On the teardrop-shaped island called Mauritius, I had my first tryst with a fairytale. A modern fairytale, but one nonetheless.
Before I landed on this part of the Mascarene archipelago, off the southeast coast of the African continent, I knew of it — from friends who had come back heavily tanned but ecstatic from their time spent there — as just another beach destination. Yet there’s more to Mauritius than just sunbathing and swimming. Though I could easily spend hours soaking in the postcard quality of the blue waters that change hues from turquoise, pale blue and aquamarine to brilliant sapphire in the proverbial New York minute.
I found romance in the most unlikely of places there. I moved into the fast track, high up in the mountains, flying up and down the rocky terrain on a quad bike — it’s a four-wheeler with massive wheels. I watched ice cream vans, playing tinkling music, pull up on the beach, as I gave into the pleasure of tucking into frozen desserts on blistering afternoons. I plunged to new depths on the bed of the ocean, walking in between coral reefs and travelling in a small submarine, watching marine life pass me by.
My rendezvous with adventure began on Belle Mare Beach with an underwater walk in the sea. The best part is that you don’t have to be a swimmer — I can barely swim to save my life.
There I was, wearing a lantern-box like helmet and rubber shoes, walking around and almost touching the coral — I was stopped by the safety diver who had come down with me. But he did deign to let us hold a pink-rimmed sea urchin.
When you hit the ocean floor there are a few moments of panic. That was replaced by awe as I found my feet on the bed of the sea, especially as I held out breadcrumbs to the zebra fish. Be warned: those little things give nifty little nips.
The rest of the day was spent at a lagoon island, Cerfs, near the town of Trou d’Eau Douce. A speed boat put us on the Ile Aux Cerfs beach that surrounds this island off the east coast of Mauritius and therein began a surreal experience of paddling in the warm waters of the lagoon (not unlike a tortoise) and watching it transform into a communal bathtub of sorts.
It was followed up by a visit to the foam-spewing waterfalls, Grande Riviere Sud Est, flanked on both sides by towering verdure cliffs and the occasional sighting of the white-tailed tropicbird.
Next in line was parasailing over the sea, which I took to, like a bird takes wing. There was more adventure in store for me in watersports. I took a shine to the tube ride. It ensured that my behind was thwacked at least two dozen times in a minute. Was it exhilarating? The answer lies in the fact that I took the ride twice over. The second time around, I was in expert company. A young Creole guy, with a diamond stud on his nose, showed off all kinds of athletic feat, while all I could do was busy hold on to the sides of the raft.
Lunch that day turned out to be a lazy island-style, barbecue affair. We were transported in a speed boat to a deserted patch of land in Ile Aux Cerfs itself. A meal of grilled fish, chicken and coleslaw was accompanied by glasses of the local rosé wine. It was heady enough to make me join the sensuous black dancer and sway to the rustic tunes of the guitar and drums played by the local Creole band.
The beauty of the surroundings was intoxicating.
If Mauritius is a much lusted-after place, you know why. The waves here roll and the point at which they break happen to be where the coral reefs are. And these are the reefs that protect the island from deadly storms and Tsunamis. Here the waves don’t crash on the beach. They make love to it, lapping it gently.
Or so I realized as I often sat down for sumptuous breakfasts or dinners at the Le Pearl Beach Hotel. It is a 3-star hotel and not a high-end option, but it is pretty luxurious with an enviable location on Flic en Flac beach.
The latest bit of discovery about Mauritius thrilled me when I read that fragments of an ancient micro continent lie beneath Mauritius and the Reunion Island. Scientists say that the splinter of buried land became a separate landmass 60 million years ago when Madagascar and Indian drifted apart after the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia.
One of my one-off island experiences was at Île Plate or flat island, off the north coast. It is famous for its lighthouse built around the mid 1800’s and still functioning. Apart from which it has a graveyard dating back to the 19th century when people were quarantined there by the British.
Cruising our way to the island we passed the small nature reserve of Coin de Mire (Gunner’s Coin). I remember it as the ‘sexy hole’ (our catamaran navigator’s christening for it), an opening in the side of a steep cliff.
The day on Île Plate was thereafter spent in a hot haze of sega dancing (introduced by African slaves during the French colonial period), drinking Champagne, feasting on lobsters with Xavier Luc Duval, the vice prime minister and minister for tourism.
It is probably island living that makes even a minister cordial enough to join in dancing the sensual Sega with colourfully dressed women twirling around in their elaborate skirts.
Among the other water activities we indulged in at Mont Choisy was the Blue Safari submarine tour in which the submarine dives 35m under water. It is a 40-minute dive which seems to get over very soon. The Blue Safari’s other innovation is a sub-scooter which you drive 3m underwater in a twosome.
Behind the project is its director, Frenchman Luc Billard, who has taken out a patent for the sub-scooter. His other exclusive offering is for people who want to have an underwater wedding with Champagne and lunch. It will make your wallet lighter by Rs 29,000 but then it will be a once-in-a-lifetime wedding (hopefully).
In between these adventurous experiences, we had some cultural and heritage tours thrown in.
Anything historical has me hooked, so it was fascinating to walk through the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Garden at Pamplemousses. The giant amazon lily pool here is absolutely captivating.
