By Malu Lambert
There’s sugar on the wind. The air is tropical, balmy, and laced with spice. “The first condition to understanding a foreign country,” said Rudyard Kipling, “is to smell it,”, and the first scents of Mauritius sketch a portrait of a fertile land bubbling with cultural diversity, and, of course, acres of sugar cane.
“If you have a nice belly—you like food,” says our driver somewhat obviously. The people of Mauritius love to eat, and their food is as mixed as the inhabitants are: influenced by Indian, Creole, Chinese, French, and Dutch cuisines.
Our taxi hugs the east coast of the small island. The Indian Ocean radiates outwards from the road in rippling turquoise; silhouetted fishermen cast off from the beach. The postcard Mauritius is here: palm trees, impossibly blue sea—but it’s superimposed on wild, tropical decay. Skinny dogs and skinny kids loiter on the streets; moustached men lean on balconies of crumbling stone houses; street food sizzles on makeshift pavement grills.
Shaped by millions of years of volcanic eruptions, the island reaps the benefits of its rich soils with ostentatious displays of produce. We whizz past plantations of sugar cane, pineapple, and coffee, and trees laden with mangoes, limes, litchis. I find while exploring later that, refreshingly, there aren’t any trendy, hipster markets here; you won’t find any boastful claims of ‘artisanal’ and ‘seasonal’. No, Mauritius is innocently and unabashedly bursting with fruit and vegetables of seemingly endless variety.
Not responsible just for the rich soils, the volcanic eruptions have also left black lava rocks. These rocks are used throughout the country, and can be seen in fields, piled up in pyramids, like geological offerings. Along with the tropical fruit, the streets are strung with political flags. We’re told it’s close to election time. Our knowledgeable driver—taxi drivers are the unofficial tour guides around here—is effusive with praise for the current government. He points out people tending allotments, which have been granted to make a living. After years of super powers playing colonial hot potato, Mauritius gained independence in the ’60s and is a fine example of a democratic, multi-ethnic and multicultural society.
“Even in our graveyards there’s no segregation,” says our ‘guide’. “Muslims next to Christians, next to Hindus, next to...”
Of course, Mauritius is also a luxury tourist destination. Home for the next three days is the One&Only’s Le Saint Géran, a glamorous five-star resort spilling across a private peninsula in a forest of palm trees.
One of the original affluent hotels—Sol Kerzner’s first outside South Africa—Le Saint Géran has stood here for 39 years.
The name of the game? Utter relaxation and luxurious spoils aplenty. There are a number of restaurants to choose from, as well as a bar splayed over a pool, a tucked-away spa in a tropical garden—complete with burbling waterways, and indigenous birds hunting fish—and, of course, the oh-so-perfect white-sand beaches.
Find an homage to silk and spice at the Indian Pavilion, prime beef and abundant seafood at Prime, and sea urchin for breakfast? Sign me up. At the main restaurant, La Terrasse, a jaw-dropping breakfast buffet is served daily (hot and cold), with all the makings you can dream of.
After three days of eating, wining, beaching and water sporting, it’s time for us to find pastures new. The size of the island means you can practically explore the whole country within a short time frame.
Explore an exciting world of mixed heritage, food, rum, and beautiful temples, too
Zipping through roads flanked by sugar plantations, our new guide, aka taxi driver, is taking us to Rhumerie de Chamarel. With all that sugar, you can imagine that the rum culture is alive and kicking here. On the way, the driver points out trees lining the road with profusions of bright red flowers. Known as the ‘Flamboyant’, this majestic display happens only once a year.
Another dimension to travelling through Mauritius is the Indian temples and places of worship. Keep your eyes open and you’ll notice makeshift shrines everywhere. But by far the most impressive is the Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao, a sacred lake, which is said to be one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites outside of India. And luckily for us, it’s on the way to the rum distillery. A mammoth statue of Shiva greets, while outside the main temple, colourful sculptures of Hindu gods are framed against a poetically cloudy sky. Inside the temple (shoes off), a priest draws a third eye symbol on our foreheads and grants us a blessing.
