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Seychelles Islands

An Island Republic

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The Seychelles is divided into Inner and Outer Islands. Mahé is the largest of the Inner Island group, and lies to the south of its nearest neighbours, Silhouette, Praslin and La Digue. The Outer Islands are strung out to the southeast.

Every island in the archipelago boasts stunning beaches, though not all are safe for swimming, and there are numerous opportunities for sporting types, bird-watchers, hikers, bikers and pure ultra-violet hedonists to indulge their particular passions.

Most islands are linked by swift ferry and air services. However, chartering a yacht and pottering about the archipelago - in the manner if not the style of explorers of long ago - is perhaps the most idyllic way to take in this Indian Ocean utopia.

Aride Island

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Aride is one of the world's most important nature reserves, the breeding ground for more than one million seabirds. It is also home to a variety of other endemic bird species, including the Magpie Robin, the Fodie, the Brush Warbler and the Blue Pigeon. Plants such as Wright's Gardenia grow in profusion, turtles nest on the beaches and the waters offshore are rich with marine life. Aride was bought in 1973 by chocolate baron Christopher Cadbury, and today is managed by the Island Conservation Society. Only the reserve's vessels are allowed to land here, and visitors have to transfer onto the island's boats before coming ashore.

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Bird Island

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You don't have to be an ornithologist to visit Bird Island, about 110 kilometres north of Mahé; the spectacle of several million sooty terns nesting on the northeast of the island between May and October, with numbers peaking in mid July, is guaranteed to astound anyone. Turtles lumber ashore in October to lay eggs, and at any time of year it's superb for big game fishing, as the sea drops to a depth of 1,000 fathoms (1,800 meters) just offshore. Bird is also the home of Esmeralda, who at 304 kilos is the world's heaviest land tortoise living in the wild. Two other islands with notable bird populations are Aride and Cousin.

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Cerf, Moyenne, Round and Other Islands

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Other islands of interest within the archipelago include Cerf, which is a popular weekend picnic spot just off Mahé, and Moyenne and Round, which both make for a good day-trip; Denis is privately owned but renowned for the angling in the surrounding waters; Isle du Nord (North Island) starred in the 2004 movie Thunderbirds; and Isle Thérese is distinguished by the Petite Escalier, a rock formation resembling a staircase. Further afield, the outer islands are clustered into four groups - Amirantes, Farquar, Coetivy and Aldabra.

Curieuse Island

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The leper colony that was once the chief feature of Curieuse is now in almost total ruins, and the chief attraction here is the dramatic bare red earth of the hillsides which intermingles with the unique green flora peppered with coco de mer trees. Visitors disembarking at Baie Laraie are greeted by the sight of multitudes of giant hump-head parrotfish, and giant tortoises lazing near the rangers' headquarters. A trail through thick mangrove forest - one of the most breathtaking sights on the island - winds its way over to Anse José, where The Doctor's House, a neat example of Creole colonial architecture, has been turned into a museum. Sea turtles swim up to the nearby beach to lay their eggs.

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Desroches

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Desroches is a long, narrow, sandy cay, named for an 18th-century French governor, and best known for being neatly placed on the edge of a circular submerged reef that could have been tailor-made for watersports, diving and fishing enthusiasts. It takes about 40 minutes to fly from Mahé to Desroches.

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Frégate Island

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Frégate Island is privately owned and has a resort (Fregate Island Private), but is not open to day visitors. A vigorous conservation programme ensures that the exceptionally tame Seychelles Magpie Robin and many other fauna flourish on the island.

You don't have to be an ornithologist to visit Frégate Island, about 110 kilometres north of Mahé; the spectacle of several million sooty terns nesting on the northeast of the island between May and October, with numbers peaking in mid July, is guaranteed to astound anyone. Turtles lumber ashore in October to lay eggs, and at any time of year it's superb for big game fishing, as the sea drops to a depth of 1,000 fathoms (1,800 meters) just offshore. Two other islands with notable bird populations are Aride and Cousin.

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La Digue

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The Digueois, as the inhabitants of La Digue are known, are regarded as rustics by their more sophisticated cousins on Mahé. In turn, the Digueois pity Mahé's residents for having to endure the rat race, and rarely leave home. This lovely, gentle island, with few roads and less traffic, is quintessential Seychelles, a step back in time amidst bounteous Nature. La Digue is 30 minutes' ferry ride from Praslin.

