Round-the-world: Mauritius top five

Mauritius has all sorts of charm by the bucketload. It’s got beaches, beautiful resorts, rough-and-tumble districts, colonial architecture, and a tropically lush physical environment. Following are five stand-out places and pastimes that showcase the island’s distinctive beauty.

1. Local grub. In addition to the fresh seafood on offer, there are hunting reserves on Mauritius that generate incredibly delicious venison and boar. Eat these things. Plenty of other food items have to be transported over huge distances and are not particularly fresh. Two restaurants in the south of the island (La Bougainville in Blue-Bay and Les Copains d’Abord in Mahébourg) are particularly good; the latter has a direct relationship with a hunting preserve and puts especially tasty and fresh things on its menu. Its hearty sausage stew, which admittedly has to be flown over 300 miles from Rodrigues Island, is outstanding.

2. Botanical Gardens. The Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens (above and below) are referred to by locals as Pamplemousses. They are a wonderfully peaceful place to relax, despite poor signposting. Guides can be arranged, though it’s perfectly pleasant to simply wander around in blissful semi-ignorance, enjoying the beautiful foliage. The gardens contain a monument to Sir Ramgoolam, the first president of Mauritius following independence, trees planted by visiting heads of state, and a gorgeous colonial mansion (see below.)

3. Le Jardin de Beau Vallon. Located near the airport, this hotel and restaurant occupies a colonial house dating to the 18th century. The restaurant is in the main building, with guest rooms in the house and in several detached cottages. The restaurant is very good, one of the best we sampled in Mauritius. The house, which has been restored beautifully, casts a romantic spell. If you’ve ever had fantasies about drinking rum on a porch on an Indian Ocean island while curtains billow behind you and the fan churns its way through the thick heat, then this is one place to quench them. And if you’ve never entertained such fantasies, an evening at Le Jardin de Beau Vallon might just conjure them up.

4. Beaches. At Chantemer, we were awfully lucky. The windswept beach at the guest house’s doorstep is beautiful. On weekends it fills up a bit with kiteboarders and picnickers, but never to the point of annoyance. There are other great beaches on Mauritius, but this one, to the west of Pointe D’Esny, is very possibly the island’s best.

5. Bois Cheri tea factory. The relatively steep admission here (350 rupees, over $12) ends with a tea tasting at the factory’s hilltop restaurant. The tour starts in a cavernous museum room full of displays devoted to the history of tea and the tea industry. A guided tour of the factory follows. It’s fascinating to watch the tea leaves arrive, go through the drying, slicing, and heating process, and then get packaged. The tour is fascinating. It’s also strangely comforting to be overwhelmed by the deep scent of tea leaves at various stages of transformation. Tours are always offered on Wednesday, and during heavier harvest times tours are provided on a daily basis.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Chantemer, a Mauritius guest house

“This is not a hotel. This is a private home.” With these words, Indra Tinkler, widely referred to simply as “Madame” by taxi drivers and other tourism providers across the south of Mauritius, introduces us to Chantemer, her small guest house. There is a flourish of the hand in the delivery. I assume–it turns out correctly–that we are in for an entertaining stay.

Located at Pointe d’Esny near Mahébourg, Chantemer’s neighborhood is a prosperous one, occupying an idyllic stretch of coastline between a resort called Preskil and the town of Blue-Bay. The surrounding area is full of lovely villas, none garish or McMansion-like. Most of these villas boast a stretch of white-beige beach of their own.

Chantemer is the sort of quiet, good value guest house that cost-conscious travelers yearn for, treasure, and then recommend to the like-minded. The house’s downstairs, where Madame lives, is stylishly appointed. Guest rooms are tasteful and simple, with many of Madame’s own paintings hanging throughout. The basics for budget-minded and midrange leisure travelers are all there. The water heater works. The breakfasts (fruit, bread, and coffee) are fresh if small, though a boiled or fried egg can be ordered for an additional 25 rupees, which is less than $1. Rooms also have refrigerators, and two of the three rooms have balconies with sea views. Rooms do not have televisions. If anything, this amenity absence adds to the bolthole atmosphere. Chantemer’s backyard, which leads down to the beach, is populated with palm trees and bougainvillea, among other tropical flora. After nine days spent checking out many different beaches on Mauritius, we came to the conclusion that Chantemer’s beach was the best on the island. That claimed, the constant presence of windsurfers and kiteboarders playing with the robust wind means that it’s infrequently completely empty.

To be sure, there are some downsides. The wireless Internet did not work while we were there, and there are no phones in rooms. This latter fact means that, until they get their bearings, guests are dependent on Madame to call for taxis. As the guest house is a good 20-minute walk from the nearest restaurant and taxi availability slows down dramatically at night, this dependence can be a little bit difficult, especially in light of Madame’s busy social calendar. These logistics can be handled with a little advance planning.

While Mauritius has its share of extravagant five-star resorts, the island is less well-known for small, unassuming guest houses. Chantemer is the perfect pick for anyone looking for a simple, relatively inexpensive retreat. There are three rooms currently on offer. Ours, with a direct view (see below) of the beach, ran €78 per night. A more expensive unit has a kitchen. My sole recommendation, if you find yourself considering a booking, is to request a room with a sea view. Chantemer is one place where a kick-ass dawn view is certainly worth a few extra euros.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Port Louis Central Market, Mauritius

Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, buzzes with energy and dilapidated charm. Imposing office buildings, government ministries, and well-maintained colonial architecture bequeath some parts of the central city a prosperous, modern feel. Yet even with its hurried industry, its traffic and businesspeople, there is a sedateness. This is especially the case around palm-lined Place Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, the nerve-center of Port Louis, with its statues and colonial atmosphere. Across the highway from this central business area is Le Caudan Waterfront, a slick shopping center disconnected from the rest of downtown.

