When it comes to ethical, eco-conscious tourism in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles sets the standard. No mega-resorts, mass tourism or pushy sales people here: instead you'll find an emphasis on local ventures focused on protecting the country's remarkably diverse landscape and wildlife.
With a population of just 92,000, Seychelles (fun fact: officially, it's just “Seychelles”, no “the” necessary) is small in size but it's a big player when it comes to wildlife conservation. Seychelles was the first nation to include conservation efforts and targets in its constitution; today almost 60 percent of its land mass is protected, the highest percentage of any country in the world. The country is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the easily accessible Vallée de Mai, one of the world's last remaining stands of coco-de-mer palm trees, and the extremly isolated Aldabra Atoll on Seychelles' farthest reaches, where more than 150,000 giant tortoises live in undisturbed peace.
The nation's focus on conservation is reflected in its wide range of ecotourism offerings, from hikes through untouched nature to snorkelling some of the Indian Ocean's best-preserved coral reefs. With temperatures averaging between 25ºC and 35ºC all year round, and sea surface-temperatures hovering between 28ºC and 31ºC, a Seychelles holiday represents the best of both worlds: luxury-resort indulgence plus remarkable wildlife experiences you'll remember for the rest of your life.
Visiting Cousin Island today, it's hard to comprehend that just 50 years ago this was a coconut plantation that had been almost entirely stripped of its native vegetation. Now it's a spectacular conservation success story, a home for turtles, giant tortoises and reptiles, with a forest canopy alive with the sounds of native birds. That avian community includes robust populations of the Seychelles warbler – virtually extinct until Cousin Island efforts pulled it back from the brink – and the beautiful, scarlet-faced Seychelles blue pigeon, plus around 300,000 nesting seabirds. All on an island a third of the size of Waiheke.
Along with multiple environmental awards, Cousin Island is the world's first certified carbon neutral reserve, meaning that carbon emissions have been reduced as much as possible, and the remainder offset by the purchase of carbon credits. There's no accommodation on the island, and no camping allowed, but you can visit every weekday morning on boat tours from neighbouring Praslin Island.
Hiking on Mahe
On so many tropical island nations, the main island has little to recommend it beyond its international airport and ferry terminal. Not so in the Seychelles, where the main island of Mahe is a destination in its own right – in fact, many visitors never leave it at all, such is Mahe's array of beaches, dining options, shopping and gorgeous scenery. Beyond the most touristed areas, the Mahe landscape is lush and wild, with an astonishing diversity of fauna and flora. Explore it on one of the island's many hiking trails, from the relatively easy – like the trail to the summit of Morne Blanc (around 40 minutes each way) – to more strenuous day-long hikes, like the one to the top of Mahe's highest mountain, Morne Seychellois. If you're staying in popular Beau Vallon, the trail from Danzil to Anse Major beach is a must do. Drive or take a bus to the start of the coastal trail which combines easy walking with opportunities for beach swimming and snorkelling, then catch a water taxi back to your hotel.
Sainte Anne Marine National Park
Just 3 km and a relaxed 20-minute boat ride from the Seychelles' capital, Victoria, is the Ste Anne Marine National Park, consisting of six small islands and an extensive coral reef. While the park's proximity to the mainland makes it popular with tourists – around 40,000 visit each year – the strictly enforced conservation laws have preserved the area's underwater flora and fauna to an impressive degree. In fact the biodiversity here is actually greater than at many more remote areas in the Seychelles. The coral gardens swarm with brightly coloured tropical fish and green turtles can be seen feeding upon the extensive seagrass meadows; reef sharks and bottle nosed dolphins are also a common sight. Experience the park on a snorkelling, scuba diving or glass bottom boat excursion, spend an hour or two lazing on the powder-white beaches, then finish your day at one of the park's many excellent Creole restaurants before catching the boat back to Mahe.
Vallée de Mai
Located in the centre of Praslin, the Seychelles' second largest island, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve is an area of primeval forest with roots in Gondwana, the Southern Hemisphere supercontinent that the Seychelles were once part of. The Vallée de Mai palm forest, entirely untouched until the 1930s, is famous for being one of only two places in the world where the coco de mer tree grows wild. Also known as the double coconut or sea coconut, the giant coco-de-mer grows to around 30 m in height; its fruit is the largest in the (non-cultivated) plant kingdom, weighing up to 42 kg and taking up to seven years to mature!! There are a number of walking trails through the forest, all safe and suitable for families; guides lead free group walks twice daily. But to get the most out of your visit, it's worth hiring one of the friendly private guides waiting each day at the park's entrance.