The best of the Coral islands

It would be a pity to visit the Seychelles and not experience at least one of the sparsely inhabited, remote flat coral islands. Bird and Denis islands – both just a 30 minute flight from Mahé – were once plantations, but now take very different approaches to tourism: Denis is a luxury island playground for water sports and game fishing, while Bird is managed for ecotourism. Meanwhile, Seychelles’ so-called ‘Outer Islands’, which include Alphonse and Desroches, are mostly remote, uninhabited and possessed of an unspoilt and compelling beauty.

There are few who come away unmoved by these serene, isolated worlds; their encircling pristine beaches, vivid blue lagoons, kaleidoscopic reef life and the stillness beneath the palms, which is only disturbed by the sigh of the waves. There are flights most days (depending on demand) to Bird, Denis, Desroches and Alphonse. Each of these islands has a single hotel for accommodation, and day trips aren’t possible as flights are on the ground for a matter of minutes before returning to Mahé.

1. Bird Island

Bird Island is a wonderful place to relax in simple but comfortable surroundings. Visitors may wander all over the 101-hectare coral cay, provided they don’t harm or disturb the wildlife. This includes the massive sooty tern colony of more than a million birds that may be seen from March to October and gives the island its name. As the most northerly Seychelles island, Bird is also the first landfall for rare migrants, especially during October to March. More migratory species have been recorded at Bird than on any other Seychelles island.

Under the guidance of a resident Conservation Officer, it’s possible to see hawksbill turtles that come ashore to lay between October and January, and green turtles from June to September. Apart from nature-watching, visitors can snorkel in the lagoon on the eastern side of the island, enjoy some kayaking, go fly-fishing (own equipment required), discover the trails, play billiards, or just relax. Permanent inhabitants include Esmeralda, an enormous male giant land tortoise, once celebrated in the Guinness Book of Records as the heaviest in the world.

2. Denis Island

Similar in size to its sister island, Denis Island lies 80km north of Mahé. As with Bird Island, there is only one place to stay, but it’s much more luxurious. Denis Private Island Resort is one of the best places you can stay in the Seychelles; the 25 villas have private pools or gardens, and the delicious cuisine is based around home-grown produce and fresh fish. Close to the hotel is a large enclosure sheltering tortoises. After just a few hours in this quiet and stunningly beautiful refuge, the world outside seems to lose all importance.

There are a few old sights to check out, including the cemetery, while the lighthouse – which dates from 1910 – is still operational. It is open to the public and the view from the top is magnificent.

The local NGO Green Islands Foundation runs conservation programmes on Denis. Rats have been eradicated and three rare endemic birds introduced: the Seychelles warbler, fody and magpie-robin.

Situated on the edge of the Seychelles Bank, where the sea bottom plunges away to a depth of 2,000 metres, Denis Island has become a top game fishing destination: several records have been broken for dogtooth tuna and bonito. Other catches-of-the-day might include barracuda or sailfish. Diving has also become big here in recent years, and there are two resident divemasters.

3. Alphonse and St François Atoll

Although tourism is playing an increasingly important role, the Seychelles’ outer islands remain largely unexplored. Shops and nightlife are non-existent, and the beaches and sea are consistently breathtaking and pristine. There is excellent game fishing, particularly around Poivre, and fly-fishing, especially in the St François lagoon. The diving is spectacular off Desroches and Alphonse, and around Assumption Island. Meanwhile, the whole area is rich in birdlife.

Alphonse is the most remote island with a hotel, 400km south by southwest of Mahé and 60 minutes by air. Alphonse Island Resort offers facilities for diving on the wall of Alphonse where forests of Gorgonian fan corals, huge schools of pelagic fish and many colourful reef fish may be seen. Once a highly productive plantation, little remains as a reminder of these days save for a few old buildings and the island’s cemetery near to Pointe Huto.

Bicycles are available for every visitor and it’s an easy ride to the farthest tips of the island, named after ships. Pointe Doille recalls a guano vessel which used to call here, though islanders knew this area as Pointe Dot, after a French coal steamer which sank off here in 1873. Pointe Tamatave is named after the Tamatave ship which came to grief here in 1903.

Boat trips are available to nearby Bijoutier for picnics, swimming and snorkelling. The lagoon of St François is famous for bonefishing, widely acknowledged as the best in the world. The enormous flat plain of sand, left dry at low tide, is a feeding ground for hundreds of crab plovers and other waders. A feature of St François is the number of shipwrecks that litter the reef. Just 1km offshore, the waters are almost 5km deep, the wrecks standing as grim reminders of the perils of underestimating the sea.

4. Desroches

Desroches is the largest island of the Amirantes group. At 230km from Mahé, 45 minutes by air, it’s the closest island of the Amirantes to the granitics. It’s the exposed rim of a huge lagoon, so deep that even cruise ships can enter and anchor close to the shore. Swimming is excellent here, unlike most atolls where waters over the surrounding reef are very shallow. The beaches are also spectacular. 

The Settlement, 2km from the island’s hotel, with its copra drier, oil press and lockup, is a reminder of the old plantation days. These days, activities include sailing, cycling, canoeing, windsurfing, snorkelling deep-sea fishing and diving. Desroches is also famous for the Desroches Drop with its fantastic caves, which may be explored under the supervision of a PADI dive-master. The diving is top-notch, especially from November to April, though during the strong winds of the southeast monsoon, opportunities are more limited.

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