Now right opposite the garden is the oldest church of Mauritius — that of St Francois d’Assises. In its compounds, is a statue of the French Paul & Virginie.
The plaque beside it was written in the Creole patois which happens to be derived mostly from French. And which sounded so exotic on the tongue of the Mauritians, but absolutely hopeless on mine. It fell on our driver-guide, Bimal, to come to our rescue with a translation and point out that they were a pair of star-crossed lovers who were drowned in the sea.
Another must-see in Mauritius is a tiny chapel with a red roof in Cap Malheureux, the northern most point of the island where a general landed his troops when the British swooped down on the island. What charmed me was the holy water basin fashioned out of a giant clamshell.
On our itinerary was also a visit to L’Aventure du Sucre, a museum spread out over 5,000 sq m in the grounds of the Beau Plan sugar factory that closed shop in 1999. I had expected it to be somewhat of a bore, but the tables were turned on me as I couldn’t stop clicking pictures of old barges, de-humidifiers and bagasse purifiers. It was an insight into the soul of the country – sugar that at one point was its economic mainstay. Now it has been replaced by tourism.
On the other hand was a stop at a shipping factory. The island’s craft is to build model ships. You see them all around in souvenir shops but be warned that they fall apart within a short time. While if you get one from a shipping museum like the one we visited at Floréal, it lasts you a lifetime or so they say.
Mauritius is home to some extremely intriguing features such as Troux aux Cerf, an extinct volcanic crater which you get to see from an elevated point (it is 85 m deep), the second biggest statue of Shiva in the world at Grand Bassin and the seven coloured earth at Chamarel. The last of these is an astonishing phenomenon what with blue, green, red, yellow, purple and various other shades coming together on dunes. It is said to be an inheritance of the island’s volcanic past.
On the evenings that we got free from the bustle of our water sports and historical excursions, we would attend the cultural evenings which were part of the ongoing International Kreol Festival 2008. It was an opportunity to witness rich multicultural performances at heritage spots. Since the Mauritian people are a mix of African, Chinese, Indian, Muslim and French descent, the dance forms reflect each of these cultures.
One of them, the ‘Sware Metis’, was at the Citadelle overlooking the city of Port Louis and the harbour. The fort, which once was used by the British to watch out for riots in Port Louis before the abolition of slavery, has now become a hub for cultural evenings. Our evening there was about downing local ‘rhum’ shots in flavours of coffee, vanilla and sugarcane accompanied by delicious canapés and watching a fashion show choreographed by famous Mauritian choreographers.
As part of understanding the cultural aspects of the locals, we spent an evening at the Le Morne village to the husky sounds of the ravane, a wooden circular musical instrument, around a bonfire. Since it was difficult getting most of what transpired at the ‘Sware Tipik’ show – it was entirely in Creole – I spent the evening drowning my language sorrows in bread-crumb fried chicken served up with a red hot sauce by an African mamma.
Le Morne fascinated me with its history. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once a hideaway for runaway slaves. The story goes that when the police travelled to the rock on Le Morne to let the slaves know that they were free, the slaves misunderstood them and jumped off the gigantic rock to death.
The last of the cultural evenings was near the Le Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis. Twenty three groups came together to entertain the audience the whole night as top outfits such as lord Kossity and Zouk Machine held the youth in thrall.
If there was the old to savour, there was something new to try out. The nightlife in Mauritius is mostly concentrated around the Grand Baie area. And my hotspot on a Friday night aptly enough was the Buddha Bar which sizzles during the weekend. The other nightclub which caught my eye was Les Enfants Terrible known for its pulsating music.
One of our final gambles was walking with lions and petting cheetahs at the Casela Bird Park in the Black River district.
It is an experience of a lifetime.
There are very few places where you can settle down next to a lazy one-year-old cheetah and feel the joy of him purring and lying on his back, to be stroked. The name of the cheetah I took a fancy to was Bwana.
The encounter with the lions even though they were only 6 month old cubs – Chiara and Kimba – were less personal. We did get to walk with them over a long trail that passed through a leafy glade and a gurgling stream but we had to be on our guard. They were frisky and even though small in size compared to a full grown lion, their paws would make you think twice before getting too up and close with them.
But I lived to tell the story, so it couldn’t be that dangerous.
A not-to-be-missed experience is that of quad biking in the mountains at Le Domaine de l’Etoile, one of the largest estates on the island boasting rich birdlife, lush valleys, and vanilla and coffee plantations. After a brief session of archery and a typical Mauritian meal, I sat at the helm of a quad bike with Yasine Badourkhan (the owner of Seaside Holidays) as my pillion rider. What a ride it turned out to be. I had the thrill of flying over the mountainous and flat terrain, but overconfidence often gets the better of you. That is when you ram into the bike driven by a honeymooning couple ahead and end up feeling like a criminal.
With all the sun and the salty air, I was the girl on the beach with a golden brown tan and more. For my knees were skinned, my feet were sore and I looked nothing less than the smoked marlin I had the last day there. But the pleasure remains — romancing the island and having it romance me back.
(A version of this story was published on January 3, 2009, in The Telegraph)
Pix: By the author (except for the underwater photograph).