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Mauritius: The best Africa destination you know almost nothing about
If you were more aware of this small island state in the Indian Ocean, you wouldn’t be reading this, you’d be planning a vacation
Mauritius is a model of true democracy for every African country.
It's also one of Africa’s great destinations, located in the middle of the turquoise Indian Ocean, inhabited by a multi-racial, peaceful people, covered in great golf courses, offering myriad water sports, mountain trekking, hunting, birdwatching, luxurious resorts, an old colonial capital, great food, three- and four-star hotels, one of the world's best botanical gardens, good nightlife, beautiful beach bars, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one of the oldest horseracing tracks in the world, great sightseeing … but we’ll get to that in a little while.
First, I want to argue on behalf of the title of this article; that this tropical island 2,000 miles off the southeast coast of Africa does indeed provide a template for a model African travel destination.
1. Mauritius: The Island
When your island is surrounded by perfect white sand beaches, themselves surrounded by the stunning blue Indian Ocean, and the center of the island contains mountains and breathtaking scenery, plus almost year-round sunshine, it's difficult to be miserable.
I lived in Mauritius for more than three and a half years until June 2010, enjoying its scenery and also witnessing its democratic impetus firsthand.
Since gaining independence in 1968 there's never been a coup, or military or populist uprising of any kind on this small Indian Ocean island (just more than 2,000 square kilometres in size).
The population of almost 1.3 million is 68 percent Indian, but also comprises Creole, Chinese, French, plus a smattering of English and South Africans.
Between them they speak English (the country’s official language), French, Mauritian Creole, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Bhojpuri and Hakka.
Often, the sound of the native Sega music (an Indian Ocean version of calypso) inspires dancing and laughing on the beaches all night.
Participants refresh themselves with the local ice cold Phoenix beer, the occasional Green Island rum and Coke and barbecue, freshly caught seafood like snapper, dorado, prawns, octopus and lobster.
Yet any holiday on Mauritius needn't be a laze on the sand.
For sightseers there are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Aapravasi Ghat and Le Morne Cultural Landscape), the colonial capital of Port Louis, one of the oldest horseracing tracks in the world at Champs de Mars, one of the world's best botanical gardens at Pamplemousses, the Blue Penny Museum (home to one of the world's rarest stamps), the Black River Gorges National Park and the Casela Wildlife Park, where you can walk with lion cubs.
To get to any of these, or just to get around Mauritius, you can use taxis (find a good one on your first day and stick with him), hire a car or use one of the many tour companies in Mauritius like White Sands Tours (www.whitesandstours.com) or Mauritours (www.mauritours.net).
Living on Mauritius can also be cheap, with a modest one bedroom flat costing from US$320 a month, car rental from US$350 a month and utility bills much cheaper than most countries.
The cuisine of Mauritius is a blend of Creole, Chinese, European and Indian. It’s common for a combination of cuisines to form part of the same meal.
Strong ties with the French (who ruled the island from 1710-1810) has meant that even today French dishes such as bouillon, tuna salad, daube and coq au vin are popular, while Indian workers who migrated to Mauritius brought their cuisine with them, making curries, chutney, rougaille (tomato paste that's popular especially when served with fish) and pickles popular especially when given a unique Mauritian flavor.
The arrival of Chinese migrants at the end of the 19th century led to rice becoming part of the staple diet of the island and noodles, both steamed and fried, became common.
Chinese appetizers such as crispy chicken and crispy squid have also become part of the Mauritian diet.
Le Château de Bel Ombre: Located in the south of the island this lovingly restored 19th-century colonial mansion is the best restaurant on Mauritius.
In an elegant setting, à la carte fusion food is served, while on Saturday, Mauritian night, there's the chance to try authentic island dishes.
Domaine de Bel Ombre, Southwest Mauritius; +230 605 5000; www.domainedebelombre.mu/en/chateau.html
Le Barachois: Part of a small guest house this thatched stone restaurant, specializing in freshly caught giant shrimp, lobster and crab, has a daily changing menu.
The food is served on wooden tables right beside the sea -- a true Mauritian eating experience.
Anse Bambous, Vieux Grand Port, Southeast Mauritius; +230 750 9407; www.le-barachois.com
Domaine Anna: One of my favorites when I lived close by in Flic en Flac, this spectacular Chinese restaurant is set in the midst of sugar cane fields.
At night guests are greeted with lit torches along the driveway and eat in individual gazebos set on manmade lakes within tropical gardens in this palatial restaurant.
All the vegetables are grown locally and there’s live music and dancing at weekends.
Médine, Flic en Flac, West Coast; +230 453 9650; www.domaineanna.net
Land sports: Any resort hotel will also have its own people to provide you with almost any land sport you want. Otherwise, companies such as Yemaya (www.yemayaadventures.com) provide mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and cycling.
