Indian Ocean Exotic: Sailing in the Seychelles

Warm, sweet air washed over us like aromatherapy. After 30-some hours of flying from Boston to Mahé Island off the east coast of Africa, Caroline and I were finally in the Seychelles. Our Moorings 44.3 charterboat was only a five-minute cab ride away. Alleluia.

IMG_0816Still somewhat deranged from the long journey, we shopped in the wonderfully tiny and disorienting capital “city” of Victoria, just up the road from the charter base, to augment the provisions we’d ordered from The Moorings. It didn’t take long to walk off the airplane-seat cramps, acquire a selection of fresh fish and vegetables at the outdoor market, and take off from the marina. Our first goal was to sleep finally sleep—swinging at anchor off nearby Ste. Anne Island.

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All we remember about that first night, before passing out, exhausted from the travel, is the starlight, the silhouettes of palm trees against a backdrop of Ste. Anne’s granite cliffs, and the gentle swaying of the boat at anchor. We didn’t wake up until the hot equatorial sun sizzled into our bunk—and the local authorities pulled alongside to collect their fee. It’s a routine we came to know well. What keeps the cruising grounds in the Seychelles stunningly pristine is the fact that many of the islands and anchorages lie within protected national parks. Cruisers pay a visitor fee (US$15 per day) to anchor in the park—a small price to pay to sail in an area that’s not littered with anything except natural beauty.

DSC_0006With our fee paid and the morning coffee just kicking in, we soon had water burbling in our wake; the mountains of Mahé faded into the distance as the more-remote islands, about 20 miles to the northeast, came into view. The prevailing winds in the Seychelles come from the northwest in the winter and the southeast in the summer. Pretty easy. There are winter and summer anchorages, and the northerly winds we experienced last December were light. That was just fine with us. Here we were, plopped down close to the equator on a comfortable boat on the Indian Ocean, and we were anxious to wind down from the manic pace of traveling 14,000 miles.

IMG_1009Ghosting along, slowly ticking off the miles between Mahé and the islands of Praslin and La Digue, was better than a spa treatment. We slipped easily between them and took a left to the small island of Curieuse, which promised a peaceful anchorage and lots of land-based natural goodness. We didn’t even need to mess with the anchor. There was an empty mooring, obviously waiting for us, as we nosed in and admired the classic scene: a white-sand beach rimmed with palm trees and granite boulders punctuating the shore.

IMG_0594Two nights of well-earned sleep, a day of lazy sailing over from Mahé, and multiple snorkel explorations had done wonders. We were ready for the friendly guys who came to collect our park fee, and soon took to the dinghy. As we approached the beach, one of those big black rocks scattered among the palm trunks started moving—slowly.

IMG_0861Curieuse is a sanctuary for giant tortoises. We paid a park guide to show us the tortoise nursery (baby tortoises are cute) and introduce us to the docile adult giants that roam free on the island.

IMG_0588Later, happening upon tortoises that weigh well over 1,000 pounds and live to be over 175 years old as we explored the island’s trails made us feel like guests in a Darwinian fantasy world. And this was only the beginning. Back on the boat, the heat of the day was intense; we were easily enticed into water of perfect clarity and temperature.

After several days of solitude on Curieuse, we sailed five easy miles to Praslin’s Baie Ste. Anne so we could replenish our stores. We were greeted with open arms before we’d even entered the harbor. Local fisherman and chief welcomer Robert and his son were smiling and waving wildly to us from their dinghy, pointing toward the mooring ball we should take.

IMG_0771We were told about Robert during our chart briefing at the base, and there he was, happily eager to help in the accented English of a native French speaker. “I’ll be back with some fresh fish,” he said. He brought some homemade charcoal, too, and his fee was embarrassingly reasonable.

