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Flip flop or island hop in the Seychelles

June 6, 2012 5 comments

The beautiful island of La Digue in the Seychelles.

Home to giant tortoises and some of the best beaches in the world, Alannah Eames discovers the Seychelles is not just a playground for the rich and honeymooners.

Read the online article published by The Times of Malta or download a pdf of the printed article.

Seychellois cuisine: one of the world’s best kept secrets

Maria Rock Café on Mahé: cook your own fish and seafood on a hot plate.

I had little to no expectations of Seychellois cuisine before my trip, merely looking forward to fresh fish and giant shrimps. I wasn’t disappointed. The Seychellois Creole cuisine is inspired by African, Chinese, Indian, English, French and Indian influences. Ingredients like ginger, coriander, pepper, lemongrass and fresh herbs play a key role.

While the food is not as hot or spicy as Asian cuisine, one of the most popular meals is curry which is usually made with fresh coconut cream, and served with rice.

Seychellois chefs use elements borrowed from their neighbors and have adapted them to conjure up their own local dishes. This is aided by the vast availability and quality of local fruit and vegetables.

You’re spoilt for fish in the Seychelles … red snapper is a firm favorite.

Fish is, by far, the most popular dish on most menus, which is not surprising considering the vast variety of fish in the huge oceanic territory belonging to this island nation.

Some of the more exotic and unusual dishes we discovered on menus were red snapper in vanilla sauce served with cinnamon-flavored rice (Le Rendez Vous) fruitbat stew (Anse Soleil Café)and tuna & tequila (Anchor Café).

During our eight-day stay in the Seychelles, we tried a wide selection of local restaurants and restaurants located in hotels. The best food, value-for-money and atmosphere was, without a doubt, in the non-hotel based restaurants, with the exception of the Indian Ocean Lodge in Praslin where both lunch and dinner were excellent.

Some personal favorites:

Maria’s Rock Café, Baie Lazare, Mahé: tucked away on a sleepy road, this cave-like bar and restaurant is owned by Maria, the Seychellois spouse of Italian sculptor Antonio Filippin who owns the studio next door. What makes it special is that you can cook your giant shrimps or red snapper yourself on garlic butter on a hot iron plate which is placed on your table. Simple, delicious and fun.

Le Rendez Vous, Victoria, Mahé: in the heart of the Seychelles’ capital, this is the perfect spot for people watching and gives you a bird’s eye view of local Seychellois life on the streets below.

Anse Soleil Café, Mahé: If you want to try a local delicacy, fruitbat – either grilled or in a stew.

Chez Batistas, Mahé : great lunch buffet on Sundays; and fantastic views over Takamaka Bay.

Simple, fresh and exotic … the local Parrot fish.

News Café: perfect breakfast or lunch spot with a selection of local newspapers. And good coffee – choose from Illy or Lavazza. Interestingly, they both have a different price!

Anchor Café, Mahé: run by a super-friendly Seychellois lady and her American-born husband, their speciality is delicious blackened fish (catch of the day – we had jobfish – spiced with whatever herbs they have in the kitchen and a carefully guarded secret) or their more original tuna steak with tequila sauce.

Marie-Antoinette, Victoria, Mahé: set in a splendid old plantation house, the walls are covered in history and memoralia. And don’t forget to say ‘hello’ to the resident giant tortoises in the pen outside. This is the perfect spot to end your holiday in the Seychelles, before boarding your flight home.

And the not-so-special:

Sea Horse, Constance Lémuria Resort, Praslin: the chef may have a Michelin star under his belt and the management may claim to offer a fusion of local and European cuisine, but the influence here is heavily European, mainly French. If you’re coming from Europe, and are looking forward to Indian Ocean cuisine, you won’t be impressed to see foie de gras, duck, Angus beef and other French delicacies on the menu. It may be interesting if you are sick off the local Creole cuisine or if you are the kind of person who likes to stick to what you usually eat, and know, from back home. And, the French sommelier, definitely wasn’t impressed, or friendly, when I asked for the South African instead of the French wine.

Take-away at Praslin airport, Praslin: The locals tend to get a takeaway and enjoy it at home or on the beach. It’s cheap, quick and tasty. Unfortunately, I opted for a fish curry here not realizing it was dried and salted fish which is then placed into the curry; I ended up with a mouthful of fish bones and salt. But, for EUR 4, I guess I can’t complain!

Pirates Arms, Mahé: With rumors abounding amongst the local fishermen about some modern-day Somali pirates venturing into the Seychelles outer territory, and about Madagascar-based pirates landing in the Seychelles centuries ago, we were eager to check out this place. Disappointingly, the closest we got to seeing pirates were two elderly Rastafarians propped up at the bar. Good spot to enjoy a drink but it’s more like an American-style diner than a restaurant or café.

Grann Kaz restaurant on Silhouette Island: authentic Creole food in an old plantation house. Check out their homemade vanilla-flavored rum!

James Bond-style hideaway on Praslin

The Balinese-style eco-friendly decor and ambiance at the Constance Lémuria ensures all buildings nestle snugly into the surrounding landscape.