The rickety balconies and rough-and-tumble magic of the blocks around the Central Market are the real draw. The feel here is quite French, though more along the lines of New Orleans than Nice. There’s a Bourbon Street, a Chinatown, countless shops, old buildings, and a pleasingly grubby tumult. It’s impossible to stroll through and fail to be impressed by country’s ethos of coexistence across a range of ethnicities and religions. In Port Louis, a Buddhist nun, women in headscarves, churches, and Hindu social organizations all share space on the same block. This dizzyingly plural cultural setting is exciting.The center of the action is the Central Market itself. A highlight of any trip to Port Louis, the Central Market is huge tourist magnet as well as a social and commercial activity hub for locals. Approaching the market along Farquhar Street, to its west, tourists will begin to see the hawkers almost lick their lips at the prospect of new arrivals. “Here is my card. Come with me. Where are you from? What is your country?” goes the spiel. (What follows is an entertaining lesson in the island’s tourism demographics. “Germany? England? South Africa? Australia? Netherlands? Belgium? Spain? Greece? One of the new countries of Europe? Czech Republic? Bulgaria? Romania? New Zealand? Denmark? Norway?” All no. A deeply perplexed question follows: “But my friend, where are you from?”) The hawkers are subdued and easily bypassed.

Inside the Central Market, there are stalls hawking vegetables, meat, textiles, souvenirs (most of which are made not in Mauritius but in China and Madagascar), herbs designed to address various ailments, and prepared food. The environment is hectic though not overwhelming. On the inside of the market at least, most hawkers are fairly relaxed. This is especially the case in the ground floor produce sections where tourists are less commonplace. Some of the most picturesque items for sale include chili peppers, herbs for fighting cellulite and nervousness, blocks of tofu, and long purple eggplants.

Though the Central Market is a great place to get a sense of daily life in Port Louis and pick up something to eat, it’s not necessarily the best place to purchase souvenirs or other gifts. There are other venues in Port Louis and elsewhere in Mauritius for nabbing beautiful souvenirs that cannot be located elsewhere. Unlike tourist-oriented boutiques, however, the Central Market opens a window onto local culture. It should not be missed.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Mauritius & a trip status report

Originally, we’d scheduled five nights in Mauritius and four nights in Réunion. Mauritius would be devoted to the beach and the ramshackle capital of Port Louis, while our time on Réunion would prioritize hiking and the quaint villages of the interior. This, at any rate, was the plan.

Réunion was the one pesky piece of the itinerary that stubbornly resisted advance planning. Every attempt to nail down a gîte or hotel in one of Réunion’s inland calderas failed. My email requests for room availability were either returned with regrets or ignored outright. Our sources (Lonely Planet; the French civil servant and his wife, previously resident on Réunion, who we met in New Caledonia; the French women we met on Mauritius) suggested that we should rely on a tourist office on the ground to make reservations. This prospect seemed fine with me but didn’t exactly thrill Matt.

Our informants also told us that, in light of infrequent bus connections between the airport and the inland calderas and the extortionate taxi fares, we’d probably need a car. (Ordinarily, we would have inquired with our hotel regarding a transfer, though this was not an option in light of our inability to snag a reservation.) The hardy French women we met in Mauritius detailed their exquisite week-long itinerary over breakfast one morning. It involved hiking from gîte to gîte through the mountains. “You see nobody for half the day. It is like you are alone on the earth,” one of them said. That sort of isolation, with a simple bed and a home-cooked meal at the end of every hiking day sounded like a perfect holiday.

We weighed all this information against our existing itinerary. We had a limited amount of time (nine nights) set aside for these Indian Ocean islands, after all, and the thought of more fully exploring Mauritius struck us as more appealing than the alternative. In addition, the idea of returning to Réunion on a later occasion and doing it properly, hiking across the island’s trails and staying in countryside gîtes, seemed preferable to a more rushed visit.

So, after much conversation, we decided to remain on Mauritius for the entire nine nights. Our guest house in Mauritius had room for us for the entire period, and we were able to cancel our refundable Mauritius-Réunion round trip tickets on Air Austral, albeit with a penalty.

Mauritius was full of surprises from the beginning. It was mercifully cheap, for one, a huge relief after the staggering prices in Australia and New Caledonia. Mauritius is a culturally extremely diverse place, with Hindu, Christian, and Muslim adherents in evidence throughout. The majority of the population is of Indian descent, and Mauritius is ethnically diverse across the board, with Creoles of African ancestry and small percentages of Chinese Mauritians and Franco-Mauritians completing the puzzle. It’s not a rich country by North American standards, but it’s relatively well off, typically ranking in the top five or six African countries in terms of per capita GDP.

Mauritius is one of only eight countries that belongs to both the British Commonwealth and the Francophonie, and its first language of Mauritius is French Creole. We found that most Mauritians reached for French before English when interacting with foreign visitors, and most newspapers were in French as well. The French influence saturates many spheres of life on Mauritius. One example is culinary. Although curries are a menu staple, food is generally quite mild.

We spent our time exploring Port Louis, the capital, Pamplemousses Gardens, the southern quarter of the island, and the east coast up to the town of Trou D’Eau Douce. It was a fantastic week and a half. Stay tuned.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

The top ten most affordable private island retreats in the world

Dutch newspaper “De Telegraaf” put together a collection of the ten most affordable private island resorts in the world. The lineup has something for everyone – from a one bedroom shack on the Falkland Islands, to a six bedroom mansion on the side of a cliff – with private diving facilities.

Buying your own private island may be out of reach, but with rates starting at just $100 a night, you can relax on your own island and enjoy a week of luxury without anyone around you. In most cases, the only inhabitants of these islands are the animals – and a once-a-day delivery of meals to your private villa.