Denis Private Island Sustainability from the Bottom Up
On one of Seychelles’ smallest islands, sustainability is not a check-the-box exercise to be carried out for an annual report…sustainability is the exercise on which its business depends.
Dissecting one of the immaculately presented dishes to come out of the kitchen on Denis Island can be a maddening game of curiosity. Which components of the dish come from the island itself, and which had to be shipped in from abroad?
Considering that the Seychelles and its 115 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean have to import 99 percent of its goods, you might be surprised to find out that on Denis, more often than not, it’s the former and not the latter.
Rolling back the clock (on nature)
The Masons, a Seychellois family that is largely credited with helping to kick-start the country’s tourism industry in 1972 as the islands’ first inbound tour operator, purchased Denis in the 1990s.
The island already had a small hotel on it that was opened by its previous owner, a French businessman, but Mickey and Kathy Mason had a different vision for what they were buying. It was less about going in to change the accommodation and much more about how they were going to transform the island.
“We wanted to bring Denis into a preserved state for future generations, as a self-sustainable island that would be impacted as little as possible by the outside world,” Mr Mason says.
Like many of Seychelles’ satellite islands that lie beyond the main cluster of Mahé, Praslin and La Digue, Denis had been converted into a coconut plantation during colonial times, its natural habitat stripped bare.
So the Masons took a conscious decision to restore the make-up of the original endemic forest for much of the island. It’s been a slow, methodical process that continues through today, but it was needed to trigger a cascade effect of other developments along the island’s path toward sustainability.
Successes in conservation (and genocide)
The destruction of natural forest habitats in favour of coconut plantations did no favours for the endemic land birds that were unique to Seychelles. Factor in the invasive populations of rats that tagged along on ships and made homes for themselves on the islands, and Seychelles’ endemic birds had suddenly run out of suitable nesting spots. Many remain on the IUCN’s red list of threatened species as a result.
So apart from removing invasive flora, a bit of ruthlessness toward some of nature’s most persistently successful species also formed part of the restoration plan. Completely eradicating the rat population on the island remains one of the biggest conservation investments Denis has made over the years. The eradication of invasive Mynah birds, which competed with endemics for nesting locations, followed suit in 2015.
The eradication programmes quickly paid dividends, and the newly restored habitats have allowed endemic birds to thrive again. Denis has even successfully translocated birds not previously on the island, such as the paradise flycatcher, which had previously only been endemic to the island of La Digue, as well as the Seychelles warbler.
Tagging and monitoring endemic birds comprise just one component of the work carried out by the Green Islands Foundation, a conservation NGO with a permanent outpost on Denis to oversee a broad spectrum of activities.
These include monitoring programmes for nesting Hawksbill and green turtles and research into the ecosystem of the reef flats surrounding the island, among others.
Outreach to the island’s guests, who can involve themselves as much or as little as they like in the foundation’s conservation activities, is also an important aspect of sustainability that’s not lost on the Masons.
Because without the clients, the whole plan falls apart.
The business side (of sustainability)
If rarity is what makes something luxurious, then Denis can certainly be considered a luxury retreat, but luxury is not a term the Masons throw around haphazardly.
The hotel’s main concourse and the 25 cottages discreetly tucked behind the beach are refreshingly simple, lending a refined elegance with contrasts of stone and wood against nature’s colourful backdrop. But no one would describe the hotel as lavish or opulent.
“In some ways, the luxuriousness of it all comes from the insider knowledge of how the place came to be,” Mr Mason says. A small lumber mill and carpentry workshop on the island converts the fast-growing casuarina trees that have been used for all of the hotel’s furniture and floorings.
There is no spa on the island, but that doesn’t mean the guests on Denis are deprived of relaxing scrubs and massage treatments. The island’s spa therapists simply come to the guest chalets, or designate a private spot on the beachfront under the trees, depending on client preference.
All of the spa products used on Denis are local, from a base of cold-pressed coconut oil and a variety of other island grown ingredients.
“Our style of hospitality should mostly reflect what the island is prepared to give,” Mr Mason says. “It’s not a decision we want to make on our own.”
Farm to table (in record speed)
The one place where you might be able to use a word like “opulence” on Denis, however, is in the kitchen. Although here, too, there is a certain novelty that comes from the island’s principled approach to cuisine.
Surrounded by an expanse of rich tropical waters, it’s not hard to imagine that fresh fish features heavily on the island’s menus, which change daily. However, the Masons have also invested heavily in the rearing of livestock, and what began with chicken and pigs now provides the chefs on Denis an incredible palette with which to create, from duck to turkey to guinea fowl.
Meanwhile, cattle provide all of the island’s dairy, with homemade yogurt a daily staple, along with a steady stream of locally grown fruits and vegetables.
There are island-specific challenges, of course, but as much as possible, Mr Mason approaches them with island-specific solutions. The lack of wide open grazing spaces for the cattle, for instance, is addressed by way of the island’s old nemesis – the coconut palm.
“The cows have really developed a liking for palm leaves,” Mr Mason says, “and milk production has increased significantly since we introduced that as part of their diet.”
Being able to substitute an import with what the island grows naturally in abundance is a common theme on Denis. And in some ways, it mirrors what many of the clients feel in their bones after spending enough time on the island: Denis Private Island is like an organic, sustainable substitute for today’s modern holiday package.