Calling this private-island resort in the Seychelles idyllic is no exaggeration
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By Gary Walther
Photography by Preston-Schlebusch
March / April 2006
There's trouble in paradise. after four days on Frégate Island Private, I can't seem to find a word that better describes the resort. That's a problem because paradise is what we writers call a dead metaphor, a word repeated so often to describe the tropics that it's been used up, like the plot line of Desperate Housewives. Even when it's given an ironic spin, as in "a paradise of prigs," Oscar Wilde's 1887 characterization of Boston, it's hard to find much semantic life in paradise today. Like John Milton said, it's lost.
But this island, the easternmost of the 115 Seychelles, seems to me a paradise found. The climate is a benign 79 to 84 degrees all year long. Although it's not native, there is that essential paradise accessory, the palm--in fact, there are tiaras of them rising up the island's steep slopes, as Frégate was once a coconut plantation.There is that other essential paradise accessory, snakes (but nonpoisonous and shy); however, there are no rats, Frégate being one of only two islands in the world without them. There are also no apple trees, but there are 150 other species of fruit trees, including a beautiful orange one right outside the spa entrance. That's fitting because the products and many of the treatments are based on fruit. There's also a small beach that management reserves for one couple at a time so they can walk around like Adam and Eve before they got the boot.
And what about the fact that Frégate is in some ways the Peaceable Kingdom? The native animals, especially the birds, usually the most skittish of creatures, show little fear of humans. In fact, they're happy to be admired at naked-eye range. A Madagascar fody, feathered in cardinal red, poses on a branch before me until I get tired and walk on. Gregarious noddy terns stand in the road gabbing while golf carts bear down on them. The world's seventh-rarest bird, the Seychelles magpie-robin (only 75 left, all of them in this country), sits in a bush and warbles away just outside my villa, unflustered by my coming and going. And plump moorhens pop out of the rushes and walk across the road with the obliviousness of Los Angeles pedestrians. I even share the resort pool with one briefly. And you know what Nikita Khrushchev once said: "If one cannot catch a bird of paradise, better take a wet hen."
At 1.25 miles by 0.25 miles (about 504 acres), Frégate is compact enough to walk around in a morning, which is what I do on my first full day. After climbing the cement track that goes to the spa, I veer right, down the cart trail toward Anse Victorin, which dead-ends at a lookout. From here, 126 steps snake down to the vest-pocket beach through a cathedral gloom--little sunlight penetrates the dense palm canopy. The sand has nary a wrinkle--indeed, it looks as if it had been poured into a mold and, when dry, buffed with beeswax. In some spots, my foot sinks up to the ankle. A large rock, all contour and graceful creases (nature's Henry Moore), serves me as a shelf, a desk, and a screen for changing. After 20 minutes of riding the camelback swells, I come out of the sea to find the French couple who arrived on the boat with me settling into the double chaise just up from the beach. I resist the urge to introduce myself by saying, "Madam, I'm Adam."
Back at the lookout, I take the Turtle Trail, thinking I'm going to run across some of the 170 Aldabra tortoises that roam wild. The path slithers off into the jungly hillside, and for the next 25 minutes I'm in a world of dusk and damp. Huge palm fronds lie rotting on the slope, and the trail is a rock-studded, root-crossed way that descends steeply to Grand Anse, the largest beach on the island. Here the wind is strong, the breakers attack in foaming ranks, and the beach is floored in spiny rock and sharp coral. There are no turtles, but on the viny plateau above the beach there are dozens of moving shells--a commune of sand crabs.
Then I follow the Terrapin Trail through an imposing grove of coconut palms. It climbs steeply and crests in a magnificent stand of banyan trees. I emerge on the other side of the island near Plantation House, which is used as a restaurant for part of the year. It's closed now, and the reasons are chirring away in the trees all around, some of the 20,000 noddies that descend on Frégate from May to August to breed before resuming their life at sea. The birds' raggedy egg-cup nests are wedged into every tree crotch and stuck helter-skelter on every branch, and an acrid, ammoniac smell permeates the air. Welcome to Guano Corner.
Fifteen minutes later, I'm back in my villa, which, like most of the 15 others, crowns the cliff that runs along the north side of the island. Villa is selling it a bit short: It's actually a walled compound. Living and bedroom are separated by a breezeway and fronted by an expansive deck. The decor is simple--Balinese daybeds and planter's chairs and a color scheme of honeyed wood and ivory-white accessories--and the view sublime. (The walls are largely made of French doors.) And there's a nice instance of lily-gilding, another deck, lower down, screened by vegetation and furnished with a whirlpool tub and a large daybed.
