Sunday, 4 October 2015

Seychelles in the Spotlight

Seychelles' Best Private Islands


In the hierarchy of the world’s waters, the Indian Ocean takes some beating. More hyperbolically described than perhaps any other, it is outrageously exotic, a spice-scented sea whose warm waves lap at myriad shores in Myanmar, India, Cambodia and Africa, countries where islands crumble off the coastline and spin away into waters that were described by Rudyard Kipling as “so soft, so bright, so bloomin’ blue”.


This article, by Charlotte Sinclair, originally appeared on the telegraph.co.uk  

In other words, an ocean to set the mind to travel, to dreams of creamy sands and sapphire waves, where even the palm trees appear to bow in submission to all that perfect blue.

Yet even here there are places more beautiful than the rest (supermodels among beauty queens). Located off the east coast of Africa, the Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 islands of lushly green, granite peaks and quiet beaches that are among the most exquisite in the world. There is an off-map, castaway glamour to the Seychelles. Pirates, of the romanticised, swashbuckling variety, used to roam the waters where now whale sharks are the more frequent visitors. 

The wildlife here – including indigenous seabirds, jewel-toned fish that decorate mile after mile of coral reef, and the world’s largest concentration of Aldabra giant tortoises  – easily outnumbers the Seychelles’ human population, a balance that has seen the islands dubbed “the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean”. This untouched environment is part circumstance – the country only received independence from British colonial rule in 1976 and endured subsequent years of political in-fighting before peace was established – and part grand plan. 


The latter is the slow and sustainable approach to tourist development that is rooted in the government’s close study of the mistakes of its mass market competitors (particularly Mauritius), and its correct assumption that the country’s thriving ecosystem is a commodity in itself.  Hence, by design, the Seychelles aims to be a niche destination, targeting affluent visitors and high-end hotel brands: in the past decade, a Four Seasons and Raffles have opened on Mahé and Praslin islands, while a Six Senses resort, Zil Pasyon, will debut on Félicité Island  later this year.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the country is the location of two of the dreamiest private island resorts in the world – North Island and Fregate Island Private.


North Island Resort

In a world where luxury has become a tattered, overused concept, the accommodation on these islands – both recently refurbished, both heavily committed to their own environmental programmes – has set a new paradigm. Royal honeymooners and celebrity visitors aside, North Island, particularly, is almost fictive in its allure, with a whispered, word-of-mouth reputation among those who have been lucky enough to experience its unparalleled charm that is at once a part of, and entirely separate from, the considerable expense of staying here.

 
(Anywhere can be expensive, but charm is impossible to manufacture.)

I ponder this while sitting beneath a palm tree – helpfully denuded of potentially braining coconuts – on North’s Honeymoon Beach, eating a picnic lunch of chicken wraps, vegetable spring rolls and the pinkest, most delicious macaroons this side of Paris. The wide stretch of powdery sand has been roped off for my husband and me for the afternoon – a whole beach to ourselves – and we spend the hours shell-hunting, lazing in the shade, and skinny-dipping in the aquamarine, bath-water waves, silver fish scattering at our ankles. 

As an experience, it exemplifies how hospitality works on North, where each rarely sighted guest is cocooned in a little slice of their own paradise.

As much as the specialness of North is down to this careful choreography of space and privacy, it is also attributable to the jaw-dropping loveliness of the island, with its mangrove and palm-fringed bays, driftwood beach bars, a spectacular pool cut into the rocky hillside, and the thickly canopied peaks – where we walk one morning led by Taryn, the resort’s nature guide, to a viewpoint where the dark, swooping silhouettes of eagle rays can be spied in the frilled waves below.

