another French possession isolated in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Fourteen years later, the French sent a second expedition, naming the islands for the king's Finance Minister, proving that though they never had as much fun as royals themselves, being an economic chief does have its perks. Though French planters set up some plantations, the lack of trade nearly led to the dissolution of the colony.
During the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the islands were taken over by the British then once again "freed" by the French, but in 1814, they were officially handed over to the British with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Since Mauritius was also ceded to the English at this time, the Seychelles became a dependency of Mauritius, dropping its lowly status to colony of a colony. This meager status quo remained for seventy-four years, when the islands were rewarded their own governing councils and governor. By 1903 the Seychelles had become an official colony of the British crown.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, little changed politically. In fact, it wasn't until 1970 that colonial representatives met with local politicians to discuss a possible constitution. While the Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP) led by James Mancham espoused close integration with Britain, France-Albert René and his more radical Seychelles People's United Party (SPUP) were pushing for full independence. Mancham and the SDP won the ensuing elections and soon they too were clamoring for independence. After his re-election, Mancham negotiated with the British, leading the Seychelles to independent republic status within the British Commonwealth.
But the Cold War was underway and even these isolated islands became part of the geo-political chess match. Mancham, who was named President, pushed to develop tourism, offshore financial services and ties with Europe. But when he traveled overseas to attend the 1977 British Commonwealth Conference, the left-wing Prime Minister René staged a coup d'etat. His SPUP took the reins of power and rode the Seychelles into one-party rule, turning the country into a socialist state. Four years later an attempted coup by a team of South African mercenaries was foiled and the SPUP remained in power. But as was happening throughout Africa, aid donor countries, such as Britain and France, were encouraging multi-party politics; their pressure caused René to announce a new round of presidential elections in 1993. Mancham returned from abroad but René won the successive elections to come. As President, René's ability to strengthen the infrastructure—vital for tourism—insulated him from criticism of cronyism and nepotism. After twenty-seven years in power, René stepped down from power in 2004, handing over control to his vice-president James Michel.
The Seychelles were once thought to be the Garden of Eden and most visitors admit that on a natural level, these islands are tough to beat. The Seychelles consist of 115 islands, many of which are coral atolls. The three largest—Mahé, La Digue and Praslin—are made of granite and are home to lush forests and pristine beaches. Mahé is the most developed, but is still extremely well-preserved. A mountain range runs along the spine of the island, where the country's highest peak—Morro Seychellois—is located. These central highlands are also home to a national park optimal for hikers in search of breath-taking vistas.
One half of the land is protected as a nature reserve, making the Seychelles ideal for those interested in ecotourism. Being so isolated from the rest of the world, many of the birds here are endemic and cannot be found anywhere else. The Seychelles bulbul, the black parrot and the fruit pigeon—three of the world's rarest birds—are spotted regularly. There are bird sanctuaries located on four of the islands: Aride, Frégate, Cousin and the cleverly-named Bird Island. There are also four marine national parks loaded with hundreds of species of fish and coral. The one at Saint Anne, established back in 1973, was the first in all of the Indian Ocean; its crystal clear waters are perfect for snorkeling.
Curieuse Marine National Park is a popular visit from Praslin as well as the turquoise waters and red reefs of Ilê Coco Marine National Park. Some of the world's best shallow-water scuba diving can also be found here, particularly at Baie Ternay, where shipwrecks and carpet anemone dominate. For those that don't scuba or aren't ready for a side-trip to one of these parks, anyone with a mask and snorkel can witness a rich array of submarine activity along any of the reef-protected coasts. Dolphins, porpoise, shark and barracuda can be found in deeper waters, primarily between islands.
The Seychelles is one to the two places in the world (besides the Galapagos Islands) where giant tortoises have evolved into being. In the previous centuries, these defenseless tortoises were nearly hunted into extinction by hungry seafarers, whalers and pirates, who valued the tortoises' ability to survive long sea voyages. Luckily though, about 100,000 of these wondrous animals still inhabit the island of Aldabra. They grow to up to 100 kilos in size, which is testimony to their genetic adaptations to their arid environment and the absence of predators.
As far as plant life, the Seychelles are loaded with palms, including the endemic coco de mer, which can be found in the Valée de Mai on Praslin. This tree is truly a wonder, as it produces a "double coconut" that is shaped like a female pelvis and weighs up to 40 lbs (18 kg), making it the largest fruit in the world. There are gardenias, orchids and bourganvillea to be found in higher elevations, as well as the pitcher plant.
Climate and Weather
The Seychelles boast an average annual temperature of 84°F (29°C) making it a perfect tropical destination. Since the islands are so close to the equator, the sun's rays can be quite powerful, so visitors take caution.
Luckily, the heat is tempered by trade winds that blow in from the south-east from May to September. During these pleasant breezy months, the islands are a little cooler and drier. Beaches on the northwestern side of the islands are the calmest when these trade winds blow. The currents during this period are stronger as well, which sometimes causes seaweed to wash up on the shore. The sea is choppiest during July and August.
When the trade winds aren't blowing, monsoon rains pass through, with most rainfall coming in January and February. Mahé and Silhouette Islands receive the most rain, but even during these months, the Seychelles' climate is wonderful for visitors, as intermittent heavy rains give way to open sunny skies. With its pleasant breezes and sun-bleached beaches, tropical weather fans will not be disappointed with the Seychellois climate.
Map and Location
Location: Indian Ocean, north of Madagascar and east of African continent
Geographic coordinates: 4 35 S, 55 40 E
Time Zone: GMT +4
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