So, there’s no lock on the bathroom then?” “No lock? There’s no wall,” laughed the hotel rep as he showed me to my beachfront spa cottage, explaining the ‘barefoot luxury’ experience of Denis Island Resort, a tiny – just 1.3km by 1.75km – coralline crescent situated a 30-minute flight away from the Seychellois main island of Mahé.
A former coconut plantation, this privately owned slice of paradise has now been developed for ecotourism, and guests are expected to embrace the wireless and lockless serenity of a place where there are no keys in your room, no internet, no TV, no phone signal and the cuisine consists almost exclusively of produce reared on the island’s own organic farm.
Twenty minutes later and I was soaking up the au naturel experience for myself, quite literally. Sinking down into the scented humidity of a hot bath, I had an uninterrupted view of my private garden courtyard – complete with al fresco shower and massage pavilion – as its lush foliage danced and glittered under the force of the tropical rainstorm that had just begun outside. Fat monsoon droplets pinged into my bath water, while a sunburst of bright orange Madagascan fody birds preened themselves and a gloriously gigantic pea-green gecko eyeballed me from the bathroom coving. If there’s such a thing as being ‘at one’ with nature, this was it.
And there’s no better way to experience the wild romance of a country that’s so full of unique flora and fauna it has become a world leader in sustainable tourism.
A mere cluster of dots off the coast of East Africa on any world map, this picturesque Indian Ocean archipelago consists of a mixture of coralline islands (like Denis) and granitic islands – fertile fragments of the ancient supercontinent of Godwana that have been separated from other continents for 75 million years. Although it was discovered by Europeans at the start of the 16th century, it remained uninhabited by humans – save the odd pirate-ship crew – until the mid-1700s, when it was settled by the French, then ceded to the British in 1814, until achieving independence in 1976. This late human occupation means that a significant bulk of its vast, verdant and unique biodiversity remains intact to this day.
You can catch glimpses of this ancient natural heritage not only in the pristine white beaches and crystal clean waters – the stuff of screensavers and travel brochures – but also in the Jurassic-looking granite outcroppings, which are so smoothly etched against the vibrant coastline they appear almost cartoon-like.
The fauna, too, has a visibly ancient lineage. The unique lizard and reptile populations include the iconic giant tortoises – we were told that the oldest and largest tortoise in the Denis Island colony may well have been around to cast his beady eye over the first French pioneers back in the 18th century – as well as several endemic bird species, including the Seychelles scops owl and the Seychelles paradise-flycatcher.
Certainly, a walk around Denis Island is like a crash course in natural history. As well as the tortoises, there are the flying foxes chittering in the trees, the flocks of brightly coloured birds squawking and flitting through the casuarina pines, coconut crabs scuttling across the sand, and eagle rays and turtles suspended in the watery shallows. And that’s just the wild animals – hike across to the estate area of the island and you’re greeted by ducks, guinea fowl, chickens, rabbits and cattle being reared on the island’s own farm, which is part of Denis’s aim to be wholly self-sustainable. And this is all aside from the many hundreds of types of plants – from Indian almond trees to a dozen variety of pines, shrubs and vibrant flowers. If it’s possible to have an embarrassment of fecundity, Denis Island is blushing.
While the island’s wireless policy means that surfing the internet isn’t an option, listening to the sea surf gently fizz on the shore is very much a possibility, along with a host of other outdoor pursuits – from guided nature tours that take you around the farm, the tortoise enclosure and to admire the 1910 lighthouse, to sunset cruises, fishing trips, luxurious spa massages and, of course, snorkelling, diving and many other ocean sports.
Lying down on my spa cottage’s outdoor massage bed as my therapist rubbed oil into my travel-worn limbs, it was hard to imagine that until quite recently Denis – like most of the Seychelles islands – was almost entirely coconut plantation and bustling copra factory. But when the archipelago’s first international airport opened in 1971, tourism took over from the plantation industry as the most profitable source of income almost overnight, and in 1975 the island was turned into a holiday destination – and both Denis and the rest of the archipelago have been getting more and more luxurious and sophisticated ever since.
