Blown away by the magic of Mauritius
From kite-surfing thrills to verdant peaks, the south of the island offers more than beaches, says Rory Ross
Friday 25 April 2014
Here was a fresh view of Mauritius, borne on the wind. Kitted out superhero-style in a crash helmet, Lycra T-shirt, dark glasses, surfing socks and a large harness, I was granted this peculiar glimpse courtesy of Benoit from Belgium. He is a devotee of the art of kite-surfing, and an instructor of infinite patience.
Thanks to trade winds, warm shallow lagoon, protective coves, year-round sunshine and reef breaks, Mauritius is the world centre for many types of irrational water-based activity, which often require wearing clingy Day-Glo clothing, weird high-tech kit and a personal embarrassment threshold above that of your average reality TV star. And kite-surfing – a hybrid of surfing and kite flying – is, I think, the strangest of the lot.
Truss yourself up in a harness, affix kite (basically a small parachute), stand on a surfboard and ... woah! ... off you go. You steer by tweaking two strings attached to the fringes of the kite that's billowing above you; pick up a rogue thermal and before you know it you are up in the clouds and heading for Madagascar.
Jason Falconer is a kite-surfing teacher from Harrogate. He runs the Club Mistral Prestige on the beach by the St Regis Hotel on the island's southern coast. He realised that he'd caught the kite-surfing bug when he found himself devouring websites dedicated to the sport while he was working as a multimedia developer for the NHS. "Kite-surfing is more dangerous than conventional surfing. It contains the vertical element," he said. "You can leap as high as a palm tree and do somersaults and twists."
According to Falconer, learning to kite-surf takes about 12 hours. After spending one-third of that time in Benoit's company, I was still a long way from doing the twist, but I'd begun to have a dim comprehension of why people find the sport so fascinating. For those of you who fail to get blown away, so to speak, by kite-surfing, there is plenty to do and see on this most vibrant island.
A kite-surfer in action (Getty) A shock of greenery tucked away in the bottom left-hand corner of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is the full stop to the great epic that is Africa, occurring after the epilogue of Madagascar. An extinct volcano 44 miles across, Mauritius last spluttered some 10 million years ago. Now as dead as the dodo that once roamed its foothills, it nevertheless has shaped the island's topography. The horizon is studded with jagged peaks linked by ridges which form the walls of a once-great crater.
A tiny island, Mauritius is nevertheless a giant among old volcanos. Its surface is still erupting, but not with lava. Even in the 18th century, the list of fruit and vegetables that exploded into life here reads like Gwyneth Paltrow's post-break-up shopping list: maize, pumpkins, marrow, cucumber, sweet potato, coffee, bananas, mangos and pineapple. Successive waves of Asian immigration have added the entire spice rack, notably tamarind, nutmeg, cinnamon, chilli and cloves. The weather is blissful: the morning sun suffuses the island with a tender glow; after the midday furnace, the day declines into enchanting balmy evenings.
What is there not to love about Mauritius? Well, chiefly, the northern coast. Developers first moved in 20 years ago after a sugar deal between Mauritius and the Commonwealth went sour in 2006. The local economy had to diversify, and tourism went into overdrive. Today you can tick off all the usual resort brands, and Port Louis, the capital, has been glazed and concreted into submission. Happily, Java deer and wild boar still roam the central plateau, while the southern parts of the island remain almost untamed. For wild beauty, the ocean and creature comforts without the expense and overdevelopment of, say, St Barts or Barbados, southern Mauritius is still seductive.
The people are as fascinating as the place is beautiful. Mauritian society offers a soupçon of France, a sprinkle of Africa, a smidgeon of Britain and a big twist of Asia (both India and China). Every village sports a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Christian church. In this spirit of mutual tolerance, Mauritians are due to celebrate 14 bank holidays in 2014.
Sea breeze: the St Regis Hotel Mauritius has always been a stepping stone between Africa and Asia. In the 12th century, Arab merchants stopped here but then moved on. During the colonial era, the Dutch alighted but never settled. It was the French who laid the foundations. Madagascans and Mozambicans came to work the sugar cane, that great Mauritian staple. In 1810 the British took charge, a state of affairs that persisted until independence in 1968. Today, 70 per cent of the population is Indian, a legacy of the British policy of shipping indentured labourers over from Asia following the abolition of slavery in 1835.
