Credit: Jo Kessel

Cruise review: Paradise found in the sunny Seychelles

Author: Jo Kessel

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Cruising around the sunny Seychelles on small ship Pegasos, Jo Kessel discovers giant tortoises, hawksbill turtles and a very brave captain…

It’s not often that the first day of a cruise sees you dropped off on a Robinson Crusoe beach and met by a welcoming party of giant tortoises.

But on the first morning of an island-hopping cruise in the Seychelles I find myself on the shore of an island whose only inhabitants are gargantuan reptiles. They extend their necks like periscopes and approach for a closer look.

The next half hour or so is spent ogling these prehistoric-looking creatures and marvelling at how speedy they are considering they’re hauling a cumbersome shell and 300kilos in weight.

Eventually we’re torn away for a guided trek to explore the island’s mangroves whose watery roots shelter stingrays and palm spiders the size of dinner plates.

We finish on a remote, untouched beach for lunch, a tasty barbecue of ribs, chicken and tropical salads. As we tuck in we can see our cruise ship Pegasos bobbing out at sea in the distance – hours later the crew will come to fetch us in the same inflatable zodiac boats used to drop us off.

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The Seychelles is an archipelago nearly 1000 miles off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Like neighbouring Mauritius it’s known for its beaches and many holidaymakers come here to fly and flop.

But when a country is comprised of 115 islands it seems a shame not to explore them. Enter Greek liner Variety Cruises which offers a week-long island-hopping voyage, visiting a dozen or so of the archipelago’s isles, only four of which are inhabited.

The roundtrip cruise starts on the capital island of Mahe. In truth, Pegasos is more a yacht than a ship, carrying forty-two passengers in twenty-one cabins which are all surprisingly spacious for a vessel this size.

The top deck is devoted to sun beds; the deck below has an al fresco eating terrace and reception level has a platform from which you can do water sports – Pegasos is equipped with kayaks, paddle boards and snorkels.

Ours is a cosmopolitan sailing, a mix of French, Brits and Swiss guests with a couple of Egyptians and Scandinavians.

Every night before dinner a briefing is held in the yacht’s lounge to discuss the schedule for the next 24 hours. The giant tortoises were such a highlight, how can subsequent activities possibly match up?

The Seychelles feature countless beaches. Credit: Shutterstock

But as the week rolls by we enjoy one adventure after another, many involving beaches. One’s a film location. It’s called Anse Source D’Argent (‘anse’ means beach in the native Creole language) and was Tom Hank’s desert island in the movie Castaway.

Another is Anse Lazio, whose colours are off the scale - turquoise water lapping onto a stretch of white sand hemmed in by red rock formations. It’s considered one of the world’s top ten beaches and is great for snorkelling, with an abundance of tropical fish. Here I find myself swimming alongside a hawksbill turtle.

Then there’s a trip to an island which is a protected bird reserve where fairy terns lay eggs on branches instead of in nests – one of only two seabirds in the world to do so. There are cute fluffy chicks, but there’s also heartache.

Clumps of sticky twigs from the forest’s Pisonia trees have glued themselves to the wings of several small black Lesser Noddy birds, rendering them immobile. They sit helpless on the ground.

I point to one.

‘Do something,’ I plead to our guide. ‘Can’t you pull off the foliage?’

‘It’s too far gone, I can’t help,’ says the guide. ‘This is nature’s way.’

This is a stark reminder that we’re just visitors to this natural world and nature is often cruel.

Kessel explored via boat too. Credit: Jo Kessel

In between sailing from one spot to the next we relax on Pegasos, either on the sun deck or enjoying lunches and dinners on the outside terrace. Menus focus on local cuisine and the chef cooks with love, from four-course waiter served meals (think squid carpaccio followed by fish soup) to Creole feasts. The chicken and cinnamon curry is sensational.

Meals are a social affair and crew members join us at the table. Captain Ehab from Egypt explains that he operates an ‘open bridge’ and that we can go and say hello whenever we want.

‘Can I steer the ship?’ I ask.

‘Sure!’ he replies.

I can’t do it right there and then because the barman is pouring everyone shots of rum which gives us some Dutch courage when a trio of local dancers come on board.

They teach us the Moutya – a local tribal dance historically used by the slaves. It involves swaying booty, pole-jumping and doing the limbo. None of us are any good, but we all have fun trying.

The sailing is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Credit: Variety Cruises

The Seychellois are a diverse people. The islands were originally uninhabited, but they were eventually populated by people from Africa and the area subsequently spent time under both French and British rule.

It’s now in the Commonwealth although the majority of place names have French roots, like the UNESCO World Heritage site Vallee de Mai on the island of Praslin.

This is home to palm trees whose fruit is the Coco de Mer (nicknamed the Love Nut) which is the world’s largest seed. They weigh around 25 kilos each, are impossibly heavy to hold and are shaped like the human bottom.

My favourite island is La Digue where we hire bikes for the day and explore on wheels. It’s sweaty, hilly stuff (especially if you head west) but around every bend is a paradise, pristine, footprint-free beach.

The name of the cruise line feels fitting because the itinerary’s sheer ‘variety’ is what makes it so special. It’s enriching, exciting and no two days feel the same. The sailing’s proved hugely popular and is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

It’s also great value for money. Fares start at £1,900pp full board, with hot drinks, snacks and filtered drinking water all included. The only optional extras are a couple of excursions and alcoholic drinks. And when £6 buys a very full glass of wine there’s no complaining.

The Seychelles is a dream destination. Credit: Shutterstock

If you book a pre or post cruise stay as I did – three nights at the boutique Carana Beach Hotel on Mahe – you’ll appreciate how great value this cruise is. The least expensive bottle of wine on my hotel menu was £38. Don’t let that put you off, however. It’s a long way to travel just for the cruise and I thoroughly enjoyed my 72 hours of relaxing here.

Before the voyage ends I knock on the door of the bridge.

‘Can I really take over at the helm?’ I ask.

The answer is yes and, sweaty-palmed with concentration, I manage to sail us accident-free from one island to another.

Playing ‘Captain’ is something that would never happen on a big liner and that’s the beauty of small ship cruising. It’s a much more personal, exclusive voyage - the crew knows everyone by name and treat us like family.

And as for the Seychelles, it really is a dream destination. It’s got beaches, history and culture, but best of all…it’s got giant tortoises.

7-night ‘Seychelles cruise’ roundtrip on Pegasos from Mahe Island via St Anne, Anse Lazio, Baie St. Anne and Moyenne Island departing 8 June 2023, from £1,908 (not including flights).

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