The Seychelles

Drooling over the brochures, I could hardly wait for the “gala evenings with international chefs working delicious menus from the islands’ abundant fresh fish” – so when I asked for the menu at the Village de Pecheur on the island of Praslin, I expected to have to wade through a Davy Jones’s lockerful of permutations. After all, this was the Seychelles, the bulging fishing net of the Indian Ocean, which claims 900 species of fish. Instead I felt like the subject of a Bateman cartoon: “The man who dared to ask for fish at a fish restaurant.” What I got was the Creole version of “fish is off, dear”.

Life is not always easy in paradise – especially when a heat wave warms inland waters up so much that the fish stay far out to sea, causing a shortage in a destination where fish is the main culinary attraction. It was like being told that there was no cheese in Provence.

“We sometimes have a problem in July and August when the sea gets rough, but right now we should be enjoying a surplus of fish” said Louis d’Offay, the owner of the Hotel l’Archipel, a “five-coconut” hotel with rooms scattered in an amphitheatre of coconut trees at Praslin, the second largest island in the Seychelles.

“Christmas is usually wet, but this time it was beautifully dry. Now we’ve got an unprecedented heat-wave and a fish shortage. We’re having to buy our fish from Mahe (the main island). It’s costing us a lot. Last year we were getting octopus for 30 Rupees (about £3:50) a kilo” Louis continued. “Now its 40 Rupees. I don’t know what’s happening to our weather. Maybe it’s El Nino.” So that was it. Just when I thought I had left El Nino in the fast-melting snows of the Alps, it had turned up to haunt us in the Indian Ocean.

The tourist literature says that the top temperature in this collection of 115 islands just 4 degrees south of the equator is 32æ (90 F). On the morning we arrived in Mahe the temperature was already 33æ and rising. By lunchtime it was 35æ – 95F.
“Nature’s playing funny tricks” said d’Offay. “ If it’s global warming we may have a problem that people from the UK won’t be so anxious to escape here for their sunshine.”

Last year 44% of his guests were from France. French is widely spoken in spite of the Seychelles’ strong Commonwealth links. They frequently forget that even bicycles (a principal form of transport on the islands) are supposed to travel on the left.
“Another 19% per cent of our visitors were from Germany and 11% from the UK” continued Louis. “This year the UK figure has dropped to 6%. So now I’m looking actively at the Scandinavian market – there’s more chance of people from the colder parts of Northern Europe turning up.”

Indeed that very night d’Offay was entertaining two young Swedish women tour operators to one of the Archipel’s excellent fish buffets. It must have cost him a small fortune. The Russians are coming too, although for the Russian would-be bride who turned up at L’Archipel it was a close-run thing: her wedding dress was sent to the wrong island, but retrieved just in time for the ceremony.

We had started our tour of these exotic islands in the only hotel on one of the smallest – Desroches, an archetypal coral island 250 kilometres south of Mahe, encircled by 15 kilometres of white sand. Happily the Desroches Island Resort’s claim to be a combination of luxury and simplicity turned out to be reassuringly accurate.

Our room, in the shadow of Casuarina and palm trees just a few paces from the beach, was fully equipped with satellite telephone link, air conditioning with a remote control resembling a TV channel selector, the ubiquitous mosquito net (though the scourge of the tropics were little in evidence), colourful rattan furniture in pastel shades and vibrant, tropically-inspired fabrics.

This is the island for people who want to write “absolutely nothing” under the section in their diary which might normally be reserved for “What I Did During My Holidays.” One might even be stretched to fill a postcard. Apart from snorkelling, swimming, cycling or walking round the island – perhaps bumping into the strange ET-look-alike face of the odd giant-tortoise as it lumbers through the abandoned graveyard – this is precious little to do here except snack, snooze and sunbathe. And precious it was to do so.

With only 20 rooms, there are so few people on the island that you can chose your own stretch of beach and have it almost to yourselves all day and every day.

