Towards the end of 2011, a friend of my wife’s proposed that we go on a combined vacation, just us two couples, and suggested the Seychelles as a destination. We were a little hesitant, because we had heard it was expensive, but its reputation as a tropical island paradise was tempting enough for us to start doing some research. A few weeks later, our friends backed out, much to our chagrin, so we decided we would go alone. Through our research, we found out that, even though our vacation would be expensive, we could save a bit if we didn’t do too much island-hopping, and stayed on Mahé island most of the time instead. So it happened that we split our eight-day vacation between Mahé and Bird Island (more on this one later), and made six amazing discoveries along the way.
#1. Every sunset is spectacular
We quickly found out that, wherever you are in the Seychelles, chances are you will see a spectacular sunset that evening.
#2. The Copolia Trail—hidden, tough, and completely worth it
Slogging your way through the rain forest on the Copolia Trail may not be your idea of fun, but the view at the end will make it all worthwhile.
#3. The Sunset Beach Hotel’s gazebo café has amazing views wherever you look
On sunset beach, the aptly-named Sunset Beach Hotel’s café features a gazebo built into the water, from where you can watch fish congregating below, and even catch a glimpse of the odd dolphin.
#4. The Wednesday evening bazaar on Beau Vallon beach is Mahé at its best
#5. Your own little private beach is just waiting for you to find it
Driving through the forest toward the end of Cap Ternay road (the end of the highway that almost encircles Mahé), we found a tiny little beach that we could scramble down to and drink our Sey Brews in peace.
#6. Turtle hatchlings on the beach on Bird Island give you a whole new outlook
Watching little turtles hatch and scuttle down the beach into the water on Bird Island will give you a new appreciation of the fragility of nature.
The whole story
We landed in Mahé in the early afternoon on New Year’s Eve, and our hearts were in our mouths as our flight touched down on the runway just a few meters from the edge of the sea. Once out of the airport, we were picked up by a car sent by our hosts at the Choice Villa guesthouse in Bel Ombre, Cecile and Patrick Berlouis. During the 20-minute drive, we experienced first-hand an unusual feature of the island: the high granite peak at the centre of the island is almost perpetually covered in rainclouds, while the beach around the island is usually sunny! So while we drove from the beachside airport over a hill and to our beachside guesthouse , we experienced sun, rain and sun again in quick succession. We soon found, though, that it rains often enough on the beach as well…
When we got to our modest guesthouse, we were pleasantly surprised so find that our accommodation consisted of a homely suite, with a living room, open kitchen and a (thankfully) air-conditioned bedroom. Once settled in and finished admiring the view (our bedroom had a view of the cloud-covered mountain, and our sit-out looked out onto Beau Vallon beach), we decided to explore our New Year’s Eve options. We were stunned to find that the only parties to be had were in the overpriced beachside resorts, and that the locals preferred to celebrate at home! Fortunately, our hosts had organized a little celebration of their own for friends and family in the vacant suite next to ours, and had very kindly invited us as well. In hindsight, it was a good thing that we didn’t go out, because we were so tired from our 24 hours of travelling that we couldn’t keep our eyes open beyond 10 o’clock.
The next day, after a lovely breakfast served at the outdoor dining table by our very sweet housekeeper Vanessa, we got another bit of a shock: New Year’s Day being a public holiday, it meant that almost all establishments were closed—including restaurants! Worse, because 1st January was a Saturday that year, the government—reluctant to deprive the public of their holiday—declared Monday a public holiday instead, along with Saturday and Sunday. Faced with the prospect of starving for three days, we were extremely relieved to hear that a shop around the corner would be open for an hour or two each day. We quickly stocked up on pasta, onions, garlic, tomatoes and bacon (this we before we turned vegetarian), and—thanks to our well-equipped kitchen—we were all set. We did find that one of the many restaurants down the road was open, but we didn’t relish the prospect of eating every meal for the next three days there (not to mention the fact that, at 14 Euros per person per meal, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it).
The next few days were dedicated to exploring Mahé and making the most of our time there. We started with the beach, of course, and headed to Beau Vallon beach as soon as we could. Beachfront real estate having mostly been taken up by the big resorts, we needed to walk a bit, but the beach itself was lovely (despite the fact that a local beachcomber followed us around, trying to sell us coconuts for three times the regular price). We spent that morning walking along the beach, occasionally popping one of the bottles of the local Sey Brew beer that we picked up at a tiny store along the way. That evening, we followed the road in the other direction, ending up at a small marina with an artificial breakwater, where we sat until the sun went down. It was there that we realized that, no matter where you are in the Seychelles, on any given evening, you will probably see a spectacular sunset!
