Mauritius, Worth the Trip
Mauritius may be 24 hours by plane from New York City—in the middle of the Indian Ocean—but as Peter Jon Lindberg discovers when he checks into three of the tiny island nation's most luxurious resorts, it's worth the trip
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First reports of the island had come from an Indian friend in Bombay. A Malabar Hill aristocrat of a certain age, Rashida vacations every year in Mauritius, or "Maurice," as she prefers to call it in her Hindi-inflected French. Adrift in the Indian Ocean, 1,250 miles east of Africa, Mauritius has long been a getaway for wealthy Indians, Europeans, and South Africans, and it's famous among the jet set for its absurdly luxurious resorts. One of them has even lured Alain Ducasse—he of the eight Michelin stars—to open his first island restaurant. Yet the resorts were, for me, only half the draw. From Rashida I'd also heard about the island's curious mosaic of Indian, French, African, British, Arab, and Chinese cultures, the result of four centuries of colonial experiment. My mind was filled with images of grass skirts and saris; of African bands pumping out Bollywood pop tunes; of Hindu temples abutting Chinese pagodas; of boulangeries hawking baguettes and chapatis; of cafés serving curries, bouillabaisse, and Creole stew. It sounded like the perfect alternative to, say, the Caribbean, where so many islands have little to offer in the way of local flavor. Here, it seemed, was a bona fide cultural hothouse, a tropical isle with soul.
The newest over-the-top resort on Mauritius, the Oberoi, opened in late 2000 on a secluded headland on the northwestern coast. Most of the competition is on the eastern side; this corner of the island is less developed. Spread across 20 verdant acres, sloping gently toward a placid lagoon, it's a lovely and tranquil site—you wonder why no one claimed it before. Then you learn that all this was blasted and carved out of a boulder-strewn wasteland. Not that you'd guess it from the lush surroundings. In every direction are yellow and milky-white frangipani, scarlet flame trees, flowering allamanda—and seemingly hundreds of varieties of tropical birds. (They're a bit less appealing at breakfast, when they dive-bomb your bread basket and perch on your pitcher of mango juice.) The meandering paths and undulating lawns are a refreshing change from the over-manicured look of most tropical resorts. Here and there you come across funky statuary that alludes to everyplace from Zimbabwe to Easter Island—"Oberoian art," I guess.
Scattered around the property are 76 low-lying, rust-colored villas that blend well with the terrain and are smartly arranged for maximum privacy. Indeed, privacy is the Oberoi's main selling point. You could spend all your time in one of the 16 villas set in its own enclosed garden with a 20-foot pool, taking meals in your gazebo, skinny-dipping, counting birds—and never see another soul. Earth-toned interiors have a tropical-colonial theme, furnished in teak, rattan, and all-natural cottons and linens. Sunlight pours in throughout: one whole wall of the bathroom is glass, overlooking a private garden, so you can bathe in your sunken marble tub under the gaze of curious mynah birds.
There are sailboats at the beach club, but hardly anyone uses them; the Oberoi's guests seem more committed to hard-core lounging, and after a 12-hour overnight flight from Paris, my girlfriend and I were happy to join them. The beach is handsome and peaceful, though with its jagged rocky bottom not ideal for swimming (as we later discovered, the best beaches in Mauritius are actually the public ones). Guests tend to congregate by the two beachside swimming pools, sipping Mauritian rum drinks, nibbling on spicy samosas. There's also an expansive spa, whose assertive masseuses seem genuinely interested in curing your aches, not just rubbing your back for an hour.
The week of our visit, only a third of the villas were occupied, and most of the time—except at meals or poolside—it seemed we had the resort to ourselves. I imagine it would feel much the same even when the hotel is full, so pervasive is the sense of intimacy and calm. Just across a reflecting pool, lined with shimmering torches at night, a jazz band (an actual jazz band!) plays tunes from Porgy & Bess. At dinner in the open-air restaurant, couples seem to float in isolated pools of candlelight.
