Mauritius. Paradise Found.

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Anchoring the catamaran offshore, we slipped into the warm clear waters with our fins, mask and snorkels. Drawn to the beauty of the coral reefs and the tiny fish that darted curious and colourful up to the camera.

Striped, spotted, bright and muted. Seaweed floating peacefully, eels coming into sight, then returning to their shelter. The swell reminding us that there was a world above. All the time the Chef onboard the catamaran prepared the lunch that we would return to enjoy, invigorated and alive with the moment.

This was my first visit to Mauritius, an idyllic island in the Indian Oceans that has become a household name. Instantly familiar to me, from the start exceeding all expectations. A paradise found.

Flying between Johannesburg and Mauritius, I had accompanied a group of media headed to the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport for a week at the exclusive One&Only Le Saint Geran. There was much time revelling in the relaxed delights of this signature resort, also for exploring the various interesting aspects of the island.

The One&Only Le Saint Geran has arguably the best location of all with its own private peninsula and secluded hideaway spot on the island’s East Coast. Here, with white sands on either side, all of their guest rooms have a sea view through the 4000 lovingly planted palm trees that have seen decades of growth as happy guests came and went, many returning. Stretching tall and offering shade and privacy as well as support for idyllically placed hammocks.

But more than this sense of space, calm and splendour that the property exudes, it’s the heart and soul of the hotel that draws you in from your arrival. With its easy luxury and friendly attentive service, there’s a great pride and sense of ownership among the special people that work here, take care of you, anticipate and cater for your every need.

At the Indian Pavilion Restaurant with its views towards the water, Chef Faizan Ali, who comes from a long line of chefs in Northern India, brought his own style of creative cooking with carefully selected Indian spices and herbs. Bar Manager Oliver Ramtohul took us through the St Geran home-brewed rum flavours before dinner, all the while the skies darkened for the stars to come out and water lapped quietly under our feet. Offering the option of Vanilla, Tamarind, Coconut and the more sophisticated Pink Pigeon, named after the endemic bird that has managed to defy extension.

On the one night, we dined in the flagship PRIME Contemporary Grill which brings a new kind of culinary sophistication to Mauritius. Serving only the finest Australian Angus Wagyu beef, fresh seafood and organic produce all carefully selected by Mauritian-born Chef Vikash Coonjan, flavours are delicate and presentation the finest. An added treat was the company of her Excellency the High Commissioner Dr Nomvuyo Nokwe who had much insight into the island to offer me. Other dining options include the relaxed La Terrace and the Sunset Lounge, as well as private dining on the beach.

The beautiful suits on ground and first floor were spacious, opulanet and awarded uninterupted views. Mine was elevated, which meant that I could sleep with my doors open, lulled by the sound of the sea.

The Spa, as everything about the destination, calls for pampering, wellbeing and rejuvenation. A secluded sanctuary with its own private lap pool, an assortment of treatment options, a gym with a personal trainer on hand and even yoga on the beach and tennis courts with Pro. The spa also offers a full-service beauty centre and the exclusive Pedi: Mani: Cure Studio by Bastien Gonzalez which I was treated to. A complete life-altering reconnect and cure for my damaged feet.

(I’d walked 125km for a charity the month before.)

The resort is a wonderland for all manner of watersports with beaches, coves and reefs in the sheltered lagoon providing calm waters for swimming, the Gary Player 9-hole golf course with clubhouse and Golf Academy appeasing the enthusiast and kiteboarding, water-skiing and scuba diving the adrenalin seeker.

The best thing about Mauritius is it’s small enough for you to base yourself in one place and explore the island’s highlights from there, which is exactly what we did.

Grand Baie

Tearing ourselves away from the One&Only Le Saint Géran, we toured the island, stopping at the waterfront of Mauritius Grand Baie with its restaurants, boats on the water, launch jetty’s, street food and very chilled vibe. The day we visited the clouds were out and the humidity sat at a perfect level, the air warm as the boats bopped on the calm water.

Thé Bois-Chéri Tea Plantation

Ever thought about where your tea comes from, or the process it involves from growing to having it dried and aromatic in individual tea bags for our enjoyment? Neither had I until I visited Thé Bois-Chéri, the oldest plantation and at about 350 acres, also the biggest in Mauritius. Our guide walked us through the factory offering insight into the picking, leaving for 24 hours, collecting, sorting, roasting and then to stand for three months before being packed. After this, we enjoyed a tasting of the various flavours at The Chalet, with its 360-degree views across the valley. I couldn’t resist coming home with a whole collection to enjoy.

