The innocence of the Seychelles Islands.
In the middle of the day, the canopy dapples bright spots onto the forest floor, where a visitor might welcome the spotlight for a moment. In a place like Vallée de Mai, one of the jewels of the Seychelles Islands, it's easy to feel insignificant.
Set within Praslin National Park, this 48-acre nature reserve has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of two in the Seychelles. It is the only place on earth where all six of the endemic Seychelles palms grow, supporting a host of rare animal species — among them the Seychelles Black Parrot. This elusive bird is notoriously shy, but her sing-song call is unmistakable against the cackles from other wings above. Only a few hundred black parrots survive; they are known to breed only in this lush primeval valley.
The Seychelles — a collection of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean — is an African nation, though its capital, Victoria, lies more than 1,000 miles from the continent. The remote location only adds to the country’s allure. While most of the population is confined to the three largest islands — Mahé, Praslin and La Digue — even the many uninhabited islands have a distinctly Seychelles character.
But perhaps no place personifies the islands better than Vallée de Mai. With its hushed, tangled forest and abundance of rare palms, plus the swoop of exotic birds overhead, the place can easily be taken for the ultimate paradise. It has happened before.
In 1881, General Charles Gordon was dispatched from England to the remote Seychelles Islands. Upon exploring Praslin, the second-largest of the islands, Gordon developed an extensive theory that Vallée de Mai was the original Garden of Eden. He suggested that the forbidden fruit of that garden was the coconut from the Coco de Mer palm.
The details of General Gordon’s proposal don’t really stand the scrutiny of today’s understanding of geology. Yet many of his ideas bear remarkable resonance to current theories. General Gordon proposed that the Seychelles’ inner granite islands were the remaining tips of a sunken continent.
In fact, good data suggests that 150 million years or so ago, as the Gondwana supercontinent broke up, huge plates wandered northeast (India), west (Africa) and south (Madagascar and Australia). Left behind was the Mascarene Platform, which slowly sank into the sea with uplifted fingers — becoming the original 41 islands. Since then, 74 coral islands have formed around them, as if standing sentry.
Wherever its location, the story of the Garden of Eden is an account of lost innocence. And a kind of innocence drifts throughout the Seychelles experience — slightly out of reach, as if it’s to be found just around the next bend, or on the next beach or in today’s sunset.
The impression is unmistakable in Vallée de Mai.
A handful of trails surround and divide the park; visitors can choose a combination for hikes lasting from one to three hours. Every turn in every trail reveals a stunning improvisation on a theme, a visual jazz riff in the key of green. The lead soloist is always the majestic Coco de Mer palm. Fronds from that tree can reach more than 14 meters (roughly 45 feet) and the seed is the world’s largest; Coco de Mer sets the scale for the bright and open canopy above.
“I’ve been in jungles throughout Africa, Latin America and East Asia,” says John Schellnhuber, a climate scientist from Germany visiting on holiday. “But this place is really unique. It’s like a Gothic cathedral built by palms.”
Even the beaches throughout the Seychelles — consistently celebrated as being among the world’s finest — offer cathedral-like serenity. Praslin’s Anse Lazio is the most popular beach on the island, for good reasons. Framed in granite to the north and south, Anse Lazio presents the warm turquoise water of Chevalier Bay against fine white sand. It even offers natural relief from the sun, with shade trees lining the beach. But perhaps most striking is what’s missing: Visitors are spared the choking traffic jams, souvenir merchants and elbow-to-elbow crowding that characterize so many “world-class” beaches. In fact, the last short stretch leading to Anse Lazio is actually a dirt road.
Other islands in the Seychelles weigh in with their own versions of innocent simplicity. La Digue is known for spectacular beaches and for its relaxed transportation strategy: Other than a few cars for hire, the preferred wheeled transport is bicycle or ox cart.
To the north is Bird Island, a private resort and nature reserve named for the million-plus sooty terns that nest there every year. Far to the southwest is Aldabra, the Seychelles’ other UNESCO World Heritage site. Uninhabited and remote, Aldabra is one of the largest coral atolls in the world and home to the world’s largest giant tortoise population.
Nearly half of the Seychelles’ total land mass is set aside for conservation protection. In this context, the big island of Mahé might seem positively cosmopolitan. After all, the capital, Victoria, has intersections with the nation’s only two traffic lights.
All roads in Victoria seem to lead to the clock tower (locals call it the Seychelles’ “Big Ben”), just a short walk from the harbor, shop, museums and a botanical garden, as well as an open market selling produce and the day’s catch of fish.
Mahé is only 17 miles long and no more than five miles wide, so everything is a leisurely drive. Upland, one can find reminders of earlier times, including a spice garden and a working tea factory. And sad reminders of earlier, not-so-innocent times, such as the ruins of a school for children who were rescued from slave ships. Yet even from that site, the reward is a view of the island nothing short of spectacular.
Journeys around islands tend to end where they started. In any direction there’s never a hurry. The beach is as close as the next wide spot in the road to leave your car, your shoes, your watch and your to-do list.
Back in Vallée de Mai, there is a flat rock at an intersection of two footpaths where a visitor can pause for a brief rest. It is silent, but for the conversations of the birds above. Then a cooling breeze wafts in from the sea, giving lift to the notion that perhaps General Gordon was right about paradise all along.