The best resort on Praslin – the second largest island in the Seychelles – is unquestionably the five-star Constance Lémuria resort belonging to Mauritius’ Constance hotel chain which has properties across the Indian Ocean, stretching from Madagascar to the Maldives.

Opened in 1999, the Lémuria is located on 100 hectares of grounds on the secluded north-west tip of Praslin. It’s also home to the only 18-hole golf course in the Seychelles. Yet all the rooms and buildings – with their natural wooden Balinese style décor – nestle snugly into the landscape. There’s also a choice of three beaches, one of which – Anse Georgette – is considered one of the prettiest in Praslin.

Not surprisingly, the Lémuria – which boasts two helipads and a Michelin-star chef – is the preferred choice for well-heeled tourists and VIPs coming to Praslin. Due to its professional service, it’s also extremely popular for weddings – especially the viewpoint at T15 on the golf course with its stunning views over the cliffs and ocean.

When it comes to booking a room, it’s a tough choice between the 750-square-meter pool villa with personal butler or a suite located a stone’s throw from the sandy beach. Extra features like a special bath menu for guests in the pool villas and little gifts for long-stay or wedding guests, add to the feeling of exclusivity.

Elisha Ally, Guest Relations Officer, surprises me when she says that the average stay is only four nights as you’re spoilt for choice in this resort. Every day, there are organized activities like yoga classes, walks to neighboring beaches or bicycle rides across the island. For children, the Turtle Club is one of the nicest looking kiddie’s clubs I’ve seen for a long time. With its designer swimming pool, an enviable collection of games and activities like “be a pirate” and movie evenings, I doubt kids ever want to hang out with their parents.

Kids can spend hours of fun here at the excellent kiddie’s club.

Other attractions at the Lémuria include the Shiseido spa, the Boat House – a wonderful little restaurant perched on a peninsula overlooking the two beaches, and the perfect spot for a sundowner, and my personal favorite – the in-house Turtle Manager.

Sea turtles lay their eggs every year on the Lémuria’s beach area; the Turtle Manager’s job is to monitor all activities related to the turtles’ movements. A series of small wooden signs mark the date the eggs were laid and warn people of the presence of the eggs.

The focus at the Lémuria is on professional service with a distinctively European touch. Every whim is taken care of. The Business Lounge caters for guests who arrive early before check-in time and for those who need to catch a late evening flight.

The night we stay at the Lémuria, there’s a special themed dinner buffet to celebrate India’s National Day. There’s also a man dressed in Indian traditional clothes acting out an Indian folklore story and we watch him as we sip on an Indian-inspired cocktail, an excellent cinnamon mojito. As I’m allergic to Indian spices, unfortunately, we take dinner in the Sea Horse restaurant where I struggle hard to find something on the menu that does not involve foie de gras, Angus beef or duck.

Stunning views from the Lémuria’s golf course… and with three beautiful beach areas, you will be spoilt for choice.

The Lémuria is a beautiful property set in an absolutely stunning location and you certainly won’t get bored there no matter how long you stay. On the downside, it has a very strong French influence and if, like us, you want to escape from the stiffness and formality, cuisine and grandeur of Europe, and experience the true local charm and hospitality of the Seychelles, you’re not going to find it here. But, if you like to enjoy European standards and cuisine, in the heart of the Indian Ocean, this is the place to be.

Five stars for three-star Indian Ocean Lodge

After a night at Praslin’s most exclusive hotel – the Constance Lémuria Resort – we try out something completely different: the three-star Indian Ocean Lodge, ten minutes’ away.

The Indian Ocean Lodge is charming, value-for-money and service and food surpasses its three-star ranking.

Expecting the move from five-star to three-star to be a disappointment, we’re quickly proved wrong.

From the moment we check in to our delicious lunch of fresh stir-fried Calamari and grey jackfish with tomato chutney, topped off with a fresh coconut milkshake, we’re sold by the personal service, charming setup and friendly laid-back feel of this small property.

Owned by Mrs. Mason – the Seychellois owner of Mason’s Travel, who Richard Simon, General Manager of the Indian Ocean Lodge, jokingly calls “our very own Margaret Thatcher”, one of the largest travel agents on the islands – it is part of a chain of three properties: one on Mahé called Carana Beach Hotel (under reconstruction) and a five-star resort on Denis Island called Denis Private Island Resort.

The 32 villas are all located close to the beach and carry the marine theme from the sand and sea into the bedroom so “guests don’t feel a conflict when they go inside,” says Richard. The double shower amuses me – “The honeymooners love it,” he jokes – as do the kitschy but cute Coco de Mer-shaped lampshades.

Tonight there is a set menu which I am not really a fan of, but, once I start eating, I’m impressed. The culinary experience kicks off with a watercress soup and I try the palm heart with fresh mint; after looking at palm trees for the past week, it’s the first time I taste this local ingredient. Main course is grilled barracuda steak, roast lamb loin or a local fish called bonito darne with ginger sauce served with coconut rice which I choose, seduced by the combination of fish, ginger and coconut. In a naughty twist, for dessert, they serve up the popular European desert Black Forest gateau with a watermelon coulis. It’s an unfussy dinner, a cosy atmosphere, the sound of the waves breaks in the background and the service is personal and fast. What more can you ask for.

