They used to call Denis “the island at the end of the world” but that was in the days when it took the inter-island schooner more than 24 hours to sail from Mahé, the Seychelles’ main island. Now, a 30-minute flight gets you to this lozenge of sand and thick forest surrounded by the ever-changing blue shades of the Indian Ocean.
After about 50 visits to the Seychelles I am still surprised by the utter peace of the outer islands. The rippling surf, the occasional chittering of a flying fox and the wind in the casuarina pines all seem to have been designed to put the human heart at peace. Denis sounds much more romantic if you pronounce it the French way – “Denee”. Like most of the Seychelles’ small, exclusive resorts, it has reinvented itself as a “private” island and refurbished and redesigned its 23 large cottages to offer the now-requisite charms of outdoor showers, muslin-curtained day beds, “his and hers” sinks, canopied double beds and sitting rooms filled with smart hardwood furniture.
Denis Island Lodge delivers the desert-island fantasy: talcum-soft beaches where turtles and eagle rays can be seen in the shallows, giant tortoises, a circular freshwater swimming pool for when you tire of the sea, and a thatched African-style bar and restaurant. After dinner, honeymooners in white linen laze upon oversized sofas chatting in a variety of European languages. But when they come to talk about the quality of their meals they may not realise that Denis has a secret: its own farm.
Mahé doesn’t produce enough crops or meat or poultry to feed the local population, let alone the 200,000 annual tourist visitors to the Seychelles. Consequently, the food served at the islands’ resorts, while usually good enough, tends to come with a high tally of air miles and has almost always been frozen.
But Denis is different: walk through the forest to the northeast corner of the island and you enter another world. Rare magpie robins dart among the Indian almond trees and a dozen varieties of palm create a green canopy over the forest floor, where lizards wriggle away from human visitors. Then, in a clearing, there are enclosures filled with chickens, ducks, guinea fowl and rabbits. And in a fenced area invisible until you are upon it, there are about 60 cattle; another enclosure is filled with farrowing sows and rambunctious boars.
On the breakfast buffet at Denis Island Lodge the advantages of the island’s farm are clear. There is natural yoghurt, cheddar cheese, mango, papaya and, of course, fresh coconut. There is bacon, slivers of smoked duck breast and prosciutto. And at lunch and dinner there may be suckling pig, roast guinea fowl and island smoked-chicken Caesar salad. The sea provides sailfish and wahoo, tuna and mahi-mahi. The game fish have always been one of Denis’ attractions, as the island lies close to the edge of the deepwater Seychelles Bank. To first-time visitors such high-quality produce might seem just what is expected, but they probably also have little idea how unusual such a gourmet selection is in this country.
Cathy and Micky Mason run the island. They live in an old house close to the farm and, over the past few years, they have gradually reinstated the native forest and collaborated with conservation groups to help save endemic species such as the magpie robin – once reduced to just 20 individuals on the island of Frégate. On Denis they also have breeding colonies of white-eyes, black paradise flycatchers and Seychelles warblers.
The cattle may seem less exotic than the endemic birds but represent no less of an achievement. “We struggled to get the cows to put on weight for a time,” Micky explains on the veranda of his house. “And then I experimented with palm leaves. We put them in a shredder and mulched them up and added it to the cattle feed. We doubled our milk production overnight.”
The Seychelles’ government – once fiercely socialist and keen on monopolising the import of essential foodstuffs – wants to encourage islands such as Denis to be more self-sufficient. Producing all of its meat and dairy products and about 80 per cent of its vegetables means that the island is at the forefront of the experiment. On an early morning stroll I meet Cathy coming back from the farm. “I’ve been counting my chickens,” she grins. “I think I’ve now got enough eggs to start sending some back to Mahé.”
The fact that Denis can breed and slaughter its own cattle, pigs and poultry may not be something that features in the brochure. But in the dining room the chefs are turning those products into the best food I’ve tasted in the Seychelles in more than 25 years. And that is something to boast about.
Tim Ecott was a guest of Denis Island (www.denisisland.com), which has beach cottages sleeping two from €848 a night