About Time: You Discovered the Best of MauritiusBy Howard Malin
“…and heaven was copied after Mauritius” Mark Twain
I’m a little embarrassed to admit (for a travel writer!) that I wasn’t absolutely sure where exactly on the map Mauritius sat. I knew it was east of Africa – but wasn’t sure exactly where. My bad.
If like me, you’re not too sure of your Indian Ocean geography, Mauritius lies south of the Seychelles, and south-west of The Maldives in the Indian Ocean. The magic and beauty of both the Seychelles and the Maldives are well-known and well documented – less so Mauritius – with its unspoilt beaches, incredible coral reef, totally stunning landscapes, and the most delicious food I’ve tasted in years.
Measuring only 790 square miles (40 miles long x 30 miles wide) makes Mauritius the 27th smallest country in the world, with only has 1.2 million inhabitants. Sitting only 500 miles off the east coast of Madagascar – and to which the Dutch, French and British have all laid claim at different times since the Portuguese first landed in 1507, it is now home to a diverse mix of Indian, French, Creole and Chinese people. Having claimed independence from Britain in 1968, and declaring itself the Republic of Mauritius in 1992, it is an example to us all in terms of religious and ethnic diversity with its multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-faith society. Hinduism is practiced by approximately half the population, and peacefully co-exists beside Catholicism, Buddhism and Islam.
This diversity was even notable in 1896 when Mark Twain (who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) first landed and wrote “’Went ashore in the forenoon at Port Louis, a little town, but with the largest variety of nationalities and complexions we have encountered yet”. Mark Twain was also responsible for the most famous quotation about Mauritius. In his brilliant travel book “ Following the Equator – A journey around the World” he writes that he overheard an islander say “ Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” And it’s easy to see why islanders and visitors alike think this.
Mauritius delivers so much more than an idyllic holiday destination with paradisiacal beaches and stunning resorts and hotels. It has a proper personality – its bustling capital city Port Louis with its markets and street vendors providing an exhilarating contrast to the tranquillity of the stunning interior and coastal areas. It has thriving rum, textile and agricultural industries – and a political stability that is the envy of its African neighbours.
The dodo that inhabited Mauritius in the 17th century may well be long dead and extinct – but the island itself is alive and well. Our trip focussed on the more tropical south western part of the island. Although no-one could ever describe any part of Mauritius as over-developed, the north has a longer history of tourism, with its bars, clubs and restaurants – while the south is still largely untouched. I absolutely adored the lyrical beauty of the beaches and indescribable sunsets, the verdant, dramatic and rugged interior – and the simple and unspoiled towns and villages that gave us a real sense of the island. And of course the ocean. I’m reminded of the words of Arthur C Clark “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean “ He must have been thinking of the Indian Ocean.
Mauritius: The Lowdown
An independent African island nation lying in the Indian Ocean, circled by 100 miles of white sandy beaches and coral reef, amazing green interior landscapes – and an extraordinarily delicious array of foods.
Mauritius Travel Guide: What to Expect
This is best explained by the Mauritian national flag – with its four colours – red for independence (blood) , blue for Indian Ocean, yellow for the sunshine, and green for the lush vegetation. It is the place to connect with nature, detox from city life, and de-stress.
Mauritius Travel Guide: Where to Stay
We were guests of the Veranda Tamarin Hotel, which is perfectly situated between the river and the ocean in this quaint fishing village in the South West. This is the newly refurbished outpost of the Veranda group of five hotels on the island, and it impresses on every level. The welcome, the service, the rooftop infinity pool and bar with views over the local beach opposite the hotel, the delicious Ye! Man restaurant, and the open air lounge bar (with live music most nights) – all delivering far more than expected from a 3+ star hotel, and exceptional value. The hotel gives the perfect view of the Tamarin Bay sunset – for which my vocabulary is too limited to describe.
Nor can words adequately describe the breath-taking location and flawless luxury of our second hotel stop. As a group of travel journalists we arrived at Lux* La Morne – also in the south west – and our collective jaw dropped.
The hotel lies between the dramatic Le Morne Brabant mountain and the sea, and the welcome that awaits its guests, the total luxury and perfection of every aspect of the hotel, the rooms, the restaurants, the service, the Lux*spa, and the big cool Techogym-equipped gym, is simply stunning. Oh, and did I mention the food? Delicious Mauritius! No detail of this impeccable hotel is overlooked – ice cream stands pop up in the most convenient locations, coffee shops with the Lux* own roasted coffees overlook the pool, the restaurants are world class (East Restaurant delivering stunning Thai food in the fashion of the chef’s grandmother – the Pad Thai with giant prawns was extraordinary), no room is more than a few yards from the beautiful and unspoiled palm-fringed beach, with the warm turquoise waters of the ocean lapping at the legs of the deep-mattressed sunbeds.
I could go on and on – the hotel even has a red phone booth in the lobby that allows guests to phone home free of charge, and its own urchin master preparing sunset urchin tastings on the shoreline in front of the hotel. With 450 staff looking after only 140 rooms, you can imagine the levels of service. Any hotel that offers free Aperol tastings every Thursday gets my vote! The Lux* Le Morne is also the perfect honeymoon hotel – offering private dinners on the beach, and trips to swim with the dolphins that play in the bay every morning. I didn’t want to leave.
