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In Conversation with Robyn Shield from Denis Island

22 May 2024

Denis Island: A Story like No Other

‘A fascinating, fascinating little island’, are the first words that Robyn Shield uses to describe Denis Island, the small outcrop of land that rises from the ocean floor that she’s lucky enough to spend a lot of time at, ‘that’s been through the ringer’. I wasn’t expecting her to add the final part, given the island’s unique place in the Seychelles’ travel industry (more on which to follow), but who am I to question the PR and Branding Manager of the group that runs it? From a quick Google and email exchange, it’s clear that Denis Island presents a serious number of conversation-starters and, over the course of our 45-minute interview, we pinballed from 1850s land use in the Seychelles to modern day in-house vets and the government’s debt swap policy. This really is a fascinating little island, with rather a big story.

That story begins in the mid-19th century, when a small, flat outer island in the sun-drenched Seychelles was first settled by people, who, as with so many of Denis’s neighbouring islands, promptly set about decimating the endemic environment. The island was almost entirely cleared for coconut plantations, which, when combined with the stowaway pests who also made Denis their home and proved remarkably adept at hunting the endemic wildlife, saw it slip into a sorry state.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as the restoration of the island is something that’s been taking place for years now, and which was set in motion through its purchase by a Frenchman, who set about turning it into an angler’s paradise. Denis sits on the edge of a marine plateau, where vast underwater mountains rise from the seabed, forming the islands that we see break the ocean’s surface. In fishing terms, that means there’s a reef area with a gorgeous array of classic reef fish and – a mere 10 minutes’ boat ride away – plunging depths that are home to some of the big stuff. Robyn cites tuna, marlin, barracuda and a number of other pelagic species that I’ve not heard of but which sound deeply impressive – and immensely fun to play on the end of a line.

In the 90s, though, the fishing-mad Frenchman put the island up for sale, which is where Denis’s modern story really begins. Its purchasers were a local family with a singular vision: they wanted to transform Denis into a self-sufficient island, embracing the traditional values of the Seychelles in which they were raised and restoring the natural environment at the same time.

And, my word, how they’ve succeeded. Denis is now an eco-resort, a term liberally bandied around in the travel industry and one which doesn’t come close to doing justice to this amazing place. Robyn talks of 3 distinct parts that, together, combine to form Denis. First up, there are the 23 cottages that comprise a boutique resort, a place where guests can ride around on bicycles, connect with nature – not with their devices, there’s only Wi-Fi in certain areas – fish, eat and drink in some style. This isn’t a private island in the classic sense, though, it’s more a place with a very real sense of community, which pays homage to what the Seychelles used to be like. After all, the Seychelles didn’t get an airport until the 70s and the islands were – still are, in some places – farmed by working communities in a self-sufficient, sustainable style. That’s what Denis looks to embrace and it’s why it’s designed for outdoor living, connection and nature. It’s obviously working, too, as the resort sees a ridiculous number of return guests, many of whom come back year on year to disconnect from the outside world and soak up the beauty of the island.

The second part of Denis’s holy trinity clearly tallies with that idea, a working farm that provides the resort with pretty much everything it needs. In a world where a single veg patch can pass for eco-tourism, Denis stands pretty much alone. There are 290 heads of cattle, 200 goats, ducks, quails, rabbits – I would go on but I wasn’t able to keep up with the number of animals reeled off. There’s fruit and veg, too, of course, with a nifty hydroponic system that guarantees quality and freshness. Pretty much everything that the guests eat comes from the farm and, by the sound of things, it travels well. The seafood travels slightly further: from the waters that surround the island and you can basically guarantee that it’s been caught that day.

“This really is a fascinating little island, with rather a big story”

It’s from these surrounding waters that the restoration project at Denis is carrying out another remarkable feat. In 2020, the government swapped a substantial portion of their debt, instead opting to ring fence key marine areas as protected. Over 30km around Denis is included in this and the hotel is helping to carry out key research around nesting grounds for hawksbill and green turtles. They’ve teamed up with researchers, too, who monitor an offshore hydrophone to get a clear picture of what’s happening in the waters of the Seychelles – a quite incredible step for an island project to take and something that has already turned up ‘remarkable’ results in the data.

Closing the loop on Denis Island is the fact that all of its food waste is fed back into the farm for feeding the animals. In fact, the local pigs are so keen on it that it’s become their staple diet. The farm waste then becomes the fertiliser that’s used in the island’s reforestation project, a strategic scheme to remove the invasive vegetation that arrived with the 1850s settlers and replace it with endemic species so that the island is as close to being as nature intended as possible. One of those intended elements is Denis’s bird population, many of which were ravaged by humans and pests but which are now enjoying a heart-warming restoration. So good has the work been in eradicating pests and restoring species such as the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher, the Seychelles Magpie Robin and Seychelles Warbler that they’ve been downgraded on the red list from critically endangered. Seeing as they were only reintroduced to their natural home in the mid to late noughties, that’s a remarkable turn of events and something that speaks to the hotel’s guiding principles.

There’s so much more to see and hear about this place and, for guests who stay there, perhaps that’s the reason they come back year on year. Our time is coming to an end, though, and I’m left with one thought in particular: of how the Denis Island project took a look at what its ideal world looks like – and made it happen. This isn’t greenwashing, it’s the real deal: a place where nature and people can coexist on an equitable level in a beautiful environment. That’s certainly something we can get behind at Love To Explore.

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