"Don’t be alarmed if I make any sudden movements during the flight," says my helicopter pilot as I take the seat next to him on a piercingly bright morning at Frégate Island Private. I nod hesitantly in response to this introduction, just before the tiny aircraft lurches upward, prompting a flurry in my stomach. "There are many birds in the Seychelles," he elaborates, perhaps noticing the stiffness in my posture, "and they haven’t yet learned to fear the chopper."
As if on cue, dozens of fairy terns and frigate birds whip in and out of the helicopter’s path as we take to the air over Frégate Island. But my fear for their safety—and mine—dissipates as we rise above the Indian Ocean. Speckled with miniature footprints of land, the cerulean expanse stretches past the inner islands of Seychelles toward an implausibly blue sky.
Such captivating scenes are standard in the African nation of Seychelles—as are close encounters with nature. Located about 1,000 miles east of Kenya in the Indian Ocean, the country of some 115 islands is home to more than 240 bird species and 900 fish species but fewer than 90,000 humans, most of whom live on the main island of Mahé. During my three nights in Frégate Island’s Golan villa—a stunning French Colonial–style oceanfront suite that comes with a dedicated private assistant—I mingled more with magpie robins, Seychelles fodies, and giant tenebrionid beetles than I did with other human beings.
Thick with jungle, the 741-acre Frégate Island appears a forgotten paradise, save for the 17 villas discreetly situated along its shore. The exclusive private-island resort was the first of its kind in Seychelles, and its 1998 debut marked a turning point for the country’s tourism. "The Seychelles guest experience has undergone a great transformation," says Steve Hill, Frégate’s former ecology manager who is now an independent environmental consultant. Having led various conservation efforts in the islands since 1996—including reintroducing magpie robins and other endemic species to Frégate—the South Africa native has seen firsthand the evolution of Seychelles tourism. "Frégate was one of the first properties to bring high-profile visitors to the islands," says Hill. "It has since sparked a new generation of luxury resorts in Seychelles that continually raises the bar."
Indeed, since the debut of Frégate Island Private, several upscale resorts have opened throughout the Indian Ocean chain, each seemingly looking to outdo the one before it. From the ultraexclusive North Island resort to the new Four Seasons on Mahé, Seychelles hotels have come to represent tropical travel in its finest form—and more are on the way.
For Hill, who consults for the soon-to-open Zil Pasyon private-island resort, the recent increase in luxury-hotel development is not cause for concern. In fact, Hill believes that Seychelles’ most exclusive properties have the potential to save, rather than spoil, the islands. "The founding philosophy in Seychelles remains one of fewer guests at a higher price, rather than the mass-tourism models that have ruined so many other destinations," he says.
Hill cites Seychelles legislation that caps both the number of beds that resorts can have and the total number of tourists to the islands (currently 200,000 per year). Ecological regulations in Seychelles—where nearly 50 percent of the land is protected by the government—encourage developers not only to conserve their surroundings, but also to restore them, eradicating nonnative animals and plants and reintroducing native species before most development begins. The result, according to Hill, is a Seychelles even more pristine and exotic than before.
When Hill first arrived at Frégate Island, the former coconut plantation had been inhabited by feral pigs and other invasive animals and plants. He led efforts to restore the ecological balance of the island by removing species that were not native and replenishing endemic species that had disappeared. Today, just 13 years after the resort’s debut, Frégate has the largest population of magpie robins, fodies, and Seychelles blue pigeons in the country, and the second largest population of Seychelles giant tortoises.
This concept of restoring native habitats has been repeated successfully elsewhere in Seychelles, including at North Island. One of the most recent—and most ambitious—undertakings is on the 430-acre Alphonse Island, located in the remote outer islands (thus known for their long distance from Mahé). Surrounded by miles of densely populated reefs, Alphonse Island was a coconut plantation before becoming home to a rustic fly-fishing lodge in 1999. In 2007, the island was taken over by ecotourism company Great Plains Conservation, which operates high-end game lodges that help fund wildlife-preservation programs in Kenya, Botswana, and elsewhere in mainland Africa. Great Plains is currently attempting to restore Alphonse and the surrounding reefs to their natural states—save for the addition of a luxurious villa resort that will replace the existing lodge.
Expected to open in late 2012, Alphonse Resort will feature no more than 18 guest villas and six residential villas built with bamboo. "We felt that this amount of development was the most we could do without taking away that sense of pure isolation," says Ralph Meyer-Rust, managing director for Great Plains Seychelles. Through the removal of anything alien—from cats who have wandered off boats to foreign palms remaining from the plantation—Meyer-Rust and Great Plains hope to re-create the self-sustaining ecosystem that existed before the burden of human presence. "The goal here is to mimic the island’s original state," says Meyer-Rust. "The resort must factor into the island, not the other way around."
