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Mauritius - What's not to love?

Mouthwatering cuisine, stunning landscapes and a fascinating history combine on Emily Hourican's Mauritian trip...

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Welcome to paradise... the white-sand island of Mauritius, surrounded by crystal blue waters

Welcome to paradise... the white-sand island of Mauritius, surrounded by crystal blue waters

Temple de Triolet

Temple de Triolet

Mont Choisy beach

Mont Choisy beach

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Welcome to paradise... the white-sand island of Mauritius, surrounded by crystal blue waters

There's a bit in the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks where the children and Angela Lansbury make a wish to fly off somewhere hot and bright.

I may be remembering it wrong, but in my mind, it's because one of the children has a cough they can't get rid of, and the doctor has advised sunshine and sea air.

Anyway, they turn the magic bedknob, and fly to a tropical island called Naboombu. What I remember most is the contrast, between England in the throes of World War II - wet, cold, grey, stinking of coal fires and utterly miserable - and the glorious arrival on to this white-sand island, surrounded by crystal blue water, with the sun beating down. It's the best kind of magic.

Flying to Mauritius is a little like that. It's far away - I travelled to Dubai first, around eight hours, and then a further eight to Mauritius - and when you land, tired and cramped, and emerge from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam airport (he was a local statesman and philanthropist), there you are, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in paradise.

Mauritius is a small island, just 65km long and 45km wide, with a coral reef surrounding it that is the third-largest in the world, and which creates a lagoon of calm water close to the island. Anyone who has read Robinson Crusoe knows the importance of a lagoon - this means tranquil seas, and great snorkelling.

First discovered by Arab traders, Mauritius was initially uninhabited, and then became settled by successive 'invaders'. The Portuguese owned it, then the Dutch, then the French, then the British, and independence arrived only in 1968. For a long time, sugar cane was the main industry here, and our taxi driver - deeply knowledgeable about the island - tells us that all the roads are deliberately winding because they were built for transporting sugar cane by horse and cart. Straight roads meant the horse felt the weight, winding roads balanced the load better.

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Emily alongside some street art in Mauritius

Emily alongside some street art in Mauritius

Emily alongside some street art in Mauritius

Then we talk about the dodo.

Poor old dodo. I never really felt for this bird before, beyond a kind of evolutionary curiosity - it was thigh-high to a man, couldn't fly, had nothing to defend itself with; what was nature thinking? But when you are in Mauritius, the only known home of the poor creature, and hear about the Dutch traders herding dodos on to ships because they survived at sea far better than, for example, chickens or rabbits, so they could be killed and eaten, fresh, en route, well, I found myself feeling rather sad for the poor beast, born on an island paradise with no natural predators, only for the outside world to invade and ruin everything…

We drive for around an hour north to the Veranda Resort Pointe aux Biches, a gorgeous spot right on the beach where the wearing of shoes pretty much stops the minute you arrive. Instead, you pad around, barefoot (OK, sandals if you must), on sandy floors, between the three restaurants, two pools, two bars, shop, spa, gym and the beach itself. Bedrooms are shady and cool and there is a general air of tranquillity that is very beguiling. If the point of your trip is to relax, that starts pretty much immediately.

The resort is family-friendly, but has a clever policy of several child-free zones also, which seems the best of all worlds. After all, Mauritius is a huge wedding and honeymoon island, and brides and kids often do not mix! We watch one wedding (from a distance) and the sight of the happy couple pledging their troth barefoot on the beach at sunset is pretty gorgeous.

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The various waves of European influence have all left their mark on Mauritian cuisine, which encompasses classic French, Chinese and Indian effortlessly. Everything I ate - in the hotel, on a street food tour, in local restaurants - was really excellent. And then there's the rum.

Rum is big here - very big. During my stay, I try rum flavoured with passion fruit, with coffee and vanilla, with lemongrass and ginger, and with chilli. I pass up the chance to try many more flavours because really, one could end up doing nothing else all too easily.

You can't go to Mauritius and not get out on a boat (well, you can, but you'd be foolish). And so, I find myself in company with a man who calls himself, rather alarmingly, 'Captain Jack Sparrow', and his crew, heading out to sea with a selection of other tourists, many dancing to a kind of Mauritian Seggae (a lively mix of Sega (traditional Mauritian music) and reggae sung in Creole, which is just one of the languages spoken here; most people are fluent in French and English too).

We head for a mangrove lagoon, far out to sea, where the water is deep and calm and gorgeous. We dive off the side of the boat and swim around beneath these strange, fantastically-shaped trees.

