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The Best Beach in the World?
Directions to the best beach in the world:
Fly from Paris or London or Frankfurt to Seychelles' Mahe Island. How could you not? Anse Source d'Argent (French for "silver spring cove") is a miraculous meeting of sea and land, with all the necessary ingredients in perfect measure and arrangement. Huge pink granite boulders, smooth enough to climb barefoot and sunbathe on, separate the beach into a string of secret scalloped coves. Forty-foot palms defy gravity, arching over water so transparent you don't need a snorkel mask to see the fish and coral, and the sand is as fine as flour. Across the channel, Praslin looks as though it could have been created by Disney. Once you get here, you will also know why you came halfway around the world when there are so many other inviting beaches closer to home.
Change planes for Praslin Island.
Catch the ferry there to La Passe village on La Digue Island.
Rent a bike and ride south two miles.
Keep going past Big Rock. You'll know the beach when you see it.
The Seychelles is a milky way of an archipelago made up of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles east of Kenya. Mountainous Mahe, home of the international airport, diminutive Praslin and minuscule La Digue are the main islands. Others are coral flyspecks populated only by giant tortoises and sooty terns. The sounds and smells are Caribbean, all exotic bird song and tropical spices.
Colonized first by the English and then the French, this country of 80,000 has become a copacetic puree of Indians, Africans, Chinese and Europeans who do not identify one another by race or skin color. The language is Creole, but children learn English and French in school to prepare for jobs in the tourism industry, which annually yields a quarter of the country's gross national product.
French, German, English and Italian vacationers fleeing the crowded, increasingly middle-class Mediterranean set the tone. But only 150,000 visitors are admitted each year, part of a less-is-more approach to an industry that seeks to attract only the most affluent visitors. This country, where few buildings are taller than two stories, feels more like a village. The treasury of flora and fauna has room to perpetuate itself; 42% of the islands' land mass is given over to ecological preserves--and a deserted beach almost as idyllic as Anse Source d'Argent is never far away.
The biggest islands in the chain, such as Mahe, are granite, thought by some to be the remains of the lost "super continent" of Gondwanaland, submerged beneath the Indian Ocean millions of years ago when the African and Indian tectonic plates separated. Granite mountains, cliffs and boulders give the Seychelles a sense of substance and visual singularity. In some ways, they are more reminiscent of islands in the Gulf of Maine than volcanic sputterings such as Maui or Bora-Bora.
But comparisons soon fall apart, because the lost, lovely Seychelles are too off-the-charts to be like anyplace else. If Noah's ark had landed on an islet in the Indian Ocean instead of on Mt. Ararat, it would have come to rest in these islands. With flawless weather, jungles and seas full of strange animals and plants, an educated, thriving populace and no neighbors to bring strife, the Seychelles seems like a place where a world washed clean could get a second chance.
The virtually pristine natural environment of the Seychelles and its opportunities for fantasy vacations on nearly deserted tropical islets have long been fodder for glossy American travel magazines. Presumably, visitors want and can afford the luxury castaway experience, a sort of "Gilligan's Island" with haute cuisine and hot running water. The islets of Silhouette and Frigate have just one lodge, with room rates of $500 to $1,500 a night. Felicite, a 680-acre private island near La Digue, with accommodations for 16, a tennis court, swimming pool, yacht and full staff, rents for $15,000 a night.
By visiting Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, the country's three most developed islands, staying in relatively modest places and walking or riding a bike when I could, I saw a different Seychelles, and, I think, a more real one.
I didn't plan the trip myself or travel independently, as I prefer. The Seychelles is not that kind of place. Two or three Seychelles tourist agencies apparently have a lock on visitor business; their vans are the most common vehicles on the roads. A small American tour company, Florida-based New Adventures, which works with one of these, booked my air, sea and transportation, transfers and accommodations for two nights on each of the large islands. When I arrived at the airport on Mahe, I found myself in the capable hands of Travel Services Seychelles, whose agents suggested organized tour options and ushered me around as if I were a VIP.
I flew last spring from Paris to Mahe, leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport at night, arriving as the sun burnished the granite cliffs above the town of Victoria the next morning. In the arrivals area of the airport, where an old woman was industriously sweeping the floor with a palm frond, I heard the patter of Creole.
Most visitors to Mahe stay at Beau Vallon beach, with its long strand and small, sleepy resorts, on the northwest coast, across the mountainous interior from the airport. But I had reservations at Valmer Resort, in the hinterlands near the island's rugged southern tip. A Travel Services Seychelles van took me to the little resort--a contemporary villa with a breakfast terrace, swimming pool and four comfortable rooms--close to stunning horseshoe-shaped Lazare Bay but little else.
