White sand, black magic

Sunday Times
Published: 20th June 2010

I have heard there is still black magic in the Seychelles — “We call it grigri,” intones the waitress with the tight Afro curls, as I dissect my red snapper on the island of Mahé. She stares into the middle distance and shifts her weight from foot to foot. Behind her, waves lap on buxom granite boulders. “I have only heard this, of course,” she insists, adjusting her blue skirt and tugging uneasily on her T-shirt.

She continues to stare into nowhere. “I have heard that you must throw the magic herbs into the flaming charcoal at 6am, and again at 6pm, and say some words, make an incantation.”

She pauses theatrically and looks straight at me. “And sometimes, the man who has left you, he comes straight back.”

Brought to the Seychelles from Africa by the slaves of early French settlers, grigri is a heady blend of herbalism and voodoo. It was banned from then islands by the British in 1958. By all accounts, it refused to go. Our waitress hurries away to bring sweet coconut ice cream. We sip fresh lime juice and a little dove lands on the table. The balmy air, the soft drag of the ocean, the opera of birds, the lusty Creole cuisine... you’d think the Seychelles would be all the magic any of us needs. This distant archipelago has been called the Garden of Eden, and I can see why. Its lush drama drew Noel Coward and Ian Fleming, who wrote For Your Eyes Only in the Northolme Hotel. Seychellois childhoods are spent boating and fishing. In the interior there are rainforests, and you can pick breadfruit, grapefruit, cinnamon, mango.

On Praslin, the second largest island, lurks the Vallée de Mai, where the nuts of the coco de mer are shaped like the ample pelvis of a woman, and then illicitly traded as an aphrodisiac.

All is sensuality here, as the honeymoon couples will attest. I was told Prince William and Kate are planning to honeymoon on the discreet private island of Desroches, where they’ve already stayed and taken over the whole island.

The lovers sport in the surf on the Banyan Tree’s beach, in northern Mahé. This is the beach of your dreams. Elephantine boulders clamber up the slopes among blazing green coconut palms, and when you paddle out from the crescent of sand, the temperature is as it will be in heaven, if you’ve been very, very good.

Paul McCartney lodged here, at the hotel’s ultra-romantic “presidential villa” etched in the rocks, and I have never stayed anywhere lovelier than our villa complex with its private pool and secluded garden leading to the water. The humid air is so soft, the fresh lobster so divine, the Thai masseuse faultless as she presses bits of flesh, immediately inducing deep calm and content. A little pressure applied to the left of my tummy button was perhaps the highlight of my entire stay. And all the time the ocean murmurs affectionately in the background and the mynah birds squawk out their gossip. If you want time and reality to stop, come here.

We moved on to the private island of Denis, where the white sands were deserted except for astonished green crabs that glared at us before scuttling back into the sea. Denis has only 25 intimate cottages nestling by the beach, each so secluded that some guests sunbathe naked. We breakfasted on duck eggs and watched the paradise flycatchers and magpie robins, a flurry of colour. We swam with hawksbill turtles while the beautiful fairy terns swooped and swirled overhead. We made friends with the giant tortoises who trundled up to the cottages to have their necks stroked.

Stronger than all this, though, was the sense of being removed from the world and its cares. Denis is a glinting speck in the vast blue, 90 miles adrift from Mahé yet the staff welcome you like old friends who just happen to own a tropical island. Guests return year after year, and the visitors’ book is the most rhapsodic I’ve come across.

And yet, and yet... even here, potent undercurrents are swirling. On our first evening, red cardinals perched on the wooden chandeliers as an almighty tropical storm roared through the lodge. Something compelled us to swim out to a rock where a white cross marked a shipwreck, even as the monsoon rain whipped the ocean around us. Next day, every living creature seemed to be intent on sex.

A bright-green gecko forced his attentions on a female, while out in the ocean two hawksbills struggled gracefully on the surface, and the peace of the shore was frequently interrupted by groans from very randy giant tortoises. The females’ shells are badly gouged by the attentions of the males, more than 100 years old but still enthusiastic.

There are three young women to every young man in the Seychelles, so everything is not as sunny as it seems. Catherine Olsen’s novel Sweet Seduction, set here, details the islanders’ famous promiscuity, and their distrust of marriage. A taxi driver told me he knew sorcerers who could take you to a mirror, where you would “see whatever your husband was doing”.

Back on Mahé, I went to visit a “herbalist” up in the mountains. I left the car and hiked through sugar cane, orange trees, guavas and grapefruit, and found the thin man drifting in his herb garden. He wore an explorer’s hat, beige shorts and a fine white linen shirt. He dangled his rimmed glasses in one hand, and told me, very matter-of-factly, that my best time to go “man hunting” was from 5 till 7 in the evening.

He said he is forever being woken in the dead of night by women whose partners haven’t come home. Wearily, he complained that the women demand an instant incantation to get their man back. I asked if I could call him if such a thing ever happens to me. He said yes. I have his number. Afterwards, my driver pointed out that most who say they only deal in herbs and white magic will do black magic for the right fee.

Ah, paradises. Seldom quite what they seem — as the original honeymoon couple found to their cost when that pesky serpent made his appearance. So forget the pretty, pallid image of the Seychelles from the holiday brochures. The Seychelles I discovered is a place of steaming rainforests and sultry affairs as well as sensuous beaches. It is melodramatic and febrile, full of intrigue and real romance — not merely the dinner-under-the-stars variety. Perhaps all those honeymooners would be wise to visit one of the sorcerers for a spell or two, just in case everything is not always quite so idyllic. It is good to live in perfection, but real romance takes us all that step further. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company.

The Ultimate Travel Company Resort Collection (020 7386 4646, theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) has six days, all-inclusive, on Denis and five, B&B, at the Banyan Tree on Mahé, with direct flights from Heathrow with Air Seychelles and transfers, from £3,065pp; and 11 days in family-run hotels on Praslin and Mahé from £1,907pp, with flights, transfers and most meals.

Or try Seasons in Style (01244 202000, seasonsinstyle.com), Carrier (0161 491 7610, carrier.co.uk), Elegant Resorts (01244 897505, elegantresorts.co.uk) or ITC Classics (01244 355550, itcclassics.co.uk).