Seychelles: In Search of Eden

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That night at the pub, the night before I left for the Seychelles, there was a consensus. I was going to Eden. "Eden," the London cabbie said, since London cabbies have been around a bit and are experts on these things. "That's where you're going, lad. Unsurpassed beauty then, init?" Oh, yeah, just so you know: I don't live in London. I left from my home in Orlando, Florida. But since I was traveling through London, and I'm a sucker for a good pint, I decided to stop over on my way to ... well, Eden. "So, have you ever been?" I asked a pint-clad professor (which pubs are known for, yeah?) sitting at the bar. "Well, no, but a mate of mine went last year and stayed -- just stayed on. Lives there now. Sent me an e-mail and told me he'd found Eden, and could I please put the dog out while he was away. He loved that dog, so it must be a ripping good bit of real estate, then, mustn't it?" It was genuinely hard to argue with such logic. "You know what I like about Eden, mate?" a young punk chirped from the end of the bar. "The serpent. Good stuff that serpent. Made Eden interesting, then, didn't it?" "Yes, indeed." Unsurpassed beauty and the appealing vestige of a wily biblical serpent? Now we're talking Eden.

The notion of the Seychelles being Eden actually began with the slightly eccentric and erotic thoughts of a British general named Charles Gordon. When he saw the raw and extraordinary beauty of the Vallée de Mai (which, among other possible meanings, translates as Valley of May, the month in which it was discovered -- apparently the creative juices for naming things weren't percolating too well) on the island of Praslin, he immediately claimed that he'd discovered the original Garden of Eden. He figured the nut of the coco de mer palm tree, which only grows naturally on this island (and nearby Curieuse), was the forbidden fruit of Genesis due to its uncanny resemblance to a woman's legs, bum, belly and thighs (complete with an appropriately placed tuft of hair). Obviously he'd been at sea for quite some time, for when he wrote about it, his sunburned biblical interpretations rationalized that, "the heart is said by the scriptures to be the seat of desires, and the fruit [the nut of the coco de mer] externally represents the heart, while the interior represents the thighs and belly ... which I consider to be the true seat of carnal desires." People, due to the same physical interpretations, also consider the nut, which can weigh up to 44 pounds (in other words, don't fall asleep under this tree on a windy day), an aphrodisiac. Known in aphrodisiacal circles as "love nuts," and highly prized as a result, they are protected by the Seychelles government, which had to institute a strict love-nut licensing policy to prohibit poaching.

Interestingly, no one knows how these palms actually pollinate. Local legends state that, when storms pass through the Seychelles, male palms, which can reach almost 100 feet high, uproot themselves and have their way with female palms (80 feet) in a rowdy, wind-blown orgy. Of course, if you witness this carnal myth, so the legends go, you will surely die on the spot.

So, I was pretty anxious to see the place.

About 1,000 miles off africa's east coast in the vivid blue waters of the Indian Ocean, the 115 astonishingly lovely islands that make up the Seychelles remained uninhabited, primitive and remote until almost the end of the 18th century, when the French claimed the islands and gave them a starter population that consisted of "15 whites, five Malabar Indians and eight Africans." Except for transient pirates looking for a place to stash their booty, the odd fisherman and Arab traders traversing the Indian Ocean, there was little impact from the hand of man. As a result, the Seychelles is a place of wild legends drawn from dark imaginations and nature in the raw. And after a nine-and-a-half-hour flight from London to Mahé Island and a 15-minute island-hopper flight to Praslin, I'm about to experience the surreal and ancient scenery of the Seychelles, including the World Heritage-listed Vallée de Mai, which is where I'm currently headed.

I'm riding in a hired car owned by a company that proudly boasts it was the official supplier of cars for the movies Castaway, Pirate and Robinson Crusoe -- an interesting and modern contrast to the prehistoric forest we're heading toward, the likes of which definitely hosted dinosaurs.