Not everyone was so entranced. In the lobby one evening we overheard a couple from Frankfurt complaining loudly to the desk staff. Apparently the maid had strewn frangipani petals all over their bed—could someone please clean them up immediately?The blossoms were aggravating their allergies. I guess luxury means different things to different people. When we retired to our villa we found the same welcome: blossoms sprinkled on our pillows and floating in the bath—which, judging by the lukewarm water, had been drawn a few hours earlier. Still, the thought was nice.
After a few days of the convalescent life we grew restless, so we rented a Suzuki 4 x 4 and set off to explore the island. Beyond the main highway, gas stations gave way to bougainvillea bushes in a thousand shades of saffron, violet, and pink, and then to groves of coconut palms, receding up the wet-green slopes of the Moka mountains, whose twisting spires resemble Moorish turrets, and then, finally, to acre upon acre of sugarcane. Swaths of dried cane were ablaze after the harvest, and the balmy air was thick with the smell of molasses.
Those geometric rows of sugarcane were a reminder that Mauritius is essentially a man-made paradise. After all, no one lived here 400 years ago: besides the occasional Portuguese explorer or waylaid pirate crew, the island was uninhabited until Dutch settlers arrived in 1638. They introduced deer, wild boar, bananas, tobacco, and, in 1639, sugarcane from Indonesia; in short order they also managed to kill off the dodo bird and a few dozen other native species. (Settlers enjoyed hunting the flightless dodo with clubs.) Slaves were brought in from East Africa and Madagascar to work the cane fields. When the Dutch abandoned their settlement in 1710, Mauritius was inherited by the French, whose influence is still felt today, not least in the Franco-Creole dialect spoken by almost all Mauritians. In 1814, after a series of naval battles, the island was ceded to Britain. Twenty years later slavery was nominally abolished, and the British turned to India and China as sources of new (indentured) labor. After nearly four centuries as a colonial trading card, Mauritius finally achieved independence in 1968.
If ever there was a microcosm of European imperial history, Mauritius is it. Practically everything that defines this island is the work of foreign hands—from the coconut palms and sugarcane to the patchwork population itself. Hindus are now the majority in a population that includes Chinese, Africans, mixed-race Creoles, and white Europeans. More than 1.2 million people are packed onto a pear-shaped island only 28 miles across, making Mauritius one of the world's most densely populated countries, with some 1,600 people per square mile. Yet the question we had as we drove through the somnolent coastal villages was, Where are they?
In Flic-en-Flac, described by our concierge as a lively beach town, the dusty main street was empty, save for a few sari-clad women waiting for a bus. The pastel-colored one-story buildings were shuttered and quiet. Was there a cyclone brewing?Some sort of federal holiday?No, said a fisherman we passed, this was the usual scene.
Still, we persevered. Over three long afternoons we crisscrossed the island to see its noteworthy sights. There were the stunning botanical gardens in the northern town of Pamplemousses, 62 acres containing 500 species of exotic trees and plants (nearly all of them imported) and absolutely no people. No, wait, we did see eight Austrians near the exit. There was the equally deserted Bois Chéri tea plantation, where we got a tour of the processing plant and a pot of delicious vanilla tea. We drove up and down precariously switchbacked roads to gaze out over waterfalls and gorges and misty volcanic peaks. We passed sizable Hindu temples and smaller mosques and even smaller Chinese pagodas, yet in all of these little towns and fishing villages, we found few signs of life: no bustling main squares, no visible café culture, and few non-touristy restaurants serving Creole cuisine. For that we'd have to go to Port Louis, the capital.
Port Louis won't win anyone over on looks. With its KFC billboards and mirrored-glass office towers, it resembles any other overgrown metropolis on any other continent. But there are pockets of color and charm: in the outdoor market, where a fine dust of powdered spices fills the air; along the refurbished waterfront, where a Western-style shopping mall has sprung up; and, best of all, at the Champs de Mars racecourse, where we spent a thrilling Saturday afternoon.
