Mauritius: A gem in the Indian Ocean

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With a chequered history that hypothetically began with the indigenous peoples of southern Africa to the supposed discovery by the Arabs, through subsequent colonisation by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British, the island nation / Republic of Mauritius offers visitors more diversity than its continental counterparts. Antonino Tati fits a little history, some shipwreck spotting, lion petting, sub-scootering and countless other activities into six amazing days.

I went to a primary and high school packed with kids of so many nationalities, you’d think we were sponsored by Benetton. Amongst the dozens of Italians, French, Greeks, Chinese, Anglo Indians, and Australians was one kid named Daniel, who hailed from Mauritius. I’d never heard of Mauritius until I’d met Daniel but I did figure his was a heritage rich in history and culture, and it forever seemed that a bit of a celebration was being held at his place. His mother would bring to the table colourful, exotic dishes that, in retrospect, I would say were Creole fused with French, and a little Asian thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t until I visited Mauritius itself earlier this year that I realised just how gloriously diverse a nation it is. In the capital of Port Louis, office skyscrapers stand brazenly tall beside old colonial buildings, revelling in the ultimate postmodernist of aesthetics. Religious statues flank ATM machines. Market stall owners offer you cheap porcelain dodo birds and rather expensive rum. And all is bustling in this developing island/nation/republic (a republic, that is, since 1992).

The population of Mauritius is a vivid mosaic of races, cultures and religions, with Hindus and Muslims, Creoles, Chinese and Tamils all living side by side in harmony. This tapestry of peoples has seen colourful temples, churches, mosques and pagodas spring up all over the place and it makes for a most psychedelic sight. Mauritians are generally bilingual, most speaking English fluently, but Creole and French serve as the two commonly spoken languages. Of the group of journalists who joined me on this trip, a couple could utter a little French, although Creole was altogether new to us all. The group consisted of a dude from The Australian’s Wish magazine, a girl from New Idea, another from MX street mag, a woman from House & Garden, some representatives of your more ‘conservative’ press like The Illawarra Mercury and Newcastle Herald, and myself from Cream. Suffice to say, we made for an eclectic lot, but being thrown into the deep end of a place already vibrant with a criss-crossing of cultures, our respective differences only added to the brilliant fuzz of it all.

Checking in to the Heritage Le Telfair Golf & Spa Resort, we met up for dinner on our first night, in the resort’s magnificent Château de Bel Ombre. The Château proved the perfect setting for our introduction to Mauritius since it once served as a home of colonial grandeur, reminiscent of Mauritian days gone by. An old-fashioned charm exudes from every aspect of its restoration – from the grand steps that lead to expansive dining rooms, decorated in rich wood panelling and dotted with antique furnishings. The French influence on Mauritius is an important one: it was in 1715 that French armies took control of the island (from the reign of the Dutch), and eventually developed a prosperous economy based on sugar production (they even renamed the land ‘the Isle of France’). Our host, Fabien Lefebure, filled us in on a little of the hotel’s history, including the fact that it was christened after an Irish naturalist, Charles Telfair, who lived in the area in the 19th Century and studied the local tropical flora while his wife, Annabella, recorded his finds in the form of watercolours that now decorate much of the resort.

Heritage Le Telfair caters to its clientele’s every whim. Over 150 rooms and suites boast stunning sea and/or river views with floor to ceiling French windows and a private balcony or veranda for each. Each of the rooms and suites are equipped with separate bath and shower, air conditioning, expansive dressing table, interactive flatscreen TV, minibar, iPod docking station, and spacious dressing facilities. To be honest, it’s almost tempting to lounge leisurely in your room all day, every day, but there’s way too much adventure to be had in Mauritius to simply do that… 

 

 

Outdoor water activities are among the greater attractions in Mauritius, and just when you thought you’ve tried them all – from snorkelling and sailing to catamaraning and kayaking – comes an invitation to go ‘sub-scootering’. This absolutely novel way to study the ocean’s phenomenal flora and fauna sees you hermetically sealed in an airtight capsule of a machine that looks and moves like a cross between a moped and a mini submarine. You’re then submerged into the water and can freely navigate around bright coral and amid schools of colourful fish. It’s an amazing experience and far from uncomfortable since there’s plenty of room to breathe (the water inside only reaches the shoulders). And you get to see a lot of underwater sea action thanks to a protective transparent dome that allows a 360-degree view. Now, I’ve been shark cage diving before, and although there were no sharp-teethed creatures in the water this time, I did get a similar shot of adrenaline from the sub-scooter experience and, yes, it was a heck of a lot more fun ! The cost for the experience is reasonable, too : just 3,900 rupees (around $130) for a half-hour dive that includes transfers and refreshments. And your guide will even take some happy snaps for you.

If less outdoor action and more laidback voyeurism is your thing, you can always sight-see, for Mauritius offers some surreal natural settings such as the famous ‘Seven Sands’ of Chamarel which have formed over time from the decomposition of volcanic rock. At close inspection of the sands, which appear like smoothed-out dunes, you can spot striped colourings of red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow. There’s also the option to kick back on a boat cruise, getting dropped off at historic sights that offer an awe-inspiring history. On one such trip, arranged through Aqua Soleil cruises, we visited the beautiful Ile aux Aigrettes, a tiny coral island off the Mauritian coast, now declared a nature conservation site. Along the way we spotted the remains of various ship wrecks,  and some of the old lighthouses (whose keepers were perhaps not always on the ball). One such house, on the Ile aux Fouquet (pictured), is an 85-ft masonry tower attached to a two-story keeper’s complex and once guided ships to the south-east harbours of Mauritius but has been inactive in 1865. Accessible only by boat, it’s a rustic, picturesque setting that you’d otherwise only spot in a tintype photo album of an old naval officer.

