December 4th, 2011

Seychelles (Nov '11)

This holiday was our 'baby moon' - the last holiday with just the two of us, while Diana could still travel and before our baby arrives in March. After considering many options (Bora Bora? Maldives? Sri Lanka?), we finally settled on the Seychelles - a large archipelago of 115 islands, north of Madagascar and just south of the equator. And what better way to explore an archipelago than by boat? So we rented a big catamaran and were very much looking forward to a week in paradise.
 Jumeirah Mosque, Dubai
The flight to Seychelles from Singapore was via Dubai, leaving at 1.20am and arriving in Dubai at 4.30am after a 7-hour flight... A good preparation for a day of sightseeing! After arrival in Dubai, we dropped off our luggage in the hotel, had a coffee / hot chocolate and left by 7am. We first went to the small Jumeirah Mosque and then to a beach close to the famous 7-star Burj Al-Arab Burh Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraperhotel. It was Friday, which is the start of their weekend, and it was interesting to see who was on the beach: mainly expats with young kids or older expats. Even though it was the cool season, it quickly became hot by 10am, and we left for some more sightseeing. Next on the list was the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. Burj Kalifa is the tallest building in the world, or at least one of them. In the beginning, we were somewhat sceptical with this game of "my skyscraper is taller than yours", but it turned out to be a elegant building that's actually nice to look at. We didn't bother to go up though, and settled for some photos. Dubai Mall was quite impressive as well, easily the largest mall we have ever seen (and there are many in Singapore!). It had waterfalls, an ice rink, a giant aquarium with the world’s largest viewing panel filled with lots of beautiful fish, and of course shops, shops and more shops. There was an entire floor dedicated to kids stuff, and we bought our first set of clothes for our baby – a bright blue outfit, which Diana just had to buy... By 1pm the jet-lag kicked in, and it was time to head back to the hotel for a nap.
Late afternoon we went for a walk along Dubai Creek, explored the old Bastakiya quarters in Bur Dubai, had dinner in a very charming restaurant there, briefly checked the souks for souvenirs and went back to the hotel for a good night of sleep.
 
On Saturday morning we flew from Dubai to Mahé (the largest island in the Seychelles), and went to Eden Island for the boat. Eden IslaOur boat!nd is reclaimed land in front of Victoria (the capital), and full of luxury villas and a marina. We dropped off our luggage in the boat, and went to a supermarket in Victoria to get some groceries. When we came back, we had a long briefing by Philippe (the owner of the sailing company) about the boat and the itinerary, which was very useful.
The catamaran we rented was even bigger than we expected... 12m long, with 3 cabins, a large living area in the middle, a large area at the back, a comfortable net in front, and all technologies to make life easy, like GPS, autopilot, etc.Breakfast in Port Launay
 
On Sunday morning, we safely stored all our stuff in the catamaran, removed the lines and sailed away. Once out in the open sea, we raised the sails and navigated our way between the small islands in front of Mahé, and south around St. Anne island towards the northwest, to go over Mahé's north point. The sea was rough, with high waves and wind of 20-23 knots (force 5-6). Diana felt sea sick most of the time and we were happy to find shelter in Bay de Ternay where we stayed a few hours before continuing for a short while to our destination for the night, the bay of Port Launay. We anchored in the beautiful and calm bay, and took the dinghy to the beach where we stayed for a while before having dinner in the swish hotel that owns the beach. (This is actually an issue for the Seychellois, as these big hotels are built next to the nicest beaches. While it's still public land by law, the locals don't really have access anymore. And don't get them started about the government, the president who's been in office for 35 years, corruption, and how much locals get to see of the money earned in those $800-per-night hotels…)
 
The next morning, we could really admire the scenery, with bright-blue waters, a long white beach with palm trees, and high green mountains all around the bay. We fed the (big) fish swimming around the boat and saw a large turtle swimming around, while we were having breakfast... Life's good!
But the fun didn't last long, as the sea was again rough on our way back to Victoria (we went back there, as it's a better starting point for the 4-hour trip to Praslin island). The weather quickly deteriorated and Sjoerd was battling 1.5-2m high waves while Diana was sea sick again, laying in the cabin below deck. She didn't see much of the trip (including the couple of dView from Mount Copoliaolphins that swam along the boat for a while). By the time we got back to the marina, the weather was really bad and we decided to not sail to Praslin anymore. Out on the sea, the baby had been kicking all the time. We didn't know if it was because he liked the rocking movements or because he hated it, so we decided not to take our chances today...
 
