'Life's a beach'...in Mauritius
This blog is dedicated to Andrew and Walter who generously insisted their wives head to Mauritius for a stress-free break.
When it comes to an island escape - be that for holiday makers or honeymooners - Mauritius is on most travellers' wish list. (I cannot speak on behalf of Americans, as they have Mexico and the Caribbean; but for the French, British and South Africans, it always gets the thumbs up). Following his Equator Lecture Tour in 1896, Mark Twain (yes, he does happen to be American), wrote in his travelogue that “what there is of Mauritius is beautiful…it is a Sunday landscape.”
Fast forward to the 21st century. From Johannesburg it is only a 4-hour flight plus we don’t need a visa; just a couple of additional reasons for Mauritius to top our destination list. So, if you need to push the pause button, Mauritius needs to be on your travel radar. (And if you are struggling to decide between a 5-night or 7-night package, choose the 7-night package).
Travel agents and bloggers are quick to recite the mantra that ‘West is best’ - and we would tend to agree as the West side of the island is postcard pretty. But having recently had the opportunity to spend 7 nights on the East coast, I am not sure it is a competition.
The East side of the island has a rustic magic all its own and an unspoilt Mauritian embrace that genuinely welcomes you.
The easiest way to ‘do Mauritius’ is to book a package holiday at a resort. (Well, that is the only experience I can speak from). Here’s the thing about Mauritius resorts: on arrival, you might wonder why you would ever want to leave. Of course, you don’t need to leave; after all, you have pushed the pause button and the holiday reading list, beach loungers, cappuccinos, and cocktails/mocktails with little umbrellas all await.
Enjoy island time
Your first order of the day is to realise you are on island time - which means slowing down. You don’t need to rush anywhere (nobody else is).
This is all about finding your RnR rhythm and it won’t take you long.
Once you are unpacked, put your feet up, head to the loungers or wander along the unspoilt beach that comes free with your accommodation.
Sleeping late may well be on your agenda and that is perfectly legitimate, but rising early to watch the sunrise will make your day. It is also that quiet time when the soft light whispers and your little patch of Mauritius feels it belongs just to you.
Embark on island-style adventures
As I have said, you could just lounge around all day, but while you are there you may as well take advantage of the activities on offer. Take the glass-bottomed boat, go snorkelling, attempt water skiing, do the underwater sea walk or book the parasailing experience. Depending on your package and the resort, some of these activities are free.
Engage with the locals (and tourists)
The Mauritians are laid back and friendly and will quickly make you feel at home; from taxi drivers, shop owners and hotel staff to children playing in the street.
Even if you speak only ‘petit Francais’ the locals are ready to answer your questions, point you in the right direction or sell you something. (And when they hear you are from South Africa, some will even charm you with their practised repertoire of Afrikaans phrases).
Because everyone visiting Mauritius has found their RnR rhythm, smiles and chilled chit chat are plentiful among tourists.
As soon as they step off the plane, the Brits become very unBritish (must be the sunshine and warm weather). And when you run into fellow South Africans - be that a White Afrikaans couple celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary or a group of Black Sotho ladies aged 75+, something really special happens; a common connection and national pride supersede any ethnic or language divisions. (Must be the magic of the island).
Take in the surrounds
The one advantage of staying on the East side of the island meant that we could go off script and walk into the local village. Ours was Trou d’Eau Douce (which means fresh water hole); a charming fishing village with a long history. The narrow streets are intermingled with higgledy-piggledy homes, shops and restaurants and even an imposing Gothic church.
We were determined to find the ‘hole’ that Trou d’Eau Douce was named after, and we eventually did - next to the Coast Guard's offices.
Humidity is a given and making sure you stay hydrated in the heat is a simple as purchasing fresh juices on the side of the road or popping into one of the local supermarkets for some ice cream.
Experiencing local doesn’t get more authentic than ambling along little streets and discovering haunts where the locals shop, walking past their wash lines, greeting the adults sitting outside their front doors and having their children greet you as you pass by, or booking an aromatherapy massage with Nishma at Christelle Spa which you notice en route.
As you take in village life, you get a little insight into the simple and seemingly contented lives of the Mauritian people.
And then there is the colourful architecture - lining the streets - telling its own story of the many cultures and influences that have congregated on this island over hundreds of years. (You also quickly realise the important role tourism plays in the economy).
Visit Ile aux Cerfs
One of the main tourist attractions of Trou d’Eau Douce - and for the whole island - is Ile aux Cerfs, situated on the largest lagoon in Mauritius. Nicknamed the ‘wild and chic’ island, its drawcard is its untouched white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, snorkelling, water sports, tropical forests and 18-hole golf course.
