The groom in question is Ian, as British as they come and still coming to terms with the cultural melting pot that is Mauritius, his new bride’s birthplace and the location for their wedding. And so, as the sun slowly drops below the trees and we make our way through the grand house to our tables, we find ourselves sitting in the gardens of an 1850s colonial mansion built by a French family during British rule, watching an Englishman marry his Mauritian wife, and all starts to make sense.
Discovered by the Arabs in the middle ages and then the Portuguese in the early 1500s, Mauritius’ history for the following half millennia has largely reflected the changing fortunes of the European colonial powers, as the Dutch, French and British in turn vied to control this strategically important base on the trade routes to the Indian ocean.
It was the Dutch who first permanently colonised the island, the first sailors naming it after Prince Maurits and so providing the name of the country, whilst also introducing sugar cane which quickly became the island’s main export crop – two legacies which last to this day. A third was the infamous demise of the endemic dodo, caused predominantly by the introduction of pests and predators such as dogs, cats and rats which quickly decimated the population of the famously flightless bird.
Five hundred years later, Europeans continue to come to settle, but only onto sunloungers on the splendid beaches that ring the island.
And so we find ourselves sprawled in the sun at the Lux* Belle Mare, the warm Indian Ocean gently lapping at our feet. Keen to learn a little more about life on the island on the way from the airport, I had striked up a conversation with our driver, Michel. ‘It isn’t a weekend in Mauritius without premiership matches’ he explained; as with chats with drivers the world over, conversation had quickly turned to English football. In the dying light we passed fields of sugar cane spread out in the rolling hills to our left, dense forest stretching into the distance beyond. To our right, the gentle waves lapped the crumbling pavement and fishing boats bobbed at their moorings.
The coastal road winds through small villages, offering glimpses of local life. In one, a group of people in a bar that spills onto the pavement crowd around an aging pool table, lining up the next shot. In another, two women chat outside a small shop, baskets of fruit slung over their shoulders. A dog lazily lifts its head as we drive past, before settling back into its slumber in the shade of a sprawling banyan tree, proffering the occasional hopeful glance towards the nearby street vendors selling battered spiced vegetables, Chinese style noodles and Indian flatbreads. And then Michel winds down his window, offers a few words in unintelligible Creole to a guard who opens a gate, and we sweep into the other side of Mauritius, the five star resorts that have made the island famous.
As we approach the Belle Mare, we’re hit by the sweet smell of roasting coffee. Unusually, Lux* roast and grind all their own coffee, serving it in the coffee bar here as well as distributing it across the island to their other properties.
‘These hotels support the community’ explains Elvis Follet, Lux* PR manager and our host one evening at the Beach Rouge lounge bar. Beyond making its own coffee, fish supplies come from the next door village, whilst other food products are sourced from local producers where possible. In the bathrooms, products are made using local ingredients and plant extracts. I’m distracted by lights flickering in the darkness across the wide stretch of sand beyond the bar – children are crab hunting in the dark, whilst their parents drink cocktails or smoke at the sheesha bar cut into the side of a red van outside.
Further up the coast, the Shangri-La Le Touessrok has also tailored its approach to make the most of the island’s remarkable cultural and bio-diversity. The hotel has invested in a programme to protect the Mauritius or Echo parakeet, an emerald green bird endemic to the island – Maurice the parakeet is now the mascot for their social responsibility programme – and giant tortoises lumber around the gardens behind the hotel. Reclaimed wood and tree roots are used throughout the newly refurbed interiors, whilst in the spa garden herbs and plants are grown, to be incorporated into massages.
Whilst the European powers were formally ruling the island, it was also settled by Chinese and Indian merchants and labourers, who brought with them both their cuisine and, the latter, their religion; Mauritius is the only country in Africa where Hinduism is the predominant religion. With a nod to this lasting legacy, two Tandoor ovens stand prominently on display at Saffron, Le Touessrok’s Indian restaurant, which catch our eyes and draw us in. We start with tandoori salmon and seafood skewers before tucking into a chicken and prawn curry, a tasty mix of fresh seafood and spices which has established itself as one of the island’s national dishes and ably reflects Mauritius’ various culinary influence.
Our final stop is Trou aux Biches, stretched along a long sweep of soft white sand on the North West tip of the island. Between the shoreline and the beach-facing villas, a palm-thronged promenade winds its way through the trees. A golf buggy laden with drinks and snacks winds its way to and fro supplying thirsty guests with drinks and ice creams. Elsewhere amongst the 35 hectare gardens, 1,000 m2 of solar panels provide renewable energy to the hotel, whilst a desalinisation and water treatment plant helps take the pressure off the local water supply.
Flying out on our last morning nursing a rum-induced hangover from the wedding the night before, I catch a glimpse of the island through the clouds. Long sandy beaches separate calm blue seas from the thick green forests within; the ideal location for an all-inclusive beach holiday, perhaps. But dig a little deeper and it quickly becomes clear that there’s much more to Mauritius than sunbathing and seafood, its remarkable history creating a cultural and culinary, diversity that is rarely matched.
Susie Freeman Travel offers the following packages:
Seven nights half board in a Deluxe Ocean View Room at Shangri-La Le Touessrok Mauritius from £1500 per person including return flights in economy and return private car transfers.
Seven nights half board in a Junior Suite at Trou aux Biches Beachcomber Resort and Spa from £1825 per person including return flights in economy and return private car transfers.
Seven nights half board in a Junior Suite at Lux* Belle Mare from £1500 per person including return flights in economy and return private car transfers.