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updated 5/2/2008 6:55:02 AM ET 2008-05-02T10:55:02

One of the biggest surprises about a visit to Seychelles will hit you after you return home: When you show off your trip photos to your friends and family, they will inevitably ask if you used a color filter on your camera lens, convinced that no ocean could have that color.

But the truth is, no ocean looks quite like the Indian Ocean, and the sight of that magical green water is a wonderful and indelible memory.

So is getting to the Republic of Seychelles. It’s in the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Kenya. The Seychelles is comprised of 115 islands, many of which have deserted beaches with untouched sand — sand that is fine and white like talcum powder.

Some figures claim that the Seychelles has 155 islands, not 115. Why the disparity? Well, when the tide rises, some of the islands can disappear! But one thing is certain: The Seychelles is not overpopulated. Only about 81,000 people live there full time, and most of them reside on the main and largest island of Mahé. Praslin is the second most populous, with about 6,500 residents. La Digue (the fourth-largest island) is home to the remainder of the population. The smaller islands are either sparsely populated or uninhabited, and many of them are granite-and-coral outcrops, with the smallest of all being nothing more than “crags” (Les Mamelles and Chauve-Souris Island).

History
The history of Seychelles is rich with myth and legend. One thing is true: It was once a haven for pirates and traders, and the then uninhabited islands were explored by Westerners in the mid-1790s, by Lazare Picaul and Grossin, who were commissioned to explore the region by the governor of what is now Mauritius.

England and France battled over sovereignty of the islands for years. Mauritius was surrendered to the British in 1812, which meant that Seychelles came along with it — Britain gained official control in 1814 with the Treaty of Paris. In 1903, they broke away from the Mauritius colony and became a separate crown colony of Britain. They became self-governing in 1975 and independent in 1976.

Most Seychellois are descendants of early French settlers and the African slaves brought to the Seychelles in the 19th century by the British, and have a strong Creole influence. But the islands are also a melting pot of other cultures, including political exiles, prisoners and traders from Arabic and Persian cultures, along with a small mix of Chinese and Indian settlers.

Tourism and fishing are the main source of income in the Seychelles. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused major damage to the infrastructure of Mahé and Praslin. The tsunami killed two people and displaced 950 families, and there was intense rainfall and flooding for three days following the disaster. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Mauritius and Seychelles, “the number of floods, landslides, domestic and general fire outbreaks have increased over the past years causing deaths, injuries and damages to property and loss of income.”

When to visit
The best time to go is April and October, when the trade winds are milder and the climate is warmest. The rainy season is from mid-November until mid-February. And because of the islands’ location, you’re guaranteed about 12 hours of daylight year round.

Getting there
No visa required. That’s the good news. The bad news: You’re welcome to visit, but not to stay. You must present a passport that is valid for the entire length of your stay, show immigration officials a return/onward ticket to leave, proof of accommodation including contact details and sufficient funds (at least $150/day) for the duration of your stay. All of this will grant you a visitor’s permit that is given free of charge and is valid for one month.

Seychelles International Airport is located on Mahé island. Emirates has one-stop flights from JFK to Mahé, and Air Seychelles has several flights a week departing from London, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and Rome, and also flights once or twice weekly from Johannesburg, Mauritius, Bangkok and Singapore.

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Island-hopping
By air
Air Seychelles operates about 20 daily flights between Mahé and Praslin. You can also fly Air Seychelles to Frégate, Bird Island, Denis Island, Desroches Island and Alphonse Island, but you must arrange those flights through your hotel, not the airline directly. airseychelles.com

Helicopter Seychelles charters flights between Mahé and Praslin, La Digue, Bird Island, Aride and several other islands. helicopterseychelles.com

By sea
Cat Coco is a catamaran that travels from Mahé to Praslin twice daily. It’s a 45-minute ride and costs about $125.

You can also travel from Mahé to several other areas such as Aldabra Atoll (three hours), Cerf (10 minutes), La Digue (three hours), Moyenne (20 minutes), Silhouette (50 minutes) and Sainte Anne (15 minutes). To do so, you must contact your hotel to charter a boat — you cannot book it independently.

From Praslin, you can contact your hotel to charter a boat to: Aride (1.5 hours), Chauve Souris (three minutes), Cousin (15 minutes), Cousine (two minutes), Curieuse (20 minutes), Grand Soeur (30 minutes), Ile Cocos (45 minutes) and La Digue (15 minutes). For Chauve Souris you must contact your hotel; for the rest, you can contact the operators, which include Creole Travel Services (creoletravelservices.com), Mason’s Travel (masonstravel.com) and Inter Island Ferry Service (seychelles.net/iif).