The next day, we decided to take a bus into Victoria, the capital city. We got the impression that, besides the swank beachfront resorts and recent emergence of budget guesthouses, Mahé didn’t really have much infrastructure for tourists. We were expecting a flourishing café and restaurant culture, will lots of nightlife and things to do. Instead, we got grumpy service at a local pizzeria, a lone nightclub that was closed, and not much else. Victoria turned out to be a sleepy little colonial town, content to go about its own business, and keeping its distance from the more touristy feel of the island’s borders—a strange and wholly unexpected contradiction.
Having taken in a bit of local culture, we decided to spend the next two days driving around. We hired ourselves a car, and drove along the scenic road that rings the island, stopping at deserted beaches, admiring the view, and eating at beachside restaurants—including Chez Batista, where I first tried the splendid local Takamaka Bay dark rum (more on this rum and others in my post Five great rums to try while travelling the world). We even managed to find our own little private beach, clambering down from the road and spending a pleasant hour in the shade of a boulder, sipping Sey Brew.
On our last day on Mahé, as we cast about for things to do, our host Bobby recommended we explore the Copolia Trail halfway up the mountain. With nothing much else by way of options, we decided to take a look. The viewpoint and gazebo at the mouth of the trail offered a great view of Victoria and the harbour, so we decided that—though we aren’t really the hiking type—we would give the trail a shot. Half an hour in, we found ourselves slogging alone through the dripping jungle, fighting off mosquitoes and wondering if we should turn back. Despite some misgivings, though, we kept going, and were richly rewarded an hour later as we emerged onto a rocky outcrop with a spectacular panoramic view of the entire eastern side of the island. Not many other views that we have encountered on our travels can compare to that one. That evening, we contented ourselves with keeping to the confines of Bel Hombre and Beau Vallon, taking in the famous Wednesday evening bazar by the beach. We decided to pass up the ‘chapati and curry’ being sold at one of the stalls (the significant population of third-generation Indians in the Seychelles has left its mark on local cuisine) and instead ate a dinner consisting of Viennese sausage, rice, and that refreshing staple of Seychellois cuisine: raw papaya salad.
The second leg of our trip was a three-night stay on Bird Island, a tiny speck at the northern tip of the Seychelles group of islands, and 45 minutes’ flight from Mahé in a small two-engine turboprop airplane. A conservation zone, this island is a nesting site for many different species of birds (hence the name) and turtles, and is just large enough for twenty six guest cottages. We initially had our misgivings, seeing as we had never been on a flight where one could open part of the window! And the grassy strip that passed for a runway on Bird Island didn’t inspire confidence either. Luckily, everything turned out OK. This was by far the most expensive part of our trip, but with its incredible white beaches, good food, and numerous wildlife-watching opportunities, it was definitely worthwhile.
While we were there, Bird Island was even more deserted than usual, with only three other guest cottages occupied. This suited us fine, and we spent our time snorkelling in the clear water and admiring the various birds that sometimes shared our table at the open-air dining room and bar. A very special experience, though, was when Robbie—the resident conservationist—took us to see turtle eggs hatching on the beach. Seeing the little turtle hatchlings emerge from the sand and quickly waddle down the beach into the water brought home just how unique a place Bird Island was.
Our stay on Bird Island—and the Seychelles—was rounded off with a morning of dolphin-watching, courtesy Robbie, before it was time for the short flight back to Mahé, and from there back home.
- Though the Seychelles are slowly opening up to budget travellers, everything is still expensive, especially fresh produce.
- The local currency is the Seychelles rupee, but almost everything can be paid for in Euros as well, as long as you don’t mind getting your change in rupees.
- If you are on a budget, be prepared to fix some meals yourself. Luckily, most budget guesthouses have self-catering options.
- Local bus tickets in Mahé are fixed-price, regardless of destination, so they turn out a little expensive for short trips. It might make more sense to hire a car if you want to explore the island.
- Keep an eye out for small, deserted beaches while exploring Mahé. There are lots of them.
- Bird Island is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if it does burn a hole in your pocket.
- When on Bird Island, ask around about the best time to go snorkeling on different part of the island. There are often rafts of dead seaweed just off the beach that make for a not-so-great snorkeling experience.