After a morning of extensive sight-seeing, some lunch and a drop of locally famous bevvy was in order, and the Chamarel Rum Distillery is the perfect place for both. The distillery (coinnosseurs call it a rhumerie) is situated in the heart of a 300m high valley and is itself a sheer work of art. A man-made lake in the centre of the lobby leads to the main original chimney constructed of various coloured stones, with the distillery on one side and restaurant on the other. Surrounding the rhumerie are vast plantations of sugar cane amid fields of tropical fruits. Chamarel is one of the finest rums, available in white and dark, and the brand’s slick packaging make mini bottles of it the perfect gift for folks back home. Granted, you might have to hide these in your luggage intended for check-in so as not to use up all your duty free alcohol allowance !

Checking into our second hotel, the One & Only Le Saint Géran (One & Only actually being part of its name), we were greeted on our first night with a series of traditional singing and dance. The main restaurant, dubbed La Terrasse, is a white-vaulted terrace set around the resort’s pool that overlooks the Indian Ocean. As you can imagine, on an island surrounded by water, the seafood on the menu is bountiful, and we dined on the fleshiest of crustacea including king prawns and mouth-watering crayfish. The wine is impressive, too, what with Mauritius’ remaining connections to its French heritage.

Originally opened in 1975 and remodelled in 1999, Le Saint Géran’s laid back luxury is complemented by service that is always attentive yet never imposing. Each of the resort’s  terraced and balconied rooms face out to the ocean, with immaculate gardens running all the way down to the edge of a coral-sand beach. Diversity is the main theme here, and you can choose to make your stay as action-packed as you’d like (a water activities hut offers everything from water skiing to wind surfing) or one of sheer relaxation and romance (for something different, try an ocean-side dinner for two and night under the stars in a tipi tent – the tent designed by UK fashion designer Alice Temperley). The rooms at Le Saint Géran are spacious enough to fit a couple of families and, having a full suite to myself, I felt rather spoilt. The bathroom boasts a huge egg-shaped tub, the bedroom king-size beds with half a dozen pillows, and, so good is the resort with attention to detail, that guests get to select their own ‘turndown scent’ for the night (Eucalyptus, Ylang Ylang, Frangipani, or Vanilla). In dining, too, guests get plenty of options, with Le Saint Géran housing no less than three award-winning restaurants. There’s Spoon des Ile (celebrity chef Alain Ducasse’s first venture outside of Paris); Rasoi by Vineet (contemporary Indian cuisine); and the aforementioned La Terrasse (where breakfast is also served). Once again, it was tempting to stay within the massive property for the rest of our trip but, alas, nature came calling.

Here’s something I’ve never dreamt of doing: walking with lions. And that’s a surprising thing coming from a kid born under Leo. So when the opportunity presented itself at Casela Nature & Leisure Park, situated on the south-west coast of Mauritius, I pounced. Walks with lions are carried out daily during the early mornings and late afternoons as these are the cooler parts of the day when the big cats aren’t too easily agitated. Casela also offers visitors the opportunity to simply get up close and pet the lions (ie: without the walking) in ‘observation sessions’ that are offered each day. Visitors are recommended to remain behind the creatures and to always carry a branch – which serves to distract the lions from getting too bored or anxious while you’re busy petting them. It’s tempting to touch the cats on their face, or even paws, but the big rule is: don’t! On the whole, these attention-loving creatures don’t seem to mind all the petting and even prefer it when a bit of human chatter is going on – apparently our voices tend to sedate them. As you can see by the massive smile on my face, it was me, really, who need to be calmed.

For a ‘theme park’, Casela really is unique. Visitors are given the option of manoeuvring about on segways and the opportunity to get up close and personal with many animals. One minute you’re feeding grass to a gigantic tortoise, the next you’re looking a handsome zebra right in the eye. Indeed, you get so used to the kooky diversity of fauna on this gorgeously kempt property that it’s hardly surprising when, amongst all the grazing deer, lazing lions, and prancing pheasants, you see an everyday chicken walk on by.

Again it’s this sort of colour and diversity (bio and otherwise) that makes Mauritius an absolutely magical place to visit. Heck when I’m wealthy enough, I might buy me some property here. Lay seven different coloured sands through the grounds… Plant a coconut grove and some pineapple trees… Raise some real cute lion cubs… Perhaps even a humble chook or two.

 

 

Photography credits : 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12 + 13 by Antonino Tati ; 3 + 4 by courtesy Heritage Le Telfair Golf & Spa Resort ; 5 courtesy Blue Safari Tours, 9 + 10 courtesy One & Only Le Saint Géran. 

 

 

CONTACT DETAILS

Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority

Web: www.tourism-mauritius.mu

 

Air Mauritius

Web: www.airmauritius.com

Phone: 1300 332 077

 

Solis

Web: www.solis-io.com 

Email: info@solis-io.com

Phone: 230 919 4135

 

Heritage Le Telfair

Web: www.heritageletelfair.mu

Email: info@heritageletelfair.mu

Phone: 230 601 5500

  

One & Only Le Saint Géran

Web: www.oneandonlylesaintgeran.com

Email: reservations@oneandonlylesaintgeran.com

Phone: 230 401 1688

 

Blue Safari (for Sub-scootering)

Web: www.blue-safari.com

Email: bluesaf@intnet.mu

 

Chamarel Rum Distillery

Web: www.rhumeriedechamarel.com

Email: caselaresa@medine.com

Phone: 230 483 7980

 

Casela Nature & Leisure Park

Web: www.caselayemen.mu

Email: caselaresa@medine.com

Phone: 230 452 2828