We land on a tiny island, Bernache, which is uninhabited but clearly a hot-spot for weekend barbecues and family parties. There are a few handmade wooden boats bobbing in the shallow waters and even the smouldering embers of someone's lunch fire.

Back on the mainland, we visit the resort of Veranda Paul et Virginie, which has hand-carved wooden beams and a roof of woven grass. It is right beside the fishing village of Grand Gaube, famous for the skill and imagination of its craftspeople - if you want a lamp, a boat, a chair lovingly hand carved, this is where to come.

We watch the sun go down over the bay, with a selection of incredibly delicious canapes - tiny skewers of prawn, fish, chicken, glasses of chilled soup, ceviche, mini samosas, cocktails, and of course, shots of rum.

The capital, Port Louis, is a compact mix of tall shiny modern buildings belonging to banks and Microsoft, with old Colonial government buildings - including a very grand post office - and a dense selection of rambling shops and houses. In 1816, a fire started by a candle burned much of the city to the ground, so a lot of what you see now is new, or new-ish.

A statue of Queen Victoria looking deeply disapproving presides over the main square, the Place D'Armes, where there are also some immense and very beautiful 200-year-old fig trees, and tall palm trees with giant fruit bats hanging out of them. From there, a broad avenue leads down to the port, which is a working port - with a fair amount of naval activity, much of it Indian.

There is a cheerily chaotic fruit and vegetable market where I buy some very fancy vanilla to bring home, and try a juice made from sugar cane, apples and lime.

With our street food guide, Adrien from Taste Buddies (find them at www.tastebuddies.mu), we visit a bakery that is more than 100 years old and still uses original recipes from the days of French colonisation. It's like an artists' studio, with pots of thick, bright-coloured icing, like oil paint. We leave with some excellent shortbread biscuits.

Port Louis has its own Chinatown (once the abolition of slavery came in 1833, the British needed people to work in the sugar cane plantations, so they invited over Chinese and Indian workers), where we try delicious steamed dumplings filled with pork and chopped vegetables. It also has a mosque - a building that took 40 years to complete and has a giant mango tree in the middle - and a variety of Hindu temples. There isn't, apparently, a huge amount of mixing among the different cultures, but plenty of tolerance and respect.

Mauritius-by-bike is an excellent idea. This is a busy island, with lots of comings and goings - and lots of construction - so cycling through small villages and along coastal roads means plenty to see, including sidewalk stalls selling fish right off the boats. The terrain is hilly enough to be interesting but not so much as to be a challenge.

Grand-Baie is a lively, elegant port town, with a wide bay full of yachts and traditional fishing boats. The shopping is good - remember that Mauritius is famous for fabric.

On our last day, we learn to cook a Mauritian prawn curry in the hotel, then prepare for the return journey with a traditional massage in a cabin right on the beach at Pointe aux Biches. There is some kind of amazing synergy that takes place when the sound of waves rolling and crashing beside you mingles with the rhythm of a skilled masseur's hands.

As the kids might say: what's not to love?

Two top attractions

Temple de Triolet

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Temple de Triolet

Temple de Triolet

Temple de Triolet

 

The oldest Hindu temple on the island is a frothy concoction of white, cream, pink, turquoise and yellow. Here you will find shrines to the gods, including Ganesh, Hanuman the monkey god, and Shiva the Destroyer.

Mont Choisy beach

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Mont Choisy beach

Mont Choisy beach

Mont Choisy beach

 

A visit to Mauritius’s second longest beach — miles of fine white sand and turquoise water — is a must. A Bollywood film was being made when we were there and we hung around trying to get spots as extras, but no luck.

Getting there

- The Veranda Resorts in Mauritius include Veranda Pointe aux Biches; Veranda Paul et Virginie Hotel & Spa; Veranda Grand Baie Hotel & Spa; Veranda Palmar Beach; and the Veranda Tamarin (opening in November).

- Emily stayed at the Veranda Pointe aux Biches. Prices for this four-star boutique-style hotel start from €94 per person per night (based on a B&B basis, in a comfort room).

- To learn more about Veranda Resorts, visit: www.veranda-resorts.com/en

- The Deep into Mauritius Programme has six different aspects: ‘Deep into the Blue’, ‘Deep into Culture’, ‘Deep into Romance’, ‘Deep into Mauritius’, ‘Deep into Tradition’ and ‘Deep into Flavours’

- To learn more about the Deep into Mauritius Programme, visit: www.veranda-resorts.com/en/mauritius-hotels/experiences.

- For airport transfers with Mautourco, please visit: www.mautourco.com/transfers

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