Mauritius: Is this the Indian Ocean's hottest holiday island?
Made in Mauritius
It's an island no bigger than Wicklow, but Mauritius manages to feel like the world in one place, says Pól Ó Conghaile.
After a bone-rattling ride through the rolling hills and dirt roads of Frédérica Nature Reserve, our pick-up truck grinds to a halt.
Jean Claude Sevathian of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation hops out, with a boyish twinkle in his eye, and gestures towards the forest.
"This is how Mauritius used to be," he beams.
When the first Europeans dropped anchor, some 400 years ago, this is the sight that greeted them. Virgin forests, shot with spears of ebony. Echo parakeets and pink pigeons frolicking like cartoon birds. Ridiculously cute fruit bats, shielding their eyes with wings like mini Dracula cloaks.
Of course, we are missing the dodos. Those great, flightless icons of extinction - endemic to the island - succumbed to the settlers' pigs, rats, monkeys and appetites. Paradise was found, and parts of it were lost.
Mauritius is one of the Mascarene Islands, punching out of the Indian Ocean 2,000km off the coast of Africa. It's similar in size to Wicklow, but doesn't feel that way - a population of some 1.2 million and a history of French and British settlement, of indentured Indian labourers and Chinese, African and Arabic communities, give it a world-in-one-place sort of feel.
This is a mosaic nation where Diwali, Christmas and Chinese New Year are celebrated. The first word I hear at the airport is 'Bonjour!' Brightly coloured Hino buses chug along roads rimmed with hand-painted signs, papery-pink bougainvillea and the husks of old sugar-processing plants.
You'll eat a Tamil curry one night; velvety tuna sashimi the next.
This isn't always apparent from the brochures, where Mauritius can be difficult to distinguish from honeymoon hotspots like the Seychelles and Maldives. All have palm trees, luxury resorts and talcum-powder beaches. But there are differences. The Maldives has the best diving but the least diversity; the Seychelles has fewer visitors, but its exclusivity comes with a price.
Mauritius, I think, is most vibrant - most suited to couples who want all-inclusive options, and have a hankering to explore. It's got soul.
The island's heart is its capital, Port Louis. It's a small, intriguing city, a place where spiffy commercial towers sprout from colonial boulevards, where tourists sup overpriced beers on gentrified wharfs, but also home to a centuries-old citadel on a hill, a bustling Chinatown and a central market spilling over with fruit and veg.
Here, I pass men stripping herbs into whiffy bunches, before stopping at a food shack to order a dhal puri - a warm slip of cornbread slopped with spoonfuls of chutney, lentils and curry. It costs all of 25 cent and tastes like a slice of Delhi.
Naturally, most visitors are drawn by the resorts.
Mauritius is ringed with gated havens - 120 or so pamper-palaces catering to once-in-a-lifetimers and the well-heeled. Mention Mauritius to any Irish person, and the murder of Michaela McAreavey in 2011 of course comes to mind. The tragedy saw a dramatic fall-off in Irish visits, but bookings to this niche destination have begun to rise again, several tour operators tell me.
My own digs - the Heritage Le Telfair resort in the southwest of the island - is as ready with its Hendricks gin as its spa treatments, 18-hole golf course and infinity pools. It's a blissful base from which to explore the island (cabs cost around €60 a day), interspersing off-range activities with five-star RnR.
Highlights? There is the 100m-high Chamarel waterfall and the Seven Coloured Earth, a series of undulating dunes whose colours never appear to run.
On Iles aux Aigrettes, visitors travel by speedboat (mautourco.com) to a quarantined island onto which endemic wildlife and great, lumbering Aldabra tortoises have been introduced. Stroking the leathery neck of one huge animal, my guide tells me it can plod along to 150 years of age.
"It's like they live in slow motion," he says.
Not everything moves at such gentle pace. Twenty-four hours later I'm thundering across the emerald ocean in a sea kart - a 110 horse-power cross between a jet ski and a dodgem (above). "There are just six of these in the world and they're all here in Mauritius," says our instructor with Fun Adventure (fun-adventure.mu). Mauritius is famous for kite-surfing, but this is a brilliantly bumpy alternative.
Despite the toll taken by coral bleaching and overfishing, there are underwater adventures too. At Blue Bay, a marine preservation area near the airport, I pass picnicking Mauritians on my way to join a boat taking tourists to a rehabilitating reef. It's thronged with splashing snorkellers, and clearly needs management, but once I slip beneath the surface, shoals of snappers, butterflyfish and Moorish idols appear.
On the way back to shore, the dreadlocked boat driver speaks French into his walkie talkie before turning to ask me where I'm from.
"I am made in Mauritius," he says.
How to do it
Pól stayed at Heritage Le Telfair (heritageresorts.mu), a colonial-style, five-star resort set on a former sugar plantation on the south west coast of Mauritius. Sister properties include Heritage Awali (more suited to families) and Heritage The Villas.
Combined, the resort has 12 restaurants, a championship 18-hole golf course, beach club, kitesurfing school and two spas. Deluxe rooms start from £260/€365 per night, based on two sharing on a B&B basis.
Pól travelled to Mauritius with Travelmood (01 960-9519; travelmood.ie), which has flights with Emirates plus seven nights half-board at Heritage Le Telfair from €2,086pp, based on a January 23 departure (ref: 1002635).
Return flights from Dublin (via Dubai) start from €796 economy and €2,597 business class with Emirates (emirates.com/ie).
See tourism-mauritius.mu for more to see and do on the island.