Horse racing is the national pastime in Mauritius, and the Champs de Mars is its Churchill Downs. The vast hippodrome sits on a hill above Port Louis, cradled by mountains; from the balconies you can see clear to the sea. But the place to be is down among the revelers, beside the track. Looking up into the stands we see a vivid cross section of Mauritian society. On the lowest levels, the working class, virtually all men, African and Indian, smoking and drinking alouda (milk flavored with vanilla and seaweed jelly—inexplicably appealing, for about three sips). Above them, the middle-class Indian and Chinese families in their yellow polo shirts and tangerine saris and closed-toe shoes. And in the upper boxes, the Franco-Mauritian sugar barons and textile magnates, who own the horses and everything else on the island. With their pinstripes and blue hair, hurling insults at their jockeys, they remind you of Statler and Waldorf, the fat-cat hecklers from the Muppet Show.
Of the two dozen couples at the Oberoi that weekend, we were apparently the only ones to leave the premises, unless you count those who signed up for the snorkeling trip to a nearby cove. Otherwise, the guests stayed put. (We were told that the actor Joseph Fiennes, of Shakespeare in Love, had been at the Oberoi the previous week, and hardly left the property either.) So, did the backdrop even matter?Perhaps. "The culture just sounded so exotic," one woman told me, though she and her husband had yet to venture beyond the tennis courts. Then again, did they even need to?The Indian and Creole dishes at the resort were outstanding (tangy chutneys, hearty stews, and fresh fish grilled or fired in the tandoor). The folk-art statuary was charming, albeit of questionable provenance. And for local flavor, there was the weekly séga soirée on the beach. Séga is a frenzied, erotically charged dance developed by African slaves and now pretty much confined to dinner shows. When I first heard about it, visions of luaus at Waikiki Sheratons came to mind, but the Oberoi's séga night was good fun. Any preoccupations with authenticity soon melted away: the bonfire on the beach was real enough, the goatskin drums produced a convincing beat, and the swiveling, sarong-clad hips of the dancers were, as far as I could tell, the genuine article. Even the frangipani-loathing Frankfurters seemed to enjoy themselves.
No séga dancers were performing during our stay at Le Prince Maurice, the newest luxury property on the island's east coast. But then, the clientele here didn't seem to have much interest in hip-swiveling; they were too busy being French. The Prince Maurice, which opened in late 1998, is a decidedly Gallic retreat: here the staff addresses you first en français, and continues to even after you respond in English. That said, the service is suave and precise, and the French dames lounging in their Gaultier one-pieces look as if their every need has been met—no small feat.
Though it has only 88 suites, the Prince Maurice feels like a much more substantial resort, thanks to the dramatic scale of the public spaces—not least the gawk-worthy main pavilion, with its soaring beamed ceilings and roof of sugarcane thatch. The design throughout is of the aggressively soothing style you might call International Zen, all glowing teak and trickling fountains and quasi-native objets. Every element would be equally at home in Thailand or Bora-Bora, though that hardly diminishes the effect—particularly after dark, when the resort seems to materialize from spellbinding halos of light. You feel you should be wearing ice skates as you glide across the lobby: the marble floors appear to flow straight into the glossy expanse of an infinity pool. All day the water's surface is so pristine that no one seems inclined to break it. Instead guests linger at the beach, a strip of glittering white sand facing a sheltered bay as limpid and tranquil as the pool.
Clusters of one- and two-story cottages line the palm-specked lawns just up from the beach. (There are also bungalows suspended on stilts above a quiet lagoon, but those lack the open vistas and cooling breezes of the oceanfront rooms.) The best of the beachside cottages lie around the curve of the thumb-shaped promontory that juts into the bay. Our room, No. 88, was at the very end of the beach, with a dead-on view of a rocky headland and the sparkling sea. You don't come to the Prince Maurice for seclusion; nearly all rooms share outdoor space or have overlapping sight lines. Our patio abutted that of another couple, with only wicker blinds to maintain the illusion of privacy. So we retreated inside, where dark woods, ocher walls, and luscious golden lighting gave the impression of a constant sunset. The bath area was nearly as large as the bedroom, with his-and-her teakwood vanities and an immense stone-and-marble tub. And in our stereo we found—no joke—a Serge Gainsbourg CD.
