Island Hopping in the Seychelles

Come for the pristine turquoise beaches. Stay for the granite boulders, bold curries, wild hiking, and warm-hearted people.

Island Hopping in the Seychelles

Anse Source d’Argent, on the island La Digue in the Seychelles, is said to be the one of the word’s most photographed beaches.

Photo by Sarika Bansal

I had my eye on the Seychelles for some time—the archipelago of 115 sun-soaked islands in the Indian Ocean, 1,200 miles off the coast of East Africa. From my native New York, it’s a journey to get there, but from my adopted home in Nairobi, it’s only a three-hour direct flight. And during the pandemic, it ended up being exactly what we needed from a family vacation.

My husband, 1.5-year-old daughter, and I spent almost two weeks exploring the Seychelles’ three main islands. We explored the beaches with their signature granite boulders and clear warm water. We snorkeled alongside neon tropical fish, a stingray, and a needlefish. We hiked through dense jungles, feeling sweaty and serene. The flavorful curries had me eager to buy fresh spices so I could recreate them at home. We met some of the most generous and relaxed people on the planet.

And I will always think of Seychelles as the place that unlocked my daughter’s voice: She sat on the shoreline and started confidently telling stories in toddler babble.

The islands’ physical beauty is undeniable; even if you don’t identify as a beach bum, the Seychelles will turn you into one, by showcasing how diverse this biome can be. Beyond the natural attractions, the country exuded a sense of casual peacefulness, which felt like a salve during this time. I could see why most of our fellow tourists—usually from Europe—were visiting the Seychelles for the 3rd, 7th, or even 12th time.

The country was closed to international visitors for nearly a year, until March 2021; in the meantime, many people lost their jobs and relied on COVID relief from the government. But now, with about 80 percent of the country fully vaccinated and no required quarantine period for visitors, tourism seems to be getting back on its feet. David Germain, regional director of the Seychelles Tourism Board, says the country saw 185,000 visitors in 2021, including 6,000 who visited directly from the United States. (For comparison, the Seychelles had 384,000 visitors in 2019.)

Itinerary

We flew from Nairobi to the biggest island, Mahé, home to the international airport. (Qatar, Emirates, and Etihad all fly from New York to Mahé, usually via Dubai or another Middle Eastern stopover.) The archipelago has three main islands: Mahé, Praslin, and La Digue; many of the others are uninhabited, home to a single resort, or serve as bases for fishing expeditions.

Our trip lasted 12 glorious days, during which we stayed in three guesthouses. We started our trip on the north side of Mahé, in the town of Beau Vallon. After a few days, we took the ferry to La Digue—via a pit stop in Praslin—and spent five days on this three-mile strip of boulder-studded beaches, shallows, and lush hills. We concluded our trip on the south side of Mahé. It was the perfect amount of time to get a taste of the country, while leaving me a wish list of places to explore on my next visit.

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Left: A rare and highly protected coco de mer nut, which has given rise to several legends. Weighing in at over 40 pounds, it is the de facto symbol of the Seychelles. Right: Sunset on Beau Vallon Beach, Mahé’s most popular beach

Photos by Sarika Bansal

Where to stay in the Seychelles

Given how vital tourism is for the economy, Seychelles is full of hotels, all-inclusive resorts, and self-catering holiday homes. We opted for the self-catering option throughout our stay: our favorite, Domaine Les Rochers in La Digue, was a family-run garden oasis minutes from the town center. The bungalow we rented felt cozy in the best sense: The bedding was comfortable and stylish, the wraparound porch was perfect for reading when it rained, and the well-appointed kitchen included some ingredients like oil, spices, and fresh fruit. My daughter spent the early mornings chasing the resident cats and chickens. We felt right at home.

For a more upscale stay in La Digue, Domaine l’Orangeraie has dozens of rooms at various price points, an infinity pool, two restaurants, and a full-service spa on a hilltop. In Mahé and Praslin, the Constance Hotels (Ephelia and Lemuria, respectively) offer similar amenities, and on the north side of Mahé, in Beau Vallon, the Savoy and Story resorts are popular hotel options.

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Left: The Arulmigu Navasakti Vinayagar Temple is located in the heart of Victoria, the country’s capital. Hinduism is the largest non-Christian religion in the Seychelles. Right: A jungle bar selling coconut water near Anse Major

Photos by Sarika Bansal

Things to do in Mahé

Mahé is home to about 90 percent of the Seychelles’ approximately 100,000 residents. It’s the largest island in the archipelago—4 miles wide and 16 miles long—and the most developed. Over the coming days, I’d come to appreciate the shift from Nairobi’s urban craze to Mahé’s island speed, the lilting Creole Seychellois accent, and of course, the tropical weather (most days were in the 80s and sunny, though there were a few rainstorms). We spent our days exploring beaches, hiking, and learning about Seychelles’ culture and history. We ate well. We drank rum. And we made friends along the way.

