I hope this is not too blasphemous, but it seems almost certain the writers of Genesis came from the Seychelles. Not because of the apple, original sin, serpents or anything like that. No, because the 117 islands of the Seychelles (spread over 600,000 square miles) inspire almost every traveler, writer, filmmaker or photographer who passes this way to describe them as Eden. Even their setting – sticking up from the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles east of Africa in a place where, seemingly, no island should be – seems miraculous. Nearly everything I had read, heard or seen about the Seychelles came with hyperbolic words: spectacular, stunning, breathtaking, dazzling, indulgent, ineffable, wow, zing, ka-pow – you get the idea. And don’t be surprised if they crop up again in this missive. For divers, the Seychelles are the holy grail of the exotic hit list.
These granite islands poke their heads out of an otherwise empty corner of the Indian Ocean, so everything with fins in a thousand-mile radius considers the Seychelles an oceanic way station. A plethora of pelagics passes through: mantas, whale sharks, several species of sea turtles and – yes – sharks. Most of the islands have sites with names like Shark Corner, Shark Pinnacle, Le Place du Shark, Sharky-shark-shark this and that; so, you’ve got a pretty darn good chance of seeing, well, sharks. Combined with dizzying visibility, negligible current and an abundance of schooling tropicals, it’s no wonder the place has such a reputation.
But despite all that, I’m sitting here on the Robinson-Crusoe-escapist fantasy of Fregate Island Private Resort (about 45 minutes by boat from the main island of Mahe) in my stunning villa, looking over a brilliant stretch of beach and tantalizing blue water, thinking that everything that has been said, written or filmed is false: this place is truly even more astonishing when you see if for yourself. And therein lies the rub for me.
I always seem to end up in the most romantic, dazzling, fabulous places on earth with the worst possible affliction: I’m traveling alone. So, after two days on the impossibly romantic Fregate Island, I start to see the world differently. Everywhere I look, there are googly-eyed couples. The giant tortoises that roam the private island resort come in pairs. The island, at the time of my visit, is rampant with boobies and fairy terns nesting in every available nook of every tree on the island. It is a bit like Noah’s ark: every being in sight makes its appearance in an amorous, starry-eyed pair. At breakfast, lunch, dinner; on the incredible beaches; at the pool; wandering the pathways and through the banyan trees are couples.
Fregate Island is devoted entirely to privacy, indolence and pleasure – not a bad way to live, even if one is on one’s own. Movie stars, industrialists and travelers looking for the ultimate in TLC come here. Many guests (the island only allows 40 at a time) never leave their villas except to repair at some civilized hour to a private beach or to take the private dive boat out to one of a myriad of nearby sites. It’s easy to understand why: The dreamy canopy bed in the sleeping villa is like an idling passion portal, the separate living room seems devoted to inducing an agreeable state of apathy, and for the adventurous there’s a private hot tub, private outdoor showers, a day bed and views of talcum-soft beaches that inevitably end up on top-ten lists in travel magazines. But I know that the magazine’s readers aren’t going to be satisfied with a description of me lounging in my bed, lolling on the couch reading another book, or achieving a perfect state of inactivity on a private beach by calling beachside room service to my sandy haven to freshen my Tanqueray and tonic. That, I decide, is probably not in itself going to play well in a magazine of readers with a craving to explore. Not when, as we all know, the world’s last frontier – the Seychelles – sits atop all of our fantasy lifetime lists.
So – dang you – after much mental coercion I manage to rouse myself from the lovely fog of lassitude that dominates my motivations and eases the romantic pain of being sans wife, and out I go to find the “muse of fire” that will expose the beating blue heart of this Indian Ocean Eden.
As I look over the ocean from my villa, I imagine undersea vistas with passion-fueled fish fighting for space on the reef. Heck, even the reef itself is probably ready to burst with unbound mutual attraction jus to rub my nose in my single state of affairs.
Soon we’re off on one of Fregate’s dive boats (there is a romantic couple, of course, on the boat with me) to Marianne Island where we hope to find sharks and pump some energy back into this adventure. The way things are going on this trip, though, I know they’ll be mating, stirring up the sand and scaring away all the other marine life. On the other hand, not too many people have witnessed gray reef sharks in the throes of passion. So, I can always hope.
The best conditions for diving the Seychelles occur from April through May and October through November, when the seas turn to glass. I’ve arrived in the cusp of the season, so there’s a bit of a swell of Marianne: enough to cause a massive granite boulder, teetering on a smaller rock, to sway back and forth. So, throughout the dive, we are accompanied by what sounds like the creaking and groaning of an old wooden ship rocking on an easy sea. And it is around this rock that the first gray reef sharks show up for a curious pass around our group. Shaped like rockets, gray reefs look like they’re fueled by fusion. You can feel and sense their lively energy.
They swim in patterns. Watch the pattern, ease up to the edge of it, and they swim past you, at the same distance, all day. All through the dive, a school (or maybe it was a dad-gum group date) of about 10 vertically-shaped batfish circle us, coming in close, rising up to the surface and back down, all eyes on us. Several massive parrotfish strut their garish colors in front of the black granite, standing out like drag queens at Mardi Gras. A thick school of snapper weaves among the rocks and, as we transect a sandy meadow, stingrays – a couple, of course – explode out of the sand. On the slow track back to the boat, several lobsters reveal themselves, and I have a nice encounter with perhaps the only other single critter in the Seychelles, a spotted snake eel lazing the day away in preparation for its nocturnal hunt. We bond instantly.
Later, we hit a hot spot off the island of Praslin called Saint Marie. This granite outcropping is only inhabited by birds and is a favorite site for local PADI operators. You can circumnavigate the islet underwater if you’re just looking for some exercise, but if you really want to experience the variety of life that calls this underwater city home, you need to take it slow. Here, pink anemonefish – in pairs, of course – pockmark the rocks with their gaudy purple anemone homes. Always in a state of agitation, they zip and dash among the stinging tentacles. Every time I stop enjoy their show, I find the nearby reef covered in life. Some of the best-camouflaged stonefish I’ve ever seen rest in the rocks. And in the shadows I find thick aggregations of soldierfish, bright red-orange under the beam of my dive light. Wrasse and parrotfish meander around the rocks while gobies stand sentinel on their rocky kingdoms. We discover a couple of lazy nurse sharks idling under a ledge, fully understanding the vibe of the Seychelles, even underwater.
Back on the island, I part ways with the couple and drive my golf cart – they call it a trolley here – back to my villa, where I walk into the splendid isolation that this sybaritic escape is famous for. The evening sky turns from pale blue to pink to orange as I lounge on my verandah. Fruit bats fly overhead; mingling stars pop out of the twilight, one by one. The water, despite the darkening sky, holds on to it surreal blue until long after the sun has slipped off into infinity. I order room service with a pleasurable bottle of merlot, dessert and even an after-dinner port. The locally caught fish is so fresh I can still hear the zing of the line it was caught on; the vegetables were probably pulled from the hydroponic garden that morning. After the meal, feeling expansive, I wander down to the hot tub, strip down and ease into the water under a stunning field of glittering stars.
Along the shoreline I can see the trail of a dorsal fin as a shark patrols the shallows. All those words: zing … kapow … ineffable … flood through my mind with each sip of wine. And then I see it. A second shark fin slides up next to the first and, side by side, they prowl the shallows, no doubt caught up in each other’s starry-eyed apex-predator prowess.
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