Mauritius: Indian Ocean Adventures
Nestled discreetly in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but close enough to Madagascar to be geographically a part of Africa, you might be fooled into thinking that this tropical idyll is a luxury destination only within reach of those who aspire only to a pristine and all-inclusive, yet ultimately sheltered, holiday experience.
Although much of that sentiment can be true, delve beneath the surface and you will find that there is much more than that to life in Mauritius. Get it right, and snoozing on a beach reading holiday fiction is the last thing you’ll want to do while you’re here.
My visit to Mauritius, celebrating with my family for my father-in-law’s birthday, was epic from start to finish.
The rich Mauritian colonial history becomes apparent as soon as you arrive, with a lot of the places, names, and influences drawn from the French. Uninhabited until the Dutch set foot on the island in 1638, the French took over after they abandoned it in the early 1700s. Finally colonised by the British in 1810, Mauritius gained its independence and became a member of the Commonwealth in 1968.
In among this rich island culture, adventure calls at every corner. Our apartment, on Pointe d’Esny in the South East of the island, is ideally located for a cheeky beach run; the silky sand underfoot beautifully complimented by the tranquil waters to your side. The tear-drop shaped island is surrounded by more than 90 miles of these white sandy beaches and lagoons, and has an offshore coral reef protecting it all.
Similarly, as the water laps at your bare feet, it tempts you to jump right in and get involved. Kayaking the shallows is a peaceful, almost ethereal experience. The sound of the water lapping the side of the boat, along with your own breathing, are the only sounds to be heard. Muffled laughter and splashing from the others having fun on the beach, maybe. You paddle over coral, plentiful and vibrant, and make good distance: there are hardly any waves due to the protective reef. Just north of Pointe d’Esny I spot a small uninhabited island, a protected nature reserve, a few miles away. Whilst you can’t really kayak over to it (I certainly wouldn’t recommend it) it is lovely to gaze at – the trees and their roots tumble into the sea to your right, crisp white beach looms away to your left, the azure coral below.
The snorkelling and swimming in Mauritius’ warm waters is equally inviting. And – a blessing, in my case as a weak swimmer – is pretty-much risk free due to the shallow, clear lagoons. The tropical fish make for an unusual addition if you aim to turn a lazy day at the beach into an underwater adventure.
Hiring a boat for a day is an easy activity (albeit ouronly extravagance of this trip – a birthday gift), and allows the opportunity to snorkel further off shore amid a variety of species of fish. Have a competition to see who can dive the deepest unaided, see the most colours of fish, or see who can get the best shot with an underwater camera. Above all else, remember this environment is here to be enjoyed, not just looked at from afar. Our skipper, a seasoned Mahebourg native, never put a foot wrong. Navigating north along the coast, we chose to stop for a local beer along with even more locally-caught seafood for lunch. Later in the day we even got out to a section of the reef where a lighthouse stood, protecting ships in years gone by. The waves of the Indian Ocean slammed against the reef, a powerful reminder of the perils of the sea the original settlers would have encountered here.
Cycling is also a good way to get out and experience the local culture. Heading North, Mahebourg was only a few miles away from our place. Traffic was fine, you’ll find the roads to be fairly smooth, and places to lock your bike in town are easy to come by. Central to Mahebourg is the market, full to brimming with fresh fish, ripe fruit, and earthy vegetables. We were self catering, and this occasion was my wife and I’s turn to cook for our family, so the market was a godsend. The atmosphere in Mahebourg is vivid – almost Caribbean but with its own individuality and Indian Ocean tint. Locals are genuine and the town is generally speaking safe, although there are safer, gated supermarkets on the outskirts of town.
The locals are descended from African, Asian, Sri Lankan and European settlers, with the white upper classes coming across more like South Africans in demeanour, ruggedness, and accent. The largest religion in Mauritius is Hinduism, and if you drive across the South of the Island you encounter the Shivling Hindu temple – a massive statue you can see from afar as you approach along the straight-as-a-die Grand Bassin Road.
The capital, Port Louis, was originally a harbour town and is Mauritius’ cultural and economic hub. The town was well protected from the elements by the Moka Mountains to the South and was used as a stop on the trade routes from East to West before the opening of the Suez Canal made it more efficient to avoid the Cape of Good Hope on voyages. A heady mix of cultures, the busy vibe and creole history make the town a lively and oft-overlooked addition to any Mauritian itinerary.
One morning we took a horse trek along hilly trails through the dense scrub and jungle of the Black River Gorges National Park, courtesy of La Vieille Cheminee (lit. ‘The Old Fireplace’), an old plantation offering accommodation as well as the horse trekking, with guide. Getting involved with saddling up the horses and learning their particular personalities is fun. The horse riding itself was pleasant, the scenery sublime. We passed pineapple plantations and crop fields, all vying for space amongst the native ferns and plants. Plodding back to the farm for a well earned drink is a must – the rustic buildings and log fireplaces are also well worth a look around.
So, Mauritius has diverse geography, vibrant culture and fantastic food, but you can’t come here without sampling the excellent local rums either. The local distilleries can be found all over the island, and with that in mind we set up our own self-guided tour (with designated driver, obviously) around the southern bit of the island sampling half a dozen or so ‘Rhumeries’. My personal favourite was the Chamarel distillery’s spiced rum, but the choices are endless. Coffee-flavoured, vanilla-flavoured, aged rum, and liqueurs: the island’s rums have both quantity and quality.
If you’re anything like me, the drive back to the airport will come far too soon. Mauritius really does offer a lot – whether you seek full-on thrills in the jungl-y interior, or a more gentle form of exploration along the coast. All I know is, you won’t regret going for a second.
I flew direct from London Heathrow, on Air Mauritius
I stayed at the Paradise Beach apartments, Pointe d’Esny
I used the bikes and kayaks included courtesy of Paradise Beach
Horse trekking was with La Vieille Cheminee
My favourite Mauritian rum was from the Chamarel Rum Distillery: