There's a full moon over the Seychelles, and the native inhabitants of Cousine Island are getting frisky. Under a canopy of palm trees, two giant male tortoises are competing for the attention of Myra, a vivacious female. A pair of dragonflies flit around the pool area, hooking up in a thicket of passion-fruit vines. Down on the crescent-shaped beach, a hermit crab duo bump shells in the night.
Romance is par for the course—and not just among the animals—on this archipelago known as the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean. In 1881, a British general claimed that an ancient rain forest on the island of Praslin was the original Garden of Eden. More recently, honeymooners and sybarites have begun flocking to these 115 coral and granite isles scattered across 176 square miles of the Indian Ocean. The lure: new hotels and private-island resorts that offer maximum luxury in a natural setting, 1,000 miles off the east coast of Africa.
The building frenzy began after Frégate Island Private opened its teak doors in 1998. Previously, accommodations had run the gamut from guesthouses to drab chains (though there was a Relais & Châteaux property on Praslin, the second-largest island). When I visited in 1999 to write a story on the resort, the Seychelles were relatively unknown. On the way there, an airline ticket agent even asked why I would fly more than 18 hours when the Caribbean was right in my backyard. While I found it thrilling to travel halfway around the world to a lavish resort in an exotic destination, I also found Frégate, with its Balinese-style reception area, Italian-marble villas, and thatched, South Seas bar, a bit generic.
Not long after, People magazine clamored to know which celebrities were hiding out on Frégate. Saudi princes landed in their private 747's and threw wild "spaghetti parties" (think hot tubs filled with pasta) on neighboring islands. And hoteliers started competing to buy land overlooking wide beaches or deserted outcroppings ringed with pristine reefs.
Curious to see how the area had evolved since the arrival of the jet set, I decided to return and managed to convince my friend James to go the distance with me. I was pleased to discover that many of the new resorts are not relying on glitz alone, but have also made environmentalism part of their mission. Through architecture and food, these hotels are also embracing the vibrant Creole culture and the island nation's storied past. The Seychelles were settled by French explorers in the 18th century and later captured by the British. Today, the 80,000 residents live in a democracy and excel at making visitors like James and me feel welcome. This time, it was worth the trip.
Banyan Tree Seychelles, Mahé Island When I first visited Anse Intendance four years ago, it was nothing more than a half-mile-long, white-sand beach that attracted weekend picnickers, bodysurfers, and the occasional European exhibitionist. In the early 1970's, friends George Harrison and Peter Sellers were so seduced by this patch of paradise that they bought it—although they never got around to building anything. So it seemed fitting that when Paul McCartney and Heather Mills honeymooned last year in the Seychelles they spent part of their trip at the Banyan Tree, which opened in October 2002 on what had been Harrison's land.
The first venture outside Asia for the Singapore-based Banyan Tree group, this 37-villa resort is practically a carbon copy of its phenomenally successful sister properties. Almost everything has been imported, including the spa menu, which features the same spiced honey wraps and tamarind-and-oatmeal body polishes found in Phuket. Many of the employees are from abroad; the main restaurant, Saffron, serves Thai cuisine (though a more casual dining room offers Creole dishes); and the shopis filled with products from Asia. But that's not to say that Banyan Tree hasn't responded to its setting. The plantation-style public area, called La Grand Kaz ("the big house"), was inspired by regional colonial architecture. The Creole-by-way-of-Asia spa and villas are carefully positioned amid the vegetation and granite boulders so as not to harm the landscape. Banyan Tree has also preserved an adjacent 30-acre wetland: "This serves an important ecological function," says company chairman Ho Kwon Ping. "It's a filter for water that flows into Intendance Bay."
By law, all beaches here are public, so anyone can use Anse Intendance. Visitors are welcome to take a peek at Banyan's grounds—a democratic gesture that has its drawbacks. As I was relaxing by the pool, a sweaty sightseer wandered around, trying to strike up conversations with me and other guests. The staff barely flinched at the annoyance, instead offering glasses of ice water to the overheated lost soul.
In fact, Banyan Tree goes to great lengths to ensure that everyone stays hydrated in the intense sun; the resort is just seven degrees south of the equator. At check-in, we were presented with a concoction of apple, honey, and ginger, along with a chilled towel. A pool attendant passed out glasses of sweetened citronelle, brewed from an herb that resembles lemongrass. Then, just when I was feeling saturated, there was the spa therapist, coaxing me with ginger tea after my lomilomi massage.
The cooling off continued back in our villa, which had a plunge pool skillfully art-directed by the housekeeping staff—they scattered hibiscus blossoms on the water every morning. Perhaps the only complaint that I could lodge against Banyan Tree concerns its emphasis on poolside dwelling: the beach itself is more or less ignored. I was surprised that there were no services such as a café or beach umbrellas. On the other hand, who wouldn't want to hang out on a teak chaise longue by a 75-foot infinity pool that fades into a turquoise horizon?
