The instructions were simple: pull the left rope to turn left, and the right to go in the opposite direction; press down hard on the accelerator to go faster, and lift the tail to change gear.
What did I expect? On an island without cars, there was a stark choice for transportation – hire a bicycle, take shank’s pony or, gulp, end up in the situation I found myself in now, about to take control of an ox and cart – though the use of the word control was a bit of an exaggeration.
“This one is a nightmare,” our guide Clifford smiled. “He does what he wants. My boss told me I had to strike him to train him better but I look into his big, brown eyes and I just can’t.” Clifford, 18, is a bit of a softy. He doesn’t eat beef because it reminds him of work and he prefers to teach his bovine companion where to go by blowing it kisses.
That might explain why he has passed the tests necessary to ‘command’ ox and carts on the tiny island of La Digue, in the Seychelles, but still doesn’t have a driving licence for when he ventures wider afield.
Luckily, I had my UAE and international licences tucked in my purse, and so smacking my lips together and gingerly lifting the ox’s tail, we set off along the pothole-riddled road towards the beach.
It was a bumpy ride, to say the least, but we were obviously an entertaining site, being overtaken by families with toddlers on bikes and grannies shuffling along with their shopping. A man balancing what looked like the whole of a Danube store on his head, guffawed so loudly as he cycled past that his bundle of wooden flooring nearly toppled to the ground. But still, I persevered.
Driving an ox and cart is not as easy as it looks. I yelled at the ox. It ignored me. I pulled on the ropes and it veered off in whatever direction the grass looked greener. The cart careered through so many holes my head kept hitting the roof, making me yelp. But it was all worth it as 40 minutes later we rounded a corner and a white beach, lapped by azure waters, greeted us. It’s picture-postcard perfect, but then so is every beach on the 115 islands in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Romance with a capital R
No wonder the Seychelles is one of the most popular destinations for weddings and honeymooners – newlyweds William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge chose to visit here. It’s romantic with a capital R, has stunning pristine sand that is so super-fine it’s like walking in flour, coral reefs and is easy bureaucracy-wise. All you need is your birth certificate and passport, and you can be taking your vows, sand between your toes, just 48 hours after touching down on the reclaimed runway at Mahe, the main island.
Jumping off the ox and cart now, I watched as a German bride and groom, photographer and videographer in tow, took their vows on the sand before riding off into the sunset in their very own chariot of love. Yes, it was Clifford’s other bovine friend pulling a very pretty flower-decorated cart. “That one is perfect,” he sighed, taking over the reins. “He was trained before I started here.”
I wanted to linger and watch the newlyweds, but there was no time. Our La Digue day-trip was drawing to a close and we were on a tight schedule to catch the last boat back to Praslin, the second-biggest island in the Seychelles and my home for the next five days.
The boat leaves at 5pm every day because it’s dark by 6pm and there are no night lights on La Digue, which has just 3,000 inhabitants – the second highest population in the Seychelles. So there was only time to stop for a couple of minutes to gaze at the giant tortoises that live here before jumping back on the bone-rattling cart.
As the sun began to slide behind the horizon, I started to panic. The harbour was in sight, but the pace of the ox matched the life here – slow. I didn’t want to miss that boat and be stuck here in darkness, especially as I was staying at the most amazing resort – Raffles Praslin. So I was glad to swap my traditional transport for a much faster boat to make the five-mile dash to my new ‘home’.
The day before I’d flown in to the granite island from Mahe in a tiny Air Seychelles plane decorated with flowers. It was a thrilling ten-minute ride, which culminated in us swooping in over rainforest and landing next to what looked like someone’s garden.
So now I smiled as I dashed up the jetty to leave La Digue – where blockbuster Castaway was filmed – behind me. It was beautiful but no match for Praslin, with its colonial buildings, and prehistoric rainforest.
Ten minutes later I stepped off the ferry and headed for Raffles. Newly built into the hillside overlooking Takamaka Bay, in the northeast corner of the island, Raffles has already won a clutch of awards. It was named as the Seychelles’ Leading Hotel at the prestigious travel ‘Oscars’, the World Travel Awards, this year and is already in Forbes’
I’d only been staying there 24 hours but already I was impressed. Firstly, the entire resort, which boasts 86 villas, five restaurants and an award-winning spa, overlooks clear, turquoise waters and beaches to rival the Maldives.
