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.