Mauritius Travel Guide: What to Eat
Food in Mauritius is simply divine. From spicy chicken dishes and fish curries, to the Mauritian national dish of dhal purie, we didn’t have a poor experience anywhere. Since the population is so diverse, it isn’t any surprise that the food here has Chinese, Indian, Creole and European influences, with spicy foods most prevalent, and rice accompanying just about everything! The locally sourced menu at L’Alchemiste Restaurant (within Rhumerie Chamarel), and delicious Thai dishes at East in Lux* Le Morne take top marks from me.
Mauritius Travel Guide: What to Do
Mauritius offers not only idyllic beaches and unique, memorable ocean experiences, but so much more. It goes without saying that morning swims with dolphins, evening sunset cocktails or catamaran cruises, and tasting the street foods whilst wandering the alleyways of the capital, form part of most visitors must-do lists – and will provide lasting memories of this wonderful island.
When (if!) you are tempted to break away from your sun-lounger, I loved my tour of the bustling capital city of Port Louis in the north, and in the south, the tour of the Bois Cheri tea plantation (which may sound a little lame, but was really very interesting). The highlight for me though, in the south, was the whole day electro bike tour.
I refer to north and south for ease of scheduling your sightseeing, but the island is tiny and the two are only an hour apart.
What to Do in Mauritius: The North
Port Louis – My Moris arranges walking tours of the city. Don’t miss China Town, the Jummah mosque, the market at Trou Fanfaron, where the former street vendors are now grouped under a tented market place (look out for the peanuts tossed in black salt and curry powder) , and the large Central Market with local traders selling fruit, vegetables, spices and all things vanilla on the ground floor, and textiles, souvenirs and non-perishables on the first floor.
Chateau Labourdonnais – this grand and perfectly proportioned colonial mansion, built in 1856, is now a museum. It is surrounded by beautiful orchards and sugar cane plantations. The restaurant overlooking the mansion and its gardens is worth the visit alone – our lunch was memorable.
Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens – planted by the French East India Company, are justly world famous for their giant water lilies.
What to Do in Mauritius: The South
Electro bike tour of the south from Le Morne to Souillac, through local towns, villages, sugar cane plantations and along the coastline, organised and guided by E Bike Discovery. This was one of the highlights of the trip, and delivered stunning coastal vistas. The lunchtime break on our whole day tour also delivered the stand-out meal of the week, at the home of a local lady ( a friend of Jean-Marie, our E Bike guide). This was a simple Indian vegetarian meal of, amongst other tasty delights, the national dish of dhal puri, a yellow split-pea griddled pancake, filled with bean curry and a sauce of sweet tomatoes, thyme, garlic, and ginger.
Beniter Island – take a speedboat and guide and head to this tiny island just off the coast. It is accessible only by boat, and has a little café, and a bar. Many locals come here to relax for the day.
Bois Cheri Tea Plantation – the first tea plantation on Mauritius, dating from 1892 – with tour of the plantation and tea factory itself. The grounds and gardens are most beautiful. Taste the teas at the café overlooking the lake. Stunning.
Black River Gorge – with wild monkeys hopping about! At the viewpoint, the highest mountain of Mauritius is to left and amazing the waterfall of Chamarel is to the right.
Rhumerie de Chamarel –the tour of this rum distillery is fascinating, with tastings of nine flavours of rum. I was a bit wobbly on the way out! The attached restaurant L’Alchemiste, serving local produce looks rather like a cafeteria but the food was worthy of a Michelin star!
Seven Coloured Earths – This is a small area where sand of seven colours has settled in different layers, to create a surreal mosaic. This seems to be many guide’s lists of things to see – but I didn’t find it particularly interesting.
Grand Bassin – this is the huge and sacred lake for Hindu services and prayers in Ganga Talao.
Le Morne Brabante – The rugged basalt monolith that towers over the south west peninsula. This is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site and not to be missed. Legend and myth has it that this mountain was a favoured hiding place for slaves fleeing the sugarcane plantations. When slavery was abolished in 1868, the local police were despatched to the mountain to inform the slaves that they were now free. Fearing that they were about to be rounded up and returned to slavery, the slaves chose instead to jump from the mountain in to the sea. This mesmerising mountain thus holds a special relevance and importance to the people of Mauritius.
Mauritius Travel Guide: What to Buy
Teas, vanilla, spices and rum! I loved the vanilla tea – marriage made in Mauritius.
Mauritius Travel Guide: How to Get Around
Taxi, bus, and bike (preferably electric assisted bike – so easy and so much fun)
Mauritius Travel Guide: How to Get There
Air Mauritius direct from Heathrow, approx. 12.5 hours non-stop. The new Airbus A330-900NEO will be introduced on the London-Mauritius route in April, making the trip even more comfortable and enjoyable. I enjoyed my flight, cocooned with my books and movies, and relished the seclusion.
For more information on Mauritius, please visit www.tourism-mauritius.