As at the Oberoi, most guests stay close to the resort, and between the Guerlain spa, the nearby golf course (where greens fees are waived for hotel guests), and the full gamut of aquatic distractions, we found plenty to entertain us. In the evening the action shifts to the sultry poolside bar, where every couple sips Pernod. There are two restaurants on the premises, but the savvy guests slip away for dinner at Le Saint Géran, just across the bay.
Thanks to its top-to-bottom renovation in 1999, the 27-year-old Saint Géran is once again the most popular of the island's ultra-high-end resorts. The predominantly British crowd—there's always a crowd—gathers nightly on the terrace beside the pool; by sunset all the wicker armchairs are filled with what looks like the cast of Gosford Park (but the women are in heels).
With its exuberant dance band, buffet restaurant, and proliferation of chintz curtains in the guest rooms, Le Saint Géran was a bit cruise-shippish for my tastes, but there is an impeccable beach (you expect a Zamboni to emerge from the boathouse now and then to smooth the sand), and a Givenchy spa so plush you feel restored just standing at reception. Le Saint Géran's trump card, however, is Spoon des ëles, the marvelous dining room created by Alain Ducasse. This has to be the only Ducasse restaurant you can walk into at 9 p.m. on a Thursday and find not one, not two, but six tables available; during our visit, everyone else was at the buffet restaurant. Let them eat crab cakes, we said, as we blissfully surrendered to a seven-course tasting menu that made the most of Mauritius's renowned seafood: grilled, Creole-spiced sacréchien (a delicate white fish); piquant daurade steamed in banana leaves; a perfectly baked, saffron-scented red snapper.
After dinner we joined the Brits at the terrace bar. A bejeweled woman wearing an immense hat sat down beside us. I asked her how she liked Mauritius. "Oh, we've been coming for years," she cooed. Were there any other places we absolutely had to see?"Why yes," she said. "Have you been to the spa?"
It was then that I realized why Rashida and her Bombay friends escape to Mauritius. I'd been expecting an island version of India, where the street life is pungent and "culture" pounds you over the head. But most of Mauritius is the opposite of India—taciturn, concealed, sleepy. That there's nothing much to do is precisely the point. Whereas in India il dolce far niente does not exist, in Mauritius, it is a veritable mandate.
And so we turned in our Suzuki, hired a driver (in a white Mercedes, thank you very much), and decided to hit the beach. Just after eight on a brilliant blue morning, we pulled up at Trou aux Biches, a two-mile-long stretch of scalloped white powder on the northwest coast. We lay there on the sand enjoying the silence—until suddenly, out of nowhere, all of Mauritius showed up.
Within minutes, the beach was virtually transformed into a carnival: giant tents were erected, with families of 15 or 20 laughing and cavorting underneath; ice cream trucks arrived, bells jangling; mothers hiked up their saris and splashed about with their kids; barbecue pits were ignited; soccer balls sailed through the air; Hindi show tunes played from portable radios.
We asked an Indian grandma what the occasion was. "Samedi!" she cried. Saturday! Her son explained: in Mauritius, families spend whole weekends at the beach. His extended clan had come up from Port Louis and would stay until Sunday night, sleeping under the tarp he'd stretched between three casuarina trees. They'd brought enough food to feed a village—they probably were a village. As we spoke, the elders were busy stirring cauldrons of curry. A truck puttered up, its back piled high with coconuts and sticky stalks of sugarcane. The vendor looked like a Bollywood film star and, naturally, spoke pidgin French. "Mamzelle!" he called out to my girlfriend, flashing a flirtatious grin. "Dileau! Dileau!" (In Creole, coconut is dileau en pendant, "hanging water"; sugarcane is dileau diboute, "water standing up.")