Best beaches on Mahé

Seychelles beaches have the seemingly requisite pristine white sand and turquoise water, but even more striking are the large granite boulders and secret cove-like settings. All of the country’s beaches are public, even ones accessed through hotels, which made our wish list all the more extensive.

Barrier reefs protect many of Seychelles’ shorelines, which means calm water by the shore—perfect for our beach baby—and ample snorkeling. Our last few days in Mahé were dedicated to beach-hopping, armed with our trusty paper map, the thorough website Snorkel Report, and a book, Seychelles 20 Most Beautiful Beaches.

Mahé’s larger beaches offer a unique charm. Fun beach bars and restaurants flank Beau Vallon Beach, likely Mahé’s most famous beach; from here, I witnessed one of the most colorful sunsets of my life, with views of the majestic Silhouette Island. On the other side of the island, the wide expanse of Anse Intendance features large crashing cerulean waves and a mountain backdrop. Great for surfers, less ideal for toddlers.

We enjoyed Port Launay, a half-moon beach close to the five-star resort Constance Ephelia and located within a Marine National Park. Though most of the coral is sadly bleached, the bay is still home to colorful tropical fish and sea turtles. The beach offers silky sand and plenty of shade from indigenous takamaka trees. Anse Soleil is a small, picturesque cove beach on the other side of the island near the Four Seasons Resort (that was harboring a multimillion-dollar yacht when we visited). Anse Gouvernment, Sunset Beach, and Anse Forbans were other favorites—but above all, Anse Major was the star.

Where to hike on Mahé

On our first full day in Mahé, we did a short, moderately difficult hike to Anse Major. The path alternated between climbing exposed rockface, with views of the azure ocean below, and trekking through a jungle. The trail spat us out onto a tiny beach rimmed by palm trees and boulders. The water was warm, someone had hung up a rope from a palm tree to swing on, and a tiny jungle bar sold fresh coconut water. I felt like I was in a movie. We later learned that the trail continued to two other beaches, that people sometimes grill seafood on the third beach, and that you could also arrive at the beach by boat taxi. But we were so enamored by the secret cove beach that we didn’t venture further. (Tip: Drive on the paved road past the official trailhead to where the trail actually begins, close to the hotel Calm Sorento. That will save you about 20 minutes of walking on pavement each way.)

The winding, mountainous San Souci Road is dotted with trailhead markers. We opted to trek Morne Blanc, a steep out-and-back trail to a great viewpoint, from where we could see half the island, neon blue water, and white paradise flycatchers soaring in the sky. Copolia Trail is another popular, and less intense, trail in this area. The website AllTrails is an exhaustive resource for walking enthusiasts. (Note: I wore normal sneakers and didn’t see a need for hiking shoes. We carried our daughter in a baby carrier for most of these hikes. Bring ample water.)

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The lunch spread at Le Jardin du Roi

Photo by Sarika Bansal

Where to eat on Mahé

Many people visit the Seychelles, stay in a resort, and leave having only had European-style food. In doing so, travelers will miss the complex, rich flavors of Creole cooking, the casual fun of “takeaway” barbecue joints, and the coconut-forward desserts.

My most memorable meal was at Le Jardin du Roi spice garden, on a hilltop in the center of the island. The set lunch menu—much of which was sourced from the garden—included a few appetizers, such as star fruit marinated in olive oil and breadfruit braised in coconut milk. The main course featured fresh fish, flavorful curries, and tenderly cooked lentils. (You can buy packets of its curry powder before leaving.) Entry to the garden comes with a map, which can serve as a guide around the verdant, untamed property. I saw my first coco de mer tree, a highly protected tree that grows a nut that can weigh over 40 pounds and is shaped like a woman’s bottom, as well as my first aldabra giant tortoise.

We had another indulgent meal at Del Place, close to Port Launay Marine Park. It features local artwork on the walls and a seafront view (complete with an island to admire!). We loved the melt-in-your-mouth red snapper, fried eggplant, and sweet potato mash. We further treated ourselves to the “dessert degustation,” a tasting menu of six cakes, tarts, and mousses.

