I do beg your pardon, my dear,” says Brendon Grimshaw. ‘Here you’ve come for a nice lunch, and here I go sticking a knife in in your tummy.”
He’s not your typcial octogenarian ex-journalist from Yorkshire. For one he walks around bare-chested and has to apologise when his machete brushes against someone; more importantly, he owns and lives on an island in the Indian Ocean. Moyenne is a lush green lump in a blue, blue sea, filled with casuarina and breadfruit trees, giant tortoises, soft white-sand beaches and real pirate treasure. The quirky bachelor has already prepared his own gravesite; but while he still draws breath, lunch at his Creole cuisine restaurant and a look-see at his island will remain something of a tourist pilgrimage, because Brendon Grimshaw lives the kind of life the rest of us only dream about.
Even so, the rest of us have plenty to dream about, because Moyenne is only one of 115 coral and granitic islands that lie like scattered emeralds in the warm Indian Ocean, making up the tiny country of Seychelles. Stepping off the Emirates flight onto the island of Mahé, it is immediately and completely obvious to me that I must cast off my sad little life, forget my friends and family, buy a straw hat, a boat, maybe a nice machete, and move to Seychelles where I will finally be happy.
Not that I would be able to live permanently at Le Meridien’s Fisherman’s Cove on Beau Vallon beach (though someone does, practically—a nice little house just down the beach: daily life in Seychelles). My suite has an open-plan bath and shower, a sitout, and the moodiness of glass, stone and light. I watch sunrise and sunset from the pier, and in the evening sip wine in the open Le Cocoloba bar as a sudden, brief shower sharpens every scent. I hate to descend into cliché, but Seychelles really is as close to perfection as I’ve ever been.
Creation put its best into these islands. They float by beneath our Air Seychelles Twin Otter the next day, a skein of glitter lost in this vast ocean, the prehistoric peaks of a submerged plateau torn from the African continental plate. They’re set in concentric circles of white beach, aquamarine shallows, and jade lagoons—beauty spots on the wrinkly blue skin of the ocean. The islands were known to Arabs centuries before they were spotted by the Portuguese. They were claimed by the French, who sent 20-odd planters and slaves to settle in 1770; and then made a crown colony by the British, who must be kicking themselves for using them as prison and slave camps instead of settling down themselves, because Seychelles is today arguably the UK’s top holiday destination.
We are flying from Mahé to crescent-shaped Denis Island, named for the Frenchman Denis de Trobriand who washed up here in 1773. Island-hopping is the joy of Seychelles; each one has its own particular ethos. There are resort islands, national parks and bird sanctuaries, fantastically-shaped atolls. Denis, privately owned, is one of the peripheral Inner Islands. Its exclusive lodge, first opened by a French industrialist living his dream, is now managed by the Taj hotel group. From the grass airstrip, small golf carts ferry us through a tangle of trees to the reception and dining—a simple thatched, wall-free construction that overlooks the beach and an expanse of ocean so blue that it’s a parody of blue. There’s nothing on the horizon but water and sky. All you can hear is the breeze, the ocean, the birds, and the soft billing and cooing of well-heeled honeymooners who’ve made the excellent decision to start their married lives here.
Denis sits in warm, crystalline waters made safe by a surrounding coral reef. It is cooled by sea breezes to between 24 and 32 degrees all year round, and is untouched by cyclones; it’s free of disease, poisonous snakes or spiders, and dangerous wildlife. It is, in fact, a prelapsarian Garden of Eden in which you can carelessly wander barefoot, like Adam and Eve.
It’s the most romantic place on earth. All competition disappears when you enter the blue-green water on the white sand, or take a champagne-drenched sunset cruise on the sea, or soak in a rose petal-scented bathtub watching vivid green geckos on the wall outside. Once you’ve walked along the moon-silvered beach with tiny waves licking at your toes and the Milky Way blazing across the sky, and woken up to a sparkling morning with pure white fairy terns flitting from branch to casuarinas branch, you can die happy. Sea and sky perform a constant and epic drama of light and form and mood. Besides a dive and snorkelling centre, a tennis court in the thick forest, game fishing and a billiards table, there’s nothing to do. This is a place to visit either with a partner or with friends—if you’re alone, you’ll burst from the need to share it.
They pretty much have to kick me onto the return flight. But all good things lead to others. Denis is physically quite like most of Seychelles’ islands, and Mahé has its own charms. It’s where one discovers the magic 90th percentile. Ninety percent of a total population of 81,000 lives on Mahé, speaks Creole, is Catholic, is literate. Ninety percent of the country’s needs are imported. (Sadly, humidity is only 80 percent.)
