Some of the oldest islands on the planet, the Seychelles Archipelago was uninhabited save for the occasional pirate until French settlers from Mauritius and their slaves arrived and planted crops and spices in the 18th century. Following their rise to power in the Indian Ocean, the British took over the Seychelles in 1814 but other than their anti-slavery stance ran the islands according to French practices. Consequently, the islands have retained their French flavour though it was from Britain that the Seychelles won their independence in 1976.
The Seychelles economy once revolved around its plantations - cinnamon, vanilla, and copra were the chief exports - but the opening of the archipelago's international airport in 1971 changed the country for good. Fuelled by tourism which now occupies 30% of the workforce, economic growth was rapid and the Seychelles now has the highest Human Development Index in Africa.
The people of the Seychelles have their ethnic roots in Africa, Europe, India, and China but the culture is distinctly Seychellois with many African and Asian traditions, superstitions and culinary ingredients incorporated into the local way of life. The vast majority of the 86 000 population live on Mahé Island, the archipelago's biggest, leaving many islands virtually or totally uninhabited.
Characterised by a religious, matriarchal society, the Seychellois are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Music and dance are popular and visitors to the islands may find themselves joining in the Moutia - a dance with strong African and Malagasy rhythms. French and English are spoken throughout the archipelago though it is the French-based Seychelles Creole that is the language of everyday use.
Dominated by classic 'desert island' scenery - flowering tropical vegetation, palm-fringed beaches and a dazzling blue ocean - the Seychelles Archipelago comprises 115 islands, separated into two groups. The more populated granitic inner islands are famous for their boulder-strewn beaches and forested, mountainous interiors; the coralline atolls of the outer islands are flatter, dominated by palm trees and are mostly uninhabited.
Millions of years of geographical isolation have led to a high rate of endemism among the archipelago's plants and animals, best illustrated by the dozen species of bird unique to the Seychelles, two of which - the Seychelles white eye and magpie-robin - are the rarest in the world. Other Seychelles wildlife highlights on land include Aldabra Island's giant tortoises - the world's largest - bird watching on Bird, Cousine and Aride Islands and nesting hawksbill turtles between October and February but it's the marine environment that delivers the most.
Thanks to a long history of marine conservation, the reefs of the Seychelles are among the best in the world and support over 1 000 species of fish. Needless to say, diving and snorkelling in the Seychelles are truly spectacular experiences and in many cases you can walk straight off the beach and swim to pristine coral reefs. The inner islands offer an accessible world of submerged boulders, cliffs and peaks while the outer islands boast remote reefs suitable for more advanced divers.