After more than a year of not leaving the UAE, where I live, being inside a plane again feels like a novelty.
On board an Air Seychelles flight from Dubai to Mahe, I can't help but marvel at each and every aspect of being airborne. But now, alongside the familiar, there are new elements: a cabin crew member greets us with a hand-sanitising spray, there are empty seats scattered throughout the plane and the captain's announcement gently reminds us to keep our face masks on – unless eating – for safety reasons.
The Seychelles opened up to international tourism on March 25, making it a prime destination for travel during the pandemic. For UAE residents, it is only a four-and-a-half-hour flight away, and all you need are valid hotel reservations covering the duration of your stay, flight tickets, a PCR test and a Health Travel Authorisation form.
The UAE and Seychelles have established a new travel corridor for vaccinated travellers,
Air Seychelles launched weekly direct flights from Dubai to the Seychelles in March. Remco Althuis, chief executive of Air Seychelles, says the seasonal route was "carefully considered" and that the "response from the market has been very strong" so far.
"The UAE and the Seychelles are among the world leaders in vaccinating their populations and have both implemented strict measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 from the onset of the pandemic for the protection of residents and visitors. Based on both countries' vaccination levels and current movement restrictions, accessibility for visitors at both destinations has become much easier."
A 'flow of tourists' since reopening
Seychelles has long been a haven for those seeking a little privacy. Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton chose it as their honeymoon destination, as have numerous A-list celebrities. And now, the country's exclusivity, myriad islands and private villas are proving extremely enticing to those who want a holiday far from the madding crowds.
Daniele Fabbri, general manager of Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort & Spa and DoubleTree by Hilton Seychelles Allamanda Resort & Spa, says the "flow of tourists" they've seen since late March is only natural.
“It’s still a fairly new destination that people have not visited before. And it is not populated like a lot of other countries,” he says.
There’s another reason why the destination is proving so popular: it's now the most-vaccinated in the world. The Seychelles has recorded a higher percentage of its adult population receiving two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine than any other country.
I am driven to my first hotel, the DoubleTree by Hilton Seychelles Allamanda Resort & Spa, by Francis, who maintains a steady stream of chatter about how the island’s resorts are filling up, the 11pm curfew currently imposed and reminders to wear my face mask outside at all times unless I want a fine.
Immersed in greenery and offering only ocean-view rooms, the four-star property is rustic, with a sloping roof and a design that blends into its surroundings. The reception is open and breezy, with a hall attached to it that opens up to an infinity pool overlooking a compact private beach and the ocean beyond. With the water a stone’s throw away, the sound of the waves lapping the shore, and signs explaining how the beach is a turtle nesting area, I instantly slip into vacation mode.
The hotel has incorporated Hilton’s CleanStay programme, which covers everything from disinfecting public spaces to safely serving food. Temperature checks aren’t a must, but staff and guests have to wear face masks (guests can remove them if they’re seated at a table or lounging on a sunbed by the pool), while staff also wear gloves; tables are spaced apart; there are hand-sanitising stations and signboards requesting guests to mask up around the hotel; restaurants and the spa require reservations; and everything – including the pool – has a maximum capacity.
Before entering my king grand deluxe room, hotel staff inform me that the rooms have to be cleaned a certain way and then sealed; if opened again for any reason, they have to be cleaned all over again, according to the CleanStay standard.
My room is tastefully decorated, with pops of colour set against neutral shades, jaunty, island-themed window curtains and an outdoor Jacuzzi. There’s a giant flat screen TV, but let’s face it, the ocean-view, with fruit bats swooping between swaying trees, is the real attraction here.
Private villas and more impromptu travels in pandemic times
For those looking for a truly socially distanced resort stay, Hilton Seychelles Northolme Resort & Spa is the epitome of privacy. The five-star property is located towards the northern part of the island and consists only of luxury suites and villas, each sitting atop stilts overlooking the ocean.
A Grand Oceanview Villa here comes with luxurious amenities: a four-poster bed, Jacuzzi overlooking a glass wall and an extensive outdoor deck, complete with a private infinity pool (which slowly changes colour at night), and sunbeds.
Most important is the solitude it offers. “You can stay here for five days without having to leave your room,” says Fabbri.
As tempting as that is, I venture out to explore the property’s extensive facilities: a gym, infinity pool and spa, all of which offer expansive views of the ocean and the island.
The resort also employs the CleanStay programme; face masks are a must and hand sanitiser stations are placed throughout. The hotel’s adults-only policy (only those above the age of 13 are allowed) contributes in creating a more romantic vibe.
