Mauritius

Mauritius

Through an airplane porthole, Mauritius looks like the Polynesian islands reimagined as a diminutive Pangaea. Cotton wool clouds snag on jagged peaks that slide seamlessly into lush, green plains. There’s no mistaking the island’s volcanic origins—Mauritius and its close neighbor, Réunion, lie along a submerged plateau that stretches north beneath the Indian Ocean to the Seychelles.

Similar to that exotic archipelago, Mauritius is a world-class beach destination (and a favored bolthole of the just-marrieds). It has the prerequisite warm turquoise waters, tropical fish teeming through bright coral, and languid palms bending over silvery sands. But this clamshell-shaped island has depth to match the sheen, its national identity a Creole stew of complementary cultures, the ingredients imported by tall ships that, over centuries, navigated to its picturesque shores. 

Mauritius sunset.
Mauritius sunset.

But it’s telling that the Portuguese—which in the early 1500s became the first of the European nations to discover Mauritius—didn’t establish a permanent colony there as they had done on Sri Lanka (another of today’s top-tier honeymoon destinations). Roughly 700 miles east of Madagascar, this African island state is a little off the beaten trade route. So when the Dutch were next to arrive nearly a century on, they beached boats on a jungle wilderness that was unchanged from when the Portuguese had shown up and was home to an ungainly ground pigeon set to become the byword for extinction.

turtle

While the dodo was finished off within 70 years of the arrival of the Dutch, the island’s colonial history had really only just begun. The French came next (possessively renaming the island “Isle de France”), followed by the English. Then, in 1968, the island won its independence.

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Viewed from a Mauritian taxi, the island is a rush of green sugarcane, a blur of red and orange, as you pass Hindu pilgrims homebound from festivals, and a collection of unexpected signposts like the one to “Cyber city.” (The island acts as a major internet hub for the African continent.) For many tourists, eclectic snapshots from the backseat of a cab while en route to the supercharged luxury of the coast offer their only glimpses of the island’s true self. 

A sugarcane field.
A sugarcane field.

And it’s hard to blame them for moving on—the resorts are mind-blowing. Names such as St. Regis, Lux*, and Oberoi have sculpted the prime parts of the island’s 100 miles of beach into manicured reserves replete with bottle palms and G&T bars, where guests drift between sea-view balconies and poolside hammock beds. While all of the beaches in Mauritius are public, the resorts have laid out their sun-loungers on some of the sweetest stretches, often fringing quiet lagoons. But with such an abundance available to them—Trou-aux-Biches, Belle Mare, and Flic en Flac are all superb—the locals remain relaxed.

 A seaplane parked in front of a resort on the north coast.
A seaplane parked in front of a resort on the north coast.

Your holiday needs will dictate which coast you visit. Families tend to favor the more developed west and north, where the reliably calm coasts are better suited to beach days and snorkelling. (The water tends to be a degree or two warmer, as well.) The north also offers Grand Bay, the island’s number-one tourist town, and access to a string of offshore islands crying out for an exploratory crew armed with a catamaran and a cocktail shaker.

Calm waters in the north and west are well suited to snorkeling.
Calm waters in the north and west are well suited to snorkeling.

However, despite a reputation for windiness (less so during the island’s summer), the east has grown in reputation and is now seen as the quieter, more glamorous option, offering white-sand beaches for lounging (Belle Mare is a standout) paired with top-drawer water sports (kite-surfing in particular). 

S white-sand beach and marketplace wares.
S white-sand beach and marketplace wares.

The south coast, Savanne, is regularly described as “rustic,” “wild,” and “interesting.” All of these adjectives land successfully: this rugged facet of the island with its sugar cane–covered hinterland and rougher seas (there’s no reef here) has not seen as much resort building as other parts of Mauritius (although some inroads are being made, particularly at the village of Bel Ombre). So why head south? Well, besides the lure of the elemental nature of Savanne—the deserted coves, basalt sea cliffs, and beaches fresh with on-shore spray—it is also the location of the country’s most scenic national park: Black River Gorges. 

This mountainous wilderness, approximately 2 percent of Mauritius’s area and home to its highest peak (2,717 feet), offers a glimpse of the evergreen ebony forest that would have covered the island’s plains and mountains when the Dutch arrived. (At one time, Mauritius provided Europe with the majority of its ebony.) Beneath the towering canopy, hikers navigating the 75-mile network of trails will encounter deer, macaques, and wild boar once introduced as quarry for colonial-era hunts. 

Seven Coloured Earths
Seven Coloured Earths, a geological formation in the town of Chamarel.

Worthier of your Instagram feed would be a shot of the Mauritian cardinal—its vermilion plumage dipped in the sunset—or the extremely rare pink pigeon, for which the national park is one of two habitats remaining. (The other is Ile aux Aigrettes, an island conservation project near the former capital of Mahebourg that is well worth your time.) If pigeons, pink or otherwise, don’t float your boat, then the far-ranging viewpoints on the three-hour Macchabee Loop Trail should offer some succour. (Hikes are best undertaken in the winter—aka low mosquito season.) 

Just outside the park, and another tick in the plus column for the south, is Le Morne mountain—a surging fist of basalt on the coast’s most westerly point. Le Morne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because of its part in the island’s slaving history: a group of 19thcentury slaves are said to have jumped to their deaths from the summit rather than face recapture. The mountain’s placement on an ironed-flat, palm-covered, beach-lipped peninsula seems almost purpose-made for resorts. 