Admittedly our convivial hosts Jocelyn Gonzalez, the French general manager and his wife Patricia become restless once in a while and escape briefly to Paris and the Riviera (usually one at a time – someone has to mind the shop) but if ever there were a little island resembling paradise, Desroches is a strong contender.

Political correctness, it seems, has so far failed to penetrate the islands. One Ministry of Tourism brochure promises “lovely Seychellois ladies in provocatively-tied sarongs meandering across the lawn under the coconut palms with trays of special cocktails.”

Sometimes you might find yourself sharing the beach with the odd crab, small flock of Fairy Terns (which provide the emblem for Air Seychelles) or even a gang of un-exotic House Sparrows: to our surprise, and slight disillusionment, the first birds we encountered in these islands so famous for their bird life were a large flock of sparrows, descendants of a few that somehow got here long ago on board a supply ship. We were soon, however, admiring the rather more exotic aerobatic dancing and darting of a pair of white-tailed tropicbirds.

Their gentle screams of exhilaration – if that was the appropriate emotion – pierced the soporific sound of waves pounding the beach, their white plumage picking up flashes of reflected aqua-marine from the water below as they sparred in what seemed to be a make-believe dog-fight.

Sometimes the frightening (if you are a crab) shadow of a lone Whimbrel’s fiendishly long and curved cutlass of a beak will suddenly descend onto the beach as its owner stands with its weight on one foot, gazing intently at its prospective prey before making a lightning raid. Panic-stricken crabs scurry for their network of sand tunnels to avoid being unceremoniously speared and consumed.
Occasionally, when there are no Whimbrel to threaten them, the crabs will conduct battles among themselves, eyes on sticks, tangling with each other like knights in armour. My partner, who had never visited the tropics before, thought the first crab she saw was a tarantula. To her credit, she did not scream, simply assuming that tarantulas are what you get on desert islands.

As with the fish (although there seemed no shortage on Desroches, where we had endless supplies of grilled Grouper, Red Snapper and Napoleon fish), we were a touch disappointed with the fowl, although I can hear genuine twitchers tutting that my credentials are sadly lacking. Suffice it to say that what is incredibly rare may be very exciting for ornithologists but not necessarily mind-blowing for holidaymakers in search of the exotic colours of paradise.

I have to own up that by mistake we cycled right past the sanctuary at La Digue where most of the world’s extremely rare Seychelles black paradise flycatcher were allegedly skulking. But, perhaps naively, I was rather hoping for a supporting act of humming birds, parakeets and perhaps toucans. The brightest fellow we came across was the Madagascar Fody, or Cardinal. This cheeky little bird, which looks as though someone has dipped a sparrow into a tin of bright orange paint, is not just a pretty face. He can dribble too. Confronted by a complete squad of very non-league Barred Ground Doves, our breakfast companion – obviously premier league material – seized a chunk of discarded croissant and managed both to devour it and keep possession while weaving an intricate pattern through the doves’ defence. Stanley Matthews himself could hardly have done better.

My one criticism of the islands – shared with so many of today’s tourist haunts: do we really have to put up with canned music with almost every meal ? We seemed unable to escape. What happened to the notion that in paradise it is more therapeutic to listen to the sound of the sea or the call of the tree frog or cicada?

Even at the Bonbon Plume restaurant just behind one of the best beaches in the Seychelles at Lazio on Praslin, our delicious meal of octopus curry, giant prawns and sliced papaya was in danger of being overwhelmed by the likes of the Bee Gees. A battle between the sound of the ocean and the air conditioning is at least a straight choice between romance and comfort, resolved by my partner saying one night: “Turn that bloody machine off so we can hear the sea.” But do we really need the whining of the Beach Boys at the expense of the murmuring of innumerable beaches ?

© Arnie Wilson
Arnie Wilson’s visit to the Seychelles was arranged by Scott Dunn World, Fovant Mews, 12, Noyna Road, London SW17 7PH.