Congratulations on winning a holiday for two adults and two children courtesy of Air Mauritius, the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Agency and the Beachcombers Hotel. You asked me what my time there was like and I just gasped, which let’s face it, says everything and nothing at the same time… So, I thought I would tell you in the time honoured way of writing you a letter.
In the time that it would take me to drive to Kisumu, you will be on a pristine beach, listening to the gentle waves of a crystal clear blue ocean, lapping gently against the white sands. I know you have been to many beaches in your life and while I am sure you have loved each one, this is not an unfamiliar experience. Well, this was my thinking as I got on the plane. What followed though was anything but ordinary.
This is the story of my maiden voyage to the magic that is Mauritius.
Picture if you will, the scenario. I am on a press tour, one of nine reporters, journalists, cameramen and a magazine editor on our way on a whistle-stop tour of this little Indian Ocean gem. After the horror of burnt down airport arrivals terminals and the humdrum of highways that double up as rush hour parking lots, my soul is yearning for a change. It is September.
The first thing that will hit you when you get to Mauritius is the airport. Impossibly named in honour of one of Mauritius’ finest, the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport is designed like a palm tree. No small shy terminal this. This is a statement of the vision of Mauritius. Clean, modern, avante garde in design and most of all, almost entirely lit by solar energy. Our driver is so proud he takes us on a quick spin round the parking lot. If this is first impressions, I am impressed.
No time for that though. We have places to see, things to do and all that jazz but first to our hotel. The driver has been well chosen. Typically Mauritian, he is a mix of Zulu, Mozambican, South Indian and European heritage. His French lilt only makes his very well versed knowledge of the island sound more romantic. As we drive through the countryside, he points out old abandoned sugar kettles, talks sugar politics and land history.
Our first night is spent at the Domaine de Bel Ombre Le Heritage hotel. If the name does not convince you of it’s quiet antiquated elegance, the bridge that we must cross to get to our rooms will. On the South coast, this is one of the quieter corners of this dreamy eyed lover. Yes, I am already seduced. The white washed boards and large open windows whisper of a romantic era of ballroom gowns and smoking rooms. A colleague says to me, “Look up.” I do. And I fall in love with this place. The intricate woodwork like lace traverses a high ceiling almost beckoning me to fly up to it. It’s a perfect lasting image as I drift off to sleep.
It is the nature of press tours that an impossible number of meetings will be jammed into an agenda that will have you rushing from one place to the next and ours is no different. Le Heritage puts out a breakfast spread fit for both king and army.
Once on the bus, our tour guide reels out all the places we shall see today, from a tea factory cutely named Bois Cherie, to a Hindu temple in Grand Bassin, to Chamarel, a bespoke rum distillery; to the Coloured Earth Tourist spot [trust me, the name is literal]; to the multi award winning Le Paradis in Trou Aux Biches.
It sounds frenetic and it is but bizarrely, there is something about Mauritius that is calming. I cannot quite pin it down. It is more than the smooth roads through largely natural breathtaking vistas. It seems every time we turn the corner as we wind up and down the narrow roads, we find ourselves staring at more beauty; more untamed almost wanton splendour each one attempting to outdo the other as a “Kodak moment”.
We get to the tea factory and somehow, I feel at home. The tour is simple; the stages of tea processing. The guide is passionate about tea, about its cultivation, harvest, blending, flavouring. We sample vanilla and strawberry, lemon and melon and all sorts of delicious, delightful flavours at the factory. Then we get to go to the little cafe where we can sit down and have a proper tea and biscuits. And this is where the first of the many little magical moments of this island occurs. As we drive round a little lake on our way to the coffee shop, I see a black swan. They have to stop the bus and I bound out, camera in hand to take photos. My heart is soaring with gratitude, my head spinning from the sighting.