It's this delicious toggling between the wild and the cultivated that makes Frégate Island such a rare experience. It's that unusual faraway spot that doesn't ask guests to trade luxury for remoteness. The food is top-notch, and the service is attentive and gracious. (The staff-to-guest ratio is 3:1, and the resort has its own training academy.) Even the privacy, which is usually part of the package at a place like this, is uncommonly good. "You don't even have to try very hard to be alone," said a woman on the pool deck, who had the place to herself until I came along. In short, Frégate Island Private embodies my notion of resort paradise, the Hotel Bel-Air on Gilligan's Island.
The Rock Spa, opened in May 2004, sits on the island's highest point, a plateau floored (and in some places walled) with great rumps of granite, hence its name. The approach, 105 narrow stone steps, is cut through one of these formations so that at the top you abruptly go from vise to vista. The reception building, a large, spare room that's open on three sides, has a wide veranda furnished with planter's chairs. The architecture and landscaping are eclectic--the four louvered-wall treatment rooms are loosely based on traditional Seychellois houses, the sand garden is Japanese, and the ornamental water garden could be Southeast Asian.
Many of the treatments are by Li'Tya, an Australian company that has made a mark for itself with treatments and products based on Aboriginal healing arts. (See Luxury SpaFinder May-June 2005 for a profile.) They tend to be many-act plays. The Lekor Wrap starts with a footbath in rose petals, basil, and coconut milk, then touches most of the bases--foot scrub, massage (with Ayurvedic oil), wrap (papaya and clay), and facial, culminating in an application of crushed bilimbi (a toner), which is cultivated on the island. The Indian head massage, on the other hand, is all one note, in the key of bliss. I emerge feeling absolutely dreamy (and with almond-oiled hair that looks like it did when I was eight and used Brylcreem) and flop down on a daybed ready for my foot massage.
The daybed is back and away from the spa on a rocky outcrop. Vivienne Dodin, my therapist, turns out to be a virtuoso foot clairvoyant. "Have you had a change of diet recently?" she asks, soon after starting, adding that my bowel is tense. I hadn't noticed that, but in fact I'd just come from Provence, where I'd been indulging in croissants, baguettes, and cheese for a week. "Do you have knee problems?" she queries as she rubs the outside of my right foot under the ankle. Indeed I do.
Vivienne is coy about her training. That she learned from a local healer is the best I can pry out of her. It's a great session--at some point the questions cease and I can gaze at the misty view of Marianne, Felicite, Praslin, and La Digue islands--but it concludes with a piece of advice that nobody wants to hear: "You should have a dental checkup," Vivienne says sweetly. When I do several weeks after returning home, the bill comes to $2,400 (cavity, cracked tooth, crown). It's one of those spa experiences that make you wonder.
The Other Side of Paradise
It's day three and still no tortoise sightings, except for James II, the resort mascot. But Vivienne tells me that there's a congregation of the reptiles, originally brought here from the even remoter Seychelles island of Aldabra, at Anse Parc, on the south side of Frégate, and that's where I head in the afternoon.
Three steps down the Tortoise Trail, I stop in my tracks. There, off to the right in a grassy meadow, are one, two, three, seven, ultimately 14 giant shells. (The big males, I later learn from resort ecology ranger Francis Payet, weigh 900 pounds.) Most of the tortoises have their snouts stuck deep into a tuft of grass, which they bite at with great deliberation and delicacy, as if choosing by the blade.
The resort takes an active hand in keeping up the population. Outside the ecology station, there's a pen that contained (when I was there) 247 immature tortoises, held here until they're seven, then released. (They don't breed until they're 15 to 20 years old.)
Payet leads nature walks, and the next day I go out with him. We return to the meadow, where he teaches me how to tell the difference between the tortoise sexes (males have a concave under-shell; females a flat one) and to appreciate the grenade-size droppings both of them leave liberally. It turns out that in this paradise the tortoises are great seed-sowers--Payet breaks apart a turd to illustrate--and that they're particularly good at propagating their favorite food, the cocoa plum. As we cross a freshwater pond near the beach, he draws my attention to a tortoise almost buried to the shell-top in water and mud. The pond is the tortoise spa, the place they come every few months to rehydrate.