The oldest attraction on this island is the enormous Granite Boulder, a designated national monument that covers half a hectare of land at Anse L'Union, on the west coast. It was formed during the Precambrian era, around 750 million years ago, by the slow cooling of molten rocks deep within the earth's crust which endowed it with its especially large crystals. Long exposure to the sculpting forces of wind and waves have granted the monolith its spectacular shape.

Nearby, Union Estate features both the cemetery of the original settlers of La Digue and one of the most pristine beaches in the Seychelles - the legendary Source d'Argent. The estate itself, which houses a traditional copra mill and kiln, and a clutch of giant land tortoises, is centred around the majestic Plantation House which in turn is framed by lovely landscaped gardens. The house - originally owned by the Hossen family who emigrated here from Mauritius in the 19th century - was built in French colonial style, with the ground floor made of timber boarding laid on floor joists. The thatched roof is supported by ridge-poles and rafters probably of capucin or takamaka hard wood. The flights of steps on all four sides are an essential feature of residences of this period. Plantation House was used as a location in the seminal 1977 movie Good-bye Emmanuelle starring the 25-year-old Sylvia Kristel.

Embracing a rather different style, another national monument - Eustache Sarde's house, at Anse Reunion - was built predominantly from timber, and is one of the few remaining examples of its kind in the Seychelles, with the whole design allowing natural ventilation. Dating from the early 20th century, it was constructed with almost geometrical precision and refinement. The house once stood on large masonry pillars, but now rests on a concrete basement. It features a façade veranda, and decorative mansards which provide adequate and habitable attic space.

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Main Islands : Mahé

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Mahé is the largest and most populous of the Seychelles, some eight kilometres wide by 27 long, and home to more than 70,000 souls. Its mountains rise to 900 metres, and parts of its lush tropical forest have yet to be properly explored. Ringed by dozens of beaches, Mahé is also the site of the international airport and the unassuming, laid-back capital, Victoria.

Built around the harbour, and originally known as L'Établissement, the city was renamed Victoria in 1841 in honour of the Queen of England. Indeed, there is a strong air of times past and a small-market-town feel to the nation's capital, where cheery greetings, an amiable pace of life and traditional wooden shuttered shops are the norm.

Despite modern development, there is little in the way of high-rise buildings. The streets are clean and tidy, traffic jams are rare and parking spaces plentiful. The centre can be explored in a day or so, and hiring a car is probably the easiest way to get around the rest of the island, which has the largest selection of shops, restaurants and places to see in the entire archipelago.

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Praslin

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Praslin - named after the 18th century French soldier, diplomat and statesman César Gabriel de Choiseul, Duc de Praslin - lies a couple of hours' ferry ride or 15 minutes by air from Mahé, and is the second-largest of the Seychelles.

Its 5,000 or so inhabitants make their living from farming, fishing or tourism. Praslin's chief attraction is the exotic Vallée de Mai, a World Heritage Site and home to the Seychelles' iconic coco de mer nuts. Naturally, there are plenty of beaches around Praslin too.

The coco de mer's rumoured aphrodisiac properties once made it worth its weight in gold (the 13th-century Hapsburg emperor Rudolph II offered 4,000 florins for a single nut) and legends continue to circulate of the trees uprooting themselves and mating during especially stormy nights. Joining a guided tour of the Vallée de Mai is money very well spent.

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Silhouette Island

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The third largest of the Seychelles, Silhouette was once a pirates' lair, notably that of the French corsair, Jean Hodul, whose treasure is rumoured to be buried somewhere on the island. What is indisputable, however, is that Silhouette is the site of the least disturbed forests in the archipelago, and Mont Plaisir (751 metres) is covered with Seychelles Sandalwood and Bois de Natte.

Two buildings on the island are highly evocative of days gone by in the Seychelles. The old plantation house at La Passe is a graceful and dignified example of Creole architectural style, which always included a spacious veranda extending right around the building, and a flight of steps on each of the four sides, affording more than one entrance or exit. The house was built in the 1860s and was the family home of Henri Dauban, who owned the island and employed around 250 labourers on his 800-hectare estate, producing copra, cinnamon oil and vanilla. The outhouses are somewhat dilapidated, though a bell that was used to summon the labourers to work still hangs from a wooden structure in the centre of the yard.

An indication of the Dauban family's prosperity is found in the other building, the family mausoleum, which occupies a serene spot surrounded by coconut groves, fronted by six massive columns in Greco-Roman style.

Silhouette is about 20 kilometres north of Mahé and can be seen clearly from Beau Vallon Beach.

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