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Of seashells and Seychelles.

Not many Americans have heard, but the Garden of Eden has been rediscovered, in an isolated place called the Seychelles, 92 islands scattered over 150,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean a thousand miles off the coast of Kenya.

Much like the Gala 'pagos Islands of South America, the Seychelles (pronounced Say-shells) formed in splendid isolation to develop 850 species of fish, 100 kinds of shells, and many animal and plant species found nowhere else. The Seychelles have several rare-bird colonies and the fabled coco-de-mer palms, and may actually have more giant tortoises than the Galipagos.

The Seychelles are all that remained after the African and Indian continents broke apart millions of years ago. Geologists say the major islands consist of pre-Cambrian granite over 650 million years old, not the fossilized coral that forms most of our Caribbean islands.

The people of the Seychelles, lyrically known as Seychellois (Sayshell-wah), are a rich mixture of Indians, Europeans, Asians, and Africans. Their coloring ranges from freckled and redheaded to ebony and carmel. And just after the turn of the century, the government gave up any classification by ethnic origin. But the virtues of racial harmony are undercut in some visitors' eyes by the one-party politics of the Seychellois state.

Not one but three languages (English, French, and Creole) are taught in school. The daily paper runs stories in all three languages, though how it decides which story should appear in which language is anyone's guess. However, Creole is the language of the marketplace and, most important of all, of the local kitchens that produce gloriously spicy dishes.

Mahe, at just 17 miles long and 5 miles wide, is home to almost 90 percent of the 70,000 Seychellois. A good portion of them live in the capital city of Victoria, which boasts of being the world's smallest capital. Shiny new office buildings mix with old wooden structures covered by pointed tin roofs. Market day is still held on Saturday and the main tourist shopping area is outdoors, right next to the town clock.

Victoria is spotlessly clean. Generally, too, things function efficiently, whether it's the local bus, the diningroom staff, or a scheduled airport departure. One notable exception is the great silver town clock in Victoria, which strikes twice every hour: first to warn you that it will, then to remind you that it has, with the exact hour never quite clear.

Although just four degrees from the equator, the Seychelles do experience the change of seasons, marked primarily by the shift in monsoon winds. From May to November the monsoon (or trade wind) comes from the southeast, and prolonged heavy rainfall is infrequent. In December and January, much of the 93 inches of annual rainfall pours from the skies, as much as 3 inches in an hour.

Close to Mahe and next to it in size is the island of Praslin, home to the fabled Vallee de Mai. Its huge palm forest is one of the densest on earth. Even at midday it is dark through most of the forest. The tallest trees stand 130 feet high and are centuries old. The coco-de-mers, which grow only here and at 40 pounds are the world's largest nuts, look like any other coconut while still growing on the trees and encased in their outer shells. When the outer husk is removed and the nut itself is revealed, "human" qualities-a resemblance to the female torsoare apparent. Polished coco-de-mers are hot tourist items, selling for over $100.

Just 30 minutes by boat ftom Praslin is La Digue, where Christie Brinkley's Sports Illustrated cover was shot. Bird Island, besides having more than 1 million nesting sooty terns from April to November, has a resident 150-year-old giant tortoise, the oldest on record anywhere. Aride has the largest colony of seabirds in all the Seychelles, but the owner (Christopher Cadbury, a British industrialist) won't let visitors dock for fear of rats or other pests that might also land and damage the birds. Arrival is by canoe only-no fun in rough weather.
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Title Annotation:travel
Author:O'Keefe, M. Timothy
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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