The paradise island nation that rivals the Maldives – but with a fraction of the tourists

Mango House Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022
Mango House Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022

To think of the Indian Ocean is to think of a calm, turquoise sea lapping a white-sand beach. To think of a holiday there, these days, is to think of overwater villas and influencer-friendly swings. It is to think of the Maldives.

The Maldivian style of paradise has become synonymous with this part of the world – but another version, some 1,300 miles southwest, is going from strength to ever greater, more rivalrous strength. To overlook it is to miss out.

The Seychelles began welcoming tourists to its international airport in 1972, the same year that the first ­Maldivian private-island resort, Kurumba, opened. While the Maldives as we know them today largely took shape after the opening of Soneva Fushi in 1995, the evolution of the ­Seychelles has been different, as richly diverse as its landscape.

North Island, one of its 115 isles, has taken the country’s reputation to the starriest of heights in the past two decades, welcoming couples from George and Amal Clooney to David and Vic­toria Beckham. But a lower-key glamour can be traced much further back.

Now opened as a luxury hotel, the private home of the Italian photographer Gian Paolo Barbieri, in the south of the island of Mahé, offers a window into some of this history, as well as a compelling reason to visit for some sun this winter.

Barbieri fell in love with the destination while shooting there in 1975. He spent a lot of time on the island over the years and became particularly enamoured with Anse aux Poules Bleues beach – so called, apparently, because of the possibility of meeting blue-feathered ducks. His architecturally striking house was built there in 1991.

Mango House Mahé island Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022 - Gian Paolo Barbieri
Mango House Mahé island Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022 - Gian Paolo Barbieri

Today, this is the hub of Mango House (his nickname for it, after the white variation of the fruit that grew behind his kitchen), a grainy aerial photograph on the wall of the lobby lounge depicting it as it was then.

­Coffee-table books, a telescope, records and a player lend a still-homely feeling to this light-filled, contemporary space. The pool has been extended and the house has been largely rebuilt, surrounded now by villa-style additions housing 41 chic rooms and suites.

The project has been undertaken by LXR Hotels & Resorts, Hilton’s petite high-luxury portfolio, but, staying here, you would never know that it is part of a bigger group. In the rooms you will find artwork by Alyssa Adams, tropical-print robes and face masks. Alyssa’s father, Michael, is based just around the corner from the hotel in a gorgeous Creole property the family have lived in since 1972. Pay a visit to his ­gallery and you might meet him, and his wife, Heather (michaeladamsart.com). They can recall the early days of the artists’ community here, before Barbieri was their neighbour.

They planted their now-luscious garden from scratch, with no idea how fast, thick and tall things would grow – encouraging for the many mango trees that have been planted around the hotel.

Art and culture

Mahé, and the south of it in particular, is home to a vibrant art scene. One of its key figures is Nigel Henri. When not working at his usual base in the north of the island, Seychellois Henri co-ordinates an art programme at the hotel that includes painting classes, generously sharing his knowledge of the country’s culture, geography and fellow artists.

The Seychelles’ unique landscape has inspired many of these artists over the years, which Henri puts down to: “The environment; the colour; the sun; the people.” Mango House has been designed well to sit within this. Characteristic granite boulders form much of the sight line when traversing the property, in an almost tropically brutalist mix with palm trees. The view from this south-western corner, around the bay, over rugged coastline and verdant mountains, is devastatingly beautiful – and nothing like those imaginings of a calm, flat Indian Ocean beach.

Mango House Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022
Mango House Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022

Rooms are clustered in Cliff, Bay and Ocean houses, and all have access to ­private or shared pools. At Cliff House, this expanse of aquatic infinity juts out high above ground level, glittering under a shady arboreal canopy. Bounty from the local vegetation appears often throughout, from fruit at breakfast, sourced at a neighbouring farm, to aloe vera grown on site, and kindly offered by staff (who are wonderful; friendly and endlessly proficient) for those with sunburnt skin.

Breakfast is served at Muse, the hotel’s Italian restaurant (another nod to Barbieri), where a terrace overlooks the ocean, and in the evening the catch of the day is served alongside pasta vongole with fresh clams and fat red Sicilian prawns.

There are three main restaurants, plus a pool bar. The main bar, Kokoye, can make you anything from an off-menu French 75 to a signature “mar-tea-ni”, made with in-house gin and tea infusions. This fun and rather fabulous space, with palm-printed walls and green velvet banquettes, is frequented, as are the restaurants, by locals as well as guests. On a lower level is Moutya, offering Creole-style dining, where you can sip Spicy Island Ice Tea and nibble homemade plantain chips by the beach before ordering meaty snapper or special-occasion lobster.

Kokoye Mango House Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022
Kokoye Mango House Seychelles paradise island nation rivals maldives less tourists visit 2022

When nature calls

As arresting a setting as this is, it is easy for one’s eyes to drift across the sand in the hope of spotting one of the island’s elusive turtles. A green turtle laid her eggs here in December, and it is hard not to spend the entire holiday in constant hope of seeing one (unfortunately, you most likely won’t see any: there is a member of the hotel staff who has never seen one, despite living on the island her whole life).

The giant tortoises you can see shuffling around the botanical gardens in Victoria, Mahé’s capital, and in the wild on the Aldabra atoll, look prehistoric, almost otherworldly. Further contributing to a sense of the fantastical for visitors is the rare and mysterious coco de mer, which grows only in the Seychelles (and can be seen in the botanical gardens). Its palm tree has male and female variants that can take 50 years to reach sexual maturity; it is only the female plant that produces the valuable, suggestively shaped nut.

It is easy to see why Gian Paolo Barbieri and other artists over the years have been so captivated by the island and its natural wonders. It is another version of paradise that is impossible not to fall in love with.

How to do it: Mango House (00 248 4 397000; hilton.com) offers doubles from £597, including breakfast

Covid rules

All travellers must have a Health Travel Authorisation (seychelles.govtas.com) and valid health and travel insurance. Those aged 12 and over must also show proof of full vaccination, or a negative PCR test taken within the past 72 hours, or a rapid antigen test taken within the past 24 hours, or proof of recovery.

This article is kept updated with the latest information.

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