Other restaurants I would recommend on Mahé include Le Perle Noir and La Scala, both upscale Italian restaurants in Beau Vallon; Marie Antoinette, a family-run Creole restaurant; Baobab Pizzeria, a casual pizza eatery with a fabulous view of Beau Vallon Beach; and Kafe Kreol, which offers a mix of cuisines and creative cocktails.

Finally, we had a lovely time at the Takamaka Rum Distillery, a family-run distillery making rum for about 20 years. We toured the medicinal gardens, learned about how rum was produced, and tasted six products—including white, brown, and spiced rums. It was 11 a.m., but the tour guides clearly knew how to start a party anytime. As we sipped the spirits, they gave us recipes for pina coladas, rum raisin ice cream, and mojitos.

Culture and history of Mahé

My travel style is to see fewer places for a longer time, and use that time to get a sense of what it would be like to live there. For example, I checked out Sir Selwyn Clarke Market, a covered food market in the heart of the country’s capital, Victoria. Built in 1840, the market showcases vendors selling produce, specialty foods like giant cinnamon sticks and vanilla essence, and Seychelles souvenirs.

I did feel a bit of culture shock in the market as I watched vendors wrap all the produce in plastic bags (Kenya banned plastic bags in 2020). There was far more single-use plastic throughout the country than I anticipated, particularly bags and water bottles, especially considering that the Seychelles are in the middle of the ocean and boast some of the cleanest beaches in the world. According to Germain from the tourism board, the importation of single-use plastics has been banned as of February 2021, and vendors are using up their supplies. There will be a gradual shift to paper bags and glass bottles over the coming years.

Part of the reason the country has such a small population is that humans didn’t settle on the islands until the late 18th century, when French traders realized that the archipelago occupied a strategic location between Mauritius and India. Though the French formally ceded control of the islands to Britain in 1814, the French influence has remained strong until today, in the Creole language and the cuisine. In 1835, slavery was abolished throughout the British empire, and liberated people were able to get jobs on plantations in exchange for food and wages.

The Seychelles didn’t shy away from discussing its complicated past—in fact, places like Mission Lodge have a statue honoring the children of formerly enslaved people who attended school there. Germain says the country will soon be restarting a program called “A day in the life of a Seychellois,” in which you visit the market and cook a meal together with a local—a chance to better understand Creole identity and history.

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The view from the highest point of La Digue, at the summit of Nid d’Aigle, including the neighboring island of Praslin

Photo by Sarika Bansal

Things to do in La Digue

What La Digue lacks in size—the island is three miles long and two miles wide—it more than compensates for with relaxed vibes, jungle hikes, and the most breathtaking beaches I’ve ever seen. It’s home to only 3,000 full-time residents and a handful of motorized vehicles, making it somehow feel larger.

We spent almost a week on this spit of land, and I would seriously consider renting a house and staying for a month or two. (Luckily, the island has a small hospital, and the more developed island of Praslin is only 15 minutes away by ferry, in case anything were to go wrong.) I have happy memories of cooking fresh eggs for breakfast, setting out on our bicycles with a loose plan, our daughter giggling when we went fast, and discovering something beautiful every day.

Beaches and hiking on La Digue

La Digue has what is believed to be the most photographed beach in the world, Anse Source d’Argent, accessed most easily through L’Union Estate. It was the busiest beach we visited on our whole trip, but we were able to find a quiet spot for reading and napping. The atmosphere is surreal, with massive boulders that look golden at sunset. The water was so clear that you could see giant fish swimming by your ankles. We spent several hours here, and I can’t wait to return and admire this beach again.

We also enjoyed Anse Severe, particularly around sunset—though beware of sea urchins! I wish I had brought water shoes with me. Anse Patates has some of the bluest water I have ever seen, and lots of hidden spots between rocks to lay out a beach towel and read a book. One day, we rode our bicycles to Grand Anse, where the waves were even bigger than the boulders. There are trails from there to sister beaches, but a huge rainstorm had us cycling back to our guesthouse.

We trekked to the highest point on La Digue, Nid d’Aigle, which I would rate as moderate to difficult, as it was steep and slippery in parts. The views made up for the unsure footing: between the viewpoints, we had a 360-degree view of the area, including Praslin and the tiny islets surrounding La Digue. Next time, I’d plan to hike to the beaches Anse Marron and Anse Cocos, though due to the unmarked trails, they are best visited with a guide.

