When I was a teenager, my parents gave me an “islands of the world” calendar featuring 12 months of impossibly turquoise water. You know, the ones with coconut trees bending over a white sandy beaches. I’d cut out the photos, taping them to the walls on my bedroom, dreamily staring at them long after the months ran out, and a new calendar arrived. The islands had wonderfully exotic sounding names: The Maldives, Tahiti, Seychelles, and my favourite, Mauritius. Something about the way it rolled off the tongue.
It was no short flight to get to Mauritius. Located 900km east of Madagascar, it is a tear drop tropical island home to 1.2 million people, mostly descendants of Indians brought over by the British to work on sugarcane plantations. Since independence in 1968, the official language of Mauritius is English, everyone speaks Creole, and reads and writes in French, a throwback to its French colonial days. Not that I paid too much attention, soaking in my first warm summer night, and an all-night Creole celebration outside the capital of Port Louis. At last, I was invading those dog-eared photos on my old bedroom wall.
As one the most popular honeymoon and holiday destinations for French, German and British tourists, the island has around 100 resorts, primarily congregated in the north and west. I headed south, a region that is slowly shifting away from sugarcane into exclusive golf courses and luxury villas. Like other tropical islands, Mauritius is refocusing its resources on tourism to offset declining sugar prices. The Heritage Le Telfair Resort is part of four properties developed under the same locally-owned hotel group, oozing old world service. Every night, I dug my toes in the sand watching a picture perfect sunset, as one is prone to do on island escapes. A short golf cart ride away is the Villas Valriche, where foreigners can purchase luxury 4 bedroom villas overlooking a stunning 27-hole golf course. While you can expect to shell out a couple million dollars for the privilege, it comes with handy Mauritian citizenship. Sell your villa however, and you lose your passport.
On a boat cruise to the nearby Ile de Coco, a pod of Spinner dolphins are practicing their aerial gymnastics. In the distance, I see a mountain called Le Morne, where escaped slaves took refuge, and preferred to jump to their death rather than be captured. The captain plucks spiny sea urchins off the shallow lagoon floor, cuts them open, cleaned them out, and hands them to me with a dash of white wine and lemon juice. Seafood never tasted so good. Like other Mauritians I’d met, the Captain was cheery and good-natured, sporting a white toothy watermelon smile. He tells me about Snake Island (which is round and has no snakes) and Round Island (which has snakes and isn’t round). That people here leave their religion at home, which is how Hindus, Muslims and Christians co-exist peacefully. How 70% of the staff in the resorts springing up in the south are from neighbouring villages. Creole pop music is blasting from the speakers. I crack another cold Stag beer, knowing it can’t be that simple. A small white minority own most of the land, there are traffic jams every day inside Port Louis, and basic goods can be pricey, imported from as far away as Australia and South Africa.
I took a break from the beach to visit a roadside attraction called Casela, a bird and safari park, where I petted lion cubs and drifted amongst zebra on an offroad Segway. Around me were honeymooners and families, the Euros loving their ultimate tropical island getaway. I could drive from south to north in just three hours, leaving the mountains for the traffic of Port Louis, and the more developed north. Here I found resorts with rows of couples facing each other over candlelight at poolside restaurants. Fortunately, my wife was with me, because this is really not an island you want to experience on your own (nor does it appear to cater much to singles or backpackers).
At this time of year, there are enough snowflakes falling in Canada to inspire a visit to any tropical island. Unless you fly via hubs like Dubai, Paris or London, Mauritius might yet remain one of those elusive calendar dreams, brightening up an office wall. Perhaps, if we dream big enough, we might one day yet find ourselves under the shade of a coconut tree.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.