The legacy of these colonial to-ings and fro-ings is etched in the languages and food of Mauritius today. Mauritian Creole is a simplified version of French. Today, it echoes on the streets while French wafts about villas, gardens and beaches and English fills in the forms. Rum, the local moonshine, dates from 1640, 54 years before sugar took off. The stylish Rhumerie de Chamarel, at the foot of the Black River Peak, is 100-per-cent proof that Mauritian rum made from pure sugar cane is a world-class spirit. Set in gardens ablaze with yellow allamanda, Chamarel is the £5.25m brainchild of Herbert Couacaud, CEO of the Beachcomber hotel, whose in-house restaurant, the Alchemist, uses ingredients picked, shot, trapped and netted from its 800-acre estate.
The brutality of early settlement resonates in the local nomenclature: Cap Malheureux (Cape Misery), Baie-du-Tombeau (Tombstone Bay) and Le Morne (the Mourning). Le Morne is Mauritius's icon, a brooding 1,824ft granite anvil on the south-west tip. Escaped slaves once hid on its slopes. When in 1835 a party of soldiers clambered up to break news of Abolition, the troops were surprised to be greeted not by cheers, but by men hurling themselves off Le Morne's precipitous summit. Oblivious of Abolition and mistrustful of the soldiers, the ex-slaves had no idea they were free. Death was preferable to recapture.
Give the climb a morning. From the summit you can see the pellucid but turbulent Indian Ocean pounding away. Mauritius is defended in triplicate by golden beaches, a lagoon and reefs. As surge after surge hits the reefs, they create breaks – in effect perpetual waves. Mauritius's four reef breaks are named like characters from an Amitav Ghosh novel: St Jacques, Manawa, Chameaux and One Eye. One Eye, a fast-moving 24ft tube of water, ranks among the greatest surf breaks, comparable to, if not as dangerous as, Pipeline in Hawaii, Teahupo'o in Tahiti and Jaws in Maui off Hawaii. But beware. Treacherous reefs and strong currents mean One Eye is for experts only.
From the top of Le Morne, you can peer down on the St Regis hotel, penned between Le Morne and the ocean. The hotel overlooks a generous sweep of west-facing white sand. Here a string of beachfront villas are decked out in neo-colonial style, ministered to by butlers on golf buggies (which are prone to after-you-Alphonse traffic jams; bicycles would surely be quicker). If you stare out to sea from your room, you will notice One Eye running just below the horizon some 1,600ft offshore.
There are six dining options on site, covering a suitably broad palate of Japanese, Indian, French and Asian cuisines. The most authentic and atmospheric eatery, however, is the Boathouse Grill and Bar: a structure seemingly built of salvaged wooden boats plonked on the beach that serves grilled seafood. The spa offers vital treatments such as "kite-surfers respite" but I found that a work-out at the fitness club, supervised by Arnaud, who has represented Mauritius three times in the long jump at the Olympics, had much the same effect (and the calorie-burn allowed me to attack the dining options with impunity).
By far the best thing about the St Regis hotel is its location: bang on the beach and facing due west, it offers daily showings of nature's greatest box-office hit: the tropical sunset, which you can enhance with La Belle Creole Mary cocktails that Ryan, the barman at the Boathouse Grill and Bar, mixes using local rum. The location is also the reason that watersports are quite so good. Besides the Club Mistral Prestige, which focuses on kite-surfing, the St Regis Watersports Centre offers its guests kayaking, diving, conventional surfing, water-skiing and snorkelling.
While I failed to "leap as high as a palm tree" on my kite-surf board, I felt ironic sympathy with Mauritius's most famous inhabitant. Not only was the dodo flightless, as I was, it was also fearless: a sitting duck, as it were, for hungry human arrivals. While that blighted bird is no more, Mauritius's complex history has left a heady legacy for visitors today – particularly if you stick to the south.
British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/mauritius) offers a week's half-board, at the St Regis Mauritius Resort (stregis.com/mauritius) from £1,899pp, for travel between 1 May and 11 July, including return flights from Gatwick.
A two-hour private kite-surf lesson at the Club Mistral Prestige costs €180. Equipment hire is €65 for two hours.
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