Mahe has 90 miles of surfaced roads (unlike other islands in the chain, some of which have none at all), and my hotel was isolated from the sights I wanted to see, such as Victoria town, the mountains and Beau Vallon beach. So I had rented a jeep, which was waiting for me at the resort. It rode like a cement mixer, had a sticky clutch and turned my travels on Mahe's treacherously cracked and winding one-lane roads into wild, wonderful adventures.
After a time, I didn't mind the isolation. Artists' studios, sleepy villages and smashing beaches were hidden like scavenger-hunt prizes all along the island's precipitous southwest coast. I favored those that are hardest to get to, like Anse Intendance (anse is French for "cove"), about five miles south of my hotel, reached by the kind of road that persistently makes you think you should turn back.
Anse Intendance is a deceptive beauty: deserted, quiet, pristine. But watch the waves. They'll seduce you into the surf, then smash you up and leave you like flotsam on the beach. I pulled a hamstring muscle bodysurfing there, which made driving all the more challenging.
I toured the island the next day, driving up the west coast as far as Ternay Bay, where the narrow road clings to the cliffs and the driver of a van I met head-on waved me past, saying, "You've earned your pilot's license."
At the end of the road is a dilapidated military youth camp, a remnant of the country's experiment with socialism from 1977 to 1991, before pressure from the international community and the Catholic church made President France Albert Rene introduce a limited form of democratic pluralism.
From there, I crossed the island's mountainous spine, stopping to taste the brews at the Tea Tavern and tour the plantation and factory, where the fermenting and sifting machines look like something out of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Farther up the road, the ruins of a 19th century Anglican mission school for freed African slave children reminded me that slavery was abolished here more than 25 years before it was outlawed in the United States.
Then it was on to Victoria, a rollicking town, part Victorian tea cozy, part exotic melting pot. It has a Hindu temple, London's Big Ben clock tower in miniature, an old British colonial statehouse and busy market. I went to the Beau Vallon tourist area, mostly to see the Northolme Hotel, an old Noel Coward haunt on a pretty sliver of beach. I could picture Coward there, though the Northolme is somewhat seedy now.
Chez Plume in Anse Boileau was on the way back, so I had dinner: divine eggplant fritters, grilled shrimp and a South African white wine, followed by a steaming pot of lemon tea from Charlie's chocolate factory.
Praslin is about 65 miles northeast of Mahe and about one-fourth the size, with surfaced roads around the south part of the island and across its hilly center. A few settlements are almost big enough to be called villages, including Grand Anse near the airport and St. Anne Bay, the port for the ferry to La Digue. Cars are not as rare as they once were, though tourist vans, public buses with uncertain schedules and the occasional taxi still seem to have the run of the road.
Without a rental car now, I cast my fate to the wind whenever I went sightseeing or beach-hopping. If I got stuck, I knew I could always call a cab.
I stayed in a roomy, pleasantly decorated condo that is part of Les Villas D'Or, a discreet new development on Anse Volbert, where most--that is, perhaps a dozen--of the island's hotels are.
It looks east to Curieuse island and is narrow but a full two miles long, fringing a shallow bay with gentle waves and a cushiony sand bottom that's perfect for swimming.
I was on the deck of the condo when my neighbors, Patrizia and Marzio Barutti from Modena, Italy, stopped by. Later they found me again in the Laurier restaurant in Anse Volbert, where I had come for the Creole buffet. When the place filled up and the maitre d' tried to move me to a table full of strangers to free my spot for other diners, the Baruttis picked up their plates and joined me.
Marzio, who grows wine grapes, had come to the Seychelles to scuba dive and had seen all sorts of sea creatures, including barracudas. Patrizia, meanwhile, had sat in the boat reading. They spoke no English, and I don't know Italian. So we conversed in a kind of French that would have made a Parisian livid but suited us fine. After dinner we walked a half-mile along the beach to Les Villas D'Or under a star-studded navy blue sky.
I spent the next day touring Praslin by foot, cab, public bus and tourist van, stopping first at Vallee de Mai National Park in the uplands to walk through an enchanted coco de mer forest. These exotic palms, found nowhere else in the world except on a few of the Seychelles islands, reach 100 feet and have prized coconuts that look like a woman's behind. The nuts must be registered before they can be sold, going for as much as $2,000 each. Initials were carved into the stout trunks and were done in such a way that their scribes must have been children, suggesting that kids are the same everywhere.
