Marvellous Mauritius: the Indian Ocean idyll reimagined

Marvellous Mauritius: the Indian Ocean idyll reimagined

From the 19th-century garrison fort of La Citadelle, above the capital of Port Louis, I hear the call to prayer, wafted up by the steady south-westerly trade winds. In the harbour there are colourful fishing pirogues, rusty cargo barges and a few sailboats.

The breeze is sweet and warm. This is an island of whispering sugar-cane fields, echoes of corsairs, and days lived out in the shade of coconut trees. I head down the flanks of Petite Montagne to explore the city’s streets, walking through a neighbourhood where Muslim traders tout textiles, then Chinatown with its markets.

There’s a church beside a mosque beside the vivid colours of a step-pyramid Hindu temple. I visit the Aapravasi Ghat, a haunting museum documenting the post-slavery experiment of indentured servitude that shipped hundreds of thousands of workers here, mostly from India; their influence continues to dominate the island’s culture, food and art.


At the Institute of Contemporary Art Indian Ocean, I meet up with the founder, Salim Currimjee, who’s turned this 200-year-old merchant’s house, with its basalt walls and antique French floor tiles, into a captivating gallery space.

We discuss the creative spirit of Mauritius and its artistic motifs: the evolving identity of a multicultural population and the social issues that face the island.

The current exhibition is by a female South African artist, and Currimjee emphasises the importance of a regional collective – from Cape Town to the Comoros to Colombo – as a way to source strength and find greater reach. He reminds me that Mauritius is a living, working island, not just a holiday destination.

It is an appropriate moment to consider that. Marking 50 years of independence from Britain this year, Mauritius has come a long way. Back then, the Nobel prize-winning economist James Meade suggested the nation was doomed because of its reliance on the monocrop of sugar cane.

Lakaz Chamarel

“It is going to be a great achievement if [the country] can find productive employment for its population without a serious reduction in the existing standard of living,” he wrote. “[The] outlook for peaceful development is weak.”

How wrong he was. Mauritius has diversified beyond sugar plantations (and the crop is also used to produce bioethanol fuel and good rum). There is a thriving textile industry, jewellery and watch production, free-trade zones and financial services.In fact it’s one of the most competitive economies in Africa, with around three per cent growth, year on year.

The cherry on top is tourism, of course. Mauritius first boomed as a holiday island in the 1970s and ’80s, which is when I first visited as a kid. One of my strong childhood memories is borrowing a paddle boat from the hotel’s watersports centre to head out to the reef for a snorkel.

I can still picture the vibrant shimmering colours of the tropical fish, the stillness beneath the waves, the crackled reflections of light on the sandy seabed. It is memories like these that get you through dark British winters. Mauritius fell out of favour for a while.


There was rapid overdevelopment on some of the island’s best beaches: too many big hotels, too many sun loungers, too many guests, and all this while many of the world’s beach destinations were going boutique. But now the island is back.

There are some new, big-hitting high-end hotels such as the Constance properties and the Four Seasons. Both Le Saint Géran and Le Telfair have recently had makeovers, and there are petite new retreats such as the pretty family-run Lakaz Chamarel.

But what makes Mauritius stand out from some other specks in the Indian Ocean lies beyond its hotels and beaches. I took a bike trip along the south coast of the island with Laurent Marrier d’Unienville of Electro-Bike Discovery. Their power-assisted bicycles are perfect for the steep winding roads of the area, as well as the sandy terrain around the coastline – and Laurent showed me a side of Mauritius I thought had long gone.

We set off from the Bel Ombre sugar estate and cycled east, along roads lined with flamboyant trees and yellow bells, and past pretty coves such as the Baie de Jacotet – where the French withstood an attempt by the English to seize Mauritius, back in 1810.

Days are calmer now, as I lookout across at the little island called I lot Sancho named for the battle (“sang chaud” in French, or hot blood). We continue through small fishing villages where casuarina and veloutier trees line the grassy verges.

Cycling tours are a great way to see the more untouched areas of Mauritius

There were strikingly empty stretches of sand, such as Pomponette beach and the eastern side of GrisGris beach. At Souillac Marine Cemetery, Laurent – an eighth-generation Mauritian – pointed out the grave of his French military forebears.

Also in this historic fishing village is the police station, formerly slave quarters, an old railway line, now overgrown, and the slumped silhouette of the dilapidated BIK colonial District Court with its wraparound porch.

For lunch, Laurent had organised for us to eat in a local home where the mother ofthe family, Mala, poured us glasses of fresh tamarind juice before serving up potato samosas, curry and farata flat bread. I tried to follow her swift Indian Creole, but could only recognise a few French words.

It was a lovely few hours, not contrived at all, seemingly just what travellers are seeking these days. Surely we don’t want to lie by the hotel pool all week? The cuisine in Mauritius is a strong reason to fly halfway around the world.

Some of the local food on offer in Mauritius

From the street food such as dhal puri and biryani to grilled lobster on the beach or the sensational cooking in the hotels – from Wagyu beef on coals at Constance Belle Mare Plage to local venison at Le Château de Bel Ombre under the auspices of French chef David Toutain.

It was in the surrounds of that beautifully restored plantation house that my dining companions – both local journalists – squabbled over where one finds the best street food. I scribbled down notes about where to go.

“Near the Gare du Nord in Port Louis,” said one. “Ask locals to direct you to Ramlagan; he does the best gato pima [chilli cakes].” “No, no,” said the other. “Go taste the roti at Pabs Palace in Curepipe. Her name’s Rozario.”

It’s not only this aspect of the culture that tempts you. Mauritius is also a ravishing volcanic island with contoured out crops such as Le Morne Brabant and Le Pouce mountain. One late afternoon I boarded the Lady Lisbeth, the oldest motorboat on the island, and skirted along the east coast watching the sky turn pink behind these pert, peculiar peaks.


I also went back to snorkel the reef, of course, joining a boat trip with Wise Oceans, a conservation outfit aiming to raise awareness among local Mauritians about their marine environment. That’s no mean feat, according to François Rogers at Reef Conservation, who explained to me that four-fifths of Mauritians still cannot swim. But he said the younger generation was increasingly interested in taking care of the coastal waters.

Out at sea, we anchored and jumped into the warm Indian Ocean. There were butterfly fish, damsel fish, puffer fish and the loved-up mate-for-life Moorish idols. It looked dazzlingly familiar, just how I remembered it in fact. A childhood memory revived on an island that is looking increasingly sure about its future.

The Turquoise Holiday Company (01494 678400) offers seven nights at Constance Prince Maurice in a Garden Junior Suite from £1,800pp including return flights, airport transfers and breakfast. It also offers seven nights at the One&Only Le Saint Géran in a Lagoon Room from £2,200pp including return flights, airport transfers and breakfast. ElectroBike Discovery’s Souillac, The Wild and Authentic South bike trip costs from £57pp.