Or the next day... When we woke up on Tuesday, there was a very strong wind (force 6, also known as "gale" force), with reports of force 7 wind out at sea. Crossing now would be very uncomfortable at least, and possibly even dangerous. So instead we took a taxi to nearby Mount Copolia, which is a giant granite rock towering over Victoria. It was a 2-hour walk through dense jungle to the top and back, and the views from the top were spectacular: a postcard-perfect view on the islands east of Mahé, surrounded by green mountains and the bluest waters you can imagine. Simply stunning. And from up there you couldn't see how rough the weather was at sea level...
Anse Soleil, on MaheIn the afternoon we went to Anse Soleil, a small beach in the southwest that is often described as a "hidden paradise". And it was, with a beautiful beach, large boulders on each side and palm trees behind it. But there were also large waves rolling in, as the wind was still strong and whipped up the waves. We had a good dinner at the small restaurant next to the beach, and made our way back to Eden Island, happy for a great day and hopeful for less wind the next day.
 
We woke up at around 6am and it looked great from our cabin, with calm weather and clear skies. But once we got up, we noticed the storm clouds gathering over the mountain range, and the rapidly-strengthening wind. A quick check on the instruments confirmed that the wind was already at 18-20 knots, with bursts of up to 26 knots. And that was in the sheltered harbour - out at sea it would certainly be stronger.
After a long deliberation, we decided that we wouldn't take our chances any longer, and that we would abandon the plan to sail to Praslin and La Digue. The wind was too strong and unpredictable, and we didn't want to waste any more time hoping it would improve (even the locals said that this weather was unusually bad for the time of the year, and couldn’t predict what it would be for the next few days). So we booked a flight to Praslin, packed up and left the boat behind. We had high expectatioView from our room in Mango Lodgens that this would be an idyllic sailing holiday, but the weather just didn't cooperate. Maybe we would have dared in a normal situation, but now that Diana is pregnant we had to be a bit more cautious...
We took the 15-minute flight from Mahé to Praslin around noon, rented a car upon arrival, drove around the island to the north side, and checked into the lovely Mango Lodge at Baie Volbert. This boutique hotel, owned by South Africans, was as good as described in the guide book: "hallucinogenic view". It had wooden A-frame chalets on stilts with one of the most spectacular views we have ever seen, over a bay with clear-blue waters and Curieuse Island in the distance. Simply perfect. (Oh yes, they also had three dogs, three cats plus some neighbourhood strays, a rabbit and guinea pigs. What more do you want?)
In the afternoon we visited Vallée de Mai, a nature reserve that's home to the famous 'coco de mer' which is a giant nut (weighing up to 20 kg) shaped very much like a woman's buttocks. Its nickname is 'coco fesse' which is French for 'butt coconut'. And the male plant has a 1m long penis-like flower, adding to the steamy reputation of this plant. The park was nice with dense jungle and giant palm leaves, and we walked around for quite a while before heading back to the beach to cool off. We couldn't resist buying some more baby clothes at a souvenir shop there, including cute little shorts and another outfit. Once the sun went down, we drove around the island for a fantastic dinner at Café le Monde where we ate until we couldn't cough anymore.
 
