MauritiusWindy place, Mauritius.
When the palm trees bend double and the restaurants close to prevent the waiters from blowing away, you realise just how vulnerable this tiny speck of land is in the big bad Indian ocean. But when the wind drops and the sun beats down, this lazy, laid-back island blows all your worries away.
Despite its miniscule size there’s a considerable variety to the island, and not just the different number of palm trees lining its different beaches. You can stay in the capital, Port Louis, for a small town holiday of shopping, restaurants and markets, and mingle with conference delegates as the island works to boost its reputation as a business centre.
You can check into a family-oriented hotel, sign up for a complete scuba-diving course, or pay a fortune for the whole happy-lovers-in-blissful-isolation experience. Ok, there’s not that much variety, I suppose, since they’re all designed around sand, sea and sunshine. And sex, if you’re doing the isolated lovers version.
Other things they have in common are the easy four-hour flight from South Africa, and the fact that they are all inevitably an hour away from everything else. Ask the taxi driver at the airport how long it will take to reach your hotel, and he’ll tell you it’s an hour. From your hotel to the botanical gardens? Oh, allow about an hour. A trip to Port Louis? Oh, you’ll need an hour for that.
I started to suspect that if anything was actually closer, the drivers make a few surreptitious U-turns and take winding back roads just to convince visitors that Mauritius is bigger than it really is. Nothing is five minutes away, but nothing on this weeny island is more than an hour away either, unless you have an amphibious vehicle.
On my first visit I stayed in Port Louis, a minute’s walk from a thriving nightlife that involved sports bars, chips in a basket and over-loud TVs blasting out a football match. Or was it rugby? It’s so hard to tell the difference after three rum punches.
We took a taxi to the nearest beach and strolled along the main street, which took no more than five minutes. Then we hired a small boat that one of the locals chugged out into the warm sea for a couple of hours of snorkelling.
Next time I stayed at a beach hotel cum conference centre, where the highlight was bunking off from the dull debates to join a catamaran trip and drift lazily along coral reefs. It’s hard to concentrate on work when the sea and sand is beckoning, and by the third day I suspect the conference hall was sadly depleted.
The most recent trip was also by far the most decadent, with a stay at Le Touessrok, a resort so incredibly swanky that even the word swanky doesn’t do it justice. I walked into my suite and laughed at its opulence. I climbed into the egg-shaped bath, then strolled onto the balcony overlooking the beach. I hung one item of clothing in each wardrobe just so the space didn’t go to waste.
Two days later I felt seriously cheated after seeing the private villas that Le Touessrok hires out a variety of interesting foreigners. Probably Russian Mafia types or South American drug lords. They try to maintain a respectable clientele, of course, but that’s where the money is these days.
Each villa has a chef and a team of butlers on 24-hour call, making my solitary butler look a bit meagre, to be frank. Jeeves would not have approved.
Still, I took a stroll to the Spa and had a fabulous massage, wearing disposable paper panties that I almost stole just for the novelty value. The only thing that stopped me was imagining the expression on my butler’s face when he packed my suitcase for me.
I tucked into a silver service breakfast on the beach and ate dinner at the delicious Indian restaurant, with the shutters battened down again the wind that playfully picks up just as you’re deciding which restaurant to visit. I felt a little baffled to realise that all I’d done in between was sunbathe and take a boat trip to an even smaller island for a fish lunch. Where had workaholic me disappeared to?
I’ve even discovered that Mauritius can rejuvenate you so thoroughly that you’ll fly home with a full head of hair, according to the claims of a hair transplant clinic on the northern coast. So if your bald friend books a holiday, don’t be surprised if he comes back all hirsute and hunky.
Mauritius is a famous honeymoon destination, yet thankfully not all the hotels make you feel like a complete leper if you aren’t half of a loving couple. Women may feel a little inferior when they watch the local Sega dancers who are all gloriously gorgeous, but apart from that there’s no pressure at all. Do what you want to do, or don’t do anything at all.
The next day was more active, with an hour’s drive to Port Louis to haggle in the market. It’s an absolute must, and not only because there aren’t terribly many alternatives for a day away from the beach.
Downstairs there’s a fruit and vegetable section and meat stalls displaying a fascinating array of dead bits and pieces. Upstairs is an eclectic selection of tourist tat with some unusual buys lurking around. One stalls sells gaping shark jaws, with the rest of the body probably hanging downstairs in the meat market. Muti stalls offer all sorts of potions to rev you up, calm you down or knock you out completely. Women offer to paint your hands with henna and sell you kits to brew ginger beer.
It’s a small town, and a 10 minute stroll brings you to the upper-end shops where you look at the price of a designer dress and wonder if the decimal point has mistakenly slipped to the right a fraction. Mauritius overall isn’t a cheap place, but package deals can make it very affordable.
There are hikes to be hiked and mountains to climb in the Black River Gorges National Park if you really must, but it really isn’t a place to go and explore, it’s a place to go and find yourself.
One day I’ll hire a bike so I can cycle along bougainvillea lined roads and feel my whole body slowing to the pace of island life. In fact better make that a tandem, so I can sit at the back and let somebody else do the legwork, because after a couple of days it seems strenuous to contemplate anything more demanding than tackling the next five course meal.
Just make sure you leave in time to get to the airport for the flight back to reality. It’ll take about an hour to get there.