Where to eat on La Digue

My two favorite spots to eat on La Digue were among the more casual: Rey & Josh Cafe Takeaway and Chez Jules. Thinking about Rey & Josh makes me smile: the owners were warm, the chef was clearly passionate about good food, and though the atmosphere was simple, it made people feel comfortable. If you’re lucky, you may even learn about “secret menu” items based on what ingredients the chef was able to find. We enjoyed it so much that we returned for a second meal.

Chez Jules is a classic Creole restaurant, an open-air straw hut located opposite Anse Banane on the northeast part of the island. It had an extensive menu, bold flavors, chile sauce that turned my ears hot, and friendly service.

Other favorites include Mimi’s Café, famous for its coconut cheesecake (though I preferred the coconut ice cream); Belle Vue, which offers a set menu paired with a sunset view halfway up the mountain; and Le Repaire for a more upscale Italian experience.

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Anse Lazio on the island of Praslin, captured in the rain

Photo by Sarika Bansal

Things to do in Praslin

We didn’t stay overnight in Praslin, but took advantage of the few hours we spent here. We visited the Vallée de Mai, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. The nature park is home to over 1,400 endangered coco de mer trees, called as such because sailors first thought they grew in undersea forests, as well as the rare black parrot. At Pirogue Restaurant and Bar, we enjoyed grilled fish and Creole-style pasta.

Next time, I hope to spend some time at Praslin’s famous beaches, including Anse Lazio, which has been called the most beautiful beach in the world, and Anse Georgette.

How to travel within the Seychelles

There are two main ways to travel between islands: ferry and airplane. The Cat Cocos Ferry links Mahé, Praslin, and La Digue. It takes about an hour to travel from Mahé to Praslin, and another 15 minutes to La Digue. Alternatively, Air Seychelles offers flights between the islands, as well as to smaller islands across the archipelago (the flight from Mahé to Praslin takes 20 minutes).

To get a real sense of Mahé and Praslin, I’d recommend renting a car and packing a folding paper map (I know, so retro); Google Maps will work just fine, though. We put stars next to all the beaches and hiking trails we wanted to check out, along with notes from people we met along the way. We cherished the freedom of driving around Mahé’s windy roads and spontaneously stopping at farmers’ markets, beachside cafés, and art galleries. However, if you don’t feel comfortable driving, taxis and public buses are available.

Commuting around La Digue is more fun: The tiny island has few cars, and the best way to get around is by bicycle, which you can rent from a few shops near the ferry. Our daughter loved sitting in the baby seat and zooming down the island’s handful of roads. Alternatively, you can walk or hire a motorized buggy.

For my next visit . . .

I’m already planning my second visit to this unique archipelago. I would spend more time on La Digue. Between the relaxed lifestyle and the wild beaches, the tiny island has a special place in my heart.

I would plan for a few days in Praslin, which feels somewhere in between Mahé and La Digue in terms of development. I’d explore the Vallée de Mai more thoroughly, snorkel at Anse Lazio, and discover hiking trails. Meanwhile, my husband would certainly go scuba diving, either on Praslin or Mahé.

I didn’t get to check out one of the country’s resort islands, such as Denis Island, which—according to every person I met who has been—is otherworldly. I’d also spend some time on Seychelles’ less inhabited tracts, such as Silhouette Island and the islets surrounding La Digue.

And I would return to spend time with the warm-hearted people I met. Perhaps I would assist in a beachside barbecue, learn a few steps of the traditional moutya dance (now recognized by UNESCO as “intangible heritage”), and make daiquiris for everyone—with local Takamaka rum, of course.

Things to know about Seychelles COVID restrictions

Our trip did have a rocky start. International travel is complicated these days, and Seychelles is no exception. Long story short: We didn’t have the required PCR test for our daughter and ended up having to turn around and rebook a flight for two days later. (If you’ve ever been to the airport with a baby, you can appreciate how stressful this was.)

Learn from our experience and have a smoother trip by following these steps:

  1. Check the Seychelles’ official website for up-to-date travel information.
  2. Vaccination is not required to enter the Seychelles, but all travelers–including infants–must produce a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to departure.
  3. As soon as you have your negative test results, complete the Travel Authorization Form. (There is a rush charge for filling it out last minute, as we learned the hard way.)
  4. Make sure to take plenty of face masks with you–if you’re in public and not wearing one, you could be fined.
  5. Once you arrive in the Seychelles, you can prebook a PCR test at pcrtest.sc. The process was extraordinarily efficient: Two men in hazmat suits showed up at our guesthouse, where we were lounging in bathing suits. We received our negative results and necessary QR codes by email a few hours later. It felt peak 2022.

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Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of AFAR Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
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