Anse Parc is just a notch in what turns out to be the wild side of the island. Here the stands of ylang-ylang trees are permanently bent backward from the wind, and the sea--more huge shoulders of water than breakers--slams the base of the 100-foot cliffs with a ferocity that gives me butterflies. This is also where the 15,000 fairy terns live, having colonized an immense stand of banyan trees on the cliff top as well as a stand of dead trees near Tortoise Meadow. They're almost blindingly white--the only contrast provided by the eyes, two coal black dots--and in the air, impossibly agile, performing tandem maneuvers like a championship skating pair.
Our walk ends where it began, among the tortoises, but I'm not where I started. Having come to Anse Parc with a sense of curiosity, I'm leaving filled with a sense of wonder.
Expulsion from Paradise
It's set for 5 a.m., as I have a morning flight to catch to Paris. So the day before, late in the afternoon, I return to my favorite spot on Frégate, Anse Victorin. No one else is there. I ride the waves, then retreat to a rock under a cocoa-palm cabana, where I fall into a semi-trance gazing at the misty outlines of Little Frégate, Recife, and Silhouette. I am deeply content, in fact, almost without desire. (I think that's Nirvana in another religion.) But there is one thing.... "In solitude/What happiness?" Adam asks God in Paradise Lost, as he pleads for a companion. And way back in the bleacher seats of my mind, I'm wondering, too: Wouldn't this have been twice as nice with an Eve?
Fregate Island Private Resume
Forte Putting a gorgeous tropical island at your disposal while providing top-notch rooms, service, food, and spa--and all the privacy you can handle.
Location The Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean off east Africa. The nearest mainland country is Kenya.
When to Visit April through October, the dry season, is the best time. There's still a good deal of sun from November through March, the wet season, but count on some rain every day. Rainfall is heaviest from November through January.
Getting to the Seychelles There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to the Seychelles. One way to get there is on Emirates (www.emirates.com), connecting in Dubai. The downside: Two of the four weekly Seychelles flights depart at 2:15 a.m. The alternative: going via London or Paris. In winter, Air Seychelles (www.airseychelles.com), the national carrier, flies twice weekly from London and five times from Paris. Flights depart in the evening, take 11 hours, and land in Mahé, the capital.
Getting to Frégate Island The resort meets arriving guests at the airport and transports them to the dock for the 90-minute crossing. The good news: The voyage is rough in only one direction--from Mahé to Frégate. The bad news: It can be bucking-bronco rough--and that goes double for the dry season, with the roughest water occurring from May through October. Take the seasick pills provided. Or take an Air Seychelles flight or charter a helicopter (each $867 per person each way), which gets you to the island in 20 minutes.
Accommodation The 16 villas all have the same layout, with the living room and bedroom separated by a breezeway and fronted by an extensive deck. A second deck holds a whirlpool tub and daybed. Bathrooms have indoor and outdoor showers. Villas 3, 4, and 5 are closest to the pool, but those on the cliff top (8-16) have the best views. A golf cart is provided for getting around the island.
Most Romantic Spot Anse Macquereau, a little notch in the coast that's not visible from the resort grounds. It's reserved for one couple on a first-come, first-served basis; the rest is up to you. Just make sure to change the little sign from "Vacant" to "Occupied" before descending the long, winding stairs to the beach, where there's a palapa for two. Beach service is available, and according to former managing director Patrick Brizio, staff is trained to make noise while they're still out of eyeshot so guests won't be taken by surprise.
Natural Spectacle From October through February, various species of sea turtles come up onto the island's beaches during the day to lay their eggs.
Rates $2,240. Includes all meals, an introductory scuba-diving course, and use of the resort sailboats.
Reservations Through Sanctuare: 800-225-4255 or email@example.com
Spa Highs and Lows
High The setting, the island's highest point.
High The deft blending of Eastern design traditions--Japanese sand garden, Southeast Asian ornamental water garden, Indian furniture.
Low The massage tables. They're too short for six-footers--the therapist had to cushion my toes against the bottom edge with a towel--and the face cradle, simply a cutout in the bed, doesn't sufficiently support the head.
High The Li'Tya rituals, particularly the Lekor Treatment and the Kodo Massage.
Medium The lack of hanging space in the treatment room. I draped my clothes over the planter's chair back.
High The treatment-room architecture, louvered walls that bring the outside in, and the ocean panorama from spa reception.