A similar philosophy applies at North Island, which opened in 2003 in Seychelles’ inner islands. Like Frégate and Alphonse, North Island was an abandoned plantation—in this case a spice farm and coconut-oil distillery—that had been infested with nonnative species, including rats and cattle. After taking over the island in 1998, South African ecotourism company Wilderness Safaris rid the property of pests, restored native plants and animals, and built a resort that today ranks among the world’s finest. The mountainous 500-acre island features just 11 expansive villas that artfully combine rustic elements such as recycled takamaka-tree-trunk columns and thatch roofs with high-end designer furnishings, plasma televisions, and iPod docking stations hidden behind burnished African teak panels.
Not all of Seychelles’ exclusive retreats are of the private-island variety. Raffles Hotels and Resorts is opening an 86-villa property on Seychelles’ second-largest island, Praslin, in early 2011, and the main island of Mahé is home to a Banyan Tree resort, the laid-back Maia Luxury Resort & Spa, and a new Four Seasons, which opened last February. Set on Mahé’s southwest coast, the Four Seasons Resort Seychelles features 67 tree house–style villas that line a series of cliffs above a private beach.
Sharon Theron, operations manager for Great Plains Seychelles and wife of Meyer-Rust, has lived on Mahé for four years. While leading me on a tour of the island, the South Africa native points out signs for several other new developments along the main road. On the road—a narrow street that follows the island’s perimeter and has only one traffic light, in the capital of Victoria—we pull over several times to allow oncoming buses packed with Seychellois schoolchildren to pass. "The government has been strict, looking at places like the Maldives and Mauritius as examples of what they don’t want to become," Theron says of the hotel-construction boom. "But there is only so much space, and there is only so much that can be built here without reclaiming the land from the sea."
Theron is not alone in her concern about overdevelopment on Mahé. But like Hill, Meyer-Rust sees an upside to Seychelles’ new resorts. "As the bar on luxury rises, so too does the bar on environmental restoration," he says. "By limiting access, we are able to control the human impact, as well as provide a truly exclusive experience."
The potential for an exclusive experience is even greater at Alphonse Resort and other properties in the outer islands. Among Meyer-Rust’s few neighbors in the area is Desroches Island Resort. Opened in 1985 within the Amirantes archipelago, Desroches recently renovated its 20-suite main hotel and added 27 oceanside villas. The resort plans to build 22 more villas, but even with the new additions it will only occupy a modest portion of the 3.7-mile-long island’s jungle-and-beach landscape.
Shortly after arriving at Desroches Island from Alphonse, I board the resort’s Amirante Cat for the hour-long trip to St. Joseph Atoll. The 14 islands in St. Joseph are uninhabited, rendering them even further removed from the world than Desroches already is—a fact that sinks in when we arrive at our destination.
The Amirante anchors at a spot where the water turns almost instantly from bleached blue to near black. According to my guide, Wayne Thompson, the color shift indicates a sudden drop of several kilometers. As the boat straddles the line between the shallow ridge and dark abyss, there is not another sign of human presence anywhere in sight.
I dive into the shallows to go snorkeling and soon spot a massive sea turtle swimming along the reef. Losing all trepidation of the edge, I turn to follow. The turtle quickens its pace, but I stay close, mesmerized by the slow-motion gracefulness of its fins cutting through the water, which has now turned to a deep indigo pierced only by the equatorial sun’s intense rays.
My moment of bliss comes to a sudden halt as three whitetip reef sharks pass me going the opposite direction. Though I have been assured that the sharks are harmless—and these specimens are likely no longer than 4 feet each—I envision them doubling back and gnawing at my ankles or, worse, swimming off to tell their big brothers about the human intruder. Panicking, I make a break for the boat, my strokes growing increasingly frantic.
When I finally reach the Amirante and step out of the water, I wonder if Thompson notices the slight shake in my hands. As if anticipating such an encounter, he greets me with a sandwich and a SeyBrew—the local island beer—to soothe my nerves. I pop the bottle open, take a long swig, and, as we bob in the sea watching shark fins circle below and frigate birds soar overhead, I savor my latest close encounter with nature in Seychelles.
