400km south of the main island of the Seychelles, Mahe, lies the remote Alphonse group of islands - Alphonse, Bijoutier and Saint-Francois. Look at the area on a map and you realise just how remote a location this is.
Getting there is half the fun as you swoop in on a 16-seater private plane, landing on a tiny airstrip cut out of the coconut trees in the middle of the main island of Alphonse. You step off the plane to the warmest of welcomes and you immediately realise you have arrived somewhere very special.
Alphonse, and the private island resort you find there, has long been famous in the fishing world; it's been welcoming passionate fisherman since 1999. They come here for the world-class fly-, and deep-sea fishing and by all accounts it is magnificent.
I came here for another reason - to dive. It is only in the last couple of years that the resort has started to push diving as a main activity, so I didn't know much about what to expect. What I found was a true gem that surpassed all expectations.
Most of the diving is done around the islands of Alphonse and Bijoutier (the fishing is almost exclusively on Saint-Francois) and they have so far mapped some 30 sites with more still to be discovered. Most dive sites are classic reef wall diving with stunning drop-offs and excellent visibility.
The coral is in great health which, sadly, isn't something you can say of all Indian Ocean reefs. The water temperature here varies a lot across the year and often drops low enough for the coral to recover so the coral coverage, in places, is spectacular.
Now, I love healthy coral but, a little like an immature teenage boy, obsessed with fast cars, what really gets me excited is big fish. And on Alphonse, I got excited on many occasions. It's not that this is a big fish diving destination, like somewhere like the Galapagos, but what I loved is that anything can show up at any time.
We didn't get particularly lucky with the conditions for big fish but in three days of diving I was still lucky enough to see manta rays, silvertip and nurse sharks, massive potato grouper, tuna, napoleon wrasse and more turtles than I could count, to name but a few. The week before I was there they had 25 hammerheads on one dive and while I was there (though I missed them - typical) there were up to 1,000 melon-headed whales, spinner dolphins and sail fish in the water with snorkelers.
Even when the big stuff doesn't show up, the coral health and variety and profusion of other marine life is more than enough to keep you occupied. And just the thought that something might show up meant I spent a lot of time staring into the blue beyond the drop-off, willing something to appear. Hope is a powerful thing.
Alphonse Island Resort
Away from the diving, the resort itself is beautiful. The rooms and communal areas are all tasteful and comfortable. Not the height of sophisticated luxury and style but that's not the point of this place. The luxury is in the quality of the experience. And it offers experience by the bucket load.
When not in, or on, the water you can explore the fascinating island by bicycle, learning about its flora and fauna including some excellent birdlife and hundreds of giant tortoises which you see everywhere (beware those tempted to booze and cycle as you will come off worst if you collide into a very hard shell!); you can paddle board, kayak, take a trip to the neighbouring islands of Bijoutier and Saint-Francois; head out to snorkel with sail fish (an amazing experience that they are experimenting with at the moment)…there is plenty to keep you occupied.
Conservation is a big thing on Alphonse. This may seem at odds at times with such heavy promotion of fishing, but you learn that it's less of a contradiction that you think. Fishing (and diving) has an impact as does just having a resort there, but they don't shy away from that. Rather they discuss it openly and make lessening the impact a key goal. There is a permanent presence on the island of an NGO called the Island Conservation Society. They are there to protect the island and to continually lessen the impact of humans to ensure the island thrives. It's fascinating to spend time with them.
After a long day fishing, diving, exploring or just relaxing, everyone congregates at the bar to talk of the day's adventures over a beer or two. Anyone who has had a great day out fishing or diving with a spectacular catch or sighting is toasted with the ringing of a bell and a shot of some (mildly disgusting) condensed milk/spirit concoction. Then you head to your table for deliciously fresh feast.
For all the magnificent experiences this island offers, what really made it for me was the people that work there. Genuine passion for what they are doing is evident in everything. Each member of staff, from the GM to the person cleaning your room is friendly and happy to be there; this is a rare thing and it makes an enormous difference.
Would I recommend Alphonse to our clients? If you have read this far, I imagine you will know the answer already: yes. I found it to be one of the most special places I have every visited both in the water and out and it is my new life mission to return.