Appreciated as the archipelago is by people from around the world, visitors with time constraints have always had problems getting round the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean off the East Coast of Africa.

The ferries are not always convenient, the time at sea in a hired craft time-consuming, and flights costly. So, mostly, visitors stayed put on one island while the others remained tantalisingly out of reach.

Now the problem has been solved in a particularly effective way: island-hopping on a vessel specifically designed for tropical waters.

The Pearl of the Seychelles - a luxurious catamaran comprising just 34 suites – has been introduced to the archipelago by the French hotel chain, Le Meridien. It cruises among the more interesting islands a la Caribbean style.

There is one essential difference. The Caribbean is fairly heavily populated and the tens of thousands of tourists who cruise there go to join the throng in the nightclubs and market places.

The Pearl, on the other hand, offers nature lovers something infinitely more thrilling on the Seychelles: excursions into the only rainforests in the world where the exotic Coco de Mer grows, encounters with giant tortoises on the verge of extinction, snorkelling in warm waters alive with tropical fish, kayaking at sea, wind surfing on coral-protected waters and, more sedately, picnics on the beaches under coconut palms and huge trees.

Despite what some might think, the islands are not all the same. In fact, each is different, each has its own particular appeal. And people who travel on the Pearl of the Seychelles have the opportunity of seeing some of them from the comfort of a home base.

Le Meridien has prepared a seven-day cruise plan among the islands for passengers on the Pearl. The passengers can fly Air Seychelles to Mahe (the main island) from a variety of destinations in Europe. They embark for the cruise at Mahe and are quickly introduced to the pleasures of island hopping: cocktails are served as they come aboard.

The vessel is not very big, but it has all the facilities anyone would need. The suites are compact, but each has a large scuttle or window with an ever-changing view of the sea or the islands. Each is equipped with a television screen and each has its own shower and toilet.

As one observer remarked: “This must be the only hotel in the world where you wake up to a different view from your room each day.” There is a sun deck at the top, an attractive cane-furnished lounge with bar (protected overhead but open on three sides to the sea), an attractive dining-room where excellent meals are served and a splash pool for use when the Pearl is at sea.

The cuisine is decidedly French. Fish fresh from the sea is a regular on the menu, along with an array of tropical fruits, fresh salads and vegetables. The Seychelles taxes luxury imports, so the average bottle of wine costs round US$35. A glass of wine at the bar sells from US$3.

The Pearl is never at sea for more than a three-hour stretch. It drops anchor most evenings, rocking gently in the current. All that is missing after a hectic day of water sport and exploration is a lullaby. Sleep comes easily...

The object, of course, is not to spend too much time on the vessel (though there is nothing to stop the idle from staying aboard and reading a book). Each morning guests are transported by tender or rubber dinghy to a different island where they can explore, snorkel, scuba dive, windsurf, water ski or go kayaking. The equipment is all there, waiting to be used, with dedicated crew members on standby to assist.

The Pearl has an entertainment officer who looks after the interests of the passengers. When anchored off Praslin, a calypso band comes on board and the merry-making goes on until late. Cocktails on deck with the captain are a highlight, so too is dinner at his table.

The Pearl may not have a wide choice of restaurants, cinemas or lounges, but it offers a friendly intimacy which makes it is impossible not to get to know fellow passengers, people who come from many parts of the world. In fact, it is the perfect way to see the Seychelles without the inconvenience of constantly packing and unpacking.

photos: The Seychelles Tourist Board and Le Meridien Pearl of the Seychelles