Rum tasting at the Rhumerie de Chamarel

Personal research has shown that rum tastes better on an Indian Ocean Island. But just to be sure, inbetween the indulgences and joyful decadence, we headed to the Rhumerie de Chamarel, a beautiful estate in the South West of the island that has invested much into creating a world class product and destination, achieving both. A tour and tasting through their range of flavoured and casket aged rums, left me set on the Mandarin Liqueur and Double Distilled as my personal favourites.

One of the best things about this visit, besides the fine spirits, was the approach. Driving through some of the remaining indigenous forest in the protected Black River Gorges National Park. Here from the lush green of tall protected trees and dense ferns, we found sugarcane plantations as far as the eyes could see. Then suddenly the red roofs of the distillery arose. They have a restaurant which looked very good, although we opted to go round the corner and lunch with a view towards the ocean. Either would work very well.

Eureka Plantation House

Time at the Eureka House, an impressive homestead with ‘109 doors and 104 heirs’ is set in 6 acres of lush landscaped lawns with a waterfall within easy walking distance. Found at the end of a shaded drive in the upmarket Moka area of the island, it is reminiscient of Sugar Barron days of past and a perfect place for lunch and a walk.

The elegant Créole residence, built in 1830 and originally owned by British and French aristocrats, is reputed to be one of the largest houses on the island. The museum holds a good collection of antiques and photos and the garden an intriguing collection of wooden sculptures. Owner Jacques Maroussen met us and captured our attention with tales of family, money, the challenges they’ve faced over the years and how he, through a good divorce, has come to own the property.

Restored and opened to the public as a museum in 1986, it was a natural move to have a restaurant too, realising that the much needed proceeds from tourists would help fund the upkeep. Bordering the grounds of the main homestead is the Eureka House with two guest rooms, which looked like a lovely option for a night or two inland, was a guest house.

The Grand Bassin and Sacred Hindu Temples

On the road from Port Louis to the One&Only Le Saint Geran, a stretch of about an hour, there are many Tamil and Hindu temples to be seen. Actually, rather instinctively, the first time you drive this stretch you want to flag down the driver at every one. ‘Stop! I need a photo.’ Yet soon enough you realise that with 70% of the Mauritian population Hindu, this intricate detail in it’s varied shade of pastel is a welcome and common sight. As are the little spirit houses with offerings outside many of the homes.

There’s a great sense of spiritual enlightenment that hints of deeper meaning thoughout, yet the most sacred of all is the Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao, a sacred lake found at about 1800 feet above sea level and just 2km east of Le Pétrin and one of the most important hindu pilgrimage sites outside of India.

According to a legend the crater lake is connected with the holy river Ganges. The god Shiva, the transformer and destroyer, and his wife Parvati were flying around the world in a ship. Shiva wanted to show Parvati the most beautiful places on earth, so they stopped in Mauritius. During the journey, Shiva was carrying the river Ganges on his head, to prevent the earth from floodings. When they wanted to land in Mauritius, Shiva accidently spilled water of the holy river into the crater and this is how Grand Bassin emerged.

There is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and other Gods including Lord Hanuman and the Goddess Lakshmi. All year round devotees and visitors pay homage, collect water, breaking coconuts and spilling the pure milk on the feet of their gods, leave flowers and coins, gentles kisses before entering the temple for a blessing. The mood is contemplative and sacred. I loved it here.

It is true what is siad, God is in the detail.

On a different day we stopped at this Tamil Temple near Grand Baie and had a brief chat with the pujari who welcomed us to have a walk around and take some photos. The detail is incredible and I loved his mix of tradition and modern and his peaceful way. Not far from Grand Bassin one can admire an impressive statue of the god Shiva which stands as 33 meters tall and I was told, is the tallest statue in Mauritius. Grand Bassin is one of the highlights of a visit to Mauritius, especially if you’re interested in foreign cultures and religion.

Note: Tourists are welcome but it’s important to note that these are sacred places, dress modestly and behave respectfully. Before entering the temple, remember to take off your shoes. Pics can be taken, but at the smaller temples I found it best to ask permission.