Victoria, the smallest capital city in the world, is also the most laidback; they say its clock chimes twice for the benefit of those who were snoozing the first time. It’s a clean, elegant little town with a Pirate’s Arms (sadly, more family restaurant than swashbuckling bar), a couple of old colonial buildings and a somewhat startling silver clocktower that replicates the Vauxhall Bridge clocktower in London. Ladies in flowery dresses, broad-brimmed hats and lipstick amble down to Sir Selwyn-Selwyn Clarke Market in the morning to buy veggies and fruit, pick from dorad, red snapper and shark neatly laid out on slabs, and browse the boutiques.
The faces in the market reflect the soup of African, Indian, Chinese, European and Arab genes that makes up Seychellois society. Some look African, others Aryan. Most could be from anywhere. It’s all complicated by the fact that, despite their Catholicism, the Seychellois are wildly leery of marriage, having seen long-standing relationships founder on a single year’s holy matrimony. Three-fourths of the population is therefore born out of wedlock, and a family may represent children from several fathers.
“My younger son keeps asking why his father and I don’t get married. I tell him, ‘are you CRAZY?’” That, from one Seychelloise, sums it up. There really isn’t any need to marry, because the law applies equally—an unmarried couple who possess joint assets are each entitled to half in the event of a split, and a father is expected to pay alimony to the mother.
So these are the ‘islands of love’ in more than one way. And in at least one way, graphically so. I’m assailed at all turns by the sight of that most pornographic of plants, the lusty coco-demer—the female of which produces a double coconut shaped astonishingly like a female pelvis, down to a tuft of, well, coconut fibre; and the male of which puts out enormous phallic fruit. Starting with the visa stamp in your passport, they’re everywhere—key chains, T-shirts, souvenirs. Four thousand coco-demers are protected in Vallée de Mai National Park on Praslin island. Only tourists blush; the Seychellois are deeply matter-of-fact, though they do believe it’s unlucky to be present when, on stormy nights, the male and female plants meet and mate on the beach.
In fact, the only thing that flusters the Seychellois is the steep cost of living. The pretty crafts village at Anse aux Pins, on Mahé, sells paintings and T-shirts and the most finely handcrafted model ships; tempted by much, I am much tempered by the price tags, and come away with a single small fridge magnet in the shape of a colourful fish which costs me the equivalent of Rs 300.
The only way to calm my quivering wallet is with a superb Creole meal at the Jardin du Roi spice garden, a 35-hectare patch of fertile soil on a mountainside above Anse Royale. The owner, Mrs George, grows anything she can, including pepper, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, heliconium, peacock trees, star fruit and a tree whose leaves combine the taste of five spices. There’s a lipstick tree, whose tiny reddish seeds were used by the ladies of yore to rouge their lips. By the time I discover what a punch a single tiny pod packs, my face and hands are an orange mess—it turns out they’re also used to polish wooden floors, and one seed to a bucket of water does nicely for the whole house.
Our last night is spent at the enormous 200-room Plantation Club hotel on Baie Lazare, which is where you want to stay if you’re interested in meeting some Seychellois, because many come to eat at the restaurant, or dance to the DJ’s tunes, or gamble at the casino. The smaller beach is more than made up for by a lively poolside bar, a pretty good live band and the hotel’s relative affordability.
At dawn I eat some fresh croissants (the nice thing about a French colonial hangover: croissant-shaped lumps all over my tummy). I smoke a cigarette (another nice thing about a French colonial hangover: you can smoke pretty much anywhere). I linger over tea. I chat with the guy who’s taking us to the airport. It’s classic procrastination tactics. Driving along the coastal highway, with the sea on my right and stately bungalows catching the first sun on my left, I think about leaping out of the car and hiding in the ferns until all would-be rescuers give up hope and go away.
There are beautiful islands elsewhere. Many are cheaper. But something in the quality of the air in Seychelles is absolutely unbeatable. It’s no good trying to shake off the cliché: when they call it paradise, they aren’t boasting or spinning it—it’s the simple fact of the matter. No wonder God needed that day off.
Getting there: Emirates flies to Seychelles International Airport from Delhi via Dubai, with a possible stopover. You need only a valid passport and a return or onward ticket to get a one-month visa on arrival in Mahé.
Getting around: The islands, 1,600km off the coast of Africa, are well connected by commercial flight, chopper and charter boat. Contact Travel Services Seychelles (TSS) for booking details www.tss.sc.
Where to stay: There’s no shortage of small hotels and guesthouses all over Mahé, Praslin and La Digue in addition to premium resorts that tend to be located on other islands. By law many hotels are obliged to take payment strictly in foreign exchange.
In Mahé, the Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove is a beautiful beachfront hotel with excellent food www.fishcove.lemeridien.com). The Plantation Club is a lively sprawling hotel with one of Mahé’s two casinos (www.plantationclub.com).
What to eat: There’s lots of delicious Creole food—fish, seafood and spicy curries. And the food is great pretty much everywhere. If you have the time take a tour of some of the spice gardens.