With its blend of colourful culture and exotic island life, Karen Yates discovers the quintessential paradise of the Seychelles, and relaxes at the new Avani resort at Barbarons beach…
“Don’t worry, be happy,” said Joseph, our relaxed driver in his gentle Creole lilt – like much of the food here, the language is a mixture of African and French – as we ‘rushed’ to catch a ferry to another island. We still had London, like a monkey, on our backs, although it was fast losing its grip. How could it not? Everything you can possibly ask from a dream break is here. We’re in Mahé, the main island of the Seychelles, surrounded by the Indian ocean, picture-perfect white sandy beaches with sloping palms, sunshine galore and totally chilled-out people, all of whom are aware that they live in paradise. We know this because they told us often.
We made the ferry, of course, and the hour-long crossing to La Digue and then on to Preslin, the third and second largest islands in the Seychelles respectively, both with lush greenery and more postcard beaches including Grande Anse (anse means bay) and Anse Source d’Argent on La Digue and Preslin’s Anse Lazio, the latter frequently described as the best beach in the world. With its natural good looks, clear turquoise water and absence of commercialism, it may well be.
Preslin is also famous for the Vallée de Mai, a UNESCO site since 1983 and home – the only home – to the instantly recognisable and anatomically correct coco de mer seed, which like the coconut looks more like a giant nut, in this case a double one and the world’s largest. Our guide, the nature-loving Dora, who definitely had a ring of explorer about her, explained that the female seed is, well, female shape, and the male is male shape and both grow on separate palms. It’s illegal to take the coco de mer seed out of Vallée de Mai (“You would break our hearts,” she said) or the country. The seclusion of the coco de mer and other flora here has created a unique relationship between the plants and certain creatures, including the elusive Seychelles Black Parrot (the national bird), which is actually brown and best seen in the morning. We visited in the afternoon, so missed it. We also missed the Green Tree Frog and the red-faced Seychelles Blue Pigeon, although we were graced with the newt-like Seychelles Skink, the Green Day Gecko and the Preslin Snail.
Also on Preslin is Marie-Antoinette restaurant, where the same Creole dishes have been served daily since 1972. The feast includes a mango salad, aubergine fritters, battered parrot fish, tuna steaks, grilled fish, chicken curry, fish stew and rice. Portions are generous, and there is a non-local wine list. It’s all set in a relaxed colonial-style house built in 1862, according to a newspaper cutting the spot where Henry Morton Stanley, who stayed here and named it Livingstone Cottage, uttered the line: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”
The last ferry back to Mahé leaves Preslin at 6.30pm. Do like the locals and sit upstairs at the back to avoid seasickness. It’s very windy, but it’s a warm breeze and a pleasant way to watch the sun set and darkness fall, as it does so quickly here, to reveal the coastal lights of mountainous Mahé twinkling away in the tropical evening.
The drive back to our hotel from the ferry port took about 25 minutes, the same as from the airport and to the capital, Victoria. AVANI Seychelles Barbarons Resort & Spa on the west coast of Mahé has recently undergone extensive refurbishment and this 124-room hotel is now contemporary, stylish, relaxed and friendly. My Ocean View Room was very spacious with minimal designs and fresh greens and turquoise accents in the fabrics and artworks. Everything you’d expect is here, from the flat-screen TV to Dilmah tea, but much of which you might not use because you’ll be too busy relaxing by the pool or on the beach. There’s also a spa, naturally, and a 90-minute calming massage is just the thing to get rid of the last grip of that London monkey.
Each room has its own little garden area or balcony, there’s a pool and beyond that a white-sand beach with sun loungers and sea as warm as bath water. Currents can be strong, so it’s best to swim in the bay area to the right as you look out. I liked the fact that this isn’t a private beach – local people can come here if they want to but no one did, probably because with around 70 to choose from on Mahé alone they’re spoilt for choice.
For sundowner cocktails, beer or wine, served with ‘chips’ (crisps) made from banana, plantain and breadfruit slices, sit in the spacious Elements bar or one of the egg-shaped hanging chairs overlooking the beach, or take your drink upstairs and watch the sun set from the open-air Gravity Shisha Lounge & Bar, with its delicate pink lights that glow gently as darkness descends. A shisha is a kind of hubble-bubble pipe, which you can also puff away on after dinner, if you like.
The aforementioned Elements restaurant serves buffet suppers, lunches and breakfast inside or on the deck to suit every taste and nationality (you can even enjoy dim sum and kimchi for breakfast), but I particularly liked the candlelit Tamarind restaurant on the beach. Here you can choose from à la carte or tasting menus including a tongue-tingling tom kha soup with kaffir lime, galangal and lemongrass, plus seared salmon and a Thai beef satay, and main courses of jumbo prawns with a Thai tamarind glaze, Chinese crispy pork belly, duck breast in red curry coconut sauce and tossed Victoria Market seasonal vegetables. For dessert, there are banana, peanut and tamarind-glazed crêpes with vanilla ice cream. Book the day before if you would like Tamarind to create a special candlelit barbecue party served on a table on the beach – ours included tuna tartare, a fish and octopus salad, Aberdeen Angus steaks, lamb chops and grilled langoustine. All the food is overseen by Australian executive chef Ashley Coleman, whose fresh Pan Asian flavours with strong Thai and Vietnamese accents are even more impressive considering that while the fish and vegetables are locally caught or grown, the remainder must all be shipped or flown in.
As well as a good range of wines, the menus all included award-winning Takamaka rum to drink on the rocks or in cocktails, so we couldn’t resist a visit to the nearby distillery (www.takamakabay.com). Here we learnt how the rum was produced from sugar cane and tasted the ubiquitous 43 per cent caramel-flavoured rum, a coconut version and, my favourites, the more complex white rum and oak-aged eight-year versions. There is also an open-air restaurant and a medicinal garden growing ginger, curry leaves, lemongrass and holy basil that are used in the kitchen.
If you visit as we did in May don’t miss the annual carnival, which takes place in Victoria. For three days, the world’s smallest capital becomes an international affair as dignitaries from other countries fly in, local people dress up and children paint their faces and line the streets to watch a procession of floats carrying everyone from beauty queens, Indonesian dancers, Thai kickboxers, twerking mechanics of both sexes, a poor panting long-haired dog in sunglasses, restaurant staff and other assorted characters to wild applause. Overheated people ignored the police’s requests to keep behind the tape and children and adults danced and sang along with the music. I noticed that some of the drivers had found a shady spot under some trees and appeared to be enjoying their time off. Among them was Joseph, whose motto “Don’t worry, be happy” was firmly on everyone’s lips.
Beach Access Rooms at AVANI Barbarons start at 250 euros (about £180). For more information, visit www.avanihotels.com.
Emirates flights via Dubai and itinerary activities for this trip were supported by Seychelles Tourist Office (www.seychelles.travel; +44 (0) 207 703 0700).
Next week Karen continues her introduction to the Seychelles and heads to the eastern side of Mahé for a short hop to Eden Island…