Heaven on a stick
When Deborah Ross was asked if she wanted to take her family to Mauritius under the auspices of work, she jumped at the chance. 'God's model of paradise' proved to have everything she expected from a tropical jewel, and a lot more besides...
Saturday 19 June 2004
The travel desk calls. Would I like to take the family to Mauritius for a week?, they ask. What,
the Mauritius?, I say. The jewel of the Indian Ocean, the island Mark Twain described as "God's model for Paradise", the one with the pure white beaches, coconut palms, green-blue sea as warm as bath water? The Mauritius that is generally regarded as heaven-on-a-stick? Hang on, I'll just check my diary. Well, luckily for you, I appear to be free for the dates you have yet to mention, which are when exactly?
The travel desk calls. Would I like to take the family to Mauritius for a week?, they ask. What, the Mauritius?, I say. The jewel of the Indian Ocean, the island Mark Twain described as "God's model for Paradise", the one with the pure white beaches, coconut palms, green-blue sea as warm as bath water? The Mauritius that is generally regarded as heaven-on-a-stick? Hang on, I'll just check my diary. Well, luckily for you, I appear to be free for the dates you have yet to mention, which are when exactly?
Mauritius, that cute little orb 6,000 miles from the UK, just to the right of Madagascar, south of the Seychelles, green-blue sea, palms, pure white beaches, heaven-on-a-stick. Have I said all that already? Sometimes, it is necessary to repeat things, if only to convince yourself it can possibly be true. It may be the verbal equivalent of pinching yourself. Mauritius! Mauritius is not our usual sort of holiday destination. We never get very far. We camp.There was the summer we spent a fortnight in a tepee in Cornwall - no electricity, no toilets - and which was so enjoyable I seem to have strangely blanked it from memory. Mauritius. I purchase a guidebook before we fly off. Its opening words describe it as "like a rich green emerald swathed in the translucent turquoise silk of the southwest Indian Ocean". I'm so excited I can hardly breathe. It's lucky the dates fitted and I was available. I could so easily have been busy.
To Heathrow, for the 9pm flight which is direct, hip-hip-hurrah. Of course, Paradise should be far-flung, remote, headily exotic, but also readily accessible with no faffing about changing planes. The flight is 12 hours and, because Mauritius is three hours ahead of UK time, we arrive at around midday in pleasantly hot but not scorching heat. It's June and their winter, so the average temperature will be 25C or thereabouts, which will do very nicely, ta. We are immediately whisked to where we will be staying, Sugar Beach Resort, on the west coast. It doesn't take long. It doesn't take long to get anywhere in Mauritius. It is only 42 miles in length and 29 miles at its widest point. It's a touch bigger than Surrey (could they be swapped, do you think?). The landscape is largely sugar cane, field after field of it, set against striking volcanic peaks that have long been obligingly dormant. Mauritius is staggeringly obliging. A tropical island, but disease free so you don't have to have jabs or take those malaria pills that make you dream your legs have been put in a food processor? Tick. Entirely surrounded by a coral reef so only the friendliest tropical fish, rather than anything gross with teeth or stinging bits, can gain access to the impeccable beaches? Tick. Full employment anchored mostly in their three main, buoyant industries - tourism, sugar, textiles - so you never feel like a filthy first world tourist riding on the back of a wretched economy? Tick. Not prohibitively expensive but still somewhat exclusive as it can't be reached by charter flight? Tick. A postcard-blue sky at all times? No tick. No tick? There's a single wispy cloud. No one said anything about single wispy clouds. Driver! Turn back!
We arrive at Sugar Beach Resort, built in the style of an 18th-century colonial plantation mansion, with a twinkling swimming pool winding its way around the bar, and fronted by a super-long stretch of not just white beach, but a stunning white beach of stunning whiteness (am I at it again? I do believe I am). Our rooms are right on the beach. Step out of the room, and it's like stepping into a holiday brochure, one of those ones you sighingly flick though in December when it's sleeting and your boiler's on the blink and the income tax deadline is looming. A nice man from the resort comes with a tray of welcoming vanilla tea (a Mauritian speciality) and to check if we are happy. Well, since you ask, I say, our room is a little too near the beach and has a somewhat excessive view of the translucent turquoise silk that is the sea. Could you please arrange to have us moved further away? Could we please have a view of the bins as that is what we are accustomed to? He looks baffled, then pained. And then he's off, presumably making his way back to reception to fix things. Oh-oh. And, no, I do not know what the other guests made of the lardy, pasty English lady chasing the elegant Mauritian across the meticulously manicured lawns and exclaiming "Only joking, only joking!" A word of warning: Mauritians, it transpires, pride themselves on their hospitality, on making your happiness their happiness. Do not toy with it. It's not worth the resultant sprint and indignity.
