From Surrey to Mauritius: What it’s like to stay there
- Credit: Archant
Once a sleepy island known almost exclusively to French travellers and those interested in the chronicles of the dodo, Mauritius now gives popular Caribbean islands a run for their money. Sarah Siese travelled there to see what all the fuss is about
The last 20 years have seen Mauritius’ conspicuous rise in status to one of the world’s premier playgrounds for the rich and famous. Stories of unparalleled service, a coral reef to vie with the Maldives and the oldest racecourse in the Southern Hemisphere built under British rule in Port Louis certainly make it impossible to ignore, particularly when its journey to become one of the most popular British holiday desitnatation is, in part, down to one Surrey-baded tour operator.
Mauritius has been ruled by many nations including the Portuguese, Dutch, French and most recently the British from 1810 to 1968, but it was the French who had the greatest influence on the island’s culture, language, religion and civil law. Surprisingly the British agreed to maintain what the French had established, which explains why so much of the island feels French with a distinctive British attitude. The official language is English but French is more frequently used and Creole remains the lingua franca.
The first thing that strikes you as you land on this droplet in the Indian Ocean is the dramatic scenery. Handsome mountain peaks covered in emerald green grasses and swathes of sugar cane drop straight into cerulean blue waters – an everyday view from just about anywhere on the island. Brochures colourfully illustrate dozens of super-swish hotels, which have sprung up along its 110-mile coastline. Yet despite the development, it doesn’t feel spoilt or built-up, and the island’s best natural resource - its beautiful beaches - remain pristine and unspoilt.
Pioneer of the Mauritian hospitality industry
Beachcomber, whose UK tour office has sat on Guildford High Street for almost 30 years, currently operates nine island resorts and wrote the opening pages of Mauritian tourism in June 1952. At the time, Qantas was launching a new Perth-Johannesburg service, with a stopover in Mauritius. The Australian airline’s representative decided to open the first international standard hotel on the island – through its newly created subsidiary – to accommodate passengers and crew members in transit. Back then, with an annual number of visitors of just 1,800, it was a profound act of faith in a fledgling industry. Ten years later the company opened two beach hotels, Le Morne Plage with its famous rondavelles and Le Chaland. Its showpiece, Trou aux Biches Village Hotel, opened in 1971 followed by Le Dinarobin and the iconic Paradis on Le Morne Peninsula.
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Even today, Le Paradis Resort seems to set the standard by which all others are measured. You’re only ever feet away from your room to the beach, the bar, or the restaurants. Following the recent refurbishment, which saw a dramatic overhaul in accommodations, the sea facing bedrooms and suites all benefit from that cerulean ocean back drop, whose rhythm rocks you to sleep and wakes you gently each morning. For epicureans the hotel is a bit of a gastro paradise offering food from around the globe. Working it off is easy too: sailing on one of the new hobbie cats, kayaking, and windsurfing are all complimentary. Group or private lessons in either of the two spas include yoga (opt for the Dinarobin Spa), aqua-aerobics, and local cycling tours, or you could just take your daily constitutional barefoot along the sand.
Just behind the resort, Le Morne rises, casting long shadows over the south western peninsula and makes for the perfect early morning challenge. It stares at you, daring you to scale its near vertical rock face, blanketed in black and white ebony trees, colourful shrubs called rats-tail along with pepper and tamarind trees. Way down in the bay you’ll see snorkellers cavorting with playful spinner and bottlenose dolphins in between islets that protected abandoned sailors during low tides. We took an excellent tour of the island with a superb local guide Steeve Moothoo. In between theatrical mountains that look like a thumb or meditating monk, he educated us on an extraordinary array of island and culinary subjects… Nostradamus invented jam (by grasping that sugar preserved fruit); there are 85 varieties of palm tree but only one is edible and savoured for its palm heart; and Mauritius exports half a million tonnes of refined sugar a year. The French built square chimneys and the Brits built round ones, thus identifying the ownership of the mills. From over 200 there remain only four sugar factories despite the dominance of the crop. The new Sugar Museum graphically illustrates how Mauritius made her money: the population in 1766 consisted of 49,080 slaves, 3,703 free men and 6,237 whites – a statistic that speaks for itself on an island whose 1865 square kilometres is covered in 720 square kilometres of sugar.
Mauritius is ringed by the world’s longest unbroken coral reef, a blissful fact for divers and snorkellers. There are sightseeing opportunities inland too, including Grand Bassin Lake (a place of Hindu pilgrimage), rafting on Black River Gorge and a picnic in Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden close to capital Port Louis – the oldest botanical garden in the Southern Hemisphere. You can go zip wiring, canyoning, sky diving, deep sea fishing, or island hop across to Gabriel for the day.
The 80s saw the reconstruction of the Shandrani, the Le Mauricia Le Canonnier, and Le Victoria Hotel which has just launched the island’s only Adult Only accommodations with a meandering swim-up pool. The Victoria’s proximity to Grand Baie is a big plus – there are few places on the island that give the visitor a better taste of local life, with great shopping for silk Kashmiri kaftans, colourful woven baskets, strings of black pearls and, somewhat bizarrely given the climate, top quality cashmere, which is manufactured on the island and exported around the world. And of course, a couple of bottles of Phoenix (the local beer) or Pink Pigeon, an unusually refreshing domaine with an exquisite balance of rum (refined five times) and vanilla. The Beach House is the hip-hop place to hang out for Sunday lunch (we scoffed on large platters of calamari, grilled mussels, breaded prawns and tender beef carpaccio), with live music attracting locals and tourists quaffing huge glasses of rosé and beer as their kids dip in and out of the sea in front of bobbing fishing boats and yachts.
However, Beachcomber’s history is more than a succession of dates. More importantly, it is the history of some 5,000 artisans whose good-heartedness enhances its natural beauty. These men and women are the real pillars of the group – shaping the Beachcomber spirit and supporting its seminal role in the economic development of the country with an annual turnover of almost Rs10 billion.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the country’s Independence, the group celebrated its national identity as a pioneer in corporate social responsibility. It supports both the communities living in the surroundings of its hotels and the population at large through initiatives such as the Projet Employabilité Jeunes (PEJ).Sustainable development and environmental protection are also key aspects for the group.
As Beachcomber heads for its 67th anniversary, its key values remain: humanity, team spirit, innovation, solidity, Mauritian expertise, service and trust, with its motto: the beauty of a place inspires the beauty of the heart.
“You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius,” Mark Twain once wrote. Spend a week here, wandering along the beaches, dining on exotic dishes, dipping periodically into the warm turquoise sea, and you realise he had a point. It lives up to expectations as a friendly paradise perfect for relaxation and too much good food. The only thing missing is the dodo!
Need to know
Beachcomber Tours, Direction House, Bakers Yard, 186 High Street, Guildford, GU1 3HW; 01483 445621; beachcombertours.uk
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