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Janine Avery

Friday, 16 December 2016

The year is all but said and done, the mountain of admin has got the better of you, and strings of last-minute things to do are being pulled from your threadbare brain like a magician’s hankie trick. It’s now, more than ever, that you need a beach to sit on, an expanse of turquoise water to stare at, a tall glass of citrus-something to sip from, and enough time to spend loafing in the sun that you could eventually be mistaken for a lobster.

Enter Mauritius – the ideal place to cut loose, kick off your shoes, and get some sand between your toes. I know this because I recently found myself doing just that at the newly renovated Constance Belle Mare Plage. Sun loungers beckoned to me, whispering of days spent indulging in fine French wine from a floating platform on the pool. Scents of ylang-ylang, vanilla, frangipane and sweet orange filled the air.

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Strolling along the beach at sunrise at Belle Mare Plage © Constance Hotels and Resorts

This dream destination, which seems to hang somewhere between heaven and earth, is found on the north-west coast of Mauritius. It overlooks two kilometres of pristine beach. Behind it lies a lagoon as clear as glass. The hotel was one of the first to be established on the island back in 1975 when Mauritians began to recognise its incredible potential for tourism. The Constance Group opened Belle Mare Plage with just ten self-catering bungalows, offering a unique style of beach living.

Today, the wealth of establishments to choose from along the island’s 330km coastline clearly illustrates how the tourism industry has blossomed here. Perhaps part of the secret of its success is that hospitality seems to be in Mauritian blood. Everyone I met was always willing to lend a hand and share a smile.

Once you’ve worked your way through a few of the 200 illustrious rums at Belle Mare Plage’s Blu Bar, you may regain enough mojo to set your sights on something more than sand and sun. So what is there to do in Mauritius besides sipping piña coladas and sneaking glances at the sexy French boat boy from behind your sunnies?

Play golf with Rudolph

Mauritius is definitely on the map as a golf destination. For a small island, there is a surprisingly large assortment of spectacular courses. Notable among them is The Legend Golf Course at Belle Mare Plage. Opened in 1994, it spreads over 70 hectares of a former deer reserve. Deer still roam here, and they can be quite a surprise for golfers who don’t expect to meet Rudolph in a tropical paradise.

Javan deer were introduced to Mauritius by a Dutch governor in 1639. They flourished on the island, finding agreeable homes in the forests. Today the deer can be found living wild as well as in protected areas. Deer from Mauritius have even been sent back to Java to help restock the now vulnerable population there.

Deer motifs also decorate the hand-painted wallpaper at Chateau de Labourdonnais. Built in 1859, this colonial mansion has been beautifully restored and is now a cultural museum. You can tour the house, learning about the island’s history, flora, architecture and cuisine. And, when you are done, the tasting bar beckons with yet more traditional island rum.

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Javan deer take a dip at Legends Golf Course © Janine Avery
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Hand-painted wallpaper in the Chateau de Labourdonnais © Janine Avery
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Guests have free access to two 18-hole golf courses at Belle Mare Plage © Constance Hotels And Resorts

Sacred sites and a festival of lights

This extraordinarily, peaceful nation is remarkably diverse. You’ll find Catholic churches alongside Tamil temples, and Chinese pagodas cheek by jowl with Hindu statues. Interestingly, Mauritius is the only country in Africa, where Hinduism is the dominant religion.

The most sacred Hindu site in Mauritius is the Grand Bassin crater lake. It’s a tranquil spot, framed by colourful statues and food stalls where locals offer refreshments to the pilgrims. Nearby, the Mangal Mahadev rises out of the mist. This 33-metre high statue of the Hindu god Shiva is one of the tallest monuments in the world and is well worth a visit.

I was lucky enough to be on the island for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Houses aglow in a thousand fairy lights directed me back to Belle Mare Plage.

Staff dressed in traditional saris added another layer of colour to the multicolored flowers, intricate Kolam rice drawings, and the ocean sparkling beyond.

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Hindu forehead marks represent the mythological third eye, which is thought to be able to gain spiritual insights © Janine Avery
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The Mangal Mahadev is a copy of the Shiva statue at Sursagar Lake in Gujarat in India © Janine Avery
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Kolam rice paintings are a Hindu tradition performed to bring prosperity to a home © Janine Avery

Sugar cane juice and pamplemousse

If you love to shop, the Port Louis market has a t-shirt with your name on it. Besides the usual souvenir stalls and flower sellers, an abundance of deliciously fresh fish, fruit and vegetables will get your mouth watering.

Just around the corner, Le Caudan Waterfront offers more upmarket stalls and a duty-free store. Its indoor craft market had me bewitched with a multitude of local one-of-a-kind handicrafts which can be customised on the spot for your family and friends. Buy yourself some traditionally-pressed sugar cane juice and sip it under the colourful umbrellas that dance over the central courtyard.

Model ship making is a celebrated craft in Mauritius, and a visit to a model ship factory is a fascinating experience. You can watch the tiny boats being brought to life by artisans as they painstakingly build each miniature replica by hand.