With red-tattooed faces, we jump back into the taxi, and make our way through the mountains to Chamarel, where we go on a guided tour and rum tasting. (From here you can head to one of Mauritius’s top tourist attractions, the Seven Coloured Earths.)
“Life is in Grand-Baie,” says our driver, as we get close to our next resort. Situated in the north, this is where the action happens: think tourists, restaurants, beaches, and boats. Here we marvel that we can buy delicious French cheese from a corner shop. We regularly visit a food shack on the beach called La Baraque à Frites for its authentic Creole cooking, charming owner, and rum cocktails made with fresh tropical juice.
From Grand-Baie you have access to many of the island’s attractions. We spend an afternoon at Chateau de Labourdonnais—an old sugar cane estate, with sprawling historic gardens, a rum distillery and an enchanting restaurant—where we lunch under a giant litchi tree bent with fruit.
Speaking of gardens, located nearby is the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden—all neck-straining ficus and palm trees and kissing teenagers. Also located within a short distance from Grand-Baie is the capital city, Port Louis. Trying to save end-of-holiday funds, we hop on a bus and find the experience easy and, well, cheap. Though we did miss our guides.
As tranquil as the east coast is, Port Louis is on fire. We get dropped off at the main market. The crowds are thick, and so is the air with the scent of meat, fish, vegetables and exhaust fumes. There are separate enclosures for different products; from a charcuterist’s dream, hung with sausages and pigs heads to fish counters that could rival Japan’s markets. Amid the market hustle and bustle, we snack on dholl puri. Similar to paratha, it has a flaky texture and is stuffed with ground yellow split peas. It comes with a variety of pickles and sauces. This is followed by an alouda—an Indian-style milkshake with tapioca balls.
While walking, we grab a cone of hand-shaved ice cranked out of an old wooden antique. On our visit,China Town is deserted. Larger than that in London, it’s all red lacquered doors, gold Chinese script, and dark windows. We do find ‘Arthur’, though, on the side of a pavement, stirring the contents of a large metal pot. He tells us he’s been making dim sum here for 44 years. We sit on a wooden bench behind him, and eat delicious balls in a fragrant broth.
Mauritius is a destination that ticks all the holiday boxes—but is so much more. From the exciting food scene and rum distilleries to the natural beauty and intriguing cross-cultures, I keep finding reasons to plan another trip.
As our first driver said: “The first time you’re a visitor, the second you’re a guest, and by the third time, you’re Mauritian.”
Peach and Passion Fruit Mojito
Want to drink like a Mauritian? Then try LUX* Le Morne’s mojito.
10 leaves of fresh mint
½ lime, cut into 4 wedges
2 tablespoons brown sugar
10ml of lime juice
60ml of white rum
20ml of peach compote
20 ml passion fruit compote
1 cup of ice cubes
1. Place mint leaves, 1 lime wedge into a glass
3. Add 2 more lime wedges, passion fruit and peach compote, sugar, and muddle.
4. Fill the glass with ice.
5. Add the rum, top with carbonated water.
n the lap of luxury
If there’s ever a time to go five-star, then Mauritius is it. Here’s our pick of three glamorous resorts
Lux* Le Morne
Set in a dramatic locale—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the lagoon-facing resort is flanked by the Le Morne mountain on the one side and miles of white-sand beaches on the other. Add to this, lush tropical gardens, island-inspired dishes and regular sightings of dolphin pods. Go towww.luxresorts.com
One&Only’s Le Saint Géran
Sheer paradise awaits at Le Saint Géran. Spread across its own private peninsula, the palm trees are thick and beaches beautiful—you’ll even be waited on by beach butlers. The wining and dining is world-class and there are three restaurants to choose from. Try the signature tamarind mojito at the pool bar. Go to www.lesaintgeran.oneandonlyresorts.com
La plantation d'albion club med
Beautifully designed, you’ll find this resort in a remote creek on the island. Travelling with the family? Book into one of the villas in the midst of a tropical garden for a unique experience. Go to www.villas-chalets.clubmed.co.za