The colonial trade winds deposited Indian, Chinese, and French cultures upon these shores, and it’s a colorful mix that you’ll see on the weekend at the beaches or while watching Hindu—the island’s primary religion—festivals at the sacred Grand Bassin crater lake (aka Ganga Talao) near to Black River Gorges. And central to all of these rituals is the island’s delicious fusion cuisine.

Grand Bassin crater lake.
Grand Bassin crater lake.

The scruffy capital of Port-Louis offers a bounty of street-food stalls in its historical bazaar adrift in a mouthwatering haze of turmeric and cumin rising from pots of chicken curry. Must-try local classics include the fried lentil and potato dholl puri, which comes across like an Indian take on a burrito, and the spicy gateau piment, a kind of falafel fritter often enjoyed for breakfast. After your meal, stop into the Photography Museum of Mauritius for a taste of colonial history. And if Port-Louis comes across as a little too modern, try atmospheric Mahebourg, which preserves both the island’s traditional wooden architecture and a laid-back sense of history. 

Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital.
Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital.

Another way to mix food and history is through rum-tasting sessions while you’re visiting some of the old colonial mansions. Though Mauritius didn’t begin producing rum in a serious way until 2006—refined sugar and its greater profit margin used to gobble up the entirety of the sugarcane crop—its double distilled flavors are now muscling into the Caribbean-dominated market and as an organic add-on to some of the country’s best colonial properties.

Market

Le Domaine de Saint Aubin near Souillac offers rum tasting, fine dining, and an intriguing colonial mansion made with parts of an old ship. Chateau de Labourdonnais in the north—a mansion turned museum surrounded by more than 1,300 acres of sugarcane and orchards—has an on-site distillery with tastings available. (If you visit here, be sure to also drop in on the superb Botanic Garden, only 10 minutes’ drive away.) 

If you’d prefer to just to buy your rum without all the preliminary sniffing and swilling, you can find it in an eye-catching dodo-shaped bottle from Dodo Rum Mauritius. You can also hunt out some small-batch Penny Blue Single Cask #28—a local molasses rum with enough tropical fruit, vanilla, and spice to launch a trade route.

A quotation that’s often trotted out about Mauritius issued from Mark Twain who, visiting in 1896, wrote, “From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.”

Today, Mauritius is a place of competing heavens, with each resort and each coast offering individual tweaks on paradise. Exploring beyond the resort gates will fill out Twain’s perspective, but if you decide you want to just flop in the resort, well, you’ll still hear the angels singing.


Traveler Fast Facts 

WHAT IT IS: 

Marooned in the Indian Ocean 700 miles east of Madagascar, Mauritius occupies a high position on many Best Honeymoon Destinations lists. It is a reef-ringed tropical island with an intriguing history. A longtime sugar colony, it traded hands between the Dutch, the French, and the British before finally gaining independence in 1968.

CLIMATE: 

Mauritius has a steady climate throughout the year, with temperatures ranging from highs of 79°F in January (the wettest month) to lows of 70°F in July. Peak season is between October and April, but with the high temperatures come humidity and a risk of tropical storms between January and March. The island’s winter, between May and September, brings a better chance of clear skies, pleasant temperatures, and a reduced mosquito population. 

The summer cyclone season extends from November until April. 

GETTING THERE: 

The main Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, in the country’s southeast, accommodates private jets of all sizes. Commercial flights go direct from Europe, but if you are flying from the U.S., then a change at a European airport is usually called for, with total flight times averaging 25 to 30 hours (it’s probably best to break your flight in Paris for a weekend stay before heading on to the island.) No tourist visa is required. 

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: 

The extraordinary coastal resorts, for all their efforts, do not replicate Mauritius inside their well-manicured grounds. Be sure to travel inland to see the life of the capital Port-Louis and interesting small towns such as Chamarel. 


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS: 

In the north of the island, the recently renovated Lux* Grand Gaube (A) offers the island’s only Peruvian/Argentinian restaurant (alongside memorable Turkish and Creole options) within an extensive, imaginatively designed complex encompassing two private bays (with one adult-only beach). In the shadow of southerly Le Morne mountain, the St. Regis (A+)—housed in a former sugar baron’s plantation house—is beachfront perfection. Opt for the first-floor suites and their ocean views. Finally, in the Turtle Bay Marine Park, a prime snorkelling spot, the Oberoi (A+) offers superb service, an award-winning spa, and complimentary activities including wine-tasting. (Try the domestic Riesling-like lychee wine.) 

CUISINE:

Find the freshest seafood cooked in Creole style at La Cabanne du Pecheur (A), a yellow shack perched above northerly Trou-aux-Biches beach. On the other end of the ambiance and price spectrum is Le Café des Arts (A+), which offers a Michelin-starred menu in the art-covered surrounds of a converted sugar mill. You’ll find incredible Mauritian home-style cooking at the family-run Palais de Barbizon (B+) in Chamarel, while the Lambic Restaurant & Bar (B), in a renovated 19thcentury townhouse in central Port-Louis, is a well-stocked beer venue with a Creole-based menu and a garden shaded over by century-old mango trees. 

ACTIVITIES:

Options include water sports, world-beating spas, excellent hiking, old colonial mansions to explore, a unique cuisine to gorge upon, and championship-standard golf courses. 

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