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Shacking up in the Seychelles

Shacking up in the Seychelles
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Ilanded one sunny morning at the Constance Ephelia resort in Seychelles, nestled amongst white sand beaches and hills on the island of Mahé. It offers guests luxurious suites and villas overlooking the Indian Ocean, with mountain or sea views. I had barely arrived before I buckled up my orange life vest, pulled my long hair into a tight top knot, slathered on a bucket of sunscreen and stepped into a red kayak, near Ephelia’s South Beach Boat House in Port Launay Mangrove, the first Ramsar Site in this tiny island nation. When I dropped my jaw in absolute dismay. A mighty ocean wave was ready to gobble Keith, the kayak instructor. If the turquoise waves could gulp down a tall and beefy Seselwa, what would happen to the petite me? I, the novice kayaker? Battered to shreds? Scrumptious lunch for sharks? I shuddered.

Faraway in the ancient mangrove, there stood a cross. I closed my eyes, beseeched the Lord, and lo and behold! The waves quietened and I merrily cut a swathe through the Indian Ocean with my dark oars. That’s how my Seychelles sojourn began – on a kayak. As I swayed on the placid waves, I was washed away in time – to 1502 – when Vasco da Gama probably sighted this island 1,000 miles east off Kenya, to the avaricious pirates who used this transit trade point between Africa and Asia, the Stone of Possession that the French laid in 1756 and later the island’s annexation as a British Crown Colony. I remembered the story about Marie Antoinette escaping the guillotine and shacking up in a Seychelles island. Or writer Ian Fleming sticking his toe in the silken sand, waiting for an ah ha moment while writing the Bond adventure, For Your Eyes Only. I was flitting between centuries and stories, fumbling with the French inflexions to island names - Petit Carcassaye, Cachée, St. Joseph Île aux Fouquets, Bijoutier… I could not get one right. Damn! Suddenly, a mighty splash tore through my historical and semantic reverie. Bang in the middle of the dense mangrove, I forgot the pirates and squinted intensely for a glimpse of the critically endangered sheath-tailed bat, which is endemic to Seychelles. I was sure I was pushing my luck too hard – barely 100 of these sac-winged bats exist worldwide. I squinted harder. No luck. No bat flew into the twilight. All I could hear was the cheerful chirps of the red fody, the island’s tiny orange bird. Sigh!  But my bat-dream did not die in the Seychelles mangrove. On this archipelago of 115 granite and coralline islands that constitute the oldest mid-Oceanic granite islands on earth, something really odd winged onto my dinner plate in a Seselwa restaurant. ‘Bat’. Chantal Firmin, Ephelia’s Sales Manager, smiled at me. No! C’mon, who eats bats? No! No! ‘In Seychelles, fruit bat curry is a delicacy. Often, Sunday lunch. Fruit bats are dressed, diced, marinated overnight in garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and vinegar, then sautéed and slathered with tamarind juice. Four bats are enough for three people,’ Firmin concluded with a flourish. Aaargh! I’d rather have local cassava chips than a bat anyday.  Ephelia’s guests have the choice of local cuisine – Indian-inspired curries to spice-rubbed grills infused with vanilla, cinnamon, pineapple, papaya, love apple. Seafood includes tuna, marlin and dorado and the local jackfish, rainbow runner and job fish, paired with the local beer called Seybrew. You can work it off with some tennis, squash, swimming and snorkeling on their private beach, or opt for the wellness centre offering a choice of treatments, sauna and spa. Mahe’s mountainous interior, home to the Morne Seychellois National Park, is barely a 5-minute drive away from Ephelia.

Mother Nature has been very generous with the Seychelles islands scattered in the Indian Ocean, with their myriad azure hues. Undeniably, the beaches are the big attraction, and what beaches: exquisite ribbons of white sand lapped by topaz waters and backed by lush hills and big glacis boulders. And nary a crowd in sight.Seychelles is so small it could pass off as a squat neighbourhood. The nation’s population is 1 lakh, the smallest of any African nation. The largest ethnic groups are those of African, French, Indian, and Chinese descent. French and English are official languages along with Seychellois Creole, based on French patois. And this paradise is now accessible to us all. On top of ultra-luxurious options, the Seychelles has plenty of quaint, affordable self-catering facilities and guesthouses, often situated on some of the best land. Though it is an expensive destination, authorities are now targeting non-millionaires and promoting economy options with budget hotels at 40 euros a night. But fear not: mass tourism it will never be. Of the 115 islands, only four are inhabited (Mahe, Praslin, La Digue and Silhouette), with nearly 90% of the population living in Mahe, the main island. Which island should you go to? Don’t sweat the decision too much. Be it one of the three main islands of Praslin, La Digue or Mahé – which has more than its fair share of picture-perfect beaches – or any outlying island, you’ll strike gold. With such a dreamlike setting, the Seychelles is, unsurprisingly, a choice place for a honeymoon. But there’s much more to do than simply cracking open a bottle of champagne with the loved one in a luxurious hotel.

Having earned a reputation as a paradigm of ecotourism, the Seychelles is a top spot to watch birds and giant tortoises in their natural habitat. When you tire of beaches you can venture inland on jungle trails, indulge in fine dining and enjoy the spa in the sublime laid-back tempo.
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