Breeding bird on Cousin islandOn Thursday morning we started with a good breakfast with incredible views at the lodge, and went down to the beach for a day trip to Cousin and Curieuse islands, both close to Praslin. The boat ride was bumpy, and it took quite a while to disembark, as the park rangers pick up all visitors and were struggling to cope with the large waves crashing on the beach (they later told me that the little boat almost sank twice that morning). But it was very much worth the trip – Cousin is a protected nature reserve for almost 50 years now, and has over 300,000 land and sea birds, as well as giant tortoises, giant crabs and the highest lizard density in the world. So there was movement and sound everywhere on the little island: on the ground, in the trees, and in the air... The birds were amazing, often nestling on the ground and not at all afraid of visitors. You could literally sit next to them or next to a baby bird, and they wouldn't even try to move away. A total of 46% of land in Seychelles is protected reserve, as well as 45 square km of sea, and it was great to see these parks in such good state everywhere we went.
 Giant tortoise on Curieuse island
We left around noon for Curieuse, and after an excellent lunch we walked 2km from Anse St José (which used to be a leper colony) to Baie Laraie, partly over a small path over the rocks, partly over a board walk through the mangroves, and partly along the beach. It was a great walk, with so many things to see: wild coffee, cinnamon, coco-de-mer, coco plums, wild oranges and pineapple, as well as hundreds of giant crabs (sometimes over 30cm wide) making deep holes in the sand, lizards everywhere, and dozens of giant tortoises. Sometimes the tortoises were in the Giant tortoise on Curieuse islandmangrove swamp, sometimes in bushes next to the beach, and sometimes right on the beach itself. They can get 300 years old, but the oldest here is ‘just’ 150 years. There are now over 250 animals, all descendants from the 60 tortoises that were brought from the Aldabra island group 1000km away to replace the population that was hunted down to extinction. They flourish here, and are typically larger than their family back in Aldabra. They are actually very rare – the only other place in the world to see them is on Galápagos.
 


The plan for Friday was to visit nearby La Digue island, described as a must-see island. It took half an hour to get from Praslin to the little harbour of La Passe (the only settlement on the island) where we rented some bikes. We first went to the most popular beach, at Anse Source d'Argent. To get there, we biked through a plantation with vanilla and copra (dried coconut flesh from which they extract oil). They also had a tortoise pen with over thirty large and baby tortoises. The beach was a bit furtheAnse Source d'Argent on La Diguer down the road, and was as picturesque as promised – a long stretch of white sand, interrupted by large rounded rocks, and a sea in all imaginable shades of bright blue. Any Seychelles tourist brochure features photos from this beach, and it was clear why...
We had lunch at a small Creole restaurant next to the beach, and saved food for a beach dog we played with earlier – an extremely friendly dog who roamed around the beach, and who clearly wouldn't mind an extra meal, even if it's spicy Creole fish curry!
After lunch we stopped at the Veuve Reserve, a small nature park for the island's endemic Black Paradise Flycatcher (called 'Veuve' or widow by the locals), who almost died out before the establishment of this park. It's a beautiful bird: the males are black with very long tails, and the females are brown/white/black. Now there are at least 300 birds (24 pairs in the reserve and the rest outside), and the birds have been also introduced to Denis (an isolated island without people and, more importantly, no cats or rats...).
The wind picked up and it started to rain, so we didn't bike around the island to visit any more beaches (although many of them were described as not-to-be-missed). We left La Digue at 5pm, went back to the hotel for a shower, and had dinner at Coco Rouge – one ofAnse Source d'Argent on La Digue those small family-run places that opens at 6.30pm, offers six local dishes at a reasonable price, and closes when the food is finished (usually by 8pm!).
 
Saturday was our last day here, and reserved for lazing around on the beach... We first went for a walk along Anse Volbert, then drove down to Anse Lazio which is said to be the best beach of the island. It certainly was splendid, in typical Seychellois style: a long white beach fringed by palm trees, clear blue water, and large rocks on each side of the bay as a nice background for photos.
After a good lunch at our hotel and a nap, we made a long walk along 'our' beach at Anse Volbert, which we decided was the best on the island. And then it was time to pack up, and prepare for the return trip.
 
The Seychelles is a splendid archipelago and a great holiday destination. The people are cheerful, the weather is (usually) great, the food is delicious, and life generally seems less hurried here. We will definitely be back one day!

Click here for more photos.