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Cruising the Seychelles by Catamaran

On Praslin we had a chance to see one of the most exclusive hotels in the Seychelles, the Chateau de Feuilles, high on a slope overlooking the Baie Ste. Anne. Surrounding it is a near rain forest of vegetation, the air sweet with the smell of gardenias and frangipani. At the front door a sign (rare, I would think, in the hotel business) announces no visitors. We felt privileged to be allowed in. A large carved turtle stood in the foyer. Beneath the thatched roof were big beams and the faint, rather musty smell of takamaka wood. The Chateau is small (only 12 rooms) and has a very fancy clientele, mostly European: George Harrison, Roman Polanski, and Catherine Deneuve were mentioned, though no guests were evident. On the terraced grounds below the main lodge is a small swimming pool and an open-air dining room. From there we could look down on the Baie, where the water was so clear that a skiff rising at anchor seemed to be floating in midair. As the manager took us around she told us the hotel has no newspapers, no radio, no television. "The only news that gets through," she said — as if speaking of an apocalypse — "is bad news."

Our last evening on Praslin we paid a visit to a tree-house lodge on a small, thimble-shaped islet in the Anse Volbert, barely an acre in size. The lodge is named Chauve Souris after the giant fruit bat of the Seychelles. The manager met us at the dock and led us up a steep path. The five guest rooms are shaded by the foliage outside, and decorated with large ship models (a kind of carving that's one of the great crafts of Mahé). Because of renovations, no rooms were occupied. The clients are usually from Italy; Giorgio Armani comes with friends. The manager told us that three generations of fairy terns had grown up on a branch outside a bedroom window. She had also kept a huge fruit bat as a pet; it flew around the kitchen and hung upside down among the pots and pans suspended from hooks. As evening fell, the fairy terns began to fly in from the Anse to roost in the trees. The din was considerable. Two of them suddenly erupted from the foliage to chase a fruit bat out over the water. We watched it pump mournfully toward Mahé in the distance.

"Your poor pet?" someone suggested.

I never could get enough of the bats — watching them through bird glasses in the evening and in the dawn as they headed for their roosts. They are huge creatures, their three-foot wingspan matching that of the raven. In other parts of the world they're called flying foxes; as fruit-eaters rather than insectivores they are closer to primates than to true bats. In a few Seychelles restaurants fruit bats are served up as a specialty, often in a curry dish. One problem with ordering a bat is that it arrives at the table looking like a very small, muscular man. Better to see them in their own element — the evening air or the dawn — than in a curry.

The next morning we left the Anse Volbert and Praslin and sailed a short distance to La Digue, the fourth-largest island of the archipelago. One of the pleasures of the Seychelles is the considerable variety of the islands, each with its own characteristics. La Digue is distinguished by a "mountain," Nid d'Aigles (Eagles' Nest), which rises more than 1,000 feet. Once, the only forms of transportation were oxcarts and bicycles. Now a few cars navigate the dirt roads; a truck went by with a bumper sticker that read: YOU TOUCHA MY CAR I SMASHA YOU FACE. Civilization has arrived!

In the evening we took one of the few taxis up the flanks of Nid d'Aigles to watch the sun go down. The Mbuji Mayi seemed a toy far below. Our driver, Elias, turned out to be a marathon runner — he placed third in a race on Mahé. He had been sponsored in the London marathon, where he had finished behind, as he put it, "many! many!" One of 16 children, Elias started his career in transportation — the last occupation one would have expected on such an island — and now controlled six oxcarts, 40 bicycles, and two taxis. We asked him whether crime was ever a temptation for kids growing up in the Seychelles. A potential drug problem, he told us, was the government's main concern. "One marijuana cigarette — three years," he said. "Two cigarettes, six years; and for more than fifty grams of the stuff, twenty years."

"Well, what if you kill someone?" he was asked.

"That gets you five years hard labor" was his guess.

As we pondered these priorities, the sun, a harvest orange, moved down into the gray sea. Fruit bats floated out in front of us. From the houses below, their corrugated roofs a patchwork on the steep hillside, the sounds of dinner drifted up — the clink of pans and tin dishes, the murmur of voices. The slopes of Nid d'Aigles seemed a very pleasant place to be.

Our last day in the Praslin area, we passed the morning on the beach of a small island named Grande Soeur. Huge granite boulders border the sand, so beautifully worn by time that one could imagine Henry Moore had been commissioned as the island's landscaper. The beach is on the windward side, and the waves were tumultuous. Puffing the water out of our snorkel pipes, we found our way to various coral heads and swayed in the sea wash to see what was below. We were overwhelmed by the variety of colorful fish. The guidebooks on board had pictures of what we might have seen and, alas, not recognized, the names in themselves enough to be relished: slingjaws, rainbow flashers, black-spotted sweetlips, zebra humbugs, skunk clown fish, freckled hawkfish, gorgeous gussies, chocolate dips.

We spent our last day of the trip on Mahé, the main island. Those of us who toured Victoria will remember it for its clocks. In the middle of town is the Clock Tower, a silver miniature of the one on Vauxhall Bridge Road near London's Victoria Station. It is passed so often in the course of anyone's wandering around Victoria that it is said of someone especially dim-witted, "Il n'a pas vu l'horloge" ("He hasn't seen the Clock Tower"). It does not chime, because the pendulum was dropped into the bay when the clock's parts were being unloaded, and was never recovered. But on a hill behind the Roman Catholic cathedral is a four-bell steeple that chimes two minutes before the hour (as if to prepare the town for an onslaught of bells) and then on the hour itself. The strange clock so caught Alec Waugh's fancy that he entitled one of his travel books Where the Clock Strikes Twice."

On a tour of the island, we car-hopped past the big tourist hotels, most of them on the opposite side from Victoria, looking out to the vastness of the Indian Ocean. The building code here prohibits any structure higher than the tallest coconut palm, so the hotels extend horizontally through groves of palms and takamaka trees, maintaining the symmetry of the coastline.

After lunch we drove to the highest point on Mahé one can reach by car. The columns and stones of a ruined mission are up there, and a long allee of dragon's blood trees leads to a picnic area with a balustrade overlooking the mountain slope. We could hear the whistle-like calls of parrots in the forest canopy below. The views toward Victoria were sensational — the football stadium, a gray French warship anchored in the bay. Our taxi driver, who went by the unlikely name of Barney, told us that we were standing at a popular departure point for hang gliders: they step up on top of the stone balustrade, drop down, and sail off toward the sea, outlined like giant fruit bats against the cottony trees on the slopes.

That image stayed with me for days, in daydreams, and finally in dreams . . . leaning out, taking off, and working the wind like a seabird heading toward the islands in the distance, rising like blue hills out of the turquoise sea.

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