The morning I meet Brutus, one of North Island’s original inhabitants, he’s got one thing on his mind: food. Brutus, trundling towards me with a speed that belies his 200kg frame is, according to North Island’s conservation manager Tarryn Retief, disappointed I haven’t come laden with watermelon. He’s one of the oldest giant Aldabra tortoises in these parts, at an estimated 210 years old, and also its most famous (not to mention its most accident-prone – he’s twice collided with island golf buggies, leaving his shell cratered and, as a consequence, decorated with strips of reflective tape). Records for this tiny paradise suggest Brutus was grazing beneath the aying coconut palms long before North Island became a tourism hotspot. Today, his very existence is symbolic of how far this once beleaguered island – and, indeed the entire Seychelles – has come.
The archipelago – a cluster of 115 islands lying 1,500km off the east coast of Africa – may deservedly have a reputation as a playground for celebrities and honeymooners, much like its Indian Ocean rivals Mauritius and the Maldives. And it may have the same manicured sands and high concentration of luxury resorts, too. But it is also, in many ways, a far wilder place, blessed with an abundance of natural riches. Thanks to a unique ecosystem and an ancient landscape where mountains, tropical forests and powder-soft, palm-lined beaches all combine, you’ll find here a collection of plant, animal and sea life like nowhere else on Earth. And that’s inspired a very different development plan for the Seychelles – one that’s seeing the island group slowly redefine itself as a hub of responsible tourism.
“Developers have realised, even if only from a monetary perspective, that conservation is good for business,” Retief explains over a lunch at North Island’s airy Piazza. “If you have a resort that’s surrounded by beautiful forest, with picturesque beaches and turtles, then people will want to visit.”
North, as it’s often called, boasts all this and more, and is one of the Seychelles’ most coveted destinations. But it wasn’t always so. A former coconut plantation, it had been abandoned for almost 40 years when it was purchased in 1997 for $5m by a team including African conservation group Wilderness Safaris. Overgrown with invasive plant species, infested with rats and with its population of Aldabra tortoises reduced from thousands to just three (Brutus included), it wasn’t exactly the stuff of Robinson Crusoe fantasies.
Wilderness Safaris, which had successfully developed eco-camps across Africa, hired Johannesburg architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens to transform North from deserted island into an upscale resort. Their 11 spectacular beach villas, which opened in 2004, are the stuff of dreams – all airy pavilions, glamorous interiors and freshwater plunge pools, with a seamlessness between the structures and their surroundings. Because it’s so secluded, luxurious and private, North attracts its share of celebrity guests, including George and Amal Clooney who honeymooned here in 2014. Now owned by an anonymous European businessman, North has maintained its commitment to conservation, and its on-site environmental team has ambitious plans for the reintroduction of native flora and fauna. “Basically, you’re starting with nothing, and slowly trying to re-establish all the species that should be on the island,” says Retief who, with her husband, environmental manager CJ Havemann, has called North home for four years. “We want to bring the island back to how it should have been, before man settled here.”
This is what sets the Seychelles apart from its tourism rivals: the islands, some of the oldest in the world, are essentially developing in reverse. All 115 of them have been exploited by humans at some point in their history – even the iconic coconut palms are an invasive species, detrimental to local plant life – but as early as the mid-70s, conservationists moved in, busying themselves with rehabilitation programmes. Their work ensured that the Seychelles’ delicate ecosystems have been protected – 50 per cent of the country is national park – and remain wildly diverse.
For visitors, this is a boon: there’s just so much to do. From incredible walking trails to world-class snorkelling and diving, the geography offers maximum variety. In just five days we hiked, swam, island-hopped, snorkelled, tried yoga and participated in conservation activities. Big game fishing is another drawcard – on an afternoon trip off North Island, our photographer Sean Fennessy caught a tuna, which the chefs served us for dinner.
The Seychelles didn’t really get going as a holiday destination until the early 1990s, when the country moved away from agriculture to make tourism its primary industry. From the outset, it embraced the eco-tourism model pioneered in the 1980s by safari providers in Africa. Habitat restoration took precedence over splashy hotels, and environmentalists worked alongside developers to create sustainable, low-impact resorts. Now, as responsible tourism emerges as a big global trend, the Seychelles has hit its stride. A focus on sustainability is the norm in most resorts, and there’s a push towards more islands developing their own gardens and hydroponic farms to cut down on imported goods. In 2017 the country banned plastic bags and single-use plastics such as cutlery. People who visit the place may not come purely because of the conservation credentials but, as Retief says, they often leave with an increased awareness.