FRÉGATE ISLAND PRIVATE
A Seychelles standard-bearer, this private-island resort opened in 1998 and is generally credited with initiating the archipelago’s luxury-resort boom. The 17 well-spaced villas on Frégate feature a crisp French Colonial style, and each comes with a personal assistant. Two restaurants and a variety of private dining experiences take advantage of the island’s plantation and hydroponic gardens, as does the resort’s Rock Spa, where treatments incorporate papayas and coconut oil. ($1,828 to $2,250 per person, per night) +27.21.556.99.84, www.fregate.com
One of the best beach resorts anywhere in the world, this 500-acre retreat opened in 2003 after an exhaustive restoration of the island—an abandoned former spice plantation and coconut-oil distillery that had become overrun with rats and other invasive species. North Island is now a pristine tropical paradise that, in addition to the 11-villa resort, is home to the Seychelles white-eye and other rare bird species. Each of the villas includes a butler’s kitchen, an expansive sundeck, and a bathroom that can accommodate in-room spa treatments. Daily catches and guests’ preferences guide the island’s no-menu cuisine. Diving lessons are offered in the resort’s pool and are designed to get beginners in the ocean in just half a day. ($2,660 to $4,200 per person, per night) +248.293.100, www.north-island.com
DESROCHES ISLAND RESORT
A variety of sea life surrounds this 3.7-mile-long private island, which makes the most of its setting with snorkeling, diving, fly-fishing, and other outdoor excursions. Land-based attractions include a spa, tennis courts, biking and jogging trails, and eight miles of immaculate beaches. Renovated in 2008, the 20-suite original hotel was joined by 27 new three- and four-bedroom villas with private beachfronts in 2009. Twenty-two additional villas ranging from three to four bedrooms are currently under construction and are available for full or fractional ownership. ($450 to $1,050 per person, per night) +27.13.737.6626, www.desroches-island.com
Seychelles is perhaps best known for its private-isle retreats, but the main island of Mahé offers several exclusive options of its own, including a brand-new Four Seasons with a most favorable perch.
Banyan Tree Seychelles: This southwest Mahé resort’s 60 pool villas are distinctly Seychellois in design and are decorated with local art. Three restaurants—one emphasizing traditional Creole dishes—offer the best of the region’s flavors, although private dining under the stars is the preferred option for most guests. ($1,100 to $6,000) 800.591.0439, www.banyantree.com
Maia Luxury Resort & Spa: Each of the 30 guest villas at this mellow luxury resort, which opened in 2006, is deeply embedded in foliage and includes an outdoor dining gazebo, an infinity-edge plunge pool, and an ornately tiled bathtub. Recreation at Maia focuses on nonmotorized sports, such as kayaking and snorkeling, to maintain the sense of tranquility at the resort.
A La Prairie spa furthers the peaceful theme, offering massages by Bali-trained therapists, treatments designed for children, private yoga and qigong classes, and more. ($2,167 to $3,250) +248.390.000, www.maia.com.sc
Four Seasons Resort Seychelles: The newest resort on Mahé, the Four Seasons Resort Seychelles unfolds along 170 acres of granite cliffs overlooking Petite Anse, a pristine beach once frequented only by in-the-know locals. The property’s 67 guest villas and 28 residences are scattered along the cliffs and offer some of the most breathtaking views in all of Seychelles. Facilities include a hilltop spa, a fitness center, a yoga pavilion, and an aquatic center. ($740 to $10,000) +248.393.000, www.fourseasons.com
ON THE HORIZON
Coming soon to Seychelles are two additional private-island retreats, as well as a Raffles resort and residential development on the country’s second-largest landmass.
Zil Pasyon Resort: Located on the 660-acre private island of Félicité, this ultramodern resort is scheduled to open in late 2011 with 44 villas, nine of which are available for full or fractional ownership. Amenities will include an Espa facility, a wine cellar carved from rock, and private helipads for residents. +44.207.268.2103, www.zilpasyon.com
Raffles Praslin Seychelles: This 86-villa resort is set to open in January on the island of Praslin, located 15 minutes from Mahé by helicopter. Facilities will include four restaurants and a RafflesAmrita Spa with 13 treatment rooms. An adjacent residential area will consist of 23 three-, four-, and five-bedroom villas. 800.768.9009, www.raffles.com
Alphonse Island: Great Plains Conservation took over this 430- acre private island in 2007 and is attempting to restore it to its original state, eradicating alien species and reintroducing native flora and fauna. The African ecotourism company plans to open an 18-villa resort on the island in late 2012, and eventually to add as many as six four-bedroom residential villas. The area’s abundant marine life will be a focus of the resort, with diving excursions and trips to the uninhabited and wildlife-rich neighboring islands of Bijoutier and St. Francois. 303.974.5323, www.greatplainsconservation.com