Seychelles - Our black SUV skidded to a stop. As if we weren't on a twisting island road with no shoulders, our guide to the Seychelles hopped out, excited. We smelled plumeria and saw graceful white seabirds. But Alrick Agricole was pointing out toward the ultra-blue Indian Ocean.
“I have to show you something special!” he called out, waving my husband and me over. “That's North Island. Some people you know stayed there when they were in the Seychelles. You know William and Kate?”
Nope, we didn't personally know the British royals. Nor could we spend the almost $13 000 per night that Agricole had heard they paid to rent the private island's entire resort. (“In Seychelles, it's never a secret,” he said, winking.) This was our first day in the Seychelles, and Agricole's tour was making it clear that this 115-island chain was among the world's most luxurious. George and Amal Clooney recently honeymooned there. David and Victoria Beckham chose it for their 10th anniversary.
I was daunted. Our budget was sub-royal. It was the Seychelles' tropical ecosystem - headlined by giant tortoises and coco de mer palms - that had captured my imagination. So had the country's African-European-Asian cultural mash-up. Located 1 000 miles off Madagascar, the Seychelles were a French and then an English colony, but its cuisine is Indian-influenced, too. It all sounded fabulous. But could commoners enjoy this trip without spending a fortune?
The first sticker shock came when searching air fare, which starts around $1 400 from Washington. The Seychelles don't get as many US tourists as, say, Fiji or the Maldives, so fewer carriers compete and offer lower rates. In fact, we never met a fellow US traveller in 10 days there. (There were so many Europeans, prices were often given in euros.)
Agricole's driving-and-walking tour was a splurge at nearly $250, but it gave us a private, full-day introduction to the main island, Mahe. The wonders of Victoria, the capital, included a Hindu temple adorned with elephants and fat-bellied figures whose arms reached toward the sky. Another find was the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market (named after a British colonial governor), a riot of drying fish and ripe banana smells. Later, we would come back for fresh, inexpensive snacks like passion fruit.
For lunch, Agricole deposited us at the Marie-Antoinette Restaurant in an old iron-and-wood mansion, where we tried such dishes as curried fruit bat (verdict: like a chicken wing but with too many tiny bones). To end our tour, we hiked down a ravine, and he led us through a beaded curtain into his childhood home.
The personal touch also infused the hospitality we found at guesthouses, which offer local experiences for one-tenth or less of resort prices. High-end properties such as Constance Ephelia and Maia Luxury Resort & Spa are “Leading Hotels of the World” types, with rates to match. At less than $100 per night, Belle des Iles guesthouse on the island of La Digue isn't quite that. Yet no pricey hotel butler could have topped the kindness we received there, starting with a welcome drink of chilled coconut water served in the shell by our hostess, Fleurange Payet.
We'd taken a two-hour ferry from Mahe to La Digue. It was about $70 per person, far less than a helicopter flight to this airportless island. And instead of renting a car, we opted to travel on two wheels: Payet rented us sand-dusted mountain bikes for $7 a day.
She pointed us toward one of the Seychelles' wildest beaches, Grand Anse, about a mile away. Along the road, front-yard smoothie huts enticed us with the tang of cut mango and another tropical fruit, soursop. We grabbed a $6 juice blend at one called Chez Bibi.
Then we coasted to Grand Anse, where the huge granite formations framing the beach, backed by thick vegetation, gave it a primordial feeling that made us think of Jurassic Park. By 4 p.m., the few other visitors had left, and it became our private beach, just like celebrities rent.
Back at our guesthouse, I decided to test Payet, who seemed to know everything about La Digue. “Where can I get sharkskin curry?” I asked. We'd heard this was a local delicacy but, unlike wild fruit bat, it rarely makes restaurant menus.
“Ah. Try take-away,” she said, directing us to a stand called Kwen Ideal, where they packed foam boxes with rice, vinegary papaya salads they call chutneys, and spicy main dishes. Plantain or breadfruit chips can come on the side.
On Kwen Ideal's peeling blue picnic table, we had a true Seychellois lunch for $10 apiece. The sharkskin was endlessly, unappetisingly chewy. But other dishes, including peppery fish stir-fry and crumbly shark chutney, were excellent. “This take-away thing has really just injected new life into our trip,” my husband said as we dug into our second meal there. “It's cost-effective and really good, too.”
Lucky thing we'd saved where we could, because seeing the Seychelles' famous coco de mer palms would not be cheap. We hopped a 10-minute ferry from La Digue to Praslin, where the endemic trees are protected in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Entry costs about $23 per person and nearly double that for a guided tour.
Once inside, though, we forgot money. The Vallee de Mai is a cathedral of palms. I'd seen palm trees scattered along beaches or planted along city streets, but never set in a majestic forest of their own.
The coco de mer trees come in obvious male and female plants, and they produce the world's most suggestively shaped nut. With its unmistakable resemblance to a female torso, it's easy to see why the nut has been the stuff of pirate tales and romantic legend for centuries. You can take a coco de mer nut home, as William and Kate reportedly did, for anywhere from $150 unadorned to around $10 000 with jewels encrusted. On our budget, we took only pictures.
I saved one of my most anticipated Seychellois sights, the giant Aldabra tortoises, until nearly the end of our 13-day trip. For $60, we “chartered” a fishing boat from a local guy on Praslin to the nearby island of Curieuse. There, in an alcove that smelled like a salt pond, Aldabra tortoises roamed free. Locking eyes with these centenarians feels like surveying relaxed dinosaurs. We followed the 800-pounders on lumbering walks, fed them leaves and bent down for pictures as they stretched their heads far out of their colossal shells.
As we swam out to the boat to head back, I realised that this beat-up fibreglass-and-wood vessel wouldn't even be up to dinghy standards for a yacht. On this little charter - and everything else I experienced on these islands - I hadn't spent nearly as much money as a celebrity guest. Even so, the Seychelles had opened up its riches.
If you go:
Where to stay:
Belle des Iles
Grande Anse, La Digue
Chalets Cote Mer
Baie Ste. Anne, Praslin
Where to eat:
Serret Rd., Mahe
Creole fine dining.
Anse Reunion, La Digue
Extravagant Creole buffet Wednesdays and Sundays.
What to do:
Discovery Agri Tours
Anse Royale, Mahe
Private day-long tours.
Vallee de Mai
Praslin National Park, Praslin
Guided tours can be arranged.
For tourist information, visit www.seychelles.travel. Another source on the country's local nature and culture is www.seychelles.org.