The Indian Ocean Lodge is good value-for-money. Half board for two people per night will cost around EUR 220.

Tip: If you like the Indian Ocean Lodge, why not island hop between the other resorts in the chain. Spend a few days on the main island of Mahé when you arrive, followed by three or four days in Praslin and then head off for the five-star experience on Denis Island.

The Indian Ocean Lodge is a good base from which to explore Praslin’s wonderful beaches which are amongst the best in the world.

The ‘Jurassic Park’ of the Seychelles

Volcanic Silhouette Island – 20 kilometers north-west of Mahé and measuring 20 square kilometers – is the third largest island in the Seychelles.

Named after Etienne de Silhouette, the French Minister of Finance during Louis XV’s reign, the island has dramatic scenery with mountainous peaks up to 740 meters high; it’s also located within a Marine National Park.

The island was owned by the Dauban family – originally from France but who settled in Mauritius – and their 150-year-old plantation house still exists today as the Grann Kaz restaurant, which is now part of the Hilton Labriz Resort, the only hotel on the island. The house is a protected monument which has been lovingly restored to its former glory. Inside it’s like a museum, filled with antique takamaka (a local strong and dark wood) furniture. It also has its own in-house rum, infused with local flavors like vanilla.

Grann Kaz restaurant on Silhouette Island: authentic Creole food in an old plantation house. It has been lovingly restored and houses many antiques from its colonial past.

A few members of the large population of resident giant tortoises found on Silhouette Island, a haven for nature lovers.

But what really makes Silhouette worth a day trip from Mahé is its fantastic hiking paths and native flora and fauna. A big fan of wildlife, when I asked what kind of animals I can expect to see, I was told: “The sheath-tailed bat, giant millipede, grey slug local cricket and grasshopper.” As I loathe creepy crawlies and had never heard of this almost extinct bat, this didn’t really blow me away. But, once I heard it was also a breeding site for the Seychelles giant tortoises and home to the elusive black parrot, I got slightly more interested. By the time, I left the island I too was fascinated by its giant millipede, which can grow up to 35 centimeters long, and the last-remaining samples of this local bat.

Around 135 locals live on Silhouette Island, excluding guests and staff at the Hilton Labriz Resort, a plush five-star property. Tourists and day-trippers are also welcome thanks to the Silhouette Experience, the initiative of the Island Conservation Society (ICS), which has recently set up turtle, sheath-tailed bat and coral reef monitoring activities on the island. The package includes the boat trip from the Hilton Labriz’s jetty at Bel Ombre, Mahé, guided tour and walks around Silhouette, a visit of the giant tortoise farm and a Creole lunch at Grann Kaz.

The Hilton Labriz ferry takes guests and day trippers alike to and from Silhouette Island, a 30-minute boat ride from the main island of Mahé.

As we depart from the Bel Ombre jetty, dark clouds loom over Silhouette and the waves pick up. January is marked by the north-west trade winds which explains why the sea here is a bit choppy. Luckily, the crossing takes just 30 minutes; some hotel guests with poor sea legs opt for the James Bond-like helicopter transfer from the international airport.

If you fall in love with Silhouette, you might consider staying at the Hilton Labriz, not just to enjoy its spacious suites but to try out its fantastic Flintstone-like spa. Instead of knocking down boulders and trees to build the spa, the spa has been built around the natural vegetation. As a result, granite boulders peep up through the wooden floorboards in the treatment rooms, palm trees sway right next to the windows and the stunning relax area makes you feel a million miles away from reality.

If you’re looking for modern day comforts in a back-to-nature surrounding, the Hilton Labriz presses the right buttons. Vincent from Guest Relations has worked on many of the islands during his career in the hotel industry. He tell us that Silhouette is one of the best because “it’s just so peaceful”.

Do it all in two wild weeks…

How often have you dreamt about standing right next to the thundering Victoria Falls, enjoying a sundowner on Cape Town’s stunning Table Mountain, shopping in Johannesburg, gliding in a dugout canoe through the swamps of the Okavango Delta and sleeping in a remote bush tent… but thought it not possible as your budget – and holiday leave – only stretches to two weeks.

Well, it is doable. In January my husband and I explored Southern Africa in 15 days. We spent five days in Cape Town, a weekend in Johannesburg, two days at Victoria Falls and five days in the Okavango Delta, taking in the best of South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan sights and culture.

 

"Do it all in two wild weeks", by Alannah Eames

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames in the travel section of the Sunday Times, Malta, July 24, 2011.

Daily life in a ‘bush office’

July 4, 2011 2 comments

A few nights in a super-exclusive, eco-friendly tented camp or lodge in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta doesn’t come cheap. But you are guaranteed a once-in-a-lifetime experience and memories you will treasure forever.

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames published on July 3, 2011, in The Times of Malta. Sunday edition.

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