The southwestern corner of Mauritius is undergoing transformation. Damian Santamaria explores how an emerging ecotourism scheme in the Bel Ombre region is helping the regeneration of this amazing island
As a child, before I could even imagine that my adult life would one day be dedicated to sustainability, one story stuck in my mind – one that might have just influenced all of my future choices. It goes something like this.
Long ago, the dodo bird lived peacefully on a remote island on the Indian Ocean. Over many years, without any mammals around to threaten its safety, the dodo lost its ability to fly and the size of its wings reduced greatly. Instead, it learned to walk on the ground and feed on the fruit that fell from the trees.
By the 16th century, the first group of settlers set foot on Mauritius, and within the century the entire dodo population had disappeared from the face of Earth. Since then, the flightless bird has been the most prominent symbol of animal extinction by human activity – and the icon behind Mauritius’ nickname.
The memory came full-circle when, disembarking an overnight flight from London to Dodo Island, my passport was stamped with an image of the bird. I took this as a reminder – perhaps my visit was to serve a purpose; perhaps I should take the time to learn about the island’s environmental and social initiatives related to ecotourism.
And that’s exactly what I did. My destination was in the south-western, less-developed area of the island, stretching over 8,582 hectares that span the Black River Gorges National Park Bel Ombre region, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1977. This territory boasts over 150 native species that occur nowhere else in the world, be it the fruit bats also known as flying foxes or the pink pigeons and echo parakeets.
For 200 years, Bel Ombre has been dedicated to the cultivation of sugarcane. Today, the remnants of French and British sugar factories have been revived to house museums, exhibition spaces and artisan shops. Managed by Mauritian company Rogers Group under the slogan Lamer. Later. Lavi (‘Land. Sea. Life’), Bel Ombre is be coming the mecca for ecotourism, highlighting local know-how and protecting its ecosystem. It is a place where people and nature thrive in tandem; a resilient region that includes and values its community.
During my six-day trip, I participated in and witnessed initiatives ranging from food waste management systems and coral protection to regeneration research projects and clean energy production. Integrating community voices and expertise into the project long before its conception – and focusing on a local workforce – the Rogers Group are very proud of the first steps of their master plan. Their Sustainability Charter delves deeper into the philosophy behind the transformation of Bel Ombre.
And if they continue on this path, I firmly believe this will not only revive the local economy by invigorating the fauna and flora, but could become a brilliant example of ecotourism management and innovation for other islands around the world.
In the exciting realm of the new green economy, the world of social and environmental sustainability and conscious tourism we are all winners. As the Dodo in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland says, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes’.
To help you enjoy your visit to Mauritius responsibly, here are my recommendations for a mindful and exciting experience on this magical island.
The most prominent languages you’ll hear everyday are Mauritian Creole, French and English.
Where to stay
Heritage Resorts’ accommodation comes in three architectural styles, each with restaurants, bars, and direct access to the sea and pools (the classy Le Telfair was my favourite). For a more authentic experience, stay in Kaz’alala, where local produce and a Responsible Tourism scheme make for a stellar B&B experience, or opt for a night at Le Chateau de Bel Ombre, a quintessential plantation house. At the turn of the 19th century, Hajee Jackaria Hajee Ahmed erected this superb colonial mansion on the Bel Ombre estate, framed by mountain peaks and dotted with trickling fountains.
What to do
A must-visit in Mauritius, the Bel Ombre Nature Reserve offers a one-of-a-kind, year-round experience in the heart of a scenic nature reserve. Expect stunning biodiversity paired with adventure aplenty – don’t miss the Guided Trek with Ranger or a picnic at the foot of the Frédérica waterfalls.
I highly recommend exploring Mauritius by e-bike – DunienZîl is a family business, sharing some of the most beautiful and off-the-beaten-track places only accessible by bike. Laurent M. d’Unienville will take you across small villages, learn the local customs, cook and eat with Mauritian families, swim in hidden waterfalls… The opportunities are endless.
Make sure to visit the amazing Le Chamarel waterfall, too. Set high amidst a wooded plateau, Chamarel is a place where summer days are cool and comfortable with pleasant afternoon breezes. The surrounding area is renowned for its unique culture, food scene, and picture-perfect panoramas from an iconic viewpoint.
A stone’s throw away, the Chamarel 7 Coloured Earth Geopark is an immersive experience blending geology, education, and conservation with wonder and discovery in order to connect to the island’s fascinating natural heritage.
A five-minute walk from the Heritage Resort, I must admit I was reluctant to visit the World of Seashells. But I emerged inspired and amazed by Africa’s largest seashell collection. It’s truly one-of-a-kind, exploring the secrets of shells and the fascination that they have evoked in men over the centuries, from the most poisonous shell in the world to shell instruments and tribal jewellery.
Then, treat yourself at the Seven Colours Spa. Here, the belief is in healing found in oneself and one’s natural environment – experiences embrace the Eastern wellness philosophy, which focuses on the energy in and around the body, with nature at the centre of all. I was lucky enough to experience one of the signature massages with warm cocoa oil, but everything is tailored through the seven chakras colour palette.
Where to eat
Indulgent, refined creole cuisine and bird’s-eye views over the mountains and coast await at Le Chamarel Restaurant – the traditional la tab’diri (Mauritian rice table) lunch is made up of a rainbow of authentic Mauritian Creole flavours, served family-style. It’s a real feast for the senses, recreating the traditional colonial banquets of 18th- and 19th-century Mauritius and drawing on the country’s rich culinary heritage. A focus on local and seasonal ingredients ensures an ever-varying menu that reflects on the diverse origins of its people.
The Agria agricultural estate quickly became one of my favourite places to discover local flavours, too. It’s an agritourism destination that supplies seasonal products to its group of restaurants – truly farm-to-fork when it comes to fruit, vegetables, game, deer, and wild boar.
Afterwards, a cup of Chamarel coffee is a must. Cultivated in Chamarel since 1967, these plantations were established by the Bel Ombre sugar estate with the assistance of Oswald du Chasteleer, a coffee planter previously based in the Belgian Congo. Today, Chamarel Coffee is the only coffee grown and processed in Mauritius. Chamarel’s plantations extend over 16 hectares at an altitude of 280 metres, the coffee trees themselves planted between rows of palm trees to protect them from the wind and harsh sunlight. Browse the 7 Coloured Earth shop to bring a taste of Mauritius home with you – whole beans, espresso, and filter coffee are all available.
How to get there
Air Mauritius operates three weekly flights between London and Mauritius with new generation A330neo and A350 planes. Return fares start at approximately £600
Read more of Damian’s articles in Sublime Magazine
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Damian Santamaria is an international business consultant on brand, sustainability, and innovation for the green economy. He is a Visiting Fellow to the School of Business, Law and Communication in Southampton Solent University, Visiting Lecturer at the School of Media at London College of Communication UAL, an influencer of ethical fashion and Co-Founder/Director of Sublime, the first international sustainable lifestyle magazine. Connect on LinkedIn or IG: @iamdamiansantamaria