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Travel & Holiday

Adventures in paradise

Other than stunning beaches, Mauritius also offers rich wildlife, beautiful mountains and a vibrant city culture
The Straits Times - December 20, 2011
By: Jessica Cheam
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Adventures in paradise Beautiful sunsets on pristine beaches characterise hotels on the western coast of Mauritius. -- PHOTOS: JESSICA CHEAM

There is something about a sunny, clear blue sky that makes the spirit soar, and on the sunny isle of Mauritius, there is plenty supply of it to keep that spirit from descending.

It is the perfect setting for a honeymoon but offers so much more than just a beach destination for lovebirds.

The island, about three times the size of Singapore and located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is blessed with great weather (most of the time), fertile grounds and a landscape so diverse, it is one of the rare places where you can take in stunning views of the emerald sea and vast mountains all in one gaze.

For my husband and I, after months of juggling work demands and preparing for a wedding, Mauritius offered just the right blend of sun, sand and beach activity - otherwise known as doing nothing while lying on the beach sipping a pina colada - and adventures further inland when we had the energy to seek them out.

The real Mauritius is quite different from the images painted in idyllic postcards. Pry a bit deeper and you will see a juxtaposition of the rich and the poor, the noisy and the quiet, and the beauty and the not-so-pretty side.

We started our two-week vacation in the north of the island, the most developed part of the country and home to the capital of Port Louis.

We started off at a hotel in Balaclava (research hotel rates at www.hotelsmauritius.mu) and used it as a base to explore the surrounding sights.

Grand Baie, known as the 'bay without end', is the trendiest location in north Mauritius. The bay is dotted with everything from fishing boats to catamarans and expensive yachts, while the coast is lined with restaurants, bars, clubs and shops.

We set off on a sunset catamaran cruise from Grand Baie one evening (about $110 a person, www.croisieres-australes.mu) to music from the crew's radio and an abundant supply of alcohol and barbecued seafood, while we watched the sun set on the horizon against a backdrop of amazing colours.

Back on the shore, roadside stall owners hawk their wares such as fresh seafood caught that very day in the sea by fishermen and fruits grown in the surrounding farms.

Port Louis is a buzz of activity for this country with a population of about 1.3 million people. Here, you can see remnants of British influence on the architecture. This is the economic hub of the country and it is reflected in the busy port and Central Business District that boasts many of the world's top banking institutions.

We had a great day exploring Port Louis, starting first at the Caudan Waterfront (Marina Quay) with a wide selection of restaurants, cafes and shops. We then made our way to the Central Market (Farquhar Street) where it is dirtier and grimier but also far livelier as this is where the locals shop.

The market offers everything from fabric and vegetables to birds and lottery tickets. It is here that you see the melting pot of cultures that is Mauritius, made up of a majority of Indians, followed by Creole, Chinese, French and expatriates from South Africa, with Creole as the main unifying language. The country's French roots speak of its history as a French capital in the 1700s.

Its multi-culturalism is also reflected in the food, which is a curious blend of Indian, Creole and Chinese cooking but works wonderfully well.

A typical lunch consists of rice, a chicken and prawn curry, lentils and papadums topped with pickled vegetables.

The National History Museum (Chaussee Street, free entry) is located in Port Louis. The setup may be unsophisticated but the museum offers a trove of interesting finds, including the skeleton of the now-extinct dodo bird, which, incidentally, the Mauritians are very proud of - the picture of the creature is everywhere on all sorts of tourist souvenirs.

We moved from the hustle and bustle of the north to the peace and quiet of the mountains in the south's Black River Gorges National Park. It is the country's only national park and features rolling hills covered with an endless, thick forest canopy.

We stayed in a hidden hamlet called Chamarel tucked in the western hills and explored the surrounding sights by day and hid in our wooden cabin ($220 a night, www.leschaletsenchampagne.mu) at night.

Rum tasting, animal watching

There is no Internet connection anywhere here and hardly any trappings of modern life.

We visited the Chamarel Waterfalls in the national park, got drunk by lunchtime at Rhumerie de Chamarel (part of the 350 Mauritian rupees, or S$15.50, tour price was a sampling of 10 different types of rum) and went quad-biking at the Casela Nature & Leisure Park (Royal Road, Cascavelle, 300 Mauritian rupees entry fee each).

For a tidy sum of about 2,800 Mauritian rupees for two, we got up close and personal with magnificent animals such as ostriches, zebras, impalas, tigers and lions - the big cats with much staff supervision. It was money well spent.

But the best part of the holiday was yet to come - and we found it in the east of the island in an unassuming fishing village of Trou d'eaux Douce, which means 'sweet water hole'.

Here, we saw the country's disparity of wealth among its citizens most starkly. Dilapidated, half-completed concrete homes dotted the coast, with the womenfolk washing their laundry at the mouth of a river, while five minutes away, the most luxurious resorts staked their claim on the beach.

Rich or poor, however, all the Mauritians we met were characterised by generosity, hospitality and a cheerfulness that reflected the sunshine. They were loud, lively and unafraid to speak their minds.

The village is small, if a bit lonely, but its biggest attraction is Ile aux Cerfs, a picturesque island which is a 15-minute boat ride away (300 Mauritian rupees each for a return ticket) from its coast.

Except it is not just picturesque, the island is the closest I have experienced to a slice of paradise (and I have been places) - epitomised in an unforgettable moment when my husband and I went para-sailing (2,000 Mauritian rupees for two) and soared hundreds of metres into the sky with the Indian Ocean before us, above the clearest of waters, on the sunniest of days, with the whitest sandy beach below.

After moments like that, everything else just seems a little less euphoric - but with the blue sky above, it will take some hard work to be miserable.

We left the island of adventure behind with wonderful memories but it is one of those places that once discovered, we know we will keep going back for more.

5 things to do

1. Go in the cooler 'winter' months from May to November to avoid the humid weather that characterises the summer months of December to April. Bring plenty of sunblock as the sun can be searing even during this time.

The cyclone season normally runs from November to May, but the island is not usually adversely affected by it.

2. Check out the snorkelling and dive spots around the island. Most hotels on the coast offer such activities and can take you on a boat ride to the best spots for diving for a fee.

 

3. If you have time, visit the Mauritius Turf Club (above) at Champ de Mars, Port Louis. The horses race against a beautiful backdrop of rolling hills. Could be worth a punt or two.

4. Haggle with taxi drivers. Rates are often determined in advance and drivers are notorious for overcharging tourists. If you befriend a driver, it could work out cheaper to hire him for a fixed rate for the whole day.

5. Be adventurous with food. Mauritian cuisine offers the freshest seafood and you can try unusual dishes such as octopus curry and fresh catches of the day marinated with local spices.

2 don'ts

1. Don't wander the streets alone at night. While relatively safe, petty crime such as theft are known to happen in less-populated areas.

2. Don't leave it to the last minute to book hotels, especially in the high season which coincides with school holidays, Christmas and New Year. Hotels are expensive but if you book early, you can source for good finds within your budget. Prices start from $150 and are usually for half-board, which means breakfast and dinner are included. This helps to keep your food bill low.

 

GETTING THERE

Air Mauritius flies direct from Singapore to Mauritius, with airfares costing from $1,000, depending on when you travel.

A typical return ticket costs $1,500. The flight there takes about seven hours. The flight back goes through Kuala Lumpur before reaching Singapore, making the total journey time 91/2 hours.

Other carriers such as Emirates and Malaysia Airlines also fly to Mauritius from Changi Airport and cost from $1,000, with stopovers either in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur.

An alternative is to take Air India or Jet Airways through India.

 

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