image: Palm trees frame a beach on Frigate Island.
Palm trees frame a beach on Frigate Island.

Photograph © Nik Wheeler/CORBIS

By George Plimpton

I have a favorite story about the enchantment of the Seychelles. Long ago a young African king named Prempeh (ruler of the Ashanti nation, now part of Ghana) was kicked off his throne and exiled to the Seychelles. Wearing a leopard skin he arrived with fellow tribesmen and a number of wives. He also brought along his personal executioner and was upset that he couldn't use his services when a servant misbehaved. But after a while Prempeh fell into the more civil ways of the Seychelles and came to love the islands. When after 25 years he was allowed to go back and reclaim his throne, he had given to wearing baggy trousers, a cutaway, and a silk hat. He had shed all his wives but one. The Seychellois came down to the quay to see him off. He must have felt he was going into exile rather than returning from it. As the boat drew away from the quay the king reportedly put his hands over his eyes as if to shut in and retain his last sight of the islands.

My own first visit was unplanned. At the time an argument between Kenya and Tanzania had closed the borders between these two nations on the east coast of Africa. To go from one to the other, you had to fly a thousand miles out to the Seychelles and then back to the neighboring country—literally traveling 2,000 miles to step one foot. As we came and went, I remember looking out the plane window wondering if I'd ever get the chance to really experience this beautiful necklace of islands stretching across a turquoise sea. Later, I got that chance—twice.

Oddly, the main islands are made of granite, as though a section of Maine had been dropped into the tropical Indian Ocean. The largest island is Mahé, 17 miles long, five miles wide, composed of impressive peaks rising abruptly from the sea. The capital, Victoria, has a four-bell church steeple that chimes two minutes before the hour, as if to alert the populace that the time is about to be struck, and then on the hour itself. Alec Waugh was so charmed by the odd-timed chimes that he titled a travel book Where the Clock Strikes Twice.

For me, the charms of Victoria are eclipsed by what else is available here—deep-sea fishing, bird-watching, swimming in the warm water, and snorkeling among a smorgasbord of fish. The Seychellois take remarkable care of their beaches—especially in the more populated areas. The sands, white and soft underfoot, stretch spotless to the sea. The islands are so remote that nothing seems to come ashore on the waves except the sea itself.

One great sight of the Seychelles, on the island of Praslin, is a forest of giant palms, some as high as 100 feet, called the Vallée de Mai. The female palms bear a huge seed, a coco-de-mer, weighing up to 40 pounds. Sailors thought they came from trees rooted to the sea floor, thus the name coconuts-of-the-sea.

Today there are more hotels than when I first came to the Seychelles. But a sensible, islands-wide edict forbids building a structure higher than the highest palm. Thus the hotels, while luxurious, are spread out, their lobbies the size of football fields. There are small hotels, of course, perched up the slopes with broad views of distant islands. The most exclusive is a ten-room hotel on Praslin called the Château de Feuilles. The air is sweet with the smell of gardenias and frangipani. By the front door I saw a sign (rare I would think in the hotel business) that announced: NO VISITORS.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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