We bought two of each. "I think I'm beginning to love this place," I said, gulping down the milk of a very fresh coconut.
Since Mauritius is in the Southern Hemisphere, it's a bit hotter and more humid during the summer months (November through April), but really, any time of year is pleasant. Diving is said to be optimal from March to May and September to November, when the seas are clearest. The best way to get there is via Europe; Air Mauritius (800/537-1182; www.airmauritius.com), Air France, and British Airways all fly nonstop to the island from Paris or London (an 11- to 12-hour flight).
Where to Stay
The Oberoi, Mauritius Baie aux Tortues, Pointe aux Piments; 800/562-3764 or 011-230/204-3600, fax 011-230/204-3625; www.oberoihotels.com; doubles from $588 (including breakfast), pool villas from $980. Pool villas offer maximum privacy.
Le Prince Maurice Choisy Rd., Poste de Flacq; 011-230/413-9100, fax 011-230/413-9129; www.princemaurice.com; junior suites from $263 (including breakfast), senior suites from $555. If you don't want to splurge on a senior suite (worth it for the private pool), ask for one of the single-story villas, ideally at the far end of the property (Nos. 86 to 89 are good). Bungalows over the lagoon may look tempting, but views and breezes are better in the seaward rooms.
Le Saint Géran Hotel, Spa & Golf Club Belle Mare; 800/233-6800 or 011-230/401-1688, fax 011-230/401-1668; www.saintgeran.com; suites from $699, including breakfast and dinner. A world unto itself, as the name implies—if you need a casino, here's where you'll find one. A good choice for families, actually, since it's a bit more lively than many other Mauritian properties.
Where to Eat
Spoon des Îles Le Saint Géran; 011-230/401-1551; www.spoondesiles.com; dinner for two $150. Alain Ducasse's first venture outside Europe opened in 1999, and it's one of the treats of the island, mixing Creole, Asian, and French elements. Don't miss the amazing sacréchien or the Mauritian snapper, if available.
Le Domino Case Noyale, Le Morne (on the southwestern coast); 011-230/551-0206; lunch for two $30. This modern, whitewashed building on a lonely mountaintop looks like Blofeld's hideout, but inside is a friendly, casual place serving terrific (and very spicy) Creole dishes such as prawn curry and grilled wild boar. There are lovely views of the sea.
Palais de Chine Rte. Royale, Grand Baie (north coast); 011-230/263-7120; dinner for two $50. The touristy beach town of Grand Baie has a number of Chinese restaurants, and this is one of the best. The rather gaudy but very comfortable dining room faces the bay. You'll find great Cantonese and Szechwan seafood dishes as well as Creole curries, all in large family-style portions.
Carri Poulé Duke of Edinburgh Ave., Port Louis; 011-230/212-1295; lunch for two $16. The best Indian restaurant on the island. It's a bare-bones joint with little to no ambience, in downtown Port Louis, but note the crowd of businessmen and families waiting for carri (curry) and tandoori dishes—the food's the thing here.
What to See and Do
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden Pamplemousses; 011-230/243-3531. A veritable Eden spread across 62 acres, highlighted by the giant Victoria water lilies (which can grow to 41/2 feet across); immense gnarled banyan trees; and a few dozen varieties of palm, including the talipot palm, which can grow 80 feet tall and flowers just once before promptly dying. Tour guides can (and should) be hired near the main gate for just a few dollars.
Central Market Between Farquhar and Queen Sts., Port Louis; open daily. Indian, Chinese, Muslim, and Creole merchants sell all manner of spices, vegetables, meats, fish, and strange herbal medicines in a few busy blocks, from dawn to dusk.
Champs de Mars Port Louis; 011-230/208-6047 for schedules and tickets. Horse racing, held here May through November, is a must-see, especially for the crowd. The Saturday races are the most popular.
What to Take Home
A case of Bois Chéri vanilla or coconut tea, available at the Bois Chéri Tea Factory (Grand Bois; 011-230/627-4516).