Next, my two-bedroom villa was huge. We’re talking football-pitch size here, with an infinity plunge pool, sun deck, a summer house, landscaped gardens and its own private path down to the secluded beach. It’s kitted out with every mod con you could want, king-size beds, 43-inch plasma TVs, outdoor rain showers, and Japanese soaking tubs with ocean views. Oh, and a multi-lingual personal butler who unpacks and can be on call 24/7 to cater to your every whim and transport you all over the resort in a buggy.
I’ve visited Raffles hotels all over the globe and am an ardent fan of the brand. I’m smitten with the pyramid-shaped hotel in Dubai. But it’s not perched on a verdant, lush island with Anse Lazio, the Indian Ocean’s Leading Beach Destination, on its doorstep. This was my own personal corner of paradise overlooking Curieuse Island, where tortoises returned to lay their eggs on the most amazing arch of golden sand year after year.
Back ‘home’ I just had time to ask the butler for some in-room dining and a cup of tea before falling asleep. But I was up early the next day, and after a dip in the private plunge pool, I ventured down to the beach.
Snorkelling is a national pastime here, but you don’t need a mask. Once I’d plunged into the warm waters, multi-coloured fish darted all around me, while in the distance, workers near Anse Takamaka checked on the freshwater pearls farmed here.
The waters are so clear you can see straight to the seabed. I counted barracudas and clown fish in the ocean, while crabs scuttled across the sand. The spectacular scenery made for a walk with the wow factor, which worked up an appetite for the amazing breakfast in the Losean restaurant. Part buffet, part a la carte, this is the best meal of the day as far as I’m concerned. How else do you get the strength to walk the lengths of the endless beaches unless fed on the creamiest of scrambled eggs and lightest of blueberry pancakes?
Food is an important ingredient in the experience of Raffles Praslin. Whether it was a sumptuous snack next to the largest pool on any of the islands in the Seychelles, a beach picnic or barbecue, or an a la carte meal at the Curieuse restaurant, we were left longing to lick our plates as well as our lips.
There were even cookery lessons available for those able to tear themselves away from their sunloungers and hammocks. Chef whites on in Losean, I was ready to learn the art of making Thai vegetable curry, coleslaw, fluffy steamed white rice and mango soufflé. I chopped, mixed, stirred and finally ate the results with the harshest of critics – my stomach – and, I have to admit, it was all incredibly tasty. I went to bed full and ready to hit the jungle the next day.
The Vallée de Mai, one of the two Unesco World Heritage sites in the Seychelles, is 19 acres of jungle. Along with rare black parrots, and green geckos, you can see the revered coco de mer palm trees, which grow to be more than 30 metres tall and produce male and female plants. The trees, which are endemic to Praslin and Curieuse, produce giant fruits, which contain the largest seed on earth. The coco de mer is the national icon – and it’s even stamped inside your passport.
The dense rainforest could have been overwhelming – the palms are so tall they shut out a lot of light, but luckily there were signposts every few metres telling you how far it was to the exit. Of course, I opted for the shortest route and emerged just minutes after entering, much to the amusement of our car driver.
After the excitement of the jungle it was a quick dash back to the hotel for a stress-relief massage at the award-winning spa. I chose to have it done in one of the 13 luxurious ocean-front treatment rooms where the therapist’s hands and the sounds of the sea crashing against the shore lulled me into a five-star stupor. Ninety deliciously self-indulgent minutes later and it was all I could do to stumble back to where the personal butler was waiting to take me back to villa 200 on a buggy.
My children had gone to explore The Sugar Palm Club – a kids’ club for toddlers to teenagers – and declared the activities, crafts, games and outdoor sports fun. We went to pick them up. “Let’s go for another walk,” the children begged and we ambled along, watching the resort’s wedding planner getting ready for another couple’s big day. Raffles Praslin has seen 22 weddings since April, but it’s not just a newlyweds paradise.
Picking your way through the giant granite boulders scattered around the nooks and crannies of the coast, it’s easy to see why the islands have been the centre of attention from the British, French, Arabs, Mauritians and Portuguese over the centuries.
With its stunning scenery, laid-back Creole vibe, and wildlife, the Seychelles has it all – it’s a simple but a sweet life.