Lapping up the Mauritian magic

Travel Posted 11/10/13
“One island, many people, all Mauritians”. Joanna Legg visits Mauritius to see whether this is the true motto of the island.

Renowned as a tropical paradise and lying in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Madagascar, Mauritius is a widely seen as a dream location for couples, but as I found out, this destination is just as popular with families.

With a 12-hour flight ahead of us, it was worth taking advantage of the airport lounge at Gatwick airport to leave the hubbub of the airport behind and start your holiday relaxation. This usually costs around £18 but courtesy of booking through Hayes and Jarvis, these handy facilities were part of the package.

Offering Wi-Fi, charging facilities for laptops and iPads as well as a wide range of snacks and drinks, it’s an ideal business option before any flight and a welcome place for anyone to feel relaxed before boarding. Online check-in is a must as we found with British Airways you can choose your seats 24 hours in advance and save on the pre-booked fee.

Our holiday location is one with a particularly rich history. The Portuguese first explored Mauritius in the early 16th century. Subsequently, the Dutch, French, and British held it, before gaining independence in 1968. Its official language is English, yet French and Creole are spoken more frequently.

This international mixture was noticeable as we drove from the airport to our hotel. It initially felt like Jamaica but as we headed past Port Louis I gained more of a sense of the English influence. They even drive on the left, so the French rule hasn’t extended throughout! There is a wide range of hotels on the island catering for all budgets. We decided on the Veranda Pointe Aux Biches, a three star plus hotel at the North of the island, an hour’s transfer from the airport.

The island’s summers are hot, wet and humid (November to May) and the winters are warm and dry (May-November). Going in June, a little out of season is recommended as the hotel is pleasantly empty but still with a buzz of tourists.

At this time, you also avoid any cyclones that may affect the island between November and April. One thing we notice very quickly is the great variety of culinary fare of the Mauritians, which reflects its ethnic diversity: Creole rougailles, Indian curries, Muslim bryanis, Chinese sweet-and-sour pork, French traditional dishes, English bacon and eggs.

Basic ingredients of the Creole cuisine are tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic and chillies. The traditional blends of home crushed spices are the sauce base for Indian curries, although it is invariably tamed down for hotels. If you want a genuine Mauritian curry venture out of the hotel to a local restaurant where you’ll find a spicier offering. Encouragingly, there are a plethora of trips to choose from and a number of ways to book.

We settled on three options: a speedboat day to swim with dolphins including a bbq on an idyllic island beach; a walk with lions and a tour of the South; plus a trip to the capital and the botanical gardens.

If you prefer to tour with a little privacy, hiring a car is a good way to go, though a local bus journey is always worth it to experience a bit of genuine local life. It is a three-mile journey to the nearest beach, Mon Choisy, which you can do for under a £1. Walking back to the hotel along the beach we encounter the fabulous, white sandy beach of Trou aux Biches. We look on admiringly at the Beachcomer hotel that spans nearly the whole length of this beach – pure five star luxury.

The first trip – swimming with dolphins. Departing from Flic en Flac, an exhilarating speedboat carries you to the first spot for hunting Bottlenose and Spinner dolphins. Spot them and they’re quickly gone. They have made the west coast a place to rest and sleep before going to the deep sea in search of food.

Eventually, we catch a glimpse of a pod, we dive in and there must be at least 50 a few metres below us as we snorkel on the surface. It really is a game of cat and mouse. Arriving on what a local lady termed “paradise island” (actually called Ile aux Benitiers), it is the epitome of its name and beautiful as you can imagine.

The must see excursion for us is the walk with lions at Casela Park on the west coast and it proves well worth the expense. This was tied in with a tour of the South including Charmarel, home to the Seven Coloured Sands and Chamarel Falls; the Hindu temple of Lord Shiva and its holy lake at Grand Bassain; a volcanic crater at Curepipe; and a journey to 650m above sea level to show you Mauritius at its best.

Our final trip was to Port Louis followed by the botanical garden at Pamplemousses - which is one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere. Its giant water lily and 85 different palm trees are a must see, but do take a guide to learn about the spices that the palm trees are renowned for. Taking in the capital is also a must. It is the site of the second oldest racecourse in the world and is a mixture of expensive houses and poorer areas - a multicultural city. The colourful fresh fruit and vegetables at the market are a real feast for the eyes.

As we learned from our guide, Mauritius is fast becoming an expensive place to live. It costs 3 million rupees to buy land and a house for locals (£67,000 at the current exchange rate, not a lot to us but a big ambition for Mauritians who have a high cost of living).

While it’s clear the island is rapidly developing, it is doing so in a manner that preserves the feeling of Mauritian magic. Tourism and sugar cane have helped to maintain the balance of the economy, and you can certainly see the influence of these two sectors as you tour the island. The friendliness of the islanders is, for me, its big selling point and truly lives up to “one island, many people, all Mauritians”.

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