ISLAND LIFE - JSE MAGAZINE

ISLAND LIFE

Mauritius has garnered a reputation as a place of luxury beachfront resorts. But there is so much more to it than simply sand and sea

ISLAND LIFE

The taxi driver looked genuinely perplexed. It was as if I’d suggested he take me to an open session of the sitting of parliament. ‘Because it would be fun. Surely it’s not an unusual request?’ All I’d asked was to find a small Diwali celebration – perhaps a village square with an iconic dodo tree, lit to mark the traditional Hindu victory of light over darkness.

As it turned out, it was. Rav had never been asked such a thing in his 10 years of tour-guiding in Mauritius. Sitting in the back of his scrupulously clean, yellow-stickered Corolla taxi en route to the interior town of Vacoas-Phoenix, it occurred to me that the literature had been correct. Mauritius is indeed a veranda destination, with few venturing into the main house.

Reading my mind, Rav – eyes in the rear-view mirror alive to his new role as cultural ambassador – issued forth. ‘You have busy lives. Most of you arrive, transfer to the beach resorts and fall asleep by the pool for a week. Nobody leaves. They think it’s a slum out here,’ he tells me.

It looks more like KwaZulu-Natal to me, tall sugar cane everywhere. But I can understand the veranda mentality. For such a small island, Mauritius has an unusually high concentration of luxury resorts and beach hotels, some 120 and counting. Most compare to the best in the world, blending fantasy blue horizon pools with palm trees, lagoon views, umbrella’d cocktails and Indian Ocean expansiveness.

They are mini worlds: perfectly formed, entirely self-sufficient and ideal getaways from a complex, stressful world. With a few notable exceptions, most are concentrated in the north and east, traditionally the tourist areas of the island.

The hiking trails are enticing, the views outstanding but the pink pigeon elusive

To simply fly and flop, however, is to shortchange Mauritius. Just as our developing veranda tourism in SA ignores the interior in favour of the Garden Route, Cape Town and the Kruger, Mauritius deserves better. It’s a volcanic, tropical island, mountainous and diverse, with some of the best parks in the Indian Ocean island states and certainly one of the richest cultural tapestries.

The Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all left their mark. It’s somewhat ironic then that the largest contemporary influence is Indian. Thank the Victorian indentured labour traders for that – traffickers who moved some 500 000 Indians through Mauritius in the mid 1800s and early 1900s, filling a gap left by the abolition of slavery in 1835. Today, Indian-ancestry Mauritians make up some 60% of the population.

Vacoas-Phoenix lies in the imposing shadow of Mount du Rempart, Mauritius’ Matterhorn with its sharp, pointed peak, ideal for hiking as well as more serious climbing. This evening the streets are lit up for Diwali, boys lighting firecrackers and girls in freshly pressed white dresses squealing with delight.

On Thevneau Avenue there’s a street party, tables laid, and everyone is welcome. The traditional sweets do the rounds, scented dough balls or gulab jamun apparently the favourite, and as I watch the festivities it dawns on me that I would normally be in bed by now, wave-lapping lullabies in my ears instead of the sitar player on the bandstand.

The next morning at the entrance to the resort hotel, Rav has replaced the startled look of yesterday with one of eager anticipation – today is about the rest of the interior.

A magnificent rain forest, echoing with the sounds of unknown creatures deep within

Mauritius is a comparatively small country, just 61 km long and 46 km wide. Plus the roads are good, which means getting around is easy. Still, his itinerary errs on the side of ambitious: find a rare pink pigeon in the ebony-thick Black River Gorges Reserve, the bustling Flacq market for more Diwali fare, the weird Seven Coloured Earth formation of multicoloured sands at Chamarel, Rochester Falls to watch the high divers, a rum distillery at Domaine Les Pailles and, of course, the National Botanical Gardens near Port Louis, the capital, to see the tortoises and giant water lilies.

It’s soon apparent that a week will be needed to cover all of Rav’s bases. The Black River Gorges are a magnificent rain forest, echoing with the sounds of a thousand unknown creatures deep within. The hiking trails are enticing, the views outstanding but the pink pigeon elusive. It doesn’t matter.

