I have always pigeonholed the Seychelles as a destination for newlyweds and the uber-wealthy.
But after seven days in this nation located 1,600km east of Kenya, I have learnt there is much more to the Seychelles than powdery sand and plush linens.
It is easy to see why the Seychelles, with 115 islands sprinkled across the Indian Ocean, is perceived as a dream destination.
The inner islands have a wild, dramatic look, almost Jurassic in their shapes - mountainous, forested granite isles that rise from dark, deep seas.
The outer isles, fanning out towards Africa, are flat and coralline with lagoons.
I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, when Beau Vallon beach, on the largest island Mahe, was swimming with locals. Under the shade of sea almond trees, Seychellois were sipping the beer SeyBrew while tending small barbecues.
Beau Vallon has water as clear and blue as the Maldives, but cupped by a more dramatic landscape. I sat on the beach for a spectacular sunset, with bats the size of eagles circling the sea grape trees, and time seemed to freeze.
Most visitors island-hop in the Seychelles, usually folding nearby La Digue and Praslin into their itinerary, and I was no exception.
The next morning, I caught an early ferry to La Digue. It is a bucket-list destination for its waterfront granite boulders that look otherworldly.
The conch-shaped island is tiny, with the feel of an outsize village, and easily navigated by bicycle. I headed to the south-west coast, towards Grand Anse beach. The water was as clear as polished glass - the Seychelles is perhaps the cleanest country I have visited.
The north-east of the island features a smooth road great for cycling, small independent hotels, little coves where a few sunbathers and swimmers can squeeze in, and, when I cycled here, a huge tortoise that refused to budge from the roadway.
The Aldabra giant tortoise is similar in size to the giant tortoises of the Galapagos, and can weigh more than 200kg.
For 20 minutes, I watched the gentle-eyed tortoise laying there, sometimes raising its head to gauge the surroundings, sometimes sniffing for a morsel to nibble on, a meditative experience for me.
I had an early start again the next morning. Anse Source d'Argent is a tourist magnet of a beach, but I was determined to visit it without the crowds.
It sits within L'Union Estate, a privately owned former plantation with a copra mill, rows of vanilla vines and an enclosure full of giant tortoises and their babies.
I arrived at 6am, when the doors open, and pedalled to the beach. It was empty, and as I padded around its small coves in silence, I understood its appeal: Large, pink-tinged granite boulders weathered by the saline air and seawater, ceding to clear turquoise seas.
The Seychelles are not just about beaches. Over on Praslin, I visited the Unesco site Vallee du Mai, where the double-lobed coco de mer grows. A dark brown coconut likened to a woman's pelvis, it can weigh up to 20kg and is sweeter than a normal coconut.
It got its name from sailors who saw it floating in the sea, sometimes thousands of kilometres from the Seychelles, and posited that it grew in the water (de mer means of the sea in French).
I saw a number of coco de mer trees, an endemic palm, with male trees growing up to 30m, evident from the long, skinny catkins protruding from them. In all, six types of endemic palm grow here, including the millionaire's salad palm (the tree dies when the heart is harvested), with yellow protective spines.
The park is also home to jackfruit, introduced to the country after World War II to help feed the nation, and nutmeg, saffron, clove, cinnamon and pepper trees. The island also has beautiful coastlines, home to luxe resorts like Raffles and Constance Lemuria.
Behind Cote d'Or Beach, another sublime stretch of sand, I tried Creole food at Pirogue Lodge. The cuisine in the country is shaped by many global strands.
There are curries from India; rice and stir-fried vegetables and noodles from China; garlic and herbs from France; and coconut milk, cassava and banana from East Africa and Madagascar.
My platter exhibited those influences, with pickled and curried vegetables, pureed eggplant, dhal and fluffy rice.
My last few days were spent on Mahe which, in comparison to low-key Praslin and La Digue, seemed energetic. In Victoria, the capital, I saw the country's multiculturalism proudly displayed.
Worshippers wandered in and out of the Navasakthi Vinayagar Hindu temple, its towering, brightly coloured gopuram reminding me of the ones in Serangoon Road.
The Victoria Clock Tower, the city's most prominent landmark, is a replica of a clock that debuted near London's Victoria Station in 1897.
Beyond Victoria, Mahe has much to explore. Mission Lodge, also known as Venn's Town, sits up a winding road south of the capital. It is the site of a former school for children of freed slaves, first opened in 1876 with 37 students, with lessons given in English, Creole and Kiswahili. But all that remains are ruins slowly being consumed by the jungle.
Near the east coast, the Craft Village is a series of pastel houses home to studios and shops for the country's artisans. I found a cool sculpture of a bat made from a coconut at Grupe Artisans Seychelles (a cooperative of 35 local artists), and incredibly intricate replica galleons crafted from calice du pape wood at La Marine.
Takamaka rum distillery is a short distance away and centres on a property that dates to 1792.
The highlight was a tasting session that included generous pours of the distillery's spirits, including a particularly smooth coconut rum, a light, fun drink almost too easy to imbibe.
Much harder work is the fantastic hiking in the Seychelles. I walked the Copolia Trail on Mahe, joined by my guide Terence Belle, who used to work for the island's forestry department.
As we wound our way through the secondary forest, he pointed out calice du pape trees and the damp ledges where freshwater mountain crabs live.
He was particularly enthusiastic to tell me about the bwa mediz, which was believed to be extinct but rediscovered in the 1970s, its flowers shaped like jellyfish.
At one point, he pointed to a plant. "Vakwa maron, it's a pandanus used for impotence. Herbalists use it."
As he climbed to the summit of the trail, he motioned towards a section of greenery.
"Pitcher plant. People love to see this on the walk."
We sat by the edge of the clearing looking down onto Victoria, the coastline and the islands.
I thought about what I would miss when I returned to Singapore: The soaring mountains, the clear sea, the friendly people, the multicultural food, the endless discovery and the unforgettable sunsets.
• Sanjay Surana is a freelance travel writer.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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