A guide to the islands
Mahé: Mahé has about 60 white-sand beaches surrounded by coral. One of the most popular (and crowded) is Beau Valon; other beautiful options include Anse Soleil, the more off-the-beaten-path Ile Souris, which is a calm, protected area that is excellent for snorkeling, and Anse Major, which you can get to by walking two hours through the jungle from Danzilles.

The Marine Charter Association (seychelles.net/mca) oversees most fishing charter operations, yachting companies and diving centers. However, you can also contact the operations individually to book your excursion.

Sainte-Anne Marine Park is one of the first sites in the Indian Ocean to be classified as a nature reserve. It surrounds the islands of Ste-Anne, Moyenne, Longue, Cerf, Round and Cachée. From Mahé, you can take a glass-bottomed, semi-submersible vessel around the islands to observe sea life. (Prices vary by company: Coral Magic is about $70 per person; Mare Sports Limited is about $150, and Teddy’s Glass Bottomed Boat is about $60.) If you’re a guest at the Sainte Anne Resort, you can also charter a private ferry to Sainte Anne Island.

The Morne Seychellois is a national park that covers about 20 percent of Mahé. Ideal for a moderate walk, it’s a lush, hilly area with 12 or so clearly marked trails and paths. The climb to the summit of Morne Blanc is 2,188 feet up — it’s a short, but relatively steep trek.

Le Digue: Residents of this island like to boast that it is a place where time stands still — and indeed, a lot of people still get around using ox carts and bicycles.

One of the most beautiful beaches in Seychelles is Anse Source D’Argent on Le Digue. The soft, pink-sand beach is sheltered by a reef so the water is calm and safe, great for snorkeling. It’s a spot that shouldn’t be missed (you might never want to return home), but unfortunately that also means that it can get crowded, especially as it’s gotten a lot of attention in the media in recent years as being one of the best beaches in the world.

Praslin: Within Praslin National Park, Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This incredible palm forest is filled with flora and fauna, including the famous coco-de-mer palms, which have the largest seeds of any plant in the world. Much of the national park is a nature conservancy, with little tourism allowed except for Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve and the coasts.

What to know

  • With 12 hours of daylight in every 24-hour period, be sure to use sunscreen — and lots of it.
  • The shells on the beach are beautiful, but don’t remove them. Shell collecting is prohibited.
  • While there are gambling casinos on the islands, my advice is to avoid them. You’ll need all the money you brought with you, and then some. The Seychelles can be as expensive as it is beautiful.

Where to stay
Mahé
Banyan Tree Seychelles: This paradise getaway is a five-star resort with nothing but five-star reviews. If you can pay the price (average rates are about $1,500 a night), this resort offers 60 poolside and beachfront villas where the celebrities flock (discreetly). banyantree.com

Coral Strand Hotel: This is a more affordable beachfront property on Beau Valon Bay, with 131 rooms, a main restaurant, a bistro, an Indian restaurant and a beach bar. It’s quite basic compared to some other properties on the island, but it’s well located and relatively affordable. You can also go stargazing from the rooftop through a partnership with Laupheim Observatory. Rates start at about $240, including breakfast; coralstrand.com

Anse Soleil Beachcomber: This is a small, 14-room property located on the beautiful beach of Anse Soleil that’s quite affordable, with rates including breakfast that start at $102 for adults, and $9 for kids 3-5 and $22 for kids 6-12. beachcomber.sc

Praslin
Indian Ocean Lodge: This hotel is located on the west coast of Praslin, amid abundant flowers and plants, and just a one-minute walk from Grand Anse beach. Rates start at about $250 a night including breakfast; E-mail iol@seychelles.net

Amitié Chalets: This spot is a series of bungalows just about 20 steps from the Amitié beachfront, with self-catering apartments and open, airy rooms. Rates start at about $130 a night including breakfast; martin@seychelles.net

Food and drink
From beach shacks to hotel restaurants to trendy nightspots, there is an abundance of dining options on the islands. Much of it is Creole and international cuisine, but you can also find quite authentic Chinese and Indian restaurants. Dishes include lots of grilled fish, such as Maquereau Boucaner (mackerel steamed in coconut palm or banana leaves). You can also expect curries, chicken dishes, breadfruit and mangos.