Later I trudged two miles up a hill outside the village of St. Anne Bay, while a tour guide in a passing van pointed and laughed at my sweaty travail. My reward was a salad Niçoise at Chateau de Feuilles, a Relais et Chateaux inn perched on a cliff above Praslin's south coast, where the manager let me use the swimming pool when I finished lunch.
Afterward, I caught a cab to Anse Lazio, a beach on the north coast considered the island's best. It was a little like Anse Source d'Argent, but more crowded, and my sunbathing was marred because I was concerned about how I would get back to Les Villas D'Or.
The sun started to sink and the tourists were packing up when I noticed the guide who had made fun of me on the way to Chateau de Feuilles, leaning nonchalantly by his van while his tour clients got in. He smiled when he recognized me and offered me a lift.
If I'd seen only Mahe and Praslin --beautiful though they are--I would have left the Seychelles doubtful that they supersede some of the other islands I love, like St. Bart's in the Caribbean and Huahine in French Polynesia. But then I visited La Digue, an utterly beguiling miniature golf course of an island a few miles southeast of Praslin. It is about six square miles and has a population of 3,000 and about 10 miles of paved road.
Soon after it was discovered in 1744, French colonists arrived to start coconut, vanilla and spice plantations. President Rene has a classic old thatched and verandaed planter's house on a beachfront tract with a colonial cemetery known as L'Union Estate. Guests there have included British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the cast and crew of "Goodbye, Emmanuelle," a 1977 art porn film shot in Rene's house.
The ferry from Praslin, a frisky yacht called the Silhouette, lands in La Passe, La Digue's only village. It's on the west coast and is marked by an outcropping of bizarre granite boulders that don't look quite real. When I reached it--with a load of passengers that included a woman in a sari, a young nun in a white habit and a French girl with a painful-looking sunburn--I was disappointed to be met by a van from La Digue Island Lodge instead of the traditional oxcart. The driver told me there are about 50 cars on the island, though you still see the occasional wooden wagon drawn by a team of lumbering oxen, taking tourists from place to place. Most people walk or ride bikes, no small part of La Digue's slow-lane charm. La Digue Island Lodge, where I stayed for two nights, is on the beach about a mile south of La Passe. It has 60 rooms, a pool, two restaurants and a dive shop. The manager sat me down in the airy lobby when I arrived, gave me a juice drink with a paper umbrella, signed me up for a free half-day snorkeling trip on my last morning, told me where to rent a bike and showed me to my room in an A-frame on the lawn nearby. With a king bed and two lofts, it could have slept a family. Red hibiscus blossoms had been scattered on the bedspread and furniture like tropical snow.
I went straight to the cafe by the pool, where a yellow-beaked Indian myna pecked at my rolls while I ate a fresh, crunchy heart of palm salad in coconut milk. I took a dip among people wearing skimpy bathing suits and speaking only French. Soon it started to rain, lightly at first, then in torrents that made the palm trees writhe, so I retreated to my room and went to sleep, awakening to clear skies just in time for cocktail hour.
In the lobby bar, I ordered a planter's punch and met with a representative of Travel Services Seychelles. She was a young German woman named Simone who had come to the islands on vacation, married a Seychellois and stayed. I liked her immediately, chiefly because she treated me as tenderly as would a nanny, helping me plan a bike tour of La Digue for the next day. Then it was time for dinner in the sand-floored restaurant, where I could see the lights of Praslin twinkling across the channel. I ordered a seafood crepe, chicken soup, pan-fried white fish and creme caramel, all of which was good, if not exactly distinguished.
I had only a day to explore La Digue, beginning the next morning with a walk through La Veuve Reserve, around the corner from the hotel. There, a naturalist pointed out a rare female paradise flycatcher sitting on a nest in a giant badamier tree. Biking south from the reserve, I passed the island's yellow Catholic church and a gallery called Green Gecko Art before entering L' Union Estate. There I saw lackadaisical displays on copra and spice production, the president's plantation house and a stone pen containing about 20 giant tortoises, brought to La Digue for the tourists. These stinky, soulful-eyed behemoths were killed off by Europeans for their meat and today crawl free only in the isolated Aldabra Atoll, a far-flung part of the Seychelles. Finding the way on dirt roads from the tortoises to Anse Source d'Argent is a challenge. Nothing about the rutted path, lined by jungle and vegetable patches, prefigures what is to come. Then you round a boulder and see the first cove with its rocky arms embracing a baby finger of the Indian Ocean. You think about spreading out your mat, but go on, finding another, even prettier, cove, followed by another and another. On the rocks above, kids played in a scene right out of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."
