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In the morning of our second day on Fregate Island, we took the golf buggy out to an empty beach on the far west of the island and sat in the shade of a heliotrope tree, watching the waves break blue and clean on the reef, and staring at the litter of coral and shells at our feet: heaps of pinks and reds, browns and greys, and small white cones spiralled with black dots that resembled liquorice allsorts. In a way the place, whose name “Grand Anse” just means “Big Beach” in Creole, was as strange as it was beautiful. It was certainly unlike anywhere I had ever been before. The heliotrope tree, for one, was a crooked thing. Some of its branches were grey and dead. The rest hung heavy with green leaves and white seeds. It took me a while to notice a land hermit crab at my elbow, bunched inside its stolen shell, watching us from the top of a coconut.
Grand Anse, though, made me realise just where we had come. One of the disconcerting things about spending time on a desert island in the Seychelles is that you can feel like you have been there before. The aesthetics of the platonic tropical beach — green sway of palm, ultrarefined white sand, waters aquamarine and all the rest — are so familiar in our minds that you can feel almost disembodied when you encounter them in real life. It’s like walking on top of a catalogue. “Fregate Island Private”, which is a kind of fantasy resort with seven beaches for its 16 villas, offers plenty of moments like that. I’m not saying it’s a bad feeling. My wife and I frequently laughed out loud at the wonder and the exquisiteness of it all: the way the water turns completely clear, like air, at the top of each curling wave. But there was something about Grand Anse, in its wildness and weirdness — the suede softness of the reef bed, the half-flower plants, the brittle coral, the watching crabs — that cut through.
Later we learnt that around 80 hawksbill turtles come to nest on the beach each year. It is one of the last places in the world where they are still bold and undisturbed enough to lay their eggs in daylight. Then, between January and March, some 200 baby turtles stagger down the sand and into the sea. We came back most days during our week on the island. There was never anyone else there. It was the cusp of the rainy season. One afternoon, the weather was grey, the tide was high and a strong breeze was blowing. Our two-year-old daughter decided that the bright shells and stones on the beach were cakes and candles. She made cakes that we ate and re-ate until the light began to fail and the fruit bats came out with their black wings and hooked their way across the sky.
The first Europeans to discover the islands of the Seychelles were Portuguese navigators in the 16th century. Before that, they were almost certainly known to Arab traders, who criss-crossed the Indian Ocean, selling spices and silver. But no one ever stayed. The sailors of the first British ship to pass by, the Ascension, of the East India Company, recognised the islands as an “earthly paradise” in 1609. “You cannot discerne that ever any people had bene there before us,” wrote the ship’s agent, John Jourdain.
And for a long time, that was the deal with the archipelago. One hundred and fifteen islands, and no humans. The place teemed instead with tortoises, birds and fish. A myth spread among explorers that this was once the Garden of Eden, and we had been cast out. Until 1770, when the French started a colony of slaves, the only people known to have based themselves in Seychelles were pirates and corsairs, who — like most of the guests who can now afford rates that start at $3,500 per room per night in the cheapest months and more than $5,000 for much of the year — were trying to get away from everybody else. Both France and Britain, which ruled Seychelles from 1810 until their independence in 1976, used them to strand political enemies a thousand miles from anywhere.
Fregate Island, which is about 35 miles off the coast of Mahé, the largest island in the Seychelles, was as good a place as any for this. A rebellious Parisian hosier named Serpolet was banished there alone for a year in 1801. Three decades later, a visitor from the Mauritius Natural History Society named Elysée Lienard found traces of the pirates who had holed up on the island — cutting new masts, plundering tortoise meat and caulking their ships in the bays — a century or two before. In a narrow cove called Anse Parc, Lienard came across old crockery, “Dutch pikes, knives, battleaxes, broadswords and Spanish piastres.” There were the remains of a house, strange symbols chiselled into the rocks, and a story (still believed by many treasure hunters) that Fregate Island was the burial place of the lost fortune of La Buse, “The Buzzard”, the greatest French pirate of his day. Near Grand Anse, Lienard found the traces of another building, a 15ft well and iron cannon balls.
The place has come on a bit since then. Each secluded strip of sand on Fregate Island now has its own thatched shelter with a cabinet of fresh towels and a cool box of drinks. You arrive by black helicopter and, once settled, everyone gets around in golf buggies, buzzing along ribbons of concrete laid through the jungle. At any given moment, you’re probably never more than 50ft from a Nespresso machine.
But the overall atmosphere, the essential feeling of being outnumbered by wildlife, on your own and disappeared from the world at large, remains startlingly intact. Just over 230,000 tourists come to Seychelles each year, but Fregate Island only sleeps 40. Much larger are its populations of 3,000 Aldabra tortoises, as slow and inevitable as time; giant (harmless) millipedes that find their way into your shower; giant tenebrionid beetles, which only exist on the island; and an impossible number of birds. There are white, cavorting fairy terns that hover over you; lesser noddies that sweep out to sea in their hundreds to hunt; and 130 magpie robins, which are among the rarest birds on earth.