At Rochester, the clear fresh water under the falls is heavenly after the salt of the sea. Rum is drunk. Sand is seen. And the noisy tortoises prove to be nowhere near as impressive as the water lilies. Underscoring the rushed adventure is a sense of an island at peace with itself, people relaxed yet focused, everything working, a vibrant, cosmopolitan society.

Finally, under the gigantic sugar silos of Port Louis, looking across to the sophisticated waterfront complex of downtown, Rav is done, ready to drop but happy, reacquainted with his own island. In the resort I could have been anywhere, but out there I could only have been in Mauritius. Vive la différence.

Le Touessrok
Arguably the island’s most celebrated resort, Le Touessrok is on the east shore near Bel Air and, having recently changed hands, has had an overhaul. It is something of a legend, occupying a prime spot in the inlets of the Trou d’Eau Douce lagoon. The Shangri-La group have taken over the management contract from Sun Resorts. It is one of the largest resorts in the Indian Ocean with an astonishing 200 rooms (and three much-requested villas), and has access to a nearby island and an 18-hole golf course.
www.shangri-la.com

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Le Saint Géran
The other celebrity in the Mauritian resort family is the One&Only’s Le Saint Géran, also on the East coast. It too has its own golf course, designed by Gary Player. The style of the resort is typical tile-and-shutter Mauritius, with an emphasis on space, if not innovation. It is known for, among other things, its huge, beautiful pool as well as its latest restaurant, the Indian Pavilion, which is located on the water’s edge of the private lagoon.
lesaintgeran.oneandonlyresorts.com

Four Seasons Resort Mauritius
Completing the east coast triumvirate of super resorts is the Four Seasons, situated just below Le Touessrok. The design is more interesting than Le Saint Géran – a mix of contemporary and Creole – though some rooms are small and not all have beach access. The villas are a better bet, specifically the Ocean Villas that have their own pools. Bear in mind the Four Seasons is in Anahita, a private estate. This time Ernie Els was the golf course designer.
www.fourseasons.com/mauritius

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Outrigger Mauritius Resort and Spa
Recently opened, the Outrigger Mauritius Resort and Spa is the latest initiative by the ever-expanding Hawaiian group, overseen by the Kelley family. Their recipe of good value paradise for everyman has changed since the death of the patriarch, Roy, with the emphasis now on ultimate luxury. The Mauritius property is in the rugged south-west, a mix of beautifully realised contemporary design and traditional thatch lapas.
www.outriggermauritius.com

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Westin Turtle Bay Resort and Spa
New too is the Westin Turtle Bay Resort and Spa, in Turtle Bay on the north-west coast, a full five-star property. The resort borders a marine reserve and diving is offered on and around the coral reef. Rooms are perhaps disappointingly western but the public spaces are expansive and make good use of the ocean views.
www.westinturtlebaymauritius.com

St Regis
On the other side of the island is the St Regis, a landmark and very different in character to the east coast super resorts. The feel is French colonial, with double-volume colonnades and formal, elegant halls and public spaces. The Beachfront Grand suites have uninterrupted views of the beach and bay. St Regis sits under the imposing rock of Le Morne Brabant, a popular launch site for hang-gliders. It also has a more sombre past – thinking they were about to be forced back into slavery, a group of slaves threw themselves off the rock in 1835. In reality the police were there to tell them that slavery had just been abolished.
www.stregismauritius.com

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Baystone Boutique Hotel & Spa
For something entirely different, the Baystone – in the entertainment hub of Grand Bay in the north of the island – is a hip hotel that’s more New York than Indian Ocean. Designed by US architect Albert Angel, inside it is a flow of organic curves and shapes, with sharp, mid-century lines on the outside. The trendy stay here and book the sky suite if it’s available, with private access to the rooftop pool. Beach parties and en vogue cuisine are all part of the package.
www.baystone.mu/en

By Peter Frost
Images: Gallo/GettyImages, Four Seasons Resort Mauritius