Thanks to celebrity honeymooners like Prince William and Kate Middleton, even not-so-adventurous travelers have heard of the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 Indian Ocean islands off the coast of East Africa. But this way-off-the-beaten-path destination in the Southern Hemisphere -- famed for the beauty of its sifted-flour sand beaches, indigenous species of tropical flora and fauna, marine and bird life, and even its gorgeous rock monuments -- hasn't been offered on many cruise itineraries.
Until Crystal Esprit committed to the region, the Seychelles have really only been featured on around-the-world trips or the occasional South African voyage. As the only docking facility is located on the "big island" of Victoria, and ships tend to stay for just a day, exposure to the smaller islands is extremely limited. Adventure-minded travelers who want to island-hop typically do so via the Seychelles network of small ferryboats.
Now there's good news for cruise fans who want to explore this part of the world: Two lines are offering dedicated Seychelles cruises on a seasonal basis. Crystal's luxury yacht Esprit spends the (Northern Hemisphere) winter in the Seychelles, offering weeklong sailings. During the same period, Variety Cruises operates a 41-passenger yacht for seven-night cruises to the archipelago. These small ships can nip into bays and anchor off uninhabited islands, as well as visit charming tropical vacation destinations like La Digue and Praslin that don't have cruise ship docks.
The biggest challenge posed by a trip to the Seychelles? Getting there. It's a long way from just about any place. Perhaps one of the reasons that the Seychelles, dubbed the "tropical Galapagos" for its strong commitment to protecting its endemic species, remains true to its roots is that it's not a convenient drop-by destination. A 10-hour flight from the U.K. (and even longer from North America and Australia via connecting flights in places like Dubai and Johannesburg), it's just too far for mass tourism. As such, it feels a bit otherworldly, reminds the well traveled of absolutely no other place they've ever been and is serene and harmonious. And yes, the experience of seeing the Seychelles is worth the trip.
Still not convinced? Here are five reasons why a cruise to the Seychelles is worth the trek.
Beaches are your passion, particularly deserted ones.
We saw more gorgeous beaches on our seven-night cruise on Crystal's Esprit than we can even count. It's not just that there's so little commercial development or that the sand is pretty or that the hue of the water, depending on location, was blue or green, purple or beige. Even the rocks appeal. Boulders, of every size and shape, reflect different shades and hues depending on the sun, and frame the beaches along with rings of palm trees.
Every beach had a different personality, and our favorites were the remote ones. Don't miss Big Sister Island, which felt even more remote than it was because we had to trek across the island to get to it. On Praslin, another highlight was Georgette Beach at the Lemuria Resort. (Our cruise line offered a golf tour via the resort's course, and we tagged along to hit the beach.) We discovered a third, located on Digue, via a bicycling tour; Anse Source D'Argent was worth the physical exertion.
Your ideal vacation is on the water.
One of the highlights of a Seychelles cruise is the chance to snorkel, swim and bodysurf from almost every beach you visit.''
On a ship like Crystal Esprit, with a built-in water sports marina, you can take kayaks, wakeboards, water skis and snorkeling equipment straight from the ship to the water. What everyone seemed to enjoy even more was the chance, most afternoons, to hang out on a swimming platform, chatting with fellow passengers and swimming around the ship.
One tip: You'll definitely want to pack more than one bathing suit as you're in and out of the water many times during a single day.
You are passionate about conserving nature.
The Seychelles is an archipelago of some 115 islands, of which only a handful are occupied by humans. Even those that are home to the country's nearly 90,000 residents practice sustainable development and carefully nurture nature reserves, like the popular UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vallee de Mai Nature Reserve. Located on the resort island of Praslin -- a popular port of call for ships that cruise within the islands -- it's a preserved palm forest known for the elusive Coco de Mer palm tree.
One of Crystal's signature shore excursion offerings, all over the world, is its "You Care, We Care" voluntourism programs, in which passengers can, on a complimentary tour, make a contribution to designated ports of call. Since wildlife conservation is such a priority in the Seychelles, the line offers an opportunity for passengers to help the ecosystem of Curieuse Island, by planting endemic trees and plants.
You want to see exotic bird and animal life.
Cousin Island is a must-visit destination for birders and animal lovers, too. The former coconut plantation has been carefully restored via conservation efforts and just a handful of workers now live there. Home to the once nearly extinct species of Seychelles warbler (which, through diligent efforts over decades, is no longer on the list), the island also counts Seychelles magpie-robins, sunbirds and blue pigeons among its 300,000 nesting seabirds. On our visit, we pulled up in a skiff and did a wet landing for a hike through the jungle to see the birdlife and tortoises. The giant tortoises, also a major draw, live all over the island and lay their eggs on the beach.
You want a nature retreat with all the comforts.
In the Seychelles, you can easily combine nature-based activities with a comfortable, luxurious lifestyle. Living for a week on a ship as high end as Crystal Esprit and spending days sweating it out in the tropics via hikes, bicycle rides and mountain climbing offers a nice balance. As well, many passengers add on a resort stay; on the island of Praslin, there's the aforementioned Lemuria Resort -- which offers a great spa, tennis and golf -- and a relatively new Raffles. La Digue has more modest -- and yet entirely comfortable -- guesthouses and small hotels. And even the "big island" of Mahe, home to Victoria, the Seychelles' capital and our ships' home port, has a terrific balance of historic, culinary and adventure options, as well as fancy hotels. (Don't miss the zipline, offered as an included tour on our ship.) Many upmarket chains such as Four Seasons, Banyan Tree and Hilton are represented there. A delightful resort called the Eden Bleu Hotel has a waterfront infinity pool, terrific restaurant and high-end shopping -- and is a short five-minute walk to the docking place of Crystal Esprit.