At ease in the lack of luxury

Island time ... one of many beautiful beaches.
Island time ... one of many beautiful beaches. Photo: Holger Leue/Lonely Planet

David Whitley discovers an authentic island experience far from the manicured lawns of five-star digs.

Robert is possibly the first person in La Digue's history to be in a hurry. There's a boat due in soon and he's one of only three taxi drivers on the island. "There are usually five," Robert says. "But one is on holiday for a fortnight and the other is off sick, so I am very busy."

Until recently, La Digue's taxis were ox-drawn carts. These have pretty-much been phased out but a couple can still be spotted holding up traffic around the Seychelles's most laid-back island.

And by traffic, that usually means cyclists. Everyone is on their bike here, locals and tourists. Nobody wears helmets, nobody has lights and everyone weaves around in the road paying scant regard for lane discipline. La Digue makes Amsterdam look like a two-wheel desert and the island is far removed from the stock Seychelles image of ultra-luxurious pampering.

We'd had quite enough of that before we arrived on La Digue. Our first couple of days in the Seychelles were spent thoroughly on-message. We were safely ensconced on an expensive private island and greeted by a member of staff with a golf buggy every time we even contemplated walking somewhere.

The Beachcomber Sainte Anne Resort is undoubtedly marvellous, with its posh spa, multiple white-sand beaches, private pools and highly acclaimed restaurants. But it is sanitised to the point of sterility. This is delightful if you're into that sort of thing - and the ideal experience for those who wish to name-drop "the Seychelles" - but it gets dull very quickly. Especially when you're expected to shell out $90 for a bottle of bog-standard Jacob's Creek wine over dinner.

La Digue, however, is at ease with its imperfections and is instantly loveable because of it. It's a place where police officers don't wear a seatbelt and will happily give you a lift to your accommodation if they see you struggling with a suitcase.

There are a couple of small hotels on the island but the spirit lies in the guesthouses run by local families. Many double as basic restaurants, offering tasty-but-limited Creole menus in the evening. One night, the choice may be fish stew or chicken curry; the next, it'll almost certainly be chicken stew or fish curry.

Our guesthouse - Citronelle - comes complete with two children running around outside, an ever-changing cast of extended family and, predictably, a couple of bicycles ready to be hired out.

Our cycling sight-seeing tour of the island generally consists of pedalling for a few metres to the next white-sand beach, flinging down the towels and opening a book.

The island is surrounded by a lagoon, which makes for dazzling aquamarine colour schemes but poor swimming. For the most part, the water is too shallow to get horizontal in but the paddling is first-class. Palm trees, mangroves and weird granite outcrops dot the horizon, providing a series of no-brainers for lazy photographers. Of these odd granite lumps, the most interesting is on the L'Union Estate. If the Seychelles had its own miniature equivalent of Uluru, this would be it. The Giant Rock of La Digue, as it is rather unoriginally dubbed, bulges out all over the place among the trees.

The estate is a minor producer of vanilla essence but the few bottles it does churn out are highly sought-after. It also makes coconut oil and copra (the dried meat of the coconut) the old-fashioned way; with an ox-driven mill.

During working hours, the ox plods round in a circle, attached to a wooden pole. His admittedly funereal movement powers the crushing equipment. We've arrived on a Saturday, and there's not much crushing going on - it's evidently the ox's day off and he can be found mooching around a field at the back.

Also doing some serious mooching are L'Union Estate's most famous creatures - the giant Aldabra tortoises. They shuffle around eating leaves and grass in a pen at the foot of the Giant Rock. They're bizarre-looking with their clumsy, dragon-scaled feet and they spend a lot of time bumbling into and tripping over each other. If ever La Digue needs an emblem, one of these tortoises should be it; slow-paced, not quite as slick as they should be and rather adorable for it.

The wildlife trail continues as we attempt to cycle back before the sun sets. Along the unmarked path that masquerades as a road, there are fearsome spiders spinning complex webs between the phone wires to the left and fruit bats elegantly swooping above the nature reserve to our right.

Just before we get back to Citronelle, we pull over at the little shop down the road for what turns out to be a classic encounter.

It's a typical La Digue kind of store - hundreds of tubes of toothpaste, multiple varieties of very dry biscuits and not much of anything else. Having learnt our lesson from the Sainte Anne Jacob's Creek fiasco, we're after a bottle of wine to drink on the terrace and pick a South African pinotage from the two choices available.

But we haven't got a corkscrew. We ask the lady behind the counter if she might have one, and she asks when we want the bottle opened.

When we say in a couple of hours' time, she comes up with a most unexpected response. "In that case, I shall send my daughter to your room at 7pm with an opener."

It may not be entirely conventional but La Digue isn't either. And it's the sort of mould-breaking that is most welcome.

The writer was a guest of the Beachcomber Sainte Anne Resort.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

The islands of the Seychelles are in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Africa.

Emirates (emirates.com/au) flies to the Seychelles from Sydney via Dubai. The flights land in Mahe — to get to La Digue, it's necessary to get the Cat Cocos catamaran to Praslin followed by a connecting ferry.

WHERE TO STAY

A variety of guesthouses — such as Citronelle — can be booked from around €80 ($125) a night. A full list can be found at seychelles.travel.

Accommodation at the Beachcomber Sainte Anne resort (beachcomber-hotels.com) starts at €452 a night.

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