My guide, who's driving, and I leave from the airport and head into the mountains. I notice the palms long before we actually reach the parking lot and entrance to Praslin National Park. They're massive and, unlike most palms, they have leaves so immense they could be effectively used for roofing material or airplane wings. When we arrive at the trailhead and enter the forest, it's as if we've been drawn through a portal in time. The enormous leaves spread out above the path like the ceiling of a cathedral. And there's a hush that's punctuated only by the creaks and groans of trunks swaying in the breeze. The female trees are heavy with ripening love nuts and the male trees are absolutely secure and distinctive in their maleness, with suggestive catkins covered in small flowers. The trees mature at a glacial pace, my guide relates. Once the seeds germinate, it's 15 years before a trunk appears. It's certainly indicative of the pace of life on Praslin, too. The young trees until that point are recognizable by 46-foot leaves that sprout directly from the ground. I look for dinosaurs to appear around every bend, fully believing that in this place such things could still exist. It's not quite the idyllic place that my mind conjures when thinking about Eden, but fascinating in its primitive atmosphere. Eden, however, I would soon discover, was waiting for me at a place that once was the home of exiled Jacobin terrorists.

I arrive on Frégate Island, the most remote of the Seychelles' granitic islands, in a snowstorm of seabirds. Fairy terns, looking like pure-white, feathery angels, rise from their trees on their way to the day's hunt at sea, and about a zillion brown noddies are piled onto almost every available branch on every tree on the island. Offshore, lesser frigate birds patrol the sky as the chartered plane lands on the private island's grass strip. To get to Frégate, I had to fly back from Praslin to Mahé, the largest and main island of the Seychelles, then change planes for the 34-mile fl ight to this exclusive, private island. Only 40 guests are allowed on the island at a time, and most sequester themselves away in one of 16 lavish villas.

Frégate operates like its own country. It's almost entirely self-sustaining. Most of the fresh fruit and vegetables guests eat are plucked from the ground the same day they show up on the menu. Same goes for fish from the sea.

I am whisked off by golf cart (called a "buggy") from the airport to my villa overlooking one of Frégate's seven sumptuous beaches, Anse Bambous. To call it a villa is a disservice. Built in an architectural style born in Bali, each villa has a spacious bedroom with a canopy bed, a separate living room, indoor and outdoor showers, a private terrace and garden, a king-sized day bed and Jacuzzi. It's truly a haven and, once I'm left alone in it, I don't want to leave. But Frégate, of all the Seychelles islands, is packed with wonders ... and legends of pirates and headless ladies. I knew Eden would be a well-rounded place.

"Frégate is a wild island," says Steve Hill, the island's ecology manager. Steve and I leave from the main house and head off into the hills toward Mount Signal, the island's 410-foot peak. "You're the first person to take this trail," he says. "I'm working on returning the island back to its natural state." It's true: Steve, the antithesis of most of the guests ("That luxury stuff is foreign to a South African bushwhacker," he says), is trying to transform the island, taking it back in time and erasing a history that at one time cleared the island of trees for farming and grazing. He closes his eyes and imagines the island in 50 years in a balanced state. Steve takes me on a trail through a banyan- tree forest that he's growing. Most of these trees have been planted during the last 25 years and have shot to the sky like they're reaching for heaven and in a hurry to touch it. His eyes light up as he points out blue pigeons, Seychelles white eyes, magpie robins, fodies, sun-birds and Seychelles kestrels, all of which now thrive on Frégate. To Steve, each bird tells him his efforts at returning the island to its natural state have been successful. It helps that rats have been eradicated on the island. That alone makes it a little slice of heaven.

But it's not just the birds. The island houses a unique giant tenebrionid beetle. Not really exciting for most people. But when bug-nutty entomologists saw it for the fi rst time, they thought the beetle had been pieced together from other beetles and that a hoax was being played on them. We find dozens tucked in the branches of various trees on the island. It defi nitely looks like a bug.

As we hike up to Mount Signal, the trail leads through thickets of banyan, cinnamon, breadfruit, ylang-ylang and cashew trees to the wind-sculpted granite peak and incredible views of Grand Anse Beach and The Rock Spa. Looking around it's as if we're on the only island in the ocean. Lush reefs ring Frégate like a jeweled hoop, and the water glows in shades of pure blue. Those thoughts of Eden ease back into my head.

When we hike down to the end of the trail, there is a waiting buggy and a cooler filled with freshly chilled coconuts with straws. It is as if the staff has read our minds, and they have timed the end of our hike perfectly.

We jump in the buggy. I drop Steve off by the original plantation house and head to the main house for a lunch of chilled yogurt-and-cucumber soup and chicken curry with jasmine rice and islandfresh chutney. I'd like to linger at my table, which overlooks the ocean and beaches that come laden with superlatives that never quite work when describing such ineffable beauty. The breeze here swirls and wraps around me in cool caresses. But I want to explore.