I saw La Digue's other beauty spots: Belle Vue and La Citadelle, the two peaks that crown the island; wild, choppy Grand Anse, Petit Anse and Anse Coco on the east coast and the pretty countryside north of La Passe. And I took the snorkeling trip to tiny Cocos Island, a green hat of land with a fringe of white boulders 30 minutes north of La Passe harbor. There I learned that tomato groupers, clown triggerfish and Meyer's butterfly fish grow big in the Seychelles. Passing snorkelers can't evade the stare of their bulging eyes.
But nothing eclipsed my ultimate destination, Anse Source d'Argent. Lying on a big saucer-shaped rock there, surrounded by water, gazing up at a cloudless blue sky, I knew why I had come so far to get here. Some beach-lovers are compelled to look for the Mt. Everest of beaches. We know it when we find it, even if it's half a world away.
GUIDEBOOK: The Beach-Lovers' Seychelles
Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for the Seychelles is 248, followed by the local number. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 5.5 rupees to one U.S. dollar. Room rates are for a double for one night, unless otherwise noted. Meal prices are for one, food only, unless otherwise noted.
Getting there: There are myriad ways to get to the Seychelles, many of them involving numerous changes of plane. From Los Angeles International Airport, the easiest route is British Airways nonstop to London, connecting to the Seychelles. Other carriers--including American, United, British Airways, Virgin and Air New Zealand--fly nonstop to London from LAX and land at Heathrow, requiring a change of airports to connect with Air Seychelles out of Gatwick. Air France flies nonstop to Paris from LAX and connects with Air Seychelles. Another option is Lufthansa to Frankfurt, connecting with Condor airlines to the Seychelles. Not all airlines fly these routes daily.
There's ferry service between Mahe, Praslin and La Digue. Cars can be rented only on Mahe and Praslin.
Where to stay: La Digue Island Lodge, Anse Reunion, La Digue, 234-232, fax 234-100, www.ladigue.sc, has 60 rooms. Rates: $265 to $380, with breakfast and dinner. On La Digue, I also liked Patatran Village, 234-333, fax 234-344, www.the-seychelles.com/patatran/index.html. Rates: $160 to $190, includes breakfast and dinner. H0tel l'Ocean, 234-180, fax 234-308. Rate: $200, with breakfast and dinner. Both are on Anse Patate, a small but pretty beach on the north side of the island.
Les Villas D'Or, Cote D'Or, Praslin, 232-777, fax 232-505, www.seychelles.net/villador, has 10 units. Rate: $205 for studio doubles. Another Praslin choice: Le Colibri, Relais des Iles, St. Anne Bay, telephone and fax 232-302, www.chez.com/jmc/seychelles, tucked into a mountainside north of the jetty, with magnificent views and 13 rooms. Rates: $120 to $154, includes breakfast and dinner.
Valmer Resort, P.O. Box 72, Victoria, Mahe, 361-313, fax 361-159, has 14 units. Rates: $95 to $245 for one-bedroom apartments. Near Valmer, I also liked Lazare Picault Hotel, P.O. Box 135, Victoria, Mahe, 361-111, fax 361-177. Eleven rooms, overlooking beautiful Lazare Bay. Rates: $101 to $216.
Where to eat: La Digue Island Lodge (see above) has the nicest restaurant on the island. Lunches about $15, dinners about $45, with an excellent Creole barbecue on Saturday nights. Loutier Coco on Grande Anse is good for a snack or drink.
On Praslin, Chateau de Feuilles, 233-316, is a lovely place to dine; a salad, drink and coffee at lunch cost about $25. Dinner runs about $50. Laurier, 232-241, and La Goulue, 232-223, in Anse Volbert village are more casual and less expensive. I loved the fresh seafood at Chez Plume, 355-050, on Mahe's Anse Boileau; dinner, with wine and dessert, about $45.
For more information: New Adventures, 1681 N.E. 105 Lane, Anthony, Fla. 32617; (877) 862-6643, fax (352) 401-0548, www.NewAdventures.com, arranged my trip, in conjunction with Travel Services Seychelles. Mahe Trading Building, P.O. Box 356, Victoria, Mahe; 322-414, fax 321-366. Seychelles Tourism Marketing Authority, P.O. Box 1262, Victoria, Mahe; 620-000, fax 620-620.
The Seychelles Mission to the U.N., 800 2nd St., Suite 400C, New York, N.Y. 10017; (212) 972-1785, fax (212) 972-1786, www.seychelles.uk.com.
Susan Spano, who last wrote for the magazine about Germany's Fairy Tale Road, writes for The Times' Sunday Travel section.