Lémuria Resort, Praslin Good things come to those who wait at Lémuria. James and I initially nicknamed it Lé-nightmare-ia, after twice requesting and failing to receive a bathrobe, and then cooling our heels for an hour at the pool bar in anticipation of a club sandwich.
Our mood started to improve that afternoon, during a hike in Praslin's Vallée de Mai rain forest, home to the famed coco de mer palm, a plant that produces an erotic-looking nut that some say was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Later, I had an aromatherapy massage at the Guerlain spa, where a masseuse worked her magic in a garden treatment room. Cheered up, James and I went for a sunset swim on Petite Anse Kerlan, one of the resort's three beaches, and discovered talcum sand ringing crystalline water. I began to see why Lémuria has become a top destination for stylish European travelers (we heard that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana were recently here). Not to mention an Indian Ocean fusion restaurant from French chef David Laval, who uses inventive ingredients such as geraniums, and the Seychelles' only 18-hole golf course, designed by Rodney Wright (the man behind the links at Hawaii's Mauna Lani).
At first glance, Lémuria—with its Asian-inspired architecture, multi-tiered pools, and golf course—seems like a place that would have little regard for its environment. Actually, the design integrates the resort into its rain-forest setting, including lighting kept low so that it doesn't disturb turtles laying eggs on the beach at night. But this only enhances the man-made pleasures. The 96 suites are spacious and stylish: peaked ceilings, slatted rosewood shutters, oceanfront terraces. Eight two-bedroom villas are modeled on Indonesian pavilions, and a personal villa butler is on hand to attend to every whim. That's one way to get around Lémuria's shortcomings.
North Island It was a whirlwind opening in May for North Island, which, due to its impressive pedigree, had been creating buzz long before construction was finished. South African husband-and-wife architectural team Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens had designed some of Africa's most prominent safari lodges, including Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania. Chef Geoffrey Murray founded two of the early nineties' most fashionable restaurants: Boom, in New York, and Bang, in Miami Beach. And the resort's managing outfit, South Africa-based Wilderness Safaris, was already a big name in the world of ecotourism.
So, after much fanfare, the 11-villa island some 18 miles northwest of Mahé finally welcomed its first visitors—only to be hit the same day by the worst storm in six years. Violent winds blew in, and torrential rain morphed dusty paths into mud pits. Guests hid in their villa bedrooms, glass-enclosed spaces with flat-screen TV's and high-speed Internet access (the 5,000-square-foot compounds are otherwise exposed to the elements). An Italian count demanded that he be returned to civilization, but helicopters couldn't land. Moreover, the roiling seas meant that the resort's twocatamarans were grounded.
It had all the ingredients of a hospitality debacle. But the staff pulled through. The chef concocted dishes such as barracuda poached in tamarind curry with cinnamon-scented basmati rice, and the bartender did his part with papaya margaritas. When the skies cleared after a week, nobody asked to leave. The Italian count even said he planned to return someday soon.
By the time James and I arrived a week later, the island had dried out. We immediately took off our shoes and relaxed, which the design of the resort encourages. A stone bench in the reception area is positioned over a small reflecting pool that's perfect for foot-cooling. "We call the look of the resort 'couture Robinson Crusoe,'" says Rech, who with Carstens moved to the island last year, fleshed out the motifs on-site, and drew inspiration from the surroundings. A forest of takamaka trees became the central theme. They preserved the blond wood, which was diseased, then turned the trunks upside down, creating thick mottled columns that were used throughout the main area and the villas. Broken bits of washed-up coral were strung together to create screens.
In keeping with their celebration of nature, North Island's owners have hatched the Noah's Ark project, to rehabilitate the former coconut plantation. They are transforming the place into a wildlife sanctuary, removing foreign trees and animals and reintroducing rare native animal species. A research station will be set up later this year, and guests will be able to participate in scientific projects and environmental monitoring.
Murray's cooking has also evolved from the landscape, which he calls a tropical supermarket. "I wouldn't bring in raspberries, because they don't grow here," he says. After discovering a patch of wild berries, called roussay, on North Island, Murray created a citron, mace, and nutmeg ice cream with roussay granita. He made the ice cream by hand while standing in the walk-in freezer.
It's not all homespun: a high-tech wine cellar protects 2,418 bottles, served in Riedel glasses, no less. The spa, scheduled for completion by October, has been conceptualized by Rachelle Moulai and Adria W. Lake, of Bali's Begawan Giri. At $1,656 and up a night, this resort isn't for just anyone—not every guest paying those kinds of prices wants to go barefoot and take showers in the open air. But for those who appreciate the outdoors and don't mind napping in a linen-cloaked sala (an African gazebo) next to their own private pool, North Island is a winner.