The island’s natural attractions are no less enticing. In the south-west, the Black River Gorges National Park is famed for its gorges and waterfalls. Hike through them, and you’ll spot pink pigeons and monkeys. Nearby you’ll find the Chamarel Waterfall – which plummets more than 300 feet off a vertical cliff – and the Seven Coloured Earths. These surreal rainbow dunes are striped in red, brown, yellow, green, blue, purple and violet sand. They were created when basaltic lava from the volcanic eruption that formed the island nine million years ago cooled at different temperatures.

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Colourful umbrellas form a floating awning at Le Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius © Janine Avery
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The model ships made in Mauritius are faithful reproductions of famous sailing ships, such as the Mayflower, the Bounty and Nelson’s Victory © Janine Avery
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Sugar cane juice, also known as fangourin, is made by crushing the stalks in a mill © Janine Avery

Mauritius boasts the oldest botanical gardens in the southern hemisphere. The Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden is named after the first Mauritian prime minister but is more commonly and conveniently known as the Pamplemousses (pamplemousse are grapefruit trees, which grow in the area.) Here you can see the famous giant water lilies, sacred Indian lotus, and over 80 species of palm trees. Look out for the bleeding tree (Pterocarpus angolensis), a teak tree which leaks macabre red-black sap, as well as the erotic Amazonia Pona palms, with their suggestively-shaped roots which had me giggling like a schoolgirl.

Fruit bats, the island’s only native mammals, can be spotted flitting through the trees in their hundreds.

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In the rain, the Seven Colored Earths become a terrestrial rainbow © Janine Avery
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The Pamplemousses Gardens are famous for this long pond of giant water lilies (Victoria amazonica) © Alison Westwood
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The Rochester Falls in the south of the island boasts unusual rectangular rocks and are the widest falls in Mauritius © Alison Westwood

Mauritius Travel Tips

Weather
Mauritius has almost 300 days of sunshine a year. Daily temperatures usually range between 20°C and 35°C. However, those sunny skies are not always clear, and rain can come down at the drop of a hat. It may last a few short minutes or the rest of the day. During showers it can get chilly, so, if you are out and about, be sure to pack a light jersey just in case.

Accommodation
If you are staying at a hotel, choose an all-inclusive rate if possible. Many hotels offer several restaurants (the Belle Mare Plage has no fewer than seven), and going all-inclusive gives you the chance to try them all without worrying about your budget. It’s also worth bearing in mind that spirits and wine are expensive on the island due to high taxes. All-inclusive packages ensure you can relax with a mojito whenever your heart desires.

Food
If you are a seafood lover, go ahead and indulge. Fish is fresh and reasonably-priced. Tuna and marlin are reliably delicious wherever you go. And, with great local and French chefs around every corner, you’re unlikely to be disappointed by your dinner. At Constance Resorts and Hotels, fine cuisine is one of the highlights of the experience. I was treated to a dinner with a Michelin star chef as well as a cooking class that was a highlight of my stay.

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Blu Bar at Belle Mare Plage is the place to head to meet up with friends for a cool cocktail © Janine Avery
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The relaxed, upbeat atmosphere of Indigo Restaurant is combined with stunning views out across the white sand beach © Janine Avery
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There are four swimming pools and seven restaurants at Belle Mare Plage © Constance Hotels And Resorts

Getting around
Take some time to explore the island. Although your hotel will probably offer everything you could want to enjoy your holiday in Mauritius, there is so much else to see in this gorgeous country.

While it’s possible to travel by bus, they can be unreliable, and taxis are expensive. Instead rent a car with a local company. I recommend Maki Car Rental. They offer fantastic service, are budget-friendly, and the free GPS that comes with the vehicle offers interesting information at tourism spots. A rental car also allows you to explore at your own pace, stopping off at any of the picturesque places along the way.

If you prefer to learn as you go and leave the driving to someone else, you can sit back and enjoy a guided tour with a local. Mauritours offer very informative tours of the island. Ask for Mary, the guide who became my firm friend within a matter of minutes.

Flights
Keep an eye out for flight deals, especially if you’re South African. Special offers sometimes include ‘two for the price of one’ or free accommodation. Air Mauritius, the island’s carrier, is comfortable and efficient.

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You can float above tropical fish with a snorkel or go on private or group scuba dives to explore the stunning reef just offshore of Belle Mare Plage © Janine Avery
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From waterskiing, windsurfing and Hobie Cat sailing, to big game fishing, parasailing and kite surfing, you’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy the ocean waves © Janine Avery
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Local fishing boats bob in the calm, clear bay © Janine Avery
Africa Geographic Travel

About the author

janine-avery-victoria-falls-zimbabweJANINE AVERY is the first to confess that she has been bitten by the travel bug… badly. She is a lover of all things travel, from basic tenting with creepy crawlies to lazing in luxury lodges – she will give it all a go.
Janine is passionate about wildlife and conservation, and she comes from a long line of biologists, researchers and botanists.

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