Mauritius Horse Trails (www.mauritiushorsetrails.com) can take you on some wonderful horseback tours of the island.
Golf: There are seven great golf courses on the island, the best being Golf du Chateau and the Four Seasons Golf Club at Anahita, plus several nine-hole courses.
For further details visit www.tourism-mauritius.mu/Golf-courses.
Deep sea fishing: Mauritius has some of the best deep sea fishing in the world and the Marlin World Cup (www.marlinworldcup.com) is held here every February/March.
Best expert charters on the island are run by JP Henry Charters Ltd (www.blackriver-mauritius.com).
Mountain trekking: There are well more than 20 great mountains to trek up. The best people to guide you here are YANATURE (www.trekkingilemaurice.com).
Watersports: Any resort hotel will have its own people to provide you with any watersport you can think of.
Any village on the coast will likewise have several companies to do the same. Just ask and any Mauritian will tell you where to go.
Shopping: Local arts and crafts stores can be found in most villages, as well as designer factory outlets that sell Ralph Lauren and other brands at a fraction of European prices.
And there’s the magnificent shopping mall at Caudan Waterfront (www.caudan.com) in Port Louis.
Mauritius is filled with luxurious five-star hotels and resorts, plus plenty of budget options. For a list of accommodations on Mauritius visit www.mauritius.net. Meanwhile here are a few of my favorites.
Lakaz Chamarel: Mauritius has numerous small boutique hotels well off the beaten track and, for my money, this is the best.
It’s located high in the Chamarel hills in the south of the island and has 20 luxurious guest rooms and a superb restaurant.
With rates starting at around MUR4,700 (US$160) a night it's not cheap by island standards, but its tropical surroundings are worth it.
Piton Canot, Chamarel; +230 483 5240; www.lakazchamarel.com
Le Touessrok: This great place is on the island's east coast, with luxurious rooms, most with Indian Ocean views, a great golf course on its own island, regular shows at night and a wonderful selection of restaurants of which Three-Nine-Eight, serving cuisine from nine different countries, is unparalleled.
Trou d'Eau Douce, Flacq; +230 402 7700; www.letouessrokresort.com
Villa Paul Et Virginie Hotel: Located in Flic en Flac on the west coast, the Villa Paul et Virginie is a beautiful hotel for those on a tight budget.
Just two minutes walk from the beach and serving excellent food, this 12-room hotel has an outside bar covered with a huge honeysuckle plant that provides welcome shade from the noonday sun.
Sea Breeze Lane, Flic en Flac; +230 453 8537; www.villa-paul-et-virginie.com
5. Seven-day itinerary
Day one: You can get over the long flight by relaxing on the beach, snorkeling in the beautiful Indian Ocean and chilling out with a few local beers and fresh-caught seafood.
Good to know: Mauritius has some of the best spas in the world at all the major resort hotels.
Day two: Sightseeing in the south. Start with the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the magnificent Le Morne mountain then head up into the Chamarel hills for lunch at one of the roadside Creole restaurants.
After lunch take in the Black River Gorges National Park before watching the sun slowly set at Le Chamarel Restaurant, which has incredible views across the south of the island, Le Morne and the Indian Ocean beyond.
Day three: Time for some sport or, for sun worshippers, some lazing on the beach or by a pool. Otherwise play golf, go deep sea fishing, mountain trekking, mountain biking or maybe take a cruise around the island.
The golf clubs will have great restaurants for lunch and the other activities will provide packed lunches.
Day four: If this is the first Saturday of your trip, Saturday is Port Louis day. You could spend the morning touring the old colonial center of town before grabbing lunch at Champ de Mars, the oldest horseracing track in the southern hemisphere.
In the evening, the huge Caudan Waterfront shopping center (home to the Blue Penny Museum) offers a chance to pick up souvenirs, enjoy street entertainers and find a good restaurant for dinner.
Day five: Sightseeing in the north. Visit Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens at Pamplemousses, one of the best botanical gardens in the world. Spend a long morning here then take a late lunch in ritzy Grand Baie, Mauritius' main tourist spot.
After lunch explore the wild north including Grand Gaube, where the British first landed on Mauritius, before returning to Grand Baie for dinner and to enjoy the nightlife.
Day six: Shopping day. Souvenirs. The Central Plateau area around Phoenix and Curepipe is great for this with several large malls, arts and crafts markets, and the Mauritian Glass Gallery where, in addition to picking up all manner of souvenirs made entirely of glass, you can watch the glass blowers at work and tour the Glass Museum. Have lunch in one of the malls and find a really romantic restaurant for dinner on the way back to your hotel.
Day seven: It's your last day in paradise. Go to the Casela Wildlife Park (www.caselayemen.mu) and walk with lion cubs if you've got time.