Inspired by the sweep of sand at Anse Bambous, I take my buggy on a slow tour of the island's seven beaches. Frégate's private realm includes several beaches that have achieved legendary status for their exquisiteness. For me, beaches are fascinating battlegrounds, really. A beach sits at the crossroads of a restless ocean and palm trees. The soft sweep of sand is never the same from day to day; it changes by the hour. Crabs appear and disappear with the tidal shifts and, beneath the sands, the secret lives of predator and prey are lived out unobserved. Here on Frégate, some beaches become diffi cult during the southwest monsoon (off-season), only to return to their normal calm from November to April. Green sea turtles ply their ancient paths and come to lay their eggs on Frégate on dark nights. And some beaches are totally private. If a sign is here that says "Beach Occupied," then a lucky couple has secured the place all to themselves. The sands of Frégate's beaches are like the foam used on a bed that molds to your shape, but softer. And all have perfectly sculpted granite adornments and palm trees placed by what seems the most meticulous artist for the most perfect appearance of paradisiacal bliss. At my two favorite Frégate beaches, Anse Victorin and Anse Macquereau, I fi nd coolers with cold water and padded lounge chairs for guests intent on the pure bliss of apathy. Here you can call for room service and drinks to be delivered throughout the day. It's a lovely indulgence.

I meet up with Francis, one of Frégate's naturalists, to visit the last beach. He takes me to the end of a trail so we can walk to Anse Parc, a small beach on the far western side of the island. The trail leads through an old copra plantation, which is a good place to encounter a few of the Seychelles' giant land tortoises. You'd think these 90-year-old beasts would be easy to fi nd. Frégate is one of the relatively few islands in the world where you can encounter these slow-lived creatures.

"Just look for the rocks that move," says Francis. And soon my eyes adjust, and there are dozens of the ancient animals in the grassland under trees, alongside the trail and soaking in pools of water, all looking like sculpted boulders that sprout legs and shift a few feet every now and then. Up close, even the young, 200-pounders look like they've been living since the dawn of time. Their faces and skin remind me of Yoda. They hardly look up as we follow the trail to the beach. Before we arrive at the beach, Francis takes me under the canopy of an enormous banyan tree, and there in its shade are the stone walls of what is thought to be the remains of a pirate settlement. There's a lead-lined conduit and, supposedly, three tombs made of coral. Early explorers spoke of golden doubloons washing up on the beach and a gold cross found near the wall, among other artifacts. We explore along the wall -- me looking for glints of the gold that some say still remains hidden on this island -- but our presence has spooked hundreds of brown noddies from their nests in the trees, and pretty soon it's as if they're using us for target practice. They say when a seabird poops on you, it's good luck; after that experience, I'm so touched with good fortune that I surely must be immortal.

"I like the birds," says Francis. "But let's go see the beach."

We continue down to the beach. Above our heads angelic fairy terns hover in the wind, and the shafts of light piercing the clouds make it look as if they're riding the thermals toward heaven. As we stand admiring the small sweep of pillow-soft sand that defi nes Anse Parc, Francis relates that this was where a group of French Jacobin terrorists were said to have been exiled in the early 1800s. They'd apparently been accused of plotting to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte, which makes their getting exiled a bit ironic. They were Frégate's first full-time inhabitants, but I'm sure their experiences of the island were much less sybaritic. However, the island was for them, most likely, equally exclusive.

After the hikes, the nature and the explorations, I turn to the self-gratifying side of Frégate and take the buggy up to The Rock Spa for a treatment that sinks me even further into the expansive world of pleasure and harmony. That night, as I did each and every evening at the resort, I walk down the steps from my villa to the open-air hot tub, strip down and climb in. Not too hot, the water swirls away any remaining vestiges of real life, and the moon, refl ecting its silver light over the soft waters of the Indian Ocean, carries my elated thoughts across the waters. With the twilight of evening pressing on the day, giant-winged fruit bats pierce the shadows of the coming night. The last of the fairy terns returns from the sea, and the waves on the beach below sigh into the sand. With a fi nal fl ourish, the day departs. I wander back up to the villa to dress and dine at Frégate House. Tonight I'll join Frégate's amiable and elegant managers, Frits and Jenny Hannenberg, and converse my way through the catch of the day and an exquisite selection of French wines.

On the way back to my villa, a feeling ripples through me. I have found Eden. The cabbie's voice echoes through my head and the thought of the serpent reminds me that I must return to share the wonder of this corner of the globe with the one I love.