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Exploring Beyond the Sand in Exotic Seychelles

May 19, 1991|RUTH M. RICHMAN

VICTORIA, Seychelles — Despite its 2:30 a.m. departure, the Air Seychelles flight from Singapore to Mahe was early confirmation of what my husband Ken and I had heard about Seychelles' atmosphere of sensual tranquillity. It was early December and we were ready for it after traveling five exciting but grimy months in Asia. It was time for the relaxed, romantic part of our extended honeymoon.

We stretched comfortably in the half-empty 767 jet for seven hours, interrupted only by soft-spoken flight attendants bearing tropical fruit.

As we thumbed through glossy photographs of secret coves, crystal waters and tropical forests in an in-flight magazine, we understood why a British bosun had called Seychelles "an earthly paradise" when his ship landed on one of the islands in 1609.

Despite such praises, the British weren't interested enough to make a bid for Eden until more than a hundred years later, when they saw that the French and their slaves had begun settling Seychelles, growing cassava, maize and sugar. The two colonizers struggled over the islands until 1814, when the British won them as part of the treaty that ended the Napoleonic Wars.

The Seychelles, in turn, won independence from the British in 1976, but lost democracy a year later when France's Albert Rene took control and made himself president of a new socialist government. Since then, Rene has had to foil at least three coup attempts.

Today the islands are peaceful. The most unsettling aspect for visitors is getting the name right: The country is called Seychelles; the islands that comprise it are the Seychelles.

Having learned that distinction, Ken and I spent the last part of our flight trying to decide which of the 115 islands to visit. The Seychelles are sprawled across a stretch of the Indian Ocean roughly the size of California, but their total land mass is less than half that of New York City's. The islands are about 600 miles northeast of Madagascar, about 1,000 miles off the East Africa coast from Mombasa, Kenya. In fact, only about 20 of the islands are considered tourist destinations; eight offer overnight accommodations.

Still, there were choices to be made among islands formed from sand, coral or granite. We knew we wanted to see some of the latter, because Seychelles has the only mid-ocean granitic islands in the world. Because the plane was landing on Mahe, the largest of these, we stopped planning and decided to start exploring there.

Bedraggled but excited, we crossed the palm-fringed tarmac, already hot at 6 in the morning. But we didn't start to perspire until the man at the immigration counter said we couldn't enter the country.

"You don't need a visa to enter Seychelles," he explained, "but you do need hotel reservations." We didn't have any. Smack in the middle of nowhere, Seychelles isn't exactly a place people visit on a whim--but that's what we'd done.

Fortunately, the airport tourist information booth had plenty of brochures, a telephone and a very helpful staff. After waiting an hour for the island to wake up, we were booked into a bungalow at Lazare Picault overlooking a quiet bay.

The first thing we learned on Mahe, other than an instant appreciation for Disney-blue skies and sweet-smelling air, was that we needed a car. Some scientists believe that the islands of the Seychelles were formed millions of years ago when a shift of the earth's tectonic plates fractured the coast of Africa and swept it up toward India, leaving pieces behind. Thus the islands are like miniature continents, complete with rain-forested, mountainous interiors rich with potential adventures but difficult to reach.

In fact, Seychelles is much more than a string of beautiful beaches. After a few days of shameless lazing on some of those isolated stretches of sand, we began our discovery of Seychelles' interior.

Snug in our rented mini-moke (slightly larger than a matchbox car and probably equally safe), we negotiated narrow, winding mountain roads to Victoria, Seychelles' charming capital. At the tourist center there we bought guidebooks for seven nature trails that have been blazed on Mahe and some of the surrounding islands.

We spent the next afternoon struggling up an almost vertical path past wild cinnamon, vanilla and insect-eating pitcher plants to the 2,307-foot summit of Mahe's Trois Freres.

The trail at the top wasn't well-marked, and the climb took a lot longer than the guidebook said it would, but one look over the steep, forested hills to the swirls of blue and green waters surrounding distant islands made it all worthwhile.

Ken explored some of the other trails during the next several days, learning about fruit bats and banana trees, while I probed the island's underside.

Beneath the silky waters of Seychelles, another world teems with multicolored corals, spectacular fish and hundreds of other creatures I'd seen only on public television.

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