After taking pictures of the unique cannonball tree located at the entrance, I ventured over to the private beach. The hotel offers complimentary snorkelling equipment and it’s easy to find a secluded spot to catch the sunset from.
Hilton Seychelles Northolme launched two new restaurants in April, both overlooking the water. While Wave, located closer to the pool, offers a healthy and environmentally conscious menu, Mahe, the restaurant's fine-dining option, shines a light on contemporary Creole cuisine, so I make a beeline for the latter.
I order the Mahe coconut fish curry, a creamy concoction dotted with pieces of melt-in-the-mouth fish that pack a flavourful punch. The deconstructed Seychellois Nicoise salad, with pieces of smoked marlin (a fish local to the region), potato, green beans and olives, is another delicious pick.
After my meal, I eschew the buggy service for a relaxing walk back to my room. With the Moon visible in the distance, the sound of waves crashing against the shore and not another person in sight, the feeling of seclusion is absolute.
According to Fabbri, the reaction to villa life has been extremely positive, with occupancy in April at about 60 to 70 per cent and in May about 70 to 75 per cent.
However, the pandemic is still a major factor for travellers. “We don’t see distant bookings anymore,” Fabbri says. “Since the UAE is only a few hours away and there are hardly any entry restrictions, we are seeing a lot of bookings for within the month, or the next month. But people are not planning ahead.”
The rise of the Seychelles workation
The last hotel on my itinerary is the Four Seasons Resort Seychelles. Located in the South of Mahe Island, the property is an excellent example of social distancing by default. It comprises 67 luxury villas and suites discreetly spread out along the lush green hillside overlooking Petite Anse bay. The villas are so widely spaced out that buggies are an essential aspect of resort life.
The property is a 40-minute drive from the airport, my driver tells me as he drops me off. When I ask if there’s anything around the resort, he points out a few art galleries. “But most guests prefer not to leave the hotel at all,” he says.
It’s easy to understand why. My Ocean View Villa comes with an extensive outdoor deck, infinity pool overlooking the ocean, sunbeds to lounge about on and its own private cabana. Surrounded by greenery on all sides, it’s designed to assure absolutely privacy, while also serving as a nature retreat.
“It’s been a bit of a tsunami of requests coming in from people exploring their vacation options,” says Marcel Oostenbrink, the resort's general manager. “We’ve had a steady hotel occupancy rate of 60 to 65 per cent. It’s not as it was pre-Covid, but we’re happy with the business level and we’re seeing an upwards trend."
Temperature checks are done when entering the reception and restaurants, and face masks are a must for staff and guests, unless you are dining or lounging by the beach. Apart from that, tables are spaced apart at restaurants and reservations are a must.
The hotel has incorporated a “Lead with Care” programme that includes employee training, maximum occupancy and contact tracing if a guest tests positive. Sanitising wipes, hand sanitiser and face masks are also provided within the villa.
Oostenbrink says the resort’s key selling point is the privacy it offers. “We have guests who sit in their villas for five days and even we don’t know who they are. They don’t even have to share air-conditioning with others,” he says.
Meanwhile, with travel becoming less common during the pandemic, those who do go on holidays opt for longer stays, he says. “We’ve had a lot of enquiries about working while on holiday. With a lot of families, one of the partners will be on work calls during the day, while the other spends time with the children by the beach.”
This demand led Seychelles to launch a Workcation Retreat Programme earlier this year. Geared towards those whose business or source of income is outside the Seychelles, the programme allows all with a valid passport to live and work in the tropical paradise for a maximum period of a year.
It's as I near the end of my trip that I encounter my only real hiccup: PCR tests are mandatory to return to the UAE, and they don't come cheap or easy in the Seychelles. A test by the Public Health Authority needs to be booked five to seven days in advance, with the result coming in 48 hours, and is priced at 2,500 Seychelles rupees ($162) per person.
Luckily, at short notice, some resorts, Four Seasons Seychelles Resort included, can help in organising tests, which need to be booked a day in advance, and take 24 hours for the results to come in. These tests are priced at 3,500 rupees and can be performed within your villa.
That leaves plenty of time to explore the rest of the property: the hilltop spa, located at one of the highest points, offers some relaxing treatments amid impressive views; there's a pool by Kannel Bar; and sunbeds and cabanas along the beach where one can lounge at leisure. A staff member supplies a kit containing water and sunscreen.
On my last evening in paradise, I hail a buggy ride for dinner at Zez, the hotel's swanky Asian Izakaya restaurant, and am awarded with stunning sunset views. As the colour changes from a fiery orange to a dusky purple, I ask the driver whether the view ever gets old.
He shakes his head. "No two sunsets are ever the same here. It really is another world."