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Normally I’m skeptical about touristy things, but Praslin and Curieuse are the only places in the world where the coco de mer tree, whose fruit contains the largest seed in the world, is endemic. The Valle de Mai impacted me in ways I really wasn’t expecting. These remarkable giant coconuts weigh upward of 30 pounds. As we walked around the lush forest, spotting giant palm spiders, screeching birds, and towering palm trees, we were grateful that it’s still possible to experience something so rare and beautiful in its natural environment. The coco de mer has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, and I can attest that we definitely felt the fertility of the place. Robert’s last gift to us as we were leaving Praslin was a homemade fishing rig (a fishing line and a lure wrapped around a discarded plastic spindle). The lure was skimming along behind our boat as soon as we left the harbor. Eager to sail off some of the heat of the island, we circumnavigated La Digue before eventually pulling into its man-made harbor.

IMG_0946Our sails were pulling comfortably and the sun was red in the west when the line went taut. We caught the first of several fish, a bonito, which sensibly jumped out of my hands as we shot the requisite photo. We tied up stern-to in the harbor. Rental bikes opened up the entire island for us, and several white-tablecloth restaurants gave us honeymooners a break from the daily chores of cooking and cleaning in anchorages without many cruiser amenities. The bikes gave us a view of this island community that, with its small, quaint houses and a few churches spread out along narrow, winding roads, was reminiscent of the tiny island communities we’d sailed to in Maine—but, yes, a bit more exotic.

IMG_0698La Digue is known for its stunning beaches, so we spent a few days soaking up the rays, the water, the funky vibe, and the restaurant service before we were ready to return to natural wonders. Our time on the boat was winding down, and we’d been advised to visit the Coco Islands for the “best snorkeling in the Seychelles” and the world-renowned bird sanctuary on Cousin Island. Both destinations are a short hop from Curieuse’s little overnight anchorage. Snorkeling around the Cocos was as good as advertised. We swam with school upon school of colorful fish, but the highlight for me was encountering a manta ray in the deeper water where we’d anchored.

IMG_0857The gratitude meter kicked in strongly as I swam (for a moment) with such a large and graceful being in the wild. We felt almost at home returning to Curieuse to spend the night, and we had time to explore the beach on the northern side of the anchorage before we settled in for teatime. So we beached the dinghy, walked 10 steps to a particularly inviting stretch of sand to lay out our towels, and encountered a curious set of tracks leading up from the water’s edge. Both green and hawksbill turtles build nests for their eggs on beaches in the Seychelles, and as I slowly followed the tracks up into the vegetation near the beach, I found a mama sea turtle laying her eggs. How cool is that? Careful not to disturb her, I kept my distance, but the beauty of seeing a sea turtle laying her eggs as we sunned ourselves on a gloriously empty beach just blew us away.

IMG_0711I don’t know if this was a hint to us newlyweds, but we did feel the Garden of Eden groove intensifying. And that was before we stopped at the bird sanctuary on Cousin. The island is open to visitors only during specific times, and you must ride in the park-service skiff if you want a tour; there’s no dock at the beach. The launch driver timed his run into the beach so he had enough speed through the sizable rollers to propel the entire flat-bottomed skiff above the waterline. Our landing was exciting, and the island was unlike any other place we’d been. This sanctuary is not only for birds, but for all the wildlife on the island. Our tour guide was a young researcher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the birds and reptiles that live there, and his love for this special island was infectious. He led us along the path around the island, through a dense canopy of vegetation, and pointed out dozens of exotic birds. There were giant tortoises, and sea turtle nests, and rare plants, and spiders, and skinks, and…

Seychelles christmas charter with the MooringsBut what really brought a smile to our faces was finally being able to put the feelings Caroline and I had about cruising in the Seychelles into words. It happened when we ran into a group of white birds perched in tree trunks and simply sitting on the ground watching us walk by. The birds were curious and made no attempt to fly when I approached. Our guide told me it was okay to get up close (but not too close) if I wanted to take a picture. “They have no enemies on the island. No predators,” he said. “They were born here and have never learned to fear.” So that’s what sets the Seychelles apart. It’s not the weather, or the water, or the exotic islands, or the friendly locals, or the easy sailing.

These are the Islands That Don’t Know Fear.

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