 

The island is preposterously pretty and just the right side of wild, a place where giant, century-old tortoises, with their gummy smiles and smooth, lizard necks, crunch through the undergrowth as we zip along sand paths on our golf buggy. Everything is bigger, brighter, more beautiful than it has any need to be. Snorkelling, we encounter parrotfish the size of terriers. The white sands turn champagne pink at sunset as enormous fruit bats slice the dusk sky. There’s not a sound that’s not natural – the hush of waves on the shore, the flit and jitter of birds, the wind through trees – and the light is soft, leaf-sifted. At night, the island is lit by flickering lantern light. North is its own Instagram filter, a vision beyond betterment.

If luxury is a matter of context – the right thing in the right place – and character, both are impeccably demonstrated in North’s barefoot attitude, which extends, equally, from the charming, chatty, dreadlocked barman who serves wickedly strong rum cocktails at the bar to the 11 thatched beachside villas, where we have the choice of lounging in 6,000sq feet of rosewood-floored space, an outdoor sala, a pool within a tropical garden, and even an air-conditioned screening room. 



A sense of generosity pervades every aspect here, whether in the fully stocked villa kitchen, or the resort’s flexible approach to menus and meal times, or in the availability of boats and equipment to snorkel or dive at a moment’s notice. In interactions with the staff (150 at last count, with villa butlers as standard), we’re addressed by our first names – standing on ceremony being the opposite of relaxing. “Too early for a cocktail?” asks the young, shorts-wearing general manager, Nick Solomon, as we settle on to sun loungers after a late breakfast.


Fregate Island Private

A different but equally persuasive iteration of luxury is to be found at Fregate Island Private. The island resort has been managed  by Oetker Collection since 2013, and its €4 million (£2.8 million) upgrade was used not only to improve infrastructure (unsexy stuff such as new generators and an upgraded water supply that make this dot in the middle of the ocean actually work) and renovate the 16 villas, but also to rebuild a pirate-styled cocktail bar, marina and yacht club.

 

Under the new general manager, Wayne Kafcsak, Fregate now enjoys the elegance and formidably high service that come as standard at Oetker properties such as Le Bristol in Paris.

What this translates to in practice is a hamper containing a white tablecloth, silver cutlery, chilled white wine and grilled prawns being carried, valiantly, down the 80 or so steps to our beach-side lunch spot by our friendly Sri Lankan butler. The sense of things being done well is hugely soothing, as are the upgraded, thatched, colonial-styled villas, set high on the hill overlooking a bright coin of water, and which feature canopied four-poster beds and dark, hardwood floors, as well as white sofas positioned by a wall of windows for sunset-gazing.


Yet, for all its seamless, spoiling smartness, it is Fregate’s environment that makes it truly special. The majority of the island has been left undeveloped, including several tide-swept beaches, and a vine-draped banyan forest, where we eat breakfast in a canopy-height tree house one morning, kept company by several hundred fairy terns, perched still and serene as sculpted marble in the branches.




Fregate doesn’t just feel wild but practically Jurassic. More than 2,000 giant tortoises populate the island, munching leaves under the cashew trees on the high, igneous outcrops or retreating, slowly, from the heat into mud baths. Rainbow-bright sunbirds dart from hibiscus flowers, while Seychelles warblers and magpie robins – both species rescued from near extinction by the island’s conservation efforts – hop inquisitively at the edge of our villa’s infinity pool.


At night, the presence of giant millipedes and hermit crabs travelling across the paths create a rather crunchy obstacle course for our drive back to our villa (golf buggies are the millipedes’ main predator on Fregate).

At Anse Macquereau beach , which we reserve exclusively for a breakfast swim one morning, the only prints on the deep scoop of white sand are those of a small brown plover, pecking at the shoreline.

 

After a morning spent with the conservation team, discussing the replanting of indigenous forest and a protection programme for Fregate’s hawksbill turtles, I suggest to Wayne that the resort is almost secondary to nature here. He nods. This is what tourism in the Seychelles is all about, he says. “The consensus amongst hoteliers is: 'Let’s protect these islands, let’s keep this paradise pristine.’”

For visitors here there can be no sweeter promise than that of paradise, not lost or found but safeguarded: perhaps the greatest luxury of all.




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