Boat House on Mahé is a popular Creole buffet restaurant. It’s a great spot for families and those who just want to kick back and sample all types of local cuisine for about $20. boathouse.sc

Le Jardin du Roi is located in the beautiful spice garden on Mahé, where you can enjoy a quiet hike followed by lunch among all the flora, with several dishes and drinks flavored with spices straight from the garden. A prix fixe Sunday “Plantation Lunch” is available for about $15.

For an upscale and romantic experience, check out Tante Mimi Restaurant on the island of Praslin. Located in the upstairs of the Casino Des Iles, this white-tablecloth restaurant serves fine Creole cuisine paired with wines. (I recommend the lobster bisque.)

On La Digue, Villa Authentique is a lovely little guesthouse on the northwest side of the island, with a pink-hued café that serves authentic, home-style Creole cuisine in an outdoor setting.

Travel packages
The real challenge of the Seychelles is that it is very expensive. So here are the best deals we found (other than just the RTW airline ticket) and the Indian Ocean Pass (see below):

Silversea Cruises: This company offers several Africa and Indian Ocean cruises that include the Seychelles islands (airfare NOT included). 800-722-9955; silversea.com

  • January 29, 2009: Nine-day tour from Mombasa to Mahé. Book before August 2, starts at $4,496.
  • February 7, 2009: Seven-day tour from Mahé to Mahé (this includes several islands: La Digue, Curieuse Island, Silhouette Island and Praslin). Book before August 11, starts at $3,676.
  • February 14, 2009: Eleven-day tour from Mahé to Madras, India. Book before August 18, starts at $4,747.

Costa Cruises: This Italian cruise line has several itineraries that include Seychelles (airfare NOT included). 877-882-6782; costacruise.com

  • Departing November 2008 from Savona (northern Italy), this is a 28-day cruise that includes Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Seychelles, Kenya, Madagascar, Réunion and Mauritius. Rates start at $3,240.
  • Departing December 2008 from Port Louis, this 14-day cruise includes Mauritius, Seychelles, Kenya and Madagascar. Starts from $2,843. The same trip in January 2009 starts at $2,127.

African Travel: This isn’t the cheapest option, but it’s certainly a comprehensive trip. African Travel offers an eight-day Seychelles Island Hopper which includes Mahé and Praslin. For Americans the islands tend not to be a standalone visit, so they usually add this onto an existing package to Africa. A common package is the inclusive Southern Explorer (Cape Town, Victoria Falls, Johannesburg and Kruger Park), which starts at $3,695 plus $2,275 for airfare, and then add on the Seychelles for an additional $2,095 plus airfare to the islands. Airfare can be as low as $500 if you're flying from the African mainland via South African Airways or Air Seychelles. The lower prices are in May through August. 800-421-8907; africantravelinc.com

Indian Ocean Pass: The Indian Ocean Pass was created in 2002 by Air Seychelles, Air Mauritius and Air Austral so that you can build your own trip throughout the Indian Ocean. Here's how it works: You need to have an international ticket on just one of the three airlines to one of the listed islands. So, for example, you can buy an international ticket on Air Seychelles from London to Mahe, and then buy an Indian Ocean Pass ticket that gets you from Mahe to other islands such as Reunion and Mauritius.

You have to buy a minimum of three “sectors” and you cannot purchase two sectors in the same direction. Prices do not include airport taxes. You can buy the Pass through Air Seychelles or through a travel agent, but it MUST be purchased before you arrive in the Indian Ocean. Air Seychelles, +248 38 1000; airseychelles.com/flightinfo/iopass.html

Borton Overseas: Packages from this company are usually customized, but a sample nine-day “Island Hopper” program starts at $1,395 per person. This includes Mahe, Praslin, La Digue and back to Mahe and covers guided tours, accommodations and some meals. Rates will go up depending on the season and the level of hotel that you choose. This does NOT include international airfare. 800-843-0602; bortonoverseas.com

Perhaps the best advice for those seeking to get to — and through — the Seychelles on a budget: You should consider “half-board” accommodations that include breakfast and dinner. Self-catering can also offer some savings, but when you factor in getting to the grocery store and the prices at the store, it’s not the best option. Half-board allows you to have a late breakfast/brunch and dinner included — if you’re going out for dinner, expect to pay at least $50 a head. (Several hotels and guest houses offer the half-board option, so make sure you ask.)

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