We are here with our son, and his best friend. We thought it best to bring the friend along as our son is now a pre-teen with more social energy than his father and I feel we can absorb. Also, he's reached the age where holidays are becoming a problem, where we are struggling to balance what he wants to do and what we want to do. I believe I once glimpsed the Bayeux Tapestry for a split second before getting "This is so boring. I have never been so bored in my life. When are we going to the water park?" Actually, I think that was me, as I've never been able to engage with tapestry at any level, but you get my drift. I know there are things called "kids' clubs" but when we've previously encountered them, our son has resolutely turned his back. He is ambivalent about group activities, as I am. As soon as the conga starts at a party I have to leave. We'd have made very bad Nazis. Or so I've always thought. But we get a second visit, this time from Poubar, the teen's club coordinator. Would the boys like to snorkel, then play football at 3pm, tennis at 4pm, and come along for a beach movie at 7pm via table tennis and snooker and maybe a go at scuba diving in the pool? As it happens, they would. Well, I'd make a bad Nazi, at least. I don't, frankly, see much of them for the rest of the week. Bizarrely, I find I can bear it.
Breakfast. A buffet. Anything and everything. Breads, cereals, omelettes, meats, even several varieties of sausage, which pleases the best-friend enormously, as he is a sausage fanatic known, back home, as The Sausage King Of North London. And the native fruit! Papaya, passion fruit, melon, coconut, bananas, kiwi, lychee, mango. "Why," asks one of the boys, "did I have to be born on an island that only grows really nasty vegetables?" I try to think of a defence for the turnip but fail. The boys snorkel and pedalo and play beach volleyball and ping-pong. I'm offered a game of ping-pong but refuse, largely because I'm quite good at it so have to lose on purpose, just so it's over quicker. I decide that my main activity on this holiday will be inactivity, which isn't listed on any of the resort's noticeboards, and doesn't take place in the state-of-the-art gym, but will do for me none the less. I spend the rest of the day lying down, only occasionally girding myself for a dip in either the twinkling pool or the turquoise ocean that you don't have to enter millimetre by millimetre while going "Brr, brr". We regroup at the end of the day for a champagne sunset boat cruise. What a drag. Then dinner. Amazing seafood. Lobsters the size of pantechnicons, prawns the size of your upper arms, rather than my upper arms, which due to my packed inactivity schedule and unwillingness to play any ping-pong whatsoever are withering at an alarming and unstoppable rate.
After a fierce debate on the merits of the various sausages - the beef ones are the best, the strange cheese ones the worst, if not wholly vile * - it's off to spend the day at One&Only Le Saint Géran, one of the world's top resorts, on the other side of the island. We're whisked over there, past the sugar cane, the tea plantations, the villages where a certain over-reliance on breeze block somehow detracts from any charm. Many different places of worship. Churches, mosques, the lot. Mauritius is an intriguing cultural mix. Successively colonised by the Dutch, French and British, it is now a racially harmonious and wisely governed republic peopled by the settlers, imported labourers and slaves: predominantly Hindu, with large minorities of Franco-Mauritians, Sino-Mauritians and Creoles. Everyone is, at the very least, tri-lingual (French; English; Creole), which spares you from the embarrassment of ever trying to make yourself understood in a foreign tongue. Or just speaking very loudly in English, which may be the next best thing. Some British influences persist. Driving is on the left. Everyone supports either Manchester United or Liverpool. Tea and scones at 4pm are almost obligatory but that, thankfully, is it on the food front. I would not like to have been offered a Ginster pie with my evening curry. Or twilight cocktail(s). Or lunchtime sushi. Or mid-morning patisserie. My belly, come to think of it, might even be expanding at a greater rate than my upper arms are withering.