Cousine Island Most five-star guests arrive at tiny Cousine, right off the coast of Praslin, by helicopter. The 15-minute ride costs $1,623 round-trip, so James and I opted for the free motorboat ride, a 10-minute trip across the bay that was like something out of Speed II. Just as we were approaching the white-sand shore, the captain yelled out, "Hold on tight—we're surfing in." Before I could ask what he meant, the boat was hurtling full-throttle toward the beach. And right when I thought we were done for, it surged forward and came to a smooth landing on the sand. All of this just to prevent us from having to wade ashore.
The pace slowed considerably after that heart-racing arrival. This 62-acredot has only four simple guest villas for rent and a Discovery Channel backdrop. Nineteen tortoises roam freely, and 250,000 birds live on the grounds, including the world's largest population of magpie robins. As on North Island, alien plants (casuarina trees) and animals (cattle, pigs, cats) have been replaced by native and endangered species. Solar energy is used to heat water; biodegradable waste is composted.
Cousine didn't start off as a resort.Rather, it was the vacation hideaway of Malcolm Keeley, a billionaire granite magnate (which explains the abundance of the stone throughout the property) who is interested in conservation. In April 2000, he opened the island to visitors. "It was solely to sustain the conservancy," says manager Jock Henwood. "Any profit goes toward buying more trees or endangered animals." In addition to its natural setting, Cousine offers a high level of privacy. Sixteen staff members attend to only 10 guests, maximum, and day-trippers are not allowed. "Less of an impact is better for preservation," says Henwood. For customers like Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, who spent another chunk of their honeymoon here (the entire place can be rented for $5,663 per night), an added perk is the fact that Keeley also owns the only helicopter business in the Seychelles, ensuring that spying paparazzi are kept at bay.
Despite such high-profile visitors, Cousine is not a high-style getaway. The four villas have master-bath-in-the-suburbs Jacuzzi tubs, beds that look like something out of an Ethan Allen showroom, and ticky-tacky bird photographs hanging on the walls. In the gazebo lounge, there's a brass lizard embedded in the side of the granite bar. Cousine, however, is not about lifestyles of the rich and famous. There was nothing like waking up in the morning and seeing tortoises outside our front door. Or walking down a path and seeing a magpie robin, one of only 110 on earth.
Alphonse Island Resort Hanging over the baggage claim carousel in the Seychelles International Airport on Mahé is a glossy poster touting Alphonse Island Resort's saltwater fly-fishing, reputedly the best in the world. At first glance, I thought the image was a Madison Avenue computer manipulation, the island redrawn in the shape of a fish, its surrounding blue-green water amped up to look like a Technicolor fantasy. But as the propeller plane came in for a landing after an hour-long flight southwest from Mahé, I saw that Alphonse—part of an uninhabited atoll comprisingthree islands—actually is fin-shaped, with a made-for-Hollywood lagoon.
If only Alphonse's accommodations could be airbrushed. Lined up along the shore are five executive villas and 25 A-frame chalets on stilts that look like 1970's Maine fishing cabins—inside as well as out, with faux-knotty pine wallpaper, rope wainscoting, and pineapple-shaped lamps. The front porch doubles as an outdoor shower (charming, but I didn't love having to leap over water on the deck when I headed to dinner).
What Alphonse lacks in on-land beauty it makes up for with its aquatic options. Deep-sea fishers can snag yellowfin tuna, wahoos, and sailfish. But what really draws the crowds is the fly-fishing, which is booked up two years in advance. The prime location was discovered a mere five years ago by Martin and Anna Lewis, a British couple who moored their 40-foot catamaran on the shallow, sandy flats of St. François, one of the three islands in the Alphonse Group. Stunned by the wealth of bonefish, barracuda, and trevally, the Lewises started running trips to the area, eventually attracting the attention of the hoteliers who established the Alphonse Island Resort in December 1999. To control overfishing, only 12 anglers are allowed on the flats at a time; they catch, on average, 40 fish a day.
Beneath the waves, Alphonse has a number of steep-walled dive sites; one surreally beautiful spot is called Alice in Wonderland. Another popular location is the wreck of a French coal steamer that sank on the reef in 1873. We thought about doing a half-day scuba course, but decided to skip it after meeting one of the instructors, whose leg looked as though it had been gnawed on by a shark (they do live in these waters, but—supposedly—don't attack). Instead, we took a paddleboat just offshore, and found that even snorkelers can get in on the action. Alphonse's encircling reefs have benefited from a lack of human contact, preservingperfect coral formations inhabited by rays, turtles, and remarkable specimens like the Oriental sweetlips, a shimmery, hulking fish found in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. I almost felt as if I were intruding.