Today Emirates airline has 12 flights a week to the international airport near the capital Victoria, on the island of Mahé (it takes just over four hours from Dubai) and the Seychelles’ year-round tropical climate and stunning beaches mean it has become one of the most sought-after destinations for an exclusive honeymoon or romantic getaway.
This is where David and Victoria Beckham celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, and where Prince William and Kate Middleton escaped to after the royal wedding.
Of course all of the biggest names in luxury hotel brands have arrived for a piece of the action too. After two days of private-island seclusion, we left Denis to stay at the Banyan Tree Seychelles, a vast colonial-style mansion set dramatically into the lush rocky hills on the coast of Mahé.
As if more proof of the Seychelles’ pedigree as an A-list destination were needed, the Banyan Tree is built on a site that was previously owned jointly by famous British actor Peter Sellers and Beatles member George Harrison, and features 60 luxurious pool villas, all of which make use of the high sloping ceilings and airy verandas of traditional ‘plantation’ style architecture, blending well with the Creole style of buildings elsewhere on the island.
With only one night at the Banyan Tree, we had just enough time to appreciate the sweeping beach views and enjoy a deep sleep in the luxurious beds before packing up for the archipelago’s second-largest island, Praslin, a short twin-engine plane trip or 45-minute catamaran trip from Mahé.
There are yet more natural attractions on Praslin, which is, along with smaller neighbouring island of Curieuse, the only place in the world where the Coco de Mer grows naturally. This is a mystical tree in the palm family whose unusually shaped and valuable nuts have been the subject of multiple myths.
The densest concentration of Coco de Mer plants are in Unesco world heritage site the Vallée De Mai, a prehistoric forest and relic of the ancient Gondwana continent in the centre of Praslin, which also hosts unique wildlife such as the Seychelles black parrot as well as other animals.
We explored the Vallée De Mai from our base at the Raffles Praslin – another high-end hotel brand that’s recently arrived for a slice of the Seychellois charm.
It has an unconventional set-up as a series of self-contained villas high in rugged hills on the north coast, offering breathtaking floor-to-ceiling views of the ocean (you can lie in bed and watch the sun sparkle on the sea below), along with private plunge pools and outdoor dining and living areas.
Private butlers are on hand to attend to your every whim, navigation of the hotel’s vast and hilly grounds is via a buggy-on-demand, and the hotel also boasts first-class cuisine as well as an award-winning spa. Praslin is also the perfect base from which to take a 15-minute boat ride to the nearby island of La Digue, the third-largest inhabited island in the Seychelles. Ideal as a day trip, the island has only a handful of small guest houses, a plethora of talcum sand and sapphire-sea beaches, giant tortoises running (well, lumbering) wild, and a whole lot of Creole culture.
Despite its high-end reputation and celebrity fans, there are now several places on La Digue, as well as elsewhere around the Seychelles, where it’s possible to find more affordable accommodation. The more value-friendly options all tend to be Seychellois-owned – so whatever you spend goes directly to help the economic situation of the country – and you get to enjoy the down-to-earth Creole culture from a grassroots level. Mainly of East African and Malagasy origin from the plantation slaves of the 1700s, there are around 80,000 Creoles in the Seychelles (that’s over 70 per cent of the population), and they are fiercely proud of their heritage – which can be detected in the friendly, laid-back atmosphere, the deliciously spiced traditional food, and the fact that Creole is one of the country’s official languages along with French and English.
But no matter what sort of place you stay in while on the Seychelles, it’s sure to be romantic. Blending top-end luxury with prehistoric natural attractions, it’s an opportunity to switch off and get back to nature – an archipelago where fishermen are the only people doing any ‘social networking’; ‘gigabytes’ are how giant tortoises eat, ‘twitter’ is only for the birds, and a special piece of ‘My space’ is something you’re sure to find without any need for a computer.