One&Only Le Saint Géran, though, is set on its own private peninsula and boasts stunning tennis courts, a magnificent water sports centre, a Givenchy spa (a favourite of Jodie Kidd, by all accounts) and rooms that come with private butlers. I don't doubt that God came here before dashing off to create Paradise, but have no idea if he used the tennis courts or not. I have a facial, a great trial that involves further lying down and more torturous thoughts about having died and gone to heaven. The boys learn to water ski, go on banana rides, and then play yet more football. A guest joins them who turns out to be a Premiership footballer (Birmingham City, I'm told) which they find fantastically thrilling. Later, at the restaurant - Alan Ducasse's famed Spoon Des Iles - I'm further told that the footballer and his family are on the table next to us. I have no idea if he is a Premiership footballer or not. But the fact that his toddler son is wearing Burberry shorts leads me to believe that he almost certainly is.
I am talked into trying parasailing. Very tranquil, as it happens, and no upper-body strength required, which is good. It may be a little too vertical for my liking, though.
Off to the capital, Port Louis, one of the oldest settlements here, which is now quite high-rise but still has reminders of its colonial past in its wide avenues and surviving, gracious old buildings. We visit the market which comes like a great but somehow marvellous bash to the head: noisy, colourful, jam-packed, stinking. Here, you can buy spices, textiles, Mauritius football shirts, herbal aphrodisiacs, exceptionally pungent meats and fish. "The meat market and fish market are not for the faint-hearted," says my guide book. I loved it, though, authentic stench and everything. There are the usual spivs in flip-flops. "Hey, you British? I love the British. The British give us independence. Manchester United! Liverpool! You come to my stall and I give you very good price on tamarind." But the traders are exceptionally good-natured, and never pester beyond your ability to bear it. Then it's back to Sugar Beach Resort, as I haven't done any lying down all day and am madly behind schedule.
Rain. Rain? Yes, lots of it, alas. But that's OK. The boys don't care. The boys are OK. They go off quad- biking and go-karting with Poubar. I'm happy to read in the room. My partner walks along the beach to the nearest town, Flic en Flac, and returns with two "holiday" shirts, the horrors of which I cannot describe. Just think "hibiscus". How the shopkeeper must have rubbed his hands when he saw him coming. We have dinner and then watch the cabaret. It includes a male singer in something outrageously spangly. "What is he wearing?", asks my partner. "He might be asking the same of you" I reply. We go to bed not talking, which is good. Always go to bed on an argument, because then you can start again first thing without wasting time.
I swim. I snorkel. I lie down. You'd think the shine would have worn off lying down by now, but it hasn't. Look, Mauritius is a gorgeous tropical island with what are possibly the best beaches in the world. So, enjoy. The boys are asked to complete a written questionnaire on their stay. What was the best thing about your holiday? "All the things we did with Poubar." What was the worst thing? "The cheese sausages." What can we do to improve your stay next time? "No cheese sausages." Mauritius is heaven-on-a-stick (as long as you steer clear of the cheese sausages).
Home, alas. And I don't know where we will go on holiday from now on. Going to Mauritius has spoiled and corrupted us. Going to Mauritius is like going to Waitrose when you usually go to Asda. You just can't go back to Asda ever again. And I'm beginning to remember a few things about the tepee holiday in Cornwall. It was horrible, hell-on-a-stick. And I don't need to repeat that to know it is true.
* 'The Complete Guide To The Mauritian Sausage' - written by two 12-year-olds who hope the massive sales will fund a return trip - will shortly be available from all rubbish bookshops and probably no good ones
Air Mauritius (020-7434 4375; www.airmauritius.com) flies direct to Mauritius five times a week from Heathrow. Prices start at £660. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies direct three times a week from Heathrow from £670. Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies via Dubai, eight times a week from Heathrow and Gatwick from £704.
Deborah Ross travelled as a guest of Kuoni Travel (01306 747 008; www.kuoni.co.uk). The company offers seven nights at Sugar Beach Resort, near Flic en Flac on the west coast, from £1,274 per adult and £991 per teenager (aged 13 to 18). It also offers a week at One&Only Le Saint Géran, on the Belle Mare peninsula on the east coast, costing from £2,254 per adult and £1,278 per teenager. Prices are based on a family of four travelling together and sharing two rooms and include flights with Air Mauritius and transfers to and from the resorts on the island.
Kuoni is currently featuring a special offer for Sugar Beach Resort for travel between 26 June and 30 July, where the first two passengers in a group or family of four sharing two rooms pay from £678 per person.
The Mauritius Tourist Promotion Authority Board (020-7584 3666; www.mauritius.net)
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