After tea, we go to the temple. Despite the guide’s reassurances that the temple is open to all, I have my doubts. At least, I do until we get to the brow of the hill in Ganga Talao. Two huge statues, one incomplete, straddle the road, one on each side, like sentinels. When I say huge, I mean HUGE. Standing at 108 feet tall, they are the only ones of their kind outside India. One, still unfinished, plays host to these master builders. Apparently this number has a special meaning. I shall leave you to find that out when you go. And you must. The temple sits in a lagoon at the top of the hill and is yet another breathtaking side of this increasingly surprising island. We stop and visit. The priest is giving blessings. I line up for mine. Later, he takes some time to chat. I am surprised to learn that he is a prominent politician in Mauritius. To him, service is service, whether in a temple or parliament. He says things that make me go hmm… but all too soon, it’s time to pile back into the bus and go. Lunch beckons. As we drive away, I look back and see the statue, smiling, waving, almost like it knows what just happened.
If the Grand Bassin temple is the repository of spiritual nourishment, the Chamarel caters for the here and now. And oh boy does it just. Whether or not you are a rum person, this is a must visit. The restaurant, L’Alchimiste, the Alchemist must have one because the things the chef does with the ingredients is simply divine. The tour of the rummery and the rum tasting cannot be rushed. This is decadence at its most distilled.
And the divine overtones do not end there. We travel onward to the nearby Coloured Earth tourist spot in Chamarel. On our way we see plantations of young palms. Our guide explains that these are the main ingredient for the Millionaire’s Salad. They will grow for seven years then be cut down, the heart removed and served in a delicate salad that holds more promise on a plate than anything should have a right to do.
I will not attempt to describe the Coloured Earth phenomenon. It defies words. You could google it but truth be told, that will make no difference. This one you have to see to marvel. And when you do see, you will marvel. The earth is so full of wonder, this is one of them.
The evening sees us head off to our next hotel in Trou Aux Biches. I have been told that it has one of the best golf courses in the world. I have not been told it IS one of the best golf resorts in the world. We get there, and we are blown away! It has been built borrowing heavily from traditional African architecture. I am in a Mali styled suite – nearby, round hut like buildings where the spa is.
The hotel has tens of pools, some so private they are for the use only of the occupants of the room in front of which they sit. The outdoor rain shower, the outdoor plunge pool, the outdoor bath tub are so cleverly placed that you are both under the sky and completely private simultaneously. Serena Williams is only one of many celebrities who have holidayed here. There is no detail too small, no service to banal, no request too excessive for this hotel to handle. This is Paradise. Literally. My suite comprises two bedrooms, one for me and him, and another, also en suite, for the kids. There is an extra “granny suite” in some of these rooms so the holiday is truly a family experience. Additionally the Beachcombers hotel has a great kids’ club. I actually go and inspect it. Private kitchen, swimming pool for the kids, even a trip to a nearby island plus a disco for the teens – it is perfect. I spend the better part of two hours in luxury before dressing up for dinner.
Until this point, romantic has been a warm fuzzy feeling. Now it has a modern raw edge to it; a demanding urgency; an exacting insistence for all things to be an expression of everything that makes Mauritius retain its dominance as a lovers’ destination. What I did not expect was that in Mauritius, love does not end at the honeymoon. Your second honeymoon is sorted. But that is all happening tomorrow. Tonight, I sit down to a Millionaire’s Salad. It is simply exquisite.
Mauritius is the kind of island where you make your own holiday. Every hour spent there, strips you of all the cares and wears you came with and relaxes you to the point of zen. Then, it invites you to do something new. From rock climbing to kite surfing to deep sea fishing to shopping [OMG!! The prices! The quality!]. I choose jet skiing. I always wanted to learn how to. Three hours later, I am not sure I do come out having learned to jet ski. That is more to do with me because in Mauritius, they have all the time in the world and they want to spend it with you.
So enjoy your holiday and do take pics. Come back soon and let us know if you too, have fallen in love with Mauritius.