When I step off the plane into the humid evening air on my first night in Mauritius, I’m holding down my big straw holiday hat and a Cheshire cat grin: I’m here at last! I want to yell.
Coming to Mauritius, a jewel-like island in the Indian Ocean five hours’ flying time from Johannesburg, has been a fantasy of mine since childhood.
As a youngster I would pore over adverts for holiday packages to Mauritius in the Sunday papers, gazing at the photos of parents and children in pastel resort clothes, walking hand in hand along the beach. I would imagine the joy of being ankle-deep at the edge of the blue, calm waters of the warm sea.
Mauritius seemed to me to be a place where time stopped and unlatched itself from the daily demands of ordinary life. I’ve since visited places further away, places perhaps more sought-after — Paris; New York. Yet nothing was more satisfying than feeling that plane touch down and knowing that my childhood desire was about to be satisfied.
“How long?” I shout as the taxi drives me away from the airport. An hour, he says, and I can’t help feeling disappointed: an hour seems too long to get to paradise.
But soon I’m distracted by the procession of men, women and children walking along the highway, carrying large, colourful ornaments. I have arrived during a sacred holiday, the driver says, the festival of Maha Shivratri.
The unhurried walking of the faithful, despite the darkness and the slight drizzle, contains my excitement so I sit back and relax.
My first accommodation stop is on the west coast. Sugar Beach is an expansive resort that draws architectural inspiration from the sugar plantations that were once the country’s main economic driver. The sound of a gong at the arrival of new guests in the lobby of fanned ceilings hint at what life must have been like for wealthy colonials. The rooms are more familiar, with the generic style and amenities of modern-day hotels.
It’s too late to see the beach, but still I put on my bikini to sit outside and eat the light dinner set out for my arrival — cold meats, coconut pieces and the sweetest, fleshiest pineapple slices.
I wake up a few metres from the warm waters and saunter along the beach and green grounds neatly bordered by tall coconut palms, heavy with fruit. I’ve resolved to do two things: take on as many activities as the resort has to offer, and then spend the remainder of the days sunning myself on the lounge chairs lining the beach and the pool that snakes around the grounds of the resort.
I live out the first of my plan: playing tennis, snorkelling and pedalling a kayak deep into the lagoon, then stop to lie back and drift and stare at the sky, my feet dangling in the water.
I return to the Sugar Beach pool to find my own piece of heaven among the many guests already stationed around it. There is another, more private pool, just around the corner. But I am happy here, among the many accents, mostly French, that become the background soundtrack to my late-afternoon snooze.
I am surprised there are not more South Africans. Though 70% of the guests are European, Mauritius has been the regional holiday destination for South Africans for years. “It’s like their Mediterranean”, I have been told.
Above all, Mauritius is for lovers, I conclude. Not just honeymoon couples, but also loved ones seeking to reconnect. Big families of course, but also a father taking time out with his son, a mother with her adolescent daughter and the new mother with her young family who seem permanently planted on loungers outside my room.
There are quite a few over-tanned, leathery Europeans, like the two older Italian couples whose conversation sounds like an argument.
Island of contrasts
The next day I visit the capital, Port Louis. It’s about 45 minutes away, past the many villages with their double-storey homes that house extended families and lush, overgrown vegetation. My mind hankers after the sea, but I make a valiant attempt to explore the small, crumbling city. The panoramic view from atop Port Louis’s oldest fort is lovely, as is the market with its heaps of vegetables and curios. But I don’t want to haggle over prices for miniature statues of dodos; I want to carry on reading my book in the sun.
Dinner is at Sugar Beach’s sister hotel La Pirogue, the first to be built on the west coast. The resort’s charming marketing manager, Jean Marie Delort, says I am an anomaly. “It’s rare to come across a South African who has never been to Mauritius.”
Delort is a true Mauritian with a mixed heritage. “My father is Muslim, my mother Hindu and I have a little bit of French.”
The seafood beach barbecue, starring oysters, scallops and sashimi starters, is a Friday-night tradition here and is the highlight of my stay on the west coast. Crab in a savoury relish, braaied crayfish and prawns for mains are accompanied by Creole traditional dancing.
On the other side of the island, another hour’s drive, east coast Mauritius holds surprises.
First, Long Beach is all grown-up, an architectural marvel of modern, secluded cabins, each with their own personality. Here, people come to live large and you can imagine the hotel as a destination for the young and famous: it’s a play pen in the day, where the kids can hire their own playmates to swim with while their parents sip on cocktails on the sidelines. It comes alive in a different way at night, its centre a piazza surrounded by top-notch restaurants, a club and a lounge bar. The guests are decidedly more sophisticated and younger.
The east coast also opens up to adventure. When I dock on a private island, I am enticed into paragliding. Deposited by speedboat on to a large platform in the middle of the ocean, I am hooked into the contraption and find myself swiftly swooshed up in the air. From that height, the water looks like a clear blue sky.
In the euphoria after landing, I’m talked into doing my first dive in the ocean, and though I have to be ungracefully hauled out of the water for failing to hoist myself back on to the platform, I’m beaming with pride and excitement.
I leave on the island’s 45th Independence Day, to the background of beating drums at the newly built and soon to be opened airport, which symbolises the Mauritius of the future. But, for me, it’s the Mauritius of old that holds all the magic and lives up to my childhood dreams.
The writer was hosted by World Leisure Holidays, Air Mauritius, the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority and SummerTimes for transfers from the airport and between hotels. For reservations or further information phone World Leisure Holidays on 0860 954 954 or email them on [email protected]