Here I am, on a sunny afternoon in the Seychelles, helming a 39ft catamaran heading towards the island of La Digue. I feel like Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds — commanding, if a bit twitchy limbed. Googly eyed certainly, but that’s to be expected with all these important-looking dials and switches to tend. In truth, I am more mesmerised by the ocean’s swishy slap and the black silhouettes of frigate birds as they glide across a ridiculously blue sky.
Actually, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’m a sailing virgin, but our skipper is trying his best to educate me. Unfortunately he lost me at the point where I’m meant to keep us on a heading of 248 degrees, because at the slightest touch of the wheel the numbers go up, then down again.
It’s a miracle I’m still near the target, because my inner child is itching to spin away like a furious Captain Pugwash battling a storm. Never mind. The sea and our jaunts around these inner islands are satisfying enough. And besides, we have not only a skipper — the laid-back and thus improbably named Jeremy Bossy — but two experienced sailors in our group.
We sometimes see another catamaran — the odd monohull too — but it’s hardly the busy Med. No yacht-stuffed harbours, no queueing for a table at chichi bars. Instead, we are as free as frigate birds, dropping anchor at will, trailing a line for fish, then scrabbling around islands and snorkelling off gorgeously empty beaches.
Apart from the tourist-crammed day cruises, sailing in the Seychelles is a relatively new pastime. These 115 islands are better known for honeymoons, as I wincingly recall from a solitary visit among a conveyor belt of sweating brides. Yet for sailors there is scope to dress down, buzz off and feel the breeze.
Sure, you are restricted to the less hazardous inner island group, but there are dozens to choose from, most with safe anchorages and short travel times. For us that means a few days pootling around Mahé, the main island, where there is a smart new marina, then bumbling between Praslin, Curieuse and La Digue. With a decent dollop of time, you could take in ten more islands and still have time to chill.
A week’s yacht charter in the Seychelles costs from £4,214 for a Sunsail 404 four-cabin catamaran yacht
Home is the Dou-Reve IV, a four-cabin catamaran with two heads (that’s bathrooms to an ignoramus such as me), a neat little saloon and galley, and plenty of space to flop about, including the trampoline between the hulls. I quickly appreciate the lovely stability that makes sleeping and eating on board relatively comfortable, especially in a lumpy swell.
More of that later. It is sunset and we’ve dropped anchor at Beau Vallon on Mahé’s northwest coast. The sea, a remarkable emerald green flecked with gold, zips with flying fish. On land, the darkening forest erupts into cackles and caws and fluting whistles as birds hunker down for the night.
Our RIB (rigid inflatable boat) drops us on the sands and we join a queue at a haphazardly stocked grocery store, piling our bags with chilled cans of Eku beer before strolling back to the foreshore, where Jeremy introduces us to a former skipper, Didier, who mans a barbecued fish stand. In a place where food prices are rocket high, these enormous emperor fish (one could feed four) cost only £10, including rice, mango coleslaw and creole sauce.
It makes for a great dinner on board — the Seychellois equivalent of popping to your chippy — and the night sky obliges with dazzling constellations. Meal done, we head to the trampoline. And what joy it is to lie there, lulled like babies in a cradle, yelping in delight as the velvety darkness sparks with shooting stars.
Morning ushers in whip-tailed tropicbirds scooting over the ripples. We’re just off Praslin, the second-largest island, and it’s time for a snorkel. As we plop into the bath-warm sea, yellow-finned batfish nudge our limbs. However, they’re small fry — forgive the pun — for what we are about to witness: an upside-down Attenborough world of blue damselfish, speckled parrotfish with leery grins and, my favourite, yellow and black gobies swarming through the reefs like seafaring wasps.
There are 150,000 giant Aldabra tortoises on the Seychelles — 50,000 more than there are humans
We catch breath on Anse Lazio, a slip of sand strewn with granitic boulders. It’s empty but for stalk-eyed ghost crabs. At the water’s edge turquoise shallows darken to the shadow of a lemon shark. I could stay here all day, but there’s Praslin’s famous attraction to explore — the Vallée de Mai forest, declared by General Gordon of Khartoum to be the original Garden of Eden.
Inevitably, its Eden-like emptiness has given way to tourist-heavy trails and a hefty entrance fee of 350 Seychelles rupees (about £21), but it’s worth a visit if only to gawp at the double-lobed coco de mer, the world’s heaviest seed (weighing up to 30kg), whose sensuous shape bears more than a passing resemblance to a Kardashian derrière. We ache our necks to make out dizzyingly tall treetops whose palm leaves flap like wind-battered sails, our eyes straining to detect giant geckos and zippy skinks.
It’s a short motorsail to Curieuse, a dinky island run by the Marine Park Authority. There are no hotels or restaurants — just 150 giant tortoises cared for by a charming warden called Jason. “Can you believe the Seychelles has 150,000 tortoises?” he asks. “That’s 50,000 more than humans.”
