Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

A taste of paradise

The Seychelles does not disappoint when it comes to its famed beaches but, as Cass Chapman discovers, the sights, sounds and flavours of the Indian Ocean archipelago are just as enticing

AS I walk down Market Street in Victoria, the tiny capital city of the Seychelles, I'm struck by a distinct fragrance: a mix of frangipani, fresh grouper and coconut oil.

In truth, it's not the best olfactory blend, but it's certainly indicative of the many layers that make up this exotic part of the world.

Just down Quincy Street, for instance, Hindu gods wave from the exterior of the ornate Sri Navasakthi Vinayagar temple, while gold ceramic dragons rise from the local Chinese Centre next door. There's a 19th-century French colonial-style Catholic cathedral just to the north, on Olivier Marandan Street, a brand new Anglican cathedral round the corner on Albert Street (near the city's only set of traffic lights), and the city's mosque lies near the inner harbour.

Only 25,000 people live in Victoria, but they aren't short of variety when it comes to forms of worship.

The cobbled, shop-lined streets here are beguiling, while elegant porches swing around colonial-style homes in the city's main square. But I was heading to the source of that intriguing smell: the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke market, named after a one-time governor of the Seychelles (1947-51), back when which these Indian Ocean islands were a British crown colony.

The market building itself is a citrus-coloured structure with a sweeping rooftop that |mirrors the temple next door. I'd been told that the stalls are set up each day at 4am, with Sunday mornings the busiest time of the week. Happily, there's still plenty of bustle later in the day: row upon row of market traders offer red snapper fillets, whole tuna, pak choi, palm sugar, mango and lashings of coconut oil.

Sylvia Vidal, my guide for the day, revealed that Chinese residents such as herself buy their fish straight from the port in the early dawn hours. “The Seychellois really cook their fish, so buying from the market works for them. But those of us who make sashimi need fish packed on ice.”

I told her that the fish I'd eaten while in Victoria — carpaccio, sushi, grilled, fried — had all been delectable. “Of course,” she said. “It's fresh and Seychellois-sourced.”

And fresh really means fresh here. Most of the fish is sold without a bag or even a sheet of paper around it: you're handed the tail of a fish in return for payment. As a result “No Fish” signs hang on Victoria's shop-door handles: the smell can linger.

Family-run restaurants such as Le Rendez-vous and the Pirate's Arms, both swinging joints that overflow into the street, hug the market square.

The former is open at the sides, so it's cool on hot evenings, while the Pirate's Arms has satellite televisions on each wall and is hugely popular with locals.

Both offer fresh local delights such as octopus and breadfruit, and everything is served with freshly pressed guava juice or local SeyBrew lager.

Close by, elderly Seychellois sit for hours on benches, smoking and watching the young women of Victoria glide by, fish in one hand and fruit basket in the other.

Just to the south, at Mont Fleuri, lie Victoria's intoxicating Botanical Gardens. With endless tropical species of flora and fauna — as well as fruit bats, insects, birds and butterflies flitting around — they are a stunning showcase of all the island has to offer. I was particularly struck by the black pepper vines and bulging pomelo trees — and Le Sapin cafe in the garden's centre is a perfect morning spot from which to watch giant tortoises being fed their breakfast.

Victoria sits along the north-eastern side of Mahe, the largest of the 115 (or so) islands in the Seychelles, and home to 90% of the population.

The archipelago lies in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, 1,500km from Kenya and north of Madagascar — and most of the atolls are uninhabited piles of granite or coral, or |occupied by high-end beach resorts.

Mahe, though, offers the best of both worlds, with sandy beaches rubbing happily along with the gentle hubbub of Victoria.

The mountainous centre of the island flattens into a fringe of beaches. A short drive from Victoria, the rock formations of Beau Vallon beach make this a prime snorkelling spot.

Victoria is also an ideal hub for day trips to nearby islands. I took a local charter boat to Praslin, which lies 45km to the north-east of Mahe. The island's central forest of palm trees thins out into clear, sandy beaches, one of which, Anse Lazio, is home to Bonbon Plume.

This perfect little eatery consists of little more than wooden tables in the sand, each flanked by low-lying palm trees.

Then it was back to indulge in the other side of a trip to the Seychelles: pampered luxury. Just a short drive from Victoria along the coast road, the Maia Resort & Spa provides the perfect beachside retreat.

From the winding coastal road below, the sea-grass roofs of each villa peak flirtatiously from its granite perch. But despite the Maia's exquisite food, despite a view from my villa that was almost impossible to tear |my eyes from, it was Victoria's small-town charm that would conjure my strongest memories. Fishy or not, Africa's smallest capital city is also one of its biggest surprises.

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