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The real deal on the Seychelles

A tropical island paradise off the east coast of Africa

Have you ever thought of leaving the rat race behind, packing up and moving to some idyllic place with swaying palm trees and pristine white sand beaches? Well, that’s exactly what David Rowat and Glynis Sanders did, leaving behind the dreary rains of England, to buy The Underwater Centre, a dive shop in the Seychelles.

When I told people that I was going to the Seychelles, the usual response was "Sechelt, oh yeah, I’ve been there, I love the Sunshine Coast."

No, man, I would say, the Seychelles, not Sechelt!

"The Seychelles… where the heck is that?"

Sometimes referred to as "the farthest place from anywhere," it’s an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 miles off the east coast of Africa. Independent as a country since 1976, the Seychelles have been under both French and British rule in the past, so both languages are widely spoken (along with the local Creole), making it a good fit for Canadians. Being located where it is geographically, its people are a melting pot of different cultures, including Asian, European, Indian and especially African.

The Seychelles were also fortunate to escape the Dec. 26 tsunami relatively unscathed.

The local radio station proclaims itself as "Paradise FM" and as far as the stereotypical image of Eden goes, this is about as close as it gets. Year-round pleasant tropical climate, refreshing breezes, beautiful warm water, sugar-white sand beaches and ubiquitous hanging coconut palm trees complete the picture.

The Seychelles are also the only oceanic granitic islands in the world, which is an academic way of saying that scenically, it rocks! Rugged outcrops, spectacular mountain peaks and even whimsical granite boulders framing its beaches, all abound. Imagine, if you will, The Chief dropping down to a secluded beach, with beautiful turquoise water (a few degrees warmer than Howe Sound, I might add).

One such beach, Anse Source D’Argent, is the pride of an island called La Digue. Often referred to as "the most photographed beach in the world," it’s frequently the site of supermodel photo shoots. Unfortunately, there were no supermodels while I was there, just a few fat European men in Speedos. But the beach did not disappoint, nor did the island itself, with its charming laid-back atmosphere. So laid back in fact, that almost all transportation is still by oxcart, or bicycle.

The second largest island is named Praslin, best known for its magical forest in the centre, called the Vallée de Mai. With its unique plant species, leisurely walks through this national park’s well-marked trails are truly enchanting. It’s most famous for an endemic Seychelles palm species, called the Coco de Mer. I have to admit, prior to seeing them, I was wondering what all the fuss was about, but they really were impressive. The massive coconuts from these trees weigh in at up to 45 pounds, and are the largest seeds in the world. Shaped like a woman’s pelvis , they’re nicknamed "the love nut" and are said to possess aphrodisiac qualities. Hard to believe that coconuts could be erotic, but these ones are! (Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been single too long.) To make matters more ridiculous, the male fruit is decidedly phallic, and quite impressive in length. The strongest evidence yet, that God has a sense of humour.

The largest island of the group is the main island of Mahe, which contains the capital Victoria, a plain city/town of 27,000 people and precisely one traffic light. Even in Victoria at night, it is safe for tourists. Not that there’s a whole heckuva lot of nightlife to experience; things are pretty darn quiet in the Seychelles. The Seychellois people are friendly in general, but not overly so, and fairly well off – there is very little hawking of tourists. Most visits to the Seychelles begin and end on Mahe. This rugged island also has the highest peaks, with many hiking possibilities, and many beautiful beaches as well.

The Seychelles have really done a phenomenal job of preserving their delicate ecosystem, and avoiding the pratfalls of countless other island destinations. They’ve accomplished this, in large part, by limiting the amount and scale of tourism on the islands – no monster-mega hotels here. The pride of the Seychelles fauna has to be the giant tortoises. One of them is probably the oldest creature on earth, said to be over 300 years old – and still not in a retirement home. The best place to see these fascinating old-timers is Curieuse Island, near Praslin, where a couple of hundred of them roam at will, and you’re free to mingle in their midst.

Despite major damage to its coral reefs by El Nino, marine life also abounds, including plentiful sea turtles, many of which nest on the islands. Rays and reef sharks can also be seen regularly by scuba divers, and, occasionally, one of the rarest treats of all, the elusive (and harmless) 40 foot whale shark, the largest fish in the world. Glynis and David are heavily involved in an organization to help preserve them, and in season, will take passengers up in their ultra-light (not for the faint of heart) for aerial views of these incredible giants.

Partly due to the limit on tourism, paradise does not come cheap in the Seychelles. It’s expensive and difficult to get to from North America. One option would be to combine a trip to the Seychelles with a visit to East Africa – the Seychelles add-on airfare starts at only about $200. Accommodations are also expensive, although, with some research, you can find guesthouses starting at about $60 U.S. There’s no back-packer’s circuit, that’s for sure.

An alternative would be to do as I did, and charter a sailboat from one of the three companies there (Sunsail, The Moorings and VPM), and spend a week or two island-hopping. This is really an ideal way to do it, enabling you to experience a number of the unique islands, as well as the beautiful marine life and secluded coves. It really would be a pity to go all the way to the Seychelles and not take in the islands of Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, at least.

As far as the food goes, the local Creole cuisine is quite good (also pricey), with seafood being the mainstay, as you’d expect. One of their local specialties is fried bat; I took a pass on that one.

An interesting curiosity that you might want to keep in mind if you go to the Seychelles, while bank rates for U.S. dollar exchange were about 5 Rupees per dollar, on the black market – which is extremely widespread – the rate for U.S. cash balloons to 7 or 8 Rupees per dollar.

The Seychelles remain predominantly a romantic destination, and a playground for the rich, who go there for its water sports, especially diving and sportfishing. Scenically, the Seychelles can’t be beaten, and the beaches are truly spectacular. It really is the prototype of a tropical paradise. Nearly 20 years after David and Glynis first arrived in the Seychelles, the Underwater Centre is still going strong, and no wonder – when I asked Glynis if she ever considered moving back "home" the answer was a simple and understandable, "No!"

Would you?