A taste of paradise in Mauritius

Sat, Nov 27, 2010, 00:00

GO MAURITIUS: With its unspoiled natural beauty and its forward-thinking attitude, this tiny island is as hopeful a vision of the future as you’re likely to find under the sun, writes Danny Denton

PERHAPS BECAUSE of the genre of science fiction, there is often a feeling in modern airports that one has entered a future age. A speck in great chrome and glass structures, the airport visitor is witness to all the exposed vents, the porous galaxies of light fixtures, the hiss of sliding doors and oceanic swarm of air conditioning that we’ve seen on television space ships.

This illusion is usually displaced once you’ve reached your destination and exited the terminal into a grittier present tense. At Dublin, one emerges into a humdrum junction of buses and taxis, and that horizontal drizzle we seem to cultivate here. Other destinations crack the vision in their own ways, letting you know that you haven’t moved too far along the temporal plane.

In one place, this is not the case. Though Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport in Mauritius might sound like it’s named after a fictional intergalactic ambassador, it is actually a quaint place of palm trees and runways; what is futuristic, and indeed utopian, about Mauritius, is everything else.

Mauritius seems to be the place that we, as a species, have longed for, in which racial tolerance and forward-thinking are commonplace, and natural geographic beauty is largely unspoiled. The country’s folk are a mixture of Indian, African, French, English and Chinese, and all of these languages are taught upwards from primary school. Mixed marriages are uncomplicated, and the cuisine makes the most of its mixed heritage (for example, the use of French methods in cooking tropical ingredients). Locals used to sport the T-shirt friendly slogan, “No Problem in Mauritius”, and this is pretty much the mantra of any stay on the island.

DISCOVERED uninhabited by the Portuguese, Mauritius was briefly claimed by the Dutch before the French and English made a more decent effort at colonisation. Sugar plantations covered the land for centuries, with tourism now the island’s other economic heavyweight. And while the north of the island is densely populated by competing resorts, the southwest, and Domaine de Bel Ombre in particular, is an encouraging example of man’s ability to prosper gracefully with the natural landscape. The island’s flora, fauna, and geographical charm remain unspoiled here. Native and introduced species like albizia, raffia, traveller’s palm, princess palm, wild pineapple and the beautiful pepper tree populate the dormant volcanic slopes, a home to colourful birds such as the echo parakeet, the gorgeous red fodi, the fruit bat and the pink pigeon.

The island’s volcanic DNA has resulted in basalt pathways that encourage spectacular waterfalls, so in a natural reserve like Frederica, you are never more than a couple of acres away from the waterfall and lagoon of your romantic dreams. It is no wonder that Mauritius is such a memorable honeymoon destination.

In 1810, a Belfast doctor named Charles Telfair visited and fell in love with Domaine de Bel Ombre. An avid naturalist, Telfair soon settled here, opening the Mauritian Natural History Museum in 1829. No man of learning did more for the diffusion of scientific knowledge in Mauritius, and indeed Telfair’s love of nature pervades the region today, and is especially evident in the philosophies of a trio of utopian village resorts that hug the southwest coastline.

Heritage Le Telfair (named for the Irishman) is the quietest and most elegant of the three. A traditional French Colonial-style village, Le Telfair is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, and is perfect for the couple or family who want to relax. The Citronniers River separates the main reception from clusters of French Colonial accommodation. The rooms are a historic illusion, with painted French windows of intricate fretwork, dark timber floors and period furniture. Many open onto the beach (or one of the heated pools) and you can breakfast on the terrace to the sound of the offshore breakers and the sight of the sun on the Indian Ocean. Beware though, as the island’s birds, bright little fodi and the fantastically-named red-whiskered bulbuls, are happy to dine at your table with you.

Next door is the livelier Heritage Awali. The name means “a return to origins” and the visitor’s first impression on entering Awali is that they are arriving in an African jungle paradise. Djembe drums mark the threshold, and beyond the darkwood reception area a seascape of swimming pool lagoons awaits, reflecting the sky as far as the beach. Awali is also set out like a village, but the rooms resemble tribal homes. With exposed wooden beams and palm-leaf panelled doors, the design here is all dark curves and cushioned wicker furniture.

Up on the hill with the golf club, between mountain and sea, the Villas Valriche is a relatively new concept to the island, offering varying degrees of utter opulence in the form of 40 or so self-catering villas. The styles vary and the decor is contemporary, with huge, extravagant furnishings. It’s fair to say that they’ve thought of everything, from the beastly Weber barbecue outside to the Nintendo Wii in the lounge.

The villas were designed with fun-loving groups in mind, be it families or teams of golfers, and concierges, chefs, babysitters and butlers can be arranged to cater for parties. The golfer won’t have far to go, as the club encroaches on your landscaped back garden. Infinity pools, verandas and gazebos come as standard, and the design affords privacy as well as splendour.