Along with Frégate Island – the first upscale conservation lodge in the Seychelles, which opened in 1998 and was recently refurbished – North has dominated the country’s eco-tourism landscape. But now a handful of new players have emerged. This month, for instance, sees the opening of Four Seasons at Desroches Island. Desroches, a 35-minute flight south-west from the main island of Mahé, is no stranger to tourism – a lodge first opened here in 1972 – but the Four Seasons offering promises to inject a renewed sense of glamour with its green credentials. Along with a private runway, the resort will feature 71 bungalows, villas, suites and residences, all with private pools, but the environment remains in focus: the Seychelles’ Island Conservation Society has a centre on Desroches, and the resort will house a tortoise sanctuary and host guided conservation walks.
In October 2016, Six Senses opened Six Senses Zil Pasyon (Creole for “Island of Passion”), on Félicité Island. A stone’s throw from major tourism hubs Praslin and La Digue, Félicité is one of the Seychelles’ most dramatically beautiful islands. Massive granite boulders and dense forests fringe white sandy beaches and azure seas, and its hiking trails meander past the mammoth and mysterious native coco de mer palms. Zil Pasyon’s villas are more eco-glam than the soulful, open-air accommodations at North, with private sundecks and outdoor dining areas, private (and very Instagrammable) infinity pools and whimsical design touches such as bathroom swings with Indian Ocean views. Each villa is its own architectural feat, having been built around the existing landscape, including those giant boulders. But if the property has a pièce de résistance, its magnificent spa is it. Sitting wedged atop Félicité’s majestic rock formations, it gives guests a unique sense of being suspended directly above the ocean.
The Six Senses group has long flown the sustainability flag, and a big part of Félicité’s development has focused on the island’s restoration. Led by South African ecologist Steve Hill, who was responsible for reviving Frégate, where he spent 12 years, Félicité’s rehabilitation is one-third complete. I ask Hill why he thinks this particular model is thriving in the Seychelles. “Because there’s a growing awareness of the importance of the environment worldwide, particularly at the higher levels of society,” he says. “And any project that does real, genuine work to restore degraded environments attracts great interest in the right circles. There’s a level of inter-dependence between developer-resort operations and the restoration process. As the cost of restoration is initially borne by the developer or resort, the process, and the resulting pristine environment after restoration, becomes a powerful marketing strategy for the resort.”
Changes are also afoot on the Seychelles’ larger islands, Mahé, Praslin and Silhouette. An estimated 20 new resorts are slated to arrive by 2020, particularly on Mahé, home to the international airport. But the government, mindful of preventing a free-for-all for developers, has put stringent conservation protocols in place to ensure new hotels and resorts do their bit. “We can’t grow tourism to a point where it destroys our environment, which is the very thing that sells us,” says Alain De Comarmond, Principal Secretary of the Environment Department at the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, when we meet at his office in Mahé. “It’s crucial that each new property contributes to and protects the environment around it.”
Pari Sambasivan, the marketing and PR manager for the popular H Hotel Resort at Beau Vallon Beach, a busy tourist area in Mahé, agrees that hotels in the Seychelles are required to go above and beyond when it comes to sustainability. “The government wants to see that hotels are making a real, measurable effort,” he says, noting that H has teamed up with Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove next door to develop a protected coral nursery, has its own organic garden, and is working towards eliminating plastic straws. “But most see it as a positive thing. Entire businesses depend on the pristine condition of the islands.”
Spending time in places as ruggedly beautiful as this is certainly enough to stoke a passion for conservation, but what about the guests who just want to relax? “Our approach is to make sustainability invisible,” says Zil Pasyon’s sustainability manager, Anna Zora. “No one wants to be on holiday being told which bin to put the rubbish in. It should be effortless.” Retief agrees, and says involvement in North Island’s conservation activities, which range from guided nature walks to evening presentations in the resort’s beachfront library, is “entirely up to the individual”. But, she adds, “Most people get curious, and being up close with nature in this way gives people a new appreciation for the environment.”