Prior to a trip to Seychelles and Ethiopia, I was confronted with a series of recurring questions from friends and family: mainly "Where is that?" about Seychelles and "Why?" for Ethiopia. When I told them how far Seychelles is from the U.S., the question of why would naturally come up again.
Considering this largely unfamiliar destination is in the middle of the Indian Ocean and takes more than 20 hours to reach from New York, it's a fair question.
It took no time to discover that a trip to Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands 930 miles east of mainland Africa, is worth it for infinite reasons.
Let's start at the beginning (of the world). It's said that the Garden of Eden was in Seychelles, and yes, you can visit it. Officially known as the Vallee de Mai, this Unesco World Heritage Site on the island of Praslin is an earthly paradise, home to a prehistoric forest of palms forming a lush, dense canopy, harboring endemic species of plants and birds found nowhere else on Earth. It's also home to the otherworldly coco de mer, the largest seed in the plant kingdom that legend says originated from both the sea and heaven. So while other tropical destinations claim to be paradise, Seychelles might have contained the planet's original one.
One of the giant tortoises that are found on Seychelles’ Curieuse Island. Photo Credit: Chris Close/Seychelles Tourism Board
Prehistoric paradise can be found on each of Seychelles' 12 inhabited islands. The three most visited are Praslin, La Digue and Mahe, home to Victoria, the country's capital, with a population of 26,450. Victoria offers colorful open-air markets, museums and the Arul Mihu Navasakthi Vinayagar Hindu Temple, an example of the rich culture brought from India.
Outside of Victoria, there's much to do on Mahe, including a visit to Jardin du Roi, a fifth-generation restaurant and spice garden that shows off Seychelles' history in the spice industry. This history becomes evident after just one meal in the country, where rich spices blend with Indian, Asian and European culinary customs to create flavors unique to Seychelles. If you want a sample of its other flavors, try a tasting at the Takamaka Rum Distillery, on the grounds of a 1790s plantation, that provides a glimpse into the birth of the country's Creole culture.
Anse Source d’Argent beach on La Digue. Photo Credit: Gerard Larose/Seychelles Tourism Board
Contrasting with Mahe's relative bustle, La Digue, with 2,800 inhabitants, is considered the rustic island, where bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation, and visitors stay in guesthouses and bungalows. It's charming and old world, with seaside restaurants such as the Fish Trap serving traditional Creole dishes. The real highlight of La Digue, though, is Anse Source d'Argent, a breathtaking beach studded with giant granite boulders, making it the most photographed beach in the world and reason enough to fly to Seychelles.
Praslin is slightly larger, with a population of 8,600 and another beach known as one of the most beautiful in the world. Anse Lazio, like so many of Seychelles' beaches, also features boulders surrounding turquoise waters, and a day here is made complete with lunch on the beach at the Bonbon Plume, where the fresh-grilled fish is divine.
Excursions to other islands provide additional discoveries. A catamaran tour will bring you to Cousin Island, a pristine nature reserve that's home to 500,000 birds, many brought back from near-extinction; Curieuse Island, inhabited only by giant tortoises that enjoy being hand-fed; and snorkeling off of tiny St. Pierre.
With so many islands and activities, there's bound to be questions of logistics, and Mason's Travel has authoritative answers. A family-owned operation for more than 40 years, they work with travel professionals and consumers to coordinate every aspect of the planning, including all land and sea transfers, group and private tours and excursions (such as the three-island tour).
A traditional coffee ceremony at the Kuriftu Resort and Spa in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Pamela Jacobs
Many travelers from the U.S. choose to combine their trip with an East African country, considering the flight patterns and distance. With Ethiopian Airlines being a logical choice (they fly direct to Addis Ababa from many U.S. cities, and from there to Mahe), I decided to spend a few days in Ethiopia.
If Seychelles is the biblical birthplace of man, Ethiopia is humanity's ancestral origin; you can meet the 3.2-million-year-old remains of "Lucy," our oldest discovered ancestor, at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Meaning "new flower," Addis is a fascinating city full of ancient and modern history and warm, welcoming people who rightly take pride in having ousted their Italian conquerors, making it one of the few African countries to avoid colonization.
A variety of stopover and extended packages are available through F.K. Explorer Ethiopia, a partner of Ethiopian Holidays and Ethiopian Airlines. My tour was led by Assefa Genetu, a guide who made all in my group fall madly in love with the country and became a friend to each of us. He brought us to the city's fascinating churches and vibrant markets, and on the eve of Ethiopia's New Year (which is usually Sept. 11; it is now 2009 in their calendar), to a restaurant where we drank honey wine with the locals and watched the traditional celebratory dances. Everything about it was surprising and delightful.
The surprises extended beyond Addis, as a portion of the tour package brought us to Debre Zeit, a serene resort town sitting on a crater lake, where we spent a day and night enjoying spa treatments and five-star service at Kuriftu Resort and Spa. A highlight here was the traditional coffee ceremony, a communal, time-honored tribute to Ethiopia's introduction of coffee to the world.
My only regret was not staying longer in Ethiopia to see its nine Unesco Heritage Sites and meet more of its wonderful people. While I need no excuse to one day revisit the paradise of Seychelles, I have an additional reason to return for the wonders of Ethiopia.