The oldest here is a sprightly 115 years. Jason has favourites — “one I call Mike Tyson because he likes to bite from behind, but actually I love them all” — and it’s easy to see why as we wander through this red earth-streaked island, sometimes followed by a frisky 50-year-old who wants nothing more than a neck tickle. My heart, however, is lost to the trio snoozing in a large pond. Their stillness and blissed-out expressions resemble ladies wallowing in a spa bath.
Another day, another giant tortoise. Or rather dozens of them when we drop anchor at neighbouring La Digue. The island is stuffed with tortoises, some as stationary as parked cars in tiny front gardens, others plodding along the dusty main road or taking shelter beneath shop steps. I visited La Digue 20 years ago and, although my heart plummets at the sight of so many new hotels, they’ve been sensitively designed. Bikes still outnumber cars and the beaches remain beautiful.
It’s hard to pick a favourite beach and I’m torn between the hibiscus-fringed Grande Anse, where furious waves thrash at a strand of empty white sand, and Anse Source d’Argent, whose elephantine granite boulders fringe shallows of limpid turquoise. Just as lovely are the birds — the soundtrack of throaty cooing from the dozens of ground doves, the dazzle of scarlet-feathered Madagascar fodies and long-tailed paradise flycatchers. To me this is a modern-day Eden.
Less appealing are the enormous flying foxes. OK, they’re bats rather than birds, but being daytime flyers it’s a mistake easily made. As our noses prick to their whiff of decaying fruit, our guide, Hamid, laughs. “We eat them all the time,” he tells us. “You must try it.”
Well I love a challenge, so bat curry is what we order. How we enjoy saying “pass the bat”, but even so, as I pluck a sinewy wing from the dark-brown sauce, I thank God for the disguise of spices. One gristly bite later and I vow to stick to fish.
And fish we find as we set sail — silvered shoals flickering in the depths beneath the prow, our fishing line twitching to life to reveal a resplendent bonito. Wimps that we are, we let it go, delighting instead in the fact that we are sailing properly, the mainsail unfurled and soothing ocean sounds replacing the engine noise.
We are not the only ones to delight in the calm. The sea erupts with movement as four dolphins playing now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t chase our wake. Our skipper shrugs. It’s nothing to him, but for us it’s an unforgettable moment, arguably lovelier than being on land.
Need to know
Louise Roddon was a guest of Sunsail (0330 3321188, sunsail.co.uk). A week’s yacht charter costs from £4,214 for a Sunsail 404 four-cabin catamaran yacht (sleeping up to eight people). This includes a fully equipped yacht, all sailing, navigation and safety equipment, linen, a starter pack, snorkelling equipment, dinghy and outboard, a full cylinder of cooking gas and full tank of water, a tank of yacht fuel, cleaning and a yacht damage waiver (insurance). Flights from Gatwick to Mahé with Emirates cost from £500pp, with transfers from £10.
The hillside resort Banyan Tree in Mahé has a week’s B&B in an ocean-view pool villa from £2,875pp
Great breaks for less in the Seychelles
By Ben Clatworthy
Le Domaine de l’Orangeraie, La Digue
Perched above the beach on the northwestern hillside of La Digue, Le Domaine de l’Orangeraie, with its infinity pool and huge spa, is a great couples retreat. Tropical Sky (01342 886595, tropicalsky.co.uk) has cut its prices by £370pp on stays between May 25 and June 30. A week is now from £1,819pp, including flights and transfers, if booked by January 31.
Constance Lémuria, Praslin
A multimillion-pound refurbishment ended last month, so now you can stay in even more style — and at bargain rates. Seven nights’ B&B in a junior suite is from £2,790pp (a saving of £792pp), including flights and transfers, departing between January 7 and May 15 (01494 678400, turquoiseholidays.co.uk).
Banyan Tree, Mahé
Kick back by the pool, flop in the spa or take long walks on the golden sands at this chic hillside resort. The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3131 5588, theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) now has a week’s B&B in an ocean-view pool villa from £2,875pp (a saving of £919pp), including flights and transfers, on all departures — any day of the week — from now until March 31. Holidays must be booked by January 31.
L’Archipel Hotel, Praslin
Set on a tropical hillside, this cool boutique hotel is the perfect base for lazy days on the beach, or slow cycle rides around the island. Secret Escapes (0843 2277777, secretescapes.com) has 30 per cent off holidays departing in January and February. Seven nights’ half board is now from £1,639pp, including flights and transfers. You need to book by Tuesday though — a perfect antidote to Christmas stress.
Kempinski Seychelles, Mahé
Holiday Place (020 7644 1755, holidayplace.co.uk) has cut its prices by £650 per couple for stays at the Kempinski Seychelles. Five nights’ costs from £929pp, including flights from Manchester with Etihad, departing on May 2.
This one isn’t a deal but it’s a good price for a sailing trip, taking in Praslin and La Digue, as well as some smaller protected islands. A seven-day Seychelles Sailing Cruise with Responsible Travel (01273 823700, responsibletravel.com) costs from £945pp, departing each Saturday in May, including all meals, but excluding flights. Flights from London Heathrow to Praslin are about £770 (skyscanner.com).