The Portuguese named the Seychelles "the Seven Sisters," in honor of Mahé and the six islands right off its shores. One of those tiny islets is now a prison—with a beach so spectacular I almost wanted to get arrested. Two others are private-island resorts; both are ideal for a night or so at the beginning or end of a trip, thanks to their proximity to the international airport.
Ste. Anne Resort The largest of the Seven Sisters, the island of Ste. Anne is the centerpiece of a national marine park that protects some 150 species of fish. The island—a 10-minute boat ride from Mahé—was home to the Seychelles' original settlers and later served as a whaling station. Its latest tenant is a $46 million resort from the Mauritius-based Beachcomber Hotels group.
Seemingly modeled after a Florida retirement community, Ste. Anne's 87 villas are lined up along the shore. They are identical—stucco walls, terra-cotta floors, pagoda roofs—although some have curious Easter Island-esque sculptures out front. But the outdoor showers and walled gardens can't be beat, nor can the killer mountain-biking. Don't miss Le Mont Fleuri restaurant, run by Michelin-starred chef Marcel Driessen and located in a cliffside, Gilligan's Island-style bungalow.
DOUBLES FROM $1,019, INCLUDING BREAKFAST AND DINNER. STE. ANNE ISLAND; 248/292-000; www.sainteanne-resort.com
Anonyme Island Resort Numerous rumors circulate regarding Anonyme: The island is haunted by a woman in white. A pirate's treasure is hidden on these shores. The daughter of the president of the Seychelles owns the small seven-room resort.
While I was able to confirm only the last one, there's something about this place that makes it feel like the setting for an Agatha Christie novel—perhaps it's the sound of fruit bats crying in the night. I found myself charmed by the eeriness of Anonyme, and also by its unpretentious simplicity.
The rooms are set in four guesthouses that look as if they were decorated by your stylish-yet-quirky grandparents: mismatched towels, models of ships, varnished nautical platform beds. At the Creole restaurant, Piment Vert, Mauritian chef Marino Pierrot cooks meals to order.
DOUBLES FROM $500, INCLUDING BREAKFAST AND DINNER. ANONYME ISLAND; 248/380-100; www.anonyme.sc
Located outside the Indian Ocean's cyclone belt, the Seychelles is a year-round destination, though the seasonal monsoons here can have an effect on the quality of the beaches at various resorts. Diving is best September through November and March through May. The most direct route to these islands off the African coast is via Air Seychelles (800/677-4277, ext.115; www.airseychelles.net), which connects through several European cities. It's a 10-hour flight from Paris.
Cox & Kings
To get the full Seychelles experience, visitors should sample several resorts. But airline connections can be confusing and infrequent, and many properties are accessible only by helicopter. Your best bet is to have a tour operator such as Cox & Kings—experts in the region—arrange the trip. 800/999-1758; www.coxandkingsusa.com
Le Méridien Pearl of Seychelles
The Méridien hotel group recently launched a luxurious 34-cabin catamaran that takes guests on three- to seven-night cruises through the islands. FROM $655, DOUBLE, PER NIGHT. 800/543-4300 OR 248/298-000; www.lemeridien.com
WHERE TO STAY
Fr´egate Island Private DOUBLES FROM $1,800, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. FR´EGATE ISLAND; 800/225-4255 OR 248/282-282; www.fregate.com
Banyan Tree Seychelles DOUBLES FROM $950, INCLUDING BREAKFAST. ANSE INTENDANCE, MAHÉ; 248/383-500; www.banyantree.com/seychelles
Lémuria Resort DOUBLES FROM $570, INCLUDING BREAKFAST. ANSE KERLAN, PRASLIN; 800/735-2478 OR 248/281-281; www.lemuriaresort.com
North Island DOUBLES FROM $1,656, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. NORTH ISLAND; 248/293-100; www.north-island.com
Cousine Island DOUBLES FROM $1,350, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. COUSINE ISLAND; 248/321-107; www.indianoceanislands.net
Alphonse Island Resort DOUBLES FROM $600, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. ALPHONSE ISLAND; 248/323-3220; www.alphonse-resort.com
Dinner at Marie Antoinette
The family recipes—parrot-fish fritters, fried eggplant, chicken curry—haven't changed since this Creole restaurant on Mahé was founded in 1976. DINNER FOR TWO $60. SERRET RD., VICTORIA, MAHÉ; 248/266-222
A Palm Reading
At Jivan Imports, a simple souvenir shop in Victoria, 81-year-old Kantilal Jivan Shah provides free fortune-telling—and history lessons—to customers he likes. In other words, stock up on a few trinkets. ALBERT ST., VICTORIA, MAHÉ; 248/322-310
A Hike Through Vallée de Mai Rain Forest
Clearly marked paths make for easy exploring in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's against the law to remove the massive coco de mer nuts, but they can be bought at the Ministry of Environment down the road and at various shops around the islands. ADMISSION $15 PER ADULT. VALLÉE DE MAI, PRASLIN