It was fun to see these strange beasts for the first time with my daughter, who is at the age where the world conforms to what she sees in her picture books. “Crab.” “Spider.” “Snake.” “Tree.” Nothing surprised her in the slightest. “More turtles, big ones,” she took to saying. It was possible that the abundance was getting to her more than she let on. One evening, putting her to bed while the sun set outside in a ripped stream of grey clouds, touched with orange, I asked her what we had seen today. We did the usual roll-call of tortoises, bats and lizards. “Did we see gorillas?” I asked. “Yeah,” she deadpanned. “Elephants?” “Yeah.” “Do you want to come outside and see the moon?” “Yeah.”
The island has not always been so pristine. Humans eventually settled on Fregate and nearly ruined it, like we do everywhere else. In the 19th century, it became a plantation, growing copra, coffee, vanilla and cinnamon. There was a piggery and a chicken farm. Coconut palms were planted right across it and the virgin forest — of huge fig and takamaka trees — was all but destroyed. Stags were released for hunting. In the hotel’s small, slightly dusty museum, the memories of Maureen Westergreen, the daughter of a plantation manager, evoke something out of a Graham Greene novel: 10 farm workers, a schooner visiting every three months to resupply, a couple of bird conservationists looking after the magpie robins, a rat problem, and a lone treasure hunter, Monsieur Gilbert, who preferred the title “The Commodore”. That was in the 1990s.
“Fregate Island Private” began to take shape a few years later. The island has been owned by Otto Happel, a German billionaire, since 1977, and construction began on the hotel in 1998. Helicopters dropped rat poison throughout the forest, a huge conservation programme began, and the 16 villas — with ylang ylang thatched roofs, marble floors and powerful air conditioning — were built to overlook the sea. In 2013, Fregate Island joined the Oetker Collection of hotels, which includes Le Bristol in Paris and Eden Rock in St Barths, making it the sort of place where oligarchs go to watch the turtles. Last year, Oetker set about a major renovation, including refurbishing the restaurant, bar, pools and villas, as well as the Banyan Hill Estate, the hotel’s presidential suite, which will cost you $14,000 a night.
So now the island consists of these two things rubbing along together: a rebounding refuge for wildlife, and a retreat of astonishing privacy for those lucky enough to afford it. The three of us slipped into a dazed holiday funk almost as soon as we arrived, and became unable to think properly. We lost sunglasses, suntan cream, bikini tops — pretty much everything we had brought with us. We glimpsed other guests every other day or so and spent days between our pool, the hotel’s pool, and the seven beaches, which we never once had to share.
Sometimes we just went for a drive, or watched the day’s rain showers moving across the sea with the simplicity of a diagram from a textbook. If there is a possible note of criticism for Fregate Island Private, it would be that sometimes the hotel seems to drift into a similar stupor. The food isn’t as good as it should be, and on occasion, the multitude of staff could be a little dopey. Nobody bothered to tell us about the island’s tides, for example, which rise high enough to cover many of the beaches. And the hotel always seemed to be one golf buggy short, meaning that if you ever want to split up, or meet somewhere else on the island, you can be in for long, baffling waits.
But we were too happy and relaxed to care. It was more important to swim out in the invisible water, and look back at a hillside of waving palms, or find yourself face to face with some improbable act of nature. Only once during the week did my daughter seem anything like impressed. My wife had slammed on the brakes of the buggy because of a mighty, disturbed gasp that came from the bushes. Two very large Aldabra tortoises were mating. They might have been a hundred years old. It was one of those moments when it was very difficult to know what to say. Robinson Crusoe probably would have left it out of the diary. My daughter concentrated hard on the sight, which has yet to occur in any of her books. “Wild,” she said. And she was right.
Sam Knight was a guest of Scott Dunn, which offers seven nights at Fregate Island Private in the Seychelles, part of Oetker Collection, from £11,825 per person, based on two sharing a Private Pool Residence on an all-inclusive basis and including return flights from London and helicopter transfers from Mahé
More private islands — for those on a budget
Croatia has more than 1,000 islands and the passages between them are guarded by about 50 lighthouses. Increasing automation means that many of the keepers’ cottages are now available to rent as holiday homes, and several, such as Prisnjak and Plocica, sit on their own private islands. Accommodation is basic and self-catering but the settings are sensational. Prisnjak sleeps four, from €700 per week; lighthouses-croatia.com
Lissenung island, Papua New Guinea
A tiny tropical island — you can walk around it in 15 minutes — Lissenung is surrounded by white sand and crystal clear water. The Austrian-owned resort has seven bedrooms and draws divers from around the world. From K395 (£86) per person per night; lissenungisland.com
Isle of Rona, Scotland
There are just three cottages to rent on Rona, a rugged, five-mile-long private island between Skye and the Applecross peninsula. Those seeking privacy should choose Escape, a former manse in a secluded waterfront setting at the end of a track. There’s a small garden from which you can watch red deer grazing and seals playing. Escape sleeps four, from £595 per week; isleofrona.com
Chapwani island, Tanzania
After a day spent exploring Stone Town, the vibrant old part of Zanzibar’s capital, guests can retreat by boat a mile across the water to the peace of this five-hectare island. There are 10 rooms, all on the beach, and one villa for four. From about $250 per room per night; chapwani-resort-zanzibar-hotel.com
Photographs: Jochen Manz; Sakis Papadopoulos