by Isabel Conway –
Upon scooping the New Year’s £115 million Euro Millions Jackpot Northern Ireland couple Patrick nd Frances Connolly said a holiday to Mauritius was ‘on the cards’, and no wonder. With miles of white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters and luxury five star hotels , it’s no surprised Mauritius topped the dream holiday list for the winning couple. Would be travellers to Indian Ocean island paradises often ask which is better: the Maldives or Mauritius?
The honeymoon heaven of the Maldives might be prettier and glitzier than its rival (I’ve yet to visit there) but I loved my one and only visit to Mauritius, tipped as a top ‘go to’ destination for this year, whose tropical landscape is a mix of rainforest covered mountains, sugar cane fields, waterfalls and sand as white as chalk.
Some 2,000 kms off Africa’s south East coast, pear shaped Mauritius is small, just 42 miles long and 29 miles wide. Yet this Indian Ocean paradise, ranging from pristine beaches fringed with palm trees and the lush jungle interior appears much larger due to differences in gradient, variety in landscape and twists and turns of small roads, bordering sugar cane fields and sleepy fishing settlements away from the highways.
Intrepid traveller and writer Mark Twain took a voyage to Mauritius while travelling the world in the late 1800s compiling a Lonely Planet Guide of his day called “Following the Equator”. He wrote of enjoying “splendid scenery” and the island’s interesting legacy of a diverse ethnic mix.
In the past rival colonies grabbed a slice of Mauritius, from the Dutch and French to the British because of its location as a trading post for slaves and spices from the African continent and sugar. Back in 1968 the island became independent from Britain.
The legacy of the past is reflected in the ethnic diversity of the population and languages spoken as well as the island’s varied cuisine – think Creole, Chinese, Indian and French. The nearest I came to a British culinary legacy were the hotel resorts breakfast bacon and eggs, fried bread and grilled mushrooms.
A Creole lesson, a daybreak boat tour with a local fisherman ,traditional cooking with a local lady, tours from tea plantations to rum making, authentic markets to Hindu shrines and towering waterfalls – these are just some of the distractions for those willing to wander beyond infinity pools, water sports and sunbathing on Mauritius.
Encouraged by our charming host Guillaume, Assistant manager at Zilwa Attitude, one of a long established chain of quality Attitude hotel resorts on Mauritius, we set our phone alarms for the ungodly hour of 5.30 am and a daybreak date with a boatman.
A fleeting transformation from inky blackness into shimmering swathes of orange tinged gold, clouds outlined as if with strobe lighting while the sun slowly moves above the horizon of the Indian Ocean is a sight to behold,. Guillaume has promised. And he is absolutely right.
Later as the sun slowly climbs up the Jacobs ladder we wade knee deep in lukewarm water on to a little beach of bleached soft sand taking a quick dip before tucking into a picnic breakfast serenaded by cheeky birds dive bombing our bread and pineapple chunks.
Chugging back to our horseshoe shaped resort pier a flying fish appears so we scramble for cameras and i phones. A sudden splash rents the glistening water, a pair of dolphins are chasing their morning snack. Having lost the flying fish the dolphins swim beside our boat, leaping and showing off.
It is well worth the effort – hard as that might be when temperatures sizzle and you are lazily installed on a tranquil beach bed to get out and explore.Start with the capitol Port Louis. Browse the galleries and craft market of the Caudan Waterfront before heading to the authentic bustling Central market where you encounter an aroma of exotic spices mixed with the slightly rancid mingling of meat and fish smells, pyramids of fresh fruit and vegetables. Have a chat, even a consultation with Mr Mootoosamy, a fourth generation herbalist who claims – whatever your ailment – he has an infusion to cure it.
Then climb up to the Citadel and Fort for a superb view of the port and the oldest Racecourse in the southern hemisphere below. Before you leave town be sure to drop by the Penny Blue museum and in the gloom stand in awe at the shrine of the Penny Blue. The postage stamp, barely the size of your thumb nail was bought for an astonishing $2.2 million. It is one of the world’s great philatelic rarities. A glaring misprint back in the 1800s saw ‘post office’ instead of’ postage paid’ printed on the consignment, only one or two of them still in existence.
Adventurous travellers rave about the hike up Le Morne Mountain from the St Regis Mauritius Resort, nestled on the legendary Le Morne peninsula at the far South Western tip of Mauritius for spectacular views of the island. Another wonderful excursion is a trip to the Outer Islands on the north west coast in the bay of Pointe Aux Piments, among the best sites for snorkelling and light tackle fishing. Or you could explore the many beaches on horseback and even swim with them in the Indian Ocean, an absolute highlight.
With some of the best stretches of beach and largest lagoon on Mauritius the renowned Four Seasons at Anahita is among the top hotel resorts of the Indian Ocean, on the south east coast, our base for the next few nights. From here we visited the Bois Cheri Tea plantation, touring a busy processing plant and meeting guide Azad who came to work at Cheri aged 14 packing 200 tea packets a day. Today a German built machine on site packs 10,000 daily. Surrounded by hillside tea plantations we sample various teas at the Scenic Bois Cheri Chalet whose restaurant offers chicken with green tea sauce or prawns marinated in exotic flavour tea. Sampling another spin off – tea chutney it is definitely an ‘acquired’ taste we agree.
We needed no such acquired taste at Rhumerie de Chamarel later. Following a tasty lunch at its L’Alchimiste Restaurant we are ready to embark on a cane to bottle discovery of Mauritian produced premium rums .Vanessa, the rum expert encourages us to develop our knowledge of the famous exotic drink in all its varied types and vintages, without tasting any of the delicious lethal samples herself.
Four Seasons at Anahita is the ultimate Mauritian luxury resort, boasting superb accommodation, casual elegance and friendliness, top restaurants, a championship golf course and Spa.
I whiled away a couple of hours playing beachcomber on a deserted spit of ivory coloured sand on Ile aux Cerfs, near the Four Seasons Resort, throwing beached sea stars back into the deep then wandering inland among tall tropical trees where squirrel like creatures with long tails turned out to be tribes of local mongoose scuttling through the undergrowth.
Another highlight was the Four Seasons weekly Mauritian specialities buffet of sea fresh fish and local and international dishes and a Sega dance performance, renowned in this magical corner of a Indian Ocean Eden. Here at Four Seasons the Sega, once an erotic dance slaves enjoyed after toiling in the cane fields , often a prelude to more intimate encounters, is a tastefully choreographed colourful performance that includes a smattering of calypso and other genres, tuned perfectly to guests from all over the world. And that in a way sums up Mauritius, exhibiting the attributes of a tropical paradise — exotic but never too much so.
Getting there: Award winning Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) fly from Dublin via Istanbul ,Air Mauritius (www.airmauritius.com) daily flights ex London Heathrow. Emirates (www.emirates.ie) flights ex Dublin with a short layover in Dubai. For Zilwa Attitude see www.zilwa-hotel-mauritius.com our Seasons Anahita see www.fourseasons.com/mauritius
Hayes & Jarvis (www.hayesandjarvis.ie ) have some fantastic properties (including Zilwa Attitude) on Mauritius covering all the best parts of the island; See also Sunway.ie who are old specialists here,Topflight world wide (www.topflight.ie) also have plenty of choice in Mauritius as does Trailfinders ( www.trailfinders.ie )Travelmood (www.travelmood.ie) and travel Counsellors (www.travelcounsellors.ie) For more information on Mauritius see www.tourism-mauritius.mu
When to go: Low season until October, temperatures around 25c and good hotel deals. High Season Nov-Feb when hotel prices and temps soar.