I’m traipsing through a mangrove swamp with a gigantic tortoise by my side and above me I’ve just spotted a black parrot perched in a swaying palm tree – the sun glaring through its fronds. This is the wondrous world of the Seychelles and I am on the uninhabited – and aptly named – island of Curieuse.
Giving the true meaning to the word exotic, the Seychelles – an archipelago of 115 islands strewn across the Indian Ocean – remains one of the most remote places to visit in the world. With no direct routes from the UK, visitors fly to a Middle Eastern or African hub, such as Dubai or Nairobi, take another flight to the largest Seychellois island of Mahé, and then a smaller sea-plane to their chosen island. It’s no surprise then that this region – some 900 miles east of Kenya – has largely been the domain of honeymooners looking for somewhere romantic and far-flung (possibly to escape the relatives). But, while there are still plenty of doors open to those in love with each other, things are currently astir in the islands – with the tourism industry wanting to also attract those in love with life.
Putting the region’s natural resources and rich foodie heritage at the top of its agenda is Raffles Seychelles – a sleek, contemporary resort found on the island of Praslin, a forest-covered island that is also home to the Vallée de Mai National Park as well as unfeasibly beautiful beaches. Anse Lazio, for instance, a short drive from the hotel, regularly tops the ‘top 10 most stunning beaches in the world’ lists.
The hotel actively encourages its guests to immerse itself in local culture and the spectacular landscape found on its doorstep. One such example is Curieuse Island – just a short boat ride away – that I find myself hiking across. Close to the north-coast of Praslin, this island was once a leper colony and remarkably only stopped being so in 1965, with the colonial Doctor’s House now turned into a museum and education centre. The untouched atoll has since been turned into a marine national park and is home to around 500 Aldabra Giant Tortoises. It is also one of only two places in the world (the other being Praslin) where the lofty Coco de Mer palm grows, producing the largest – and rudest-looking – seed on Earth.
Known as the ‘original garden of Eden’ – Curieuse is teaming with life – rare black parrots squawk in the creaking palms, golden geckos scutter past and impossibly tall takamaka trees make you feel like you have entered a prehistoric age. When you disembark at Baie Laraie, you’ll splash through the waves alongside huge humphead parrotfish, some of which grow to over one metre in length. It’s an ecologist’s dream.
While the Seychelles has long promoted its idyllic beaches and sophisticated hotels to tourists, however, its nature tourism has not been put in the spotlight – until recently. With two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, tons of endemic bird species, and enough giant tortoises to give the Galapagos a run for its money, not to mention the rare flora and fauna, it has much to shout about.
Back at Raffles, the sleek architecture makes the most of the idyllic setting, with its 86 villas built terrace-style into the hillside overlooking the bay. The aesthetic may be simple and pared-back but yet its design details still gives a nod to the abundance of nature outside. You’ll find coral motifs sewn into pillows and woven into plush sea-green rugs, there are mother-of-pearl lightshades and a rough-hewn wall made of rock behind the bed. The outside is not for shutting out here – so each room has floor to ceiling windows, opening up to an expansive deck, outdoor pavilion, al fresco shower and deliciously cool plunge pool. A white granite bathroom, with tub specially positioned for star-gazing, the biggest bed I’ve ever slept in and treats from the in-house patisserie ramp up the luxury factor.
While all of this is wonderfully cocooning, Raffles really want you to experience the island’s Creole culture and what better way to do that than with its guests’ taste-buds. From the rum-tasting sessions in the rooftop Takamaka Terrace to cookery lessons with a local ‘mamma’, culinary ‘exploration’ is a real focus. At the helm is British executive chef Chris Meredith – who has been at the resort since February 2015 and who has been instrumental in harnessing the region’s wealth of produce across the resort’s bars and restaurants. “Most mornings, I choose the fish straight off the back of a fishing boat,” he says. “Red snapper, sail fish, grouper, yellow fin tuna – it varies according to how the fishermen have done the night before. Sustainability, seasonality and locality are buzz-words in many restaurants at the moment – but here – due to our remote location – it is key. While we do have to import some ingredients, we’ve vastly cut this down as much as possible. People want to experience new things which are unique to the destination when they travel,” he continues. “So we strive to use as much local produce as we can. Authenticity is what we are all about.”
Talking of which, at Losean Restaurant, many dishes are based on traditional Creole recipes with a sophisticated twist – there’s ceviche of local reef fish, local fruit bat curry, breadfruit chips and saffron and mango semi-freddo. For those wanting to further understand the cuisine, book a lesson with the charming Chef Robin Sandiren, a past winner of the region’s version of Masterchef. You’ll get to grips with making palm heart salad, local blue shrimps with water gourd, grouper baked with spicy coconut chutney and creole rice with curry leaves and eat it ‘family style’ together afterwards.
With most vegetables and meat sourced from local farms and smallholdings, guests can also go on a ‘food journey’ with Raffles’ chefs – visiting Seychellois producers and markets to understand the provenance of the ingredients. ‘We’re not about enclosing our guests behind the hotel walls,” says Robin, who comes from Mahé. “Seychellois people are naturally warm, welcoming and friendly – we want to share our culture with the world.”
For those still hungry for more, a stop-over at Raffles outpost in Dubai, is the only way to travel home. The man-made nature of Dubai is, of course, about as far as you can get from the unchecked wildness of the Seychelles. But it does have one thing in common with it – the passion for achieving foodie prowess. Raffles Dubai is one of the city’s best foodie hotels – and its many restaurants are overseen by Greek chef Doxis Bekris. From the Manolo Blahnik Collection Afternoon Tea in the Salon – which includes peach-praline chocolate stilettos and a pannacotta and sour cherry hat stand – to its 17th-floor Japanese Tomo restaurant, it’s perfectly wild at heart.
Raffles Praslin Seychelles, from €650 (including 26% service/taxes) per villa per night, based on single or double occupancy in a Garden View Pool Villa on a B&B basis. +248 429 6780; raffles.com/praslin
Raffles Dubai, from 1314 AED per room per night based on two sharing. +800 1723 3537; raffles.com/dubai |
A version of this article also appeared in City AM Newspaper on 13 March 2017