The Seychelles archipelago remains one of nature’s masterpieces and its unique history has produced a fascinatingly diverse population and culture. Audrey Donkor is your guide to these fabulous islands.
The Seychelles archipelago lies in the Indian Ocean, off the East Coast of Africa and north of Madagascar. The archipelago is Africa’s smallest country, with a total land area of 460 sq km and a population of 100,447 (according to the country’s 2022 census).
Most visitors flock to the islands for their beauty, stunning beaches and their unique culture and lifestyle. For nature lovers, the powdery, smooth white sands of Anse Lazio beach on Praslin Island and the giant, granitic boulders on La Digue Island’s Anse Source d’Argent beach will leave you gaping. But Seychelles offers more than just idle days sipping sundowners. The country is a lesson in merging the past and present, conserving nature and blending people and cultures.
The islands were first claimed by the French, who began settling there from 1770 with enslaved people from Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion and India. In 1811, the British took over control of the archipelago and ruled until Seychelles gained independence in 1976.
Over time, the mix of Europeans and Africans with traders from China and India spawned Seychelles’ multiethnic population and led to the development of the Seychellois Creole language – a blend of 17th-century French with words from English, Bantu languages, Malagasy and Hindi. Seychellois Creole is the most widely spoken language in the Seychelles and is also a national language, together with French and English.
The Mission Lodge on Mahé, Seychelles’ most populated island, memorialises Seychelles’ prominence as a destination for the resettlement and integration of enslaved people who were freed from British ships and Arab dhows following the abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1834.
The site was the location of the Venn’s Town industrial school, where the Anglican Mission accommodated and taught children of both freed African slaves and African labourers from 1876-89. The children learnt carpentry, gardening and bible stories, and sang psalms. Ruins of the school are still present at the Mission Lodge.
The site is located on Morne Seychellois, Seychelles’ highest peak at 905m. From a gazebo, visitors can take in breathtaking views of the verdant mountains that make up Mahé and extend toward the sea. Mission Lodge’s location as part of the Morne Seychellois National Park also offers visitors the chance to explore several of the endemic plant and animal species that Seychelles is renowned for as a biodiversity hotspot.
Nature lovers can further explore Seychelles’ indigenous plants at Le Jardin du Roi, a privately-owned spice garden in the Anse Royale district of Mahé. The 25-hectare garden is modelled on the 18th-century plantations the French cultivated in their tropical colonies for the spice trade, and is on the actual site of a spice garden that was burned down in the 18th century.
Le Jardin du Roi is also partially a botanical garden and nature reserve. Visitors can take self-guided walks or scheduled tours along rows of plants, including vanilla vines; lemongrass bushes; cinnamon, rose apple and lipstick trees; as well as traditional Seychellois medicinal herbs. The garden is home to several of Seychelles’ Aldabra giant tortoises, which can weigh up to 250kg and have been documented to live longer than 150 years.
Unique food and drink
Of course, no tour of an island can be complete without a bottle of rum. Seychelles cleverly hosts the headquarters of the Takamaka Rum Distillery (another private commercial enterprise) at La Plaine St André, a refurbished plantation house built in 1792 that is a national heritage site.
The distillery offers guided tours of the site, which is located in the Au Cap district of Mahé. Tourists learn about the rum-making process, from the procurement of sugarcane or molasses to their fermentation and distillation, and there is then a tasting of a selection of the distillery’s rums.
An onsite museum details the history of Seychelles. And the overarching bilimbi trees on the site’s beautiful gardens provide a relaxing setting for savouring the distillery’s delightful cocktails.
The flavourful rums and cocktails might whet your appetite. Luckily, tourists can enjoy some traditional Creole dishes at Maison Marengo, just about a kilometre away in Au Cap. The restaurant is on the site of La Domaine de Val des Pres, a restored traditional Creole village that is also a national heritage site.
Popular choices are octopus curry and prawn curry, taken with passion fruit juice. The curries are made by cooking octopus tentacles or prawns in spicy Creole masala and coconut milk, and are served with rice and chutney. Seychelles’ cuisine is influenced by the country’s multiethnic make-up.
Prehistoric palm forest
Most tourists visit more than one island in the Seychelles. Praslin, the second most populated island, is a major draw largely because it is the location of the Vallée de Mai, a prehistoric palm forest and UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the legendary endemic coco de mer palm grows.
The large seed of the female coco de mer can weigh more than 20kg and is the world’s heaviest seed. It bears an astounding resemblance to the pelvic region of a human female, while the long catkin of the male coco de mer curiously takes the likeness of a human phallus.
Travel between the islands is fairly simple. The ride from Mahé to Praslin by catamaran ferry takes an hour. Returning from Praslin to Mahé by Air Seychelles’ Twin Otter aircraft takes 15 minutes, offering splendid views of the blue and green waters below and the islands between Mahé and Praslin that together comprise the Sainte Anne Marine National Park.
And if you aren’t satisfied by all these thrills, then you might want to embark on a hunt for the buried treasure of French pirate Olivier Levasseur, estimated to be worth $150m!