It is to be noted here that staff at all three resorts are of impeccable quality, a fact of understated importance and often overlooked. And while an expensive holiday option in chastened times, Domaine de Bel Ombre offers excellent value for money. Guests of the three resorts have access to wonderful facilities, including the Seven Colours Spa, Golf du Chateau, the Timono Kids’ Club, The Beach Club (where you can arrange various watersports) and the awesome Frederica Natural Reserve. There are regular tai chi and yoga classes, and a personal trainer can be summoned if you’re feeling energetic. This is presuming you don’t just want to sit by the Indian Ocean for the duration.

The Seven Colours Spa adheres to the philosophy of the seven chakras. There are sessions tailored to golfers, detoxers, and even a dance massage, which relaxes you in time to the music. Honeymooners can use luxurious private quarters, and learn how to massage. The spa is also at the forefront of a new type of wellness treatment: well-being through eating. The menu, available at restaurants in Awali and Telfair, uses various oils and juices in correspondence with chakra methods for relaxation and revitalisation.

THE STEREOTYPICAL article would now assert that while the lady is at the spa, the man can head for the golf club, but no matter how stoic, any man would be foolish to skip Seven Colours. Nonetheless, if or when he does don the golf gear, he’ll find the course as scenic as it is challenging. On the grounds of the old colonial chateau of Telfair (now a fine-dining restaurant, where local couples often celebrate their weddings), Golf du Chateau was designed by Peter Matkovich, and is a labyrinthine course of lakes, streams and tropical trees. You can blame your wayward shots on the various breathtaking views.

In keeping with Telfair’s noble science, and the utopian theme, the course is environmentally green too, maintained using 70 per cent organic produce, and you’ll often spot salt being used as a herbicide as you make your way around. The clincher here is another forward-thinking concept, and again we stray into science fiction: night golf. Using a system of special flares and specifically-designed luminous golf balls, you can tee off at sunset and whiz your way around a luminescent galaxy of struck stars under a jealous moon.

The influence of Telfair is also at the heart of the available excursions to the Frederica Nature Reserve, a botanical paradise that is home to myriad species of plant and wildlife. Just inland of the resorts, Frederica offers a range of activities from meditation walks, nature trails to be trekked or cycled, quad bike excursions, or 4x4 tours of the terrain. Frederica is 1,300 hectares of lush and rugged mountainscape, dotted with waterfalls and roamed by wild deer below the trees and fruit bats above.

The essence of Mauritius is here, and it is for honeymooners, of course, and certainly for families or golf excursions too, but it’s a utopia for everyone, and as hopeful a vision of the future as you’re likely to find under the sun.

*Danny Denton flew to Mauritius with Air Mauritius and was a guest of the Veranda Group

Go there

Air Mauritius (airmauritius. com) flies from London Heathrow. Business class completes the paradisiacal nature of the voyage, if you can afford it. Return economy class flights start at £340 (€400) excluding tax, while return business class starts at £1,285 (€1,500) excluding tax.

Where to stay and what it costs

Where to stay

Guests at Heritage Le Telfair, Heritage Awali and Villas Valriche have access to the Seven Colours Spa, Golf du Chateau, a range of watersports (from kayaking to kitesurfing), various on-location swimming pools and restaurants, the Timono Kids Club, the C Beach Club (which caters for oft-forgotten teenagers) and the fabulous Frederica Nature Reserve.

Heritage Le Telfair. Named after the prominent naturalist, this colonial resort is secluded, luxurious and right on the beach. On top of the brilliant facilities, you can avail of cooking classes at Gin’ja restaurant, or learn to massage at Seven Colours Spa. Superior rooms with ocean view are €373 in the high season and €191 in the low. Keep in mind that Mauritian winters still average at about 22 degrees, while it goes up to the mid-30s in the summer, so really it’s a year-round destination.

Heritage Awali. Slightly livelier than Le Telfair, and perhaps more suited to families, Awali is a tribal oasis further down the shore. Deluxe beach front rooms go from €205 to €357 per night depending on the season, while a family can enjoy total luxury in a suite from €459.

For more rates and information on both see heritageresorts.mu.

Villas Valriche. This seems like the kind of place desperate-to-impress celebrities would rent out if they were appearing in an episode of MTV Cribs. There are four styles of villas: Veranda, Terrace, Village and Courtyard. You will want for nothing here, except the time and finances to stay on indefinitely. If you’ve somehow avoided the recession and decide to stay on, these can be purchased starting at €950,000, but try them out first.

See villasvalriche experience.com for party-specific holiday rates.

Package deals

Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk) is offering a 10-day holiday at Le Telfair next year, based on economy fares, for £2,719 (€3,200) per person. This is based on departure on April 22nd, returning May 2nd, with flights out of London Heathrow with Air Mauritius and return transfers included. During the high season (November to April),

Luxury Holidays Direct (luxuryholidaysdirect.com) offers seven nights at Heritage Le Telfair Resort Spa starting from £1,499 (€1,770) per person.