Because we were staying at Tropical Attitude Boutique Hotel, we had access to free daily boat rides to the island. (But otherwise you will need to book in advance and pay for a day trip to the island from your choice of tour operators). Take advantage of shopping at the little market as you arrive and make sure to buy water shoes to protect your feet from sea urchins. A credit card will not help you on Ile aux Cerfs, so take cash with you. (Most currencies are accepted).
Experience a local market
If you really want to shop ‘island-style’ then a visit to a local market is a quintessential part of your itinerary. The vibrant open-air undercover Marché de Flacq should not be missed. (As our husbands were not with us, we made two trips - via taxi - to the Flacq Market).
The chaos of colours, sounds and languages will assault you, but it is worth it.
This is where daily life happens for the locals, but tourists are very welcome. (Here too, you will need cash). The best days to visit are Sundays and Wednesdays when all the stalls are operating.
Stock up on gifts - clothing, shoes, sarongs, baskets, knick knacks, local handcrafts, sauces and chilli pastes. A feast for the eyes are all the tropical fruits and exotic vegetables tumbling over each. And then pause to inhale the delicate, seductive aromas of the spices and fragrant herbal teas on display.
Marvel at the local flora
You don’t have to be a botanist to appreciate the wonderful array and rich diversity of brightly coloured plants and exotic flowers that cascade over every wall in Mauritius (over 670 native flowering species).
For starters we're talking bougainvillaeas, camellias, azaleas, spider lilies, laurels, allamanda, lilacs and hibiscus. It's as if the island is its own natural flower market. (And yes, I did have to look up some of their names).
The best place of all in Mauritius to really experience the trees, plants and flowers, in all their glory, is the Pamplemousses Gardens on the West side of the island in the Port-Louis district. Formerly known as the SSR (Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam) Botanical Gardens, this is the oldest Botanic Garden in the southern hemisphere. In 1862, the impressive wrought iron gates and railings won first prize in the International Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London.
The garden dates back to 1767 when Pierre Poivre (the French Intendant) created the garden and introduced vegetables, fruits, flowers and spices from all over the world. You can book a guided educational tour or just purchase the map and go it alone.
One of the garden’s main attractions - and an absolute delight - is the giant lily pond which never fails to be a stunning photo op.
You will discover it by wandering along the shady tree-lined paths and past the giant tortoises and lotus pond. If you want to brush up on your natural apothecary basics, then head to medicinal herb garden.
Appreciate the island’s Creole vibe
Most resorts will offer an evening of local entertainment in the form of Creole music and Sega dancers. The maxi floral flowing skirts, energetic rhythm and spirited dancing will have you resisting the urge to join in.
The Sega dance is the folkloric musical expression of the Mauritian way of life, namely joy and liveliness.
Photograph the island’s 'surround-sound' scenery
Mauritius is a photographer's paradise; wherever you look is a postcard photo op. (You don’t even have to be a professional photographer to get great photos). From the volcanic mountains to the sandy beaches, “Mauritius is beautiful…it is a Sunday landscape.”
As I reflect on our 7-night stay, I realise that there is much we didn’t do on this trip because part of visiting Mauritius is putting your feet up, taking it easy, catching up on conversations between friends and just pausing. That is obligatory.
Taking a trip to the Chamarel Seven Coloured Earth or booking a scooter for the day to explore the island are two activities we didn’t do this time round, but we plan on returning and both will definitely be on the agenda. You see, that is the thing about Mauritius - it gets under your skin and you cannot wait to return. And whether next time it will be North, South, East or West, I don’t think it really matters.
Because I started with a quote from Mark Twain’s travel musings on Mauritius, it is only fitting to end with another: “You [Mauritius] have undulating wide expanses of sugar-cane—a fine, fresh green and very pleasant to the eye; and everywhere else you have a ragged luxuriance of tropic vegetation of vivid greens of varying shades, a wild tangle of underbrush, with graceful tall palms lifting their crippled plumes high above it; and you have stretches of shady dense forest with limpid streams frolicking through them, continually glimpsed and lost and glimpsed again in the pleasantest hide-and-seek fashion; and you have some tiny mountains, some quaint and picturesque groups of toy peaks, and a dainty little vest-pocket Matterhorn; and here and there and now and then a strip of sea with a white ruffle of surf breaks into the view.”
If an international trip to Mauritius is not on your immediate agenda, that's okay; South Africa has so much to offer if you are needing to push the pause button and book a short break away.
Head over to the following travel blogs to plan a local getaway...