As a kid in Britain, I remember groaning aloud at the news we’d be going to Wales for the family holiday. Mum – exhausted from another shift at the factory – was indignant: “Oh, so where would you like to go?” she snapped. “Mauritius?”
Sensibly, I resisted answering “Yes please” because Mauritius was purely a figure of speech to suggest an unearthly paradise (and anything other than a mumbled apology was likely to earn a clip round the ear). But as a result I grew up knowing nothing about the island, not even where to find it.
40 years later, I can tell you it’s next to Madagascar. It’s also an eight hour flight from Perth, and from above it appears green and richly farmed, protruding all over with volcanic remnants and encircled by a necklace of turquoise and gold.
By road, nowhere is more than an hour away and anywhere that’s anywhere is a resort. Here’s where those Mauritian fantasies are made real, the warm lagoons, white sands and smiling staff serving flamboyant cocktails…
At the Angsana Balaclava I have a private plunge pool on my third-floor balcony; leaning on its infinity spill, I gaze through sprays of bougainvillea at a mountain range somewhat reminiscent of Cape Town.
At Long Beach resort the pool complex has power jets and sunken lounges; at night I dine on Japanese-Italian fusion prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.
The Telfair resort is faux colonial plantation, a white-timber estate of tre-mendous elegance; the beachside bar, by contrast, is cutting-edge, a slab of mood-lit acrylic under the stars.
And outside the A$2,000 a night suites of the Shanti Maurice, barefoot millionaires do it tough at the Rhum Shack, an upturned boat and a raging fire pit where lavish seafood is served to the sound of lapping waves.But I have a nagging question at nearly every resort: where the hell is everyone? I’m reassured that occupancies are “good”, but I’m not buying it and neither are the GFC-strapped Europeans. A Frenchman is blunt: “They’ve built too many resorts and don’t have enough visitors to fill them.
”This is where the Australians come in. At least, the Mauritian government hopes we do. No currency is immune to the island’s more shameless advances but our robust A-dollar (together with some Mauritian discounting) means the unearthly paradise is looking rather more grounded. We can stay off-season at Long Beach for A$230 per night. Get a massage for A$100. And walk with lions for A$100.
Yes, walk with lions. Mauritius offers some unusual attractions, chief among them Casela, a curious farm-slash-game park installed on a sprawling mountainside.
Ranger Nicolas hands a stick out to each of us. “Keep your stick in front of you and don’t make yourself smaller than the lions,” he says, before leading us on an hour-long bushwalk. Sure enough we’re shepherding two young white lions, which behave like very large, very powerful pups. It’s an edgy excursion. Occasionally the 35 kilogram cats are made to sit long enough so we can scratch their coarse fur and pat their meaty flanks, but they’re indisputably king of the grass-lands and when they spot a wild deer, the moment is electrifying. (No deer are harmed in the making of this bushwalk.)
It’s not the only “first-time-for-everything” experience. I walk with fish, donning a 40 kilogram glass dome akin to the old pearl-divers helmet, and clumping along the seabed; holding food up to a crystal sky of peckish damsel fish is a joy. I watch a chap who describes himself as a big bee hand-pollinating vanilla plants at Saint Aubin, a beautifully tailored estate that also produces sugar and rum in a sort of garden of tourist delights. I take a boat across a lagoon to parasail over Île aux Cerfs, one of the world’s most desirable championship golf courses. And I learn the basics of kite-surfing off Le Morne in a warm sea of a hundred sails.
A dancer in traditional Mauritian costume.
But before long I realise something: I still don’t know anything about Mauritius. Because I could be anywhere.
Thankfully we have a local driver named Allan who shuttles us between resorts and attractions. During these transits I gather the nation is a beautiful and ostensibly happy place of 1.2 million people. Coastal villages are narrow strips of brightly-coloured houses fringed with she-oaks; tiny lanes run to beaches where fishermen moor their pirogues, and young girls throw nets into the shallows.
We press Allan to stop at a corner café so we can drink Blue Marlin beers while locals play dominoes in a shady thicket of small trees beside the beach. We photograph handmade signs outside little shops, a black church built from the island’s volcanic stone, and burning cane fields, tongues of flame licking at the sweet-smelling air. We’re enchanted by the people we meet – they’re smart, generous and funny.
Allan is surprised by our detouring. “Most people simply go from the airport to the resort,” he says. “That’s all they want.” It’s true. Mauritius has mostly catered to wealthy fly and flop visitors who don’t want to “do the local thing” once they’ve flown and flopped. Which is probably why the lobbies look (to me at least) like cultural vacuums, offering only different flavours of resort.
This is a shame because Mauritius has an intriguing culture. A colonial conundrum, it’s established on 400 year old strata comprising Portuguese, Dutch, French and then British interests (independence came in 1968). Most Mauritians appear of southern Indian descent, yet their island has been shaped by 150 years of British governance and they speak French criol.
In the capital Port Louis, Allan shows us the world heritage-listed Aapravasi Ghats – the remains of a quarantine station where 500,000 mostly Indian labourers were indentured into the sugar plantations. It’s a poignant place, a figurative heart of the nation.
Elsewhere, the briny mountain-fringed city offers an endearing pastiche of curiosities: an old Dutch windmill, boules played in classic French squares, a tiny Victorian natural history museum (housing the world’s only complete dodo skeleton) and gorgeous markets loaded to the gunnels with gleaming produce and Mauritian handicrafts.
At the end of our day, Allan shyly invites us to his house to help celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of light that’s now the island’s national holiday. We end up being privy to a village whirling with light and fireworks and music – a sensational night with thousands of promenaders. Yet I see only a dozen tourists. Australian travellers are a resourceful lot and of course it’s easy to get out and explore. But at the end of my visit, I’m left feeling that fabled though it is, Mauritius could offer a lot more simply by roughing up the luxe and getting the resorts to engage with what’s outside their compounds.
Because I know full well how good it can get…
One morning I leave my resort to board a big catamaran. Part of a flotilla departing Grand Bay, it has 50 people on board, a mix of all nationalities and not a few locals. The crew of young Mauritians has the sega reggae cranked loud and the bar open by 10am; when we arrive at a far-flung deserted isle, it’s all snorkels and flippers and flaming barbecues. The A$120 daytrip includes all we can eat and drink from an open bar and it’s not long before the boat’s rocking. It’s real and raucous and filled with carefree island spirit.
Perhaps just how my mum imagined it would be.