Mauritius Street Scenes

What I loved about this trip was all that we discovered and enjoyed whilst exploring the island. Yes, we seek out the luxury and beauty, cherishing every aspect of it, but to catch a glimpse of true living, building, people going about their regular business and wholly owning ‘their Mauritius’, interested me.

How the Mauritians embrace tourism, their heritage and history with great allure, a touch of welcome chaos and loads of character. The excellent food and mix of religions. The way inland travel is being developed, the ease and openness with which they share their thoughts. How everybody accepts without fail that it takes an hour to get, well – everywhere. The pace of life is easy, the accent charming and island living ever appealing. I completely understand why people choose to move here.

Observations, I probably wouldn’t want to drive here, opted not to get on a bicycle anywhere near the crazy roads and did feel for the endless dogs that roam free, often uncared for. If only I could take them all home.

Port Louis Market

When travelling, it’s important to me to visit where the residents of the city meet, shop, eat, natter with their friends and go about their everyday business. Especially on a busy Saturday morning. It gives insight that is often lost whilst travelling, especially when there are irresistibly beautiful white beach to be on.

The capital, Port Louis, has it main market or bazaar downtown near the waterfront on Farquhar Street and is a must visit. Here traders boast with their fresh produce, the smell of earth hangs on the air and the flavours of the offerings are reminiscent to a time that pre-dates overproduction. I feasted on pineapple, cut just for me, and drank from a freshly hacked-open coconut, delicious.

Upstairs stalls with ‘Made in Mauritius’ saris, t-shirts, baskets, wooden and traditional handicraft products, local jewelries and souvenirs at a very good price. It was fun to see how many Afrikaans words were spoken soon as the store owners knew we were South African. Across the road are the fish and meat traders, not for the faint-hearted (or vegetarians like me) as fresh produce is butchered to order and rather small fish are offered up to customers. Fascinating though and in some accounts a more honest approach to the diet.

Next to the market is the large shopping mall ‘Le Caudan Waterfront’ where there are stalls, shops, food court, restaurants and museums in one place. Including the Post Office Museum and Shell Museum. With it’s 170 boutiques, Le Caudan Waterfront has certainly become a mecca for shoppers visiting Mauritius. But actually, somehow buying from independent traders in the buzz of the main bazaar, held far more appeal to me.

Wonderful to get a closer look at Mauritius, better still to return for a walk and the beach, some Sega dancing and Le St Geran special moments.

Offshore Catamaran Sailing

How better to spend our last day in Mauritius than on a gorgeous catamaran cruising the East Coast instyle, living the high life. Boarding Catamaran Cruises Mauritius from one of the South East hotels, we immediately set sail towards the coral reefs, gaining good perspective of the hills and mountains that the Mauritian coastline is known for. Green sugar cane plantations meeting the white sands and deep blue waters of the shoreline.

Taking up positions of comfort on the Cat’s trampolines, tamrin Mojitos in hand, we invited the breeze and warmth of the sun. Offshore and in a place of tranquillity we anchored, while some read others chatted, the sun lotion came out, the hat brims grew wider and the skin started to glow with sun-kissed happiness as we enjoyed a few hours at sea. Snorkelling before a delicious lunch, and our return to shore. The laughter, happiness and a sense of joyful summer living. A perfect end to a wonderful week.

Each night I slept to the sound of waves breaking on the white beach just below my suite. There was a gentle wind on the air that found it’s way to where I lay tucked up under the cotton sheet, sleeping with a happy heart and a glow of colour on my cheeks. For me, island living had never looked this good. All the while in my sweet dreams I explored the blue waters …

How I loved my time with you Ile Maurice, how relaxed and happy I was as I explored your varied sides and real stories, soaked up the decadent spoils at the One&Only Le Saint Geranfeasted on fine food, took to your warm waters and enjoyed walks on the beach. How special too, the group I shared it with. Thank you for the memories.

To quote Mark Twain ‘Mauritius was made first, then heaven was copied from it’. Easy to understand why Mauritius is the number 1 outbound destination for South Africans.

** I visited by invitation of Manley Communication and was hosted at the magnificent  One&Only Le Saint Geran for five nights, touring the island from there. The visit marked the hotel’s 40th Anniversary, and South African Airways 50th Aniversary of flying to Mauritius. We were guided by the wonderful Iris of Connections.

Read about the various activities on offer while staying with them.

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