Mauritius - the island of love letters
Adored by honeymooners, Mauritius has also won a place in the hearts of the literati. Charlotte Cripps discovers why
Saturday 15 March 2008
A local fisherman dressed in nothing but his Y-fronts stands in the shallows waiting for a bite. Nearby, security guards patrol the beach sporting pressed white uniforms. (If you squint, they resemble Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.) The island of Mauritius, which celebrates 40 years of independence from the UK this month, is about the same size as Surrey, but unlike Surrey it has plenty of stunning beaches where you can fish, or flop, to your heart's content – and all of them are open to the general public.
Batting off paparazzi -who descend upon the calm shores of this lagoon like speedboat-born vultures -is all in a day's work at Le Prince Maurice. Guests here have included tabloid-friendly couples such as Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton, as well as Michael Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta Jones (who use the hotel's £6,984-a-night Princely Suite as a bolt hole). But beyond the snap of camera shutters, this secluded spot on the north-east side of Mauritius is as peaceful as can be.
Mauritius looks after its couples -celebrity or otherwise -with on-site weddings and honeymoon celebrations. And besides high-intensity romance, there's plenty of golf, fishing and diving for lovebirds to choose from. Or, high-intensity romantic writing.
Since 2003, the five-star Le Prince Maurice has been running its own prize for literary love stories, inspired by the French writer Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's short novel about innocent love, Paul and Virginia, which was set in Mauritius. What's more, this is no Mills & Boon soppy romantic fiction contest: the longlist of big hitters nominated this year included Jim Crace and Ali Smith. The shortlist, announced on 6 March, has whittled it down to Salley Vickers, Ewan Morrison and James Meek; the jury includes Irvine Welsh and Simon Armitage.
In February, the air here is humid and the temperature rises to over 80F. Sleeping in one of the hotel's air-conditioned junior suites -decorated in a lot of dark wood -under what seems more like a giant linen tablecloth than a bedsheet, the only sound I hear on the first night is a colossal crab making a racket outside my door. The next day, the hotel's five-star services begin to make themselves felt. Breakfast the following morning is taken outside on my veranda, a few steps away from the beach, and includes homemade banana jam. I walk across the bouncy grass to my beach bed, where I am given a chilled towel and my sunglasses are cleaned. Later, I go for a water ski by the mangroves, before grappling further with the scorching midday sun.
Viewed from the hotel's infinity pool, the thick panel of turquoise water beyond the shore looks almost impossibly bright. The sweetly perfumed frangipani and other flowers give the hotel a permanent scent, redolent of a burning Parisian Diptyque candle.
Beyond Le Prince's Maurice's elegantly appointed front door lies an island that emerged from the Indian Ocean less than 10 million years ago, and blossomed into a land of virgin forest and unique animal life. Besides the superb beaches that prove the main draw for most visitors, Mauritius possesses an astonishing repertoire of scenery, from dramatic waterfalls to languid meadows. And since man arrived here -just five centuries ago -it has become arguably the most multicultural small nation on earth.
The best place to get an instant insight into this marvellous muddle of an island is the capital, Port Louis: founded by the Dutch, named after the French king, Louis XV, and yet a colonial base for the British. In the 21st century it is inhabited by Indians, Arabs, Africans and Chinese people, all of whom speak French. Yet they venerate the Duke of Edinburgh, and the town is twinned with Tripoli. Yes, in Libya. The currency is neither the pound nor the euro but the rupee, a reflection of the large number of people of Indian descent here.
Back at the hotel, I search for signs of literature. Despite a well-stocked hotel library, I see absolutely no sign of a literary prize or any literary activity at the hotel until the west-London-based novelist, Tim Lott, turns up in a dishevelled cream linen suit. He's here to use the hotel as a writer's retreat to work on his seventh book, as well as to tend to his second (and far cushier) job of organising the prize, whose previous patron, Tilda Swinton, has been replaced this year by Richard E Grant.
Before we can discuss anything about Mauritius's literary merits, I am called upon to umpire a game of tennis on the hotel's floodlit courts between Lott and another guest. It transpires that the author's winning streak has much to do with bouts of tennis coaching during numerous visits to the hotel while "on the job". Lott, who brings the literati and their serious tomes to this exotic paradise in June for the awards ceremony, is keen to push for more visible evidence of a literary love story prize at the hotel, even if it means putting up a large photograph of himself and the last English-speaking winner, Louise Dean, posing with her book, Becoming Strangers in the lobby. The hotel's prize celebrates writing from the heart; the winner receives a trophy and an all expenses paid two-week stay at Le Prince Maurice.
We pass Peter Gabriel playing table tennis before settling down to dinner at the hotel's floating restaurant, where giant fish make plopping sounds as they leap in the mangroves of the hotel's natural reserve. Here, I become breathless with menu names as long as my arm ("Clove and lemon flavoured soufflé, light cream with Grand Marnier, chilled truffle with tamarind and ganache with candied orange, sparkling flaky praline").
Still, the only cultural experience I'm getting from Mauritius is borrowing DVDs from the hotel library. Perhaps I just need to relax. I'm told there are all sorts of spa treatments at the hotel to help with the arduous task of writing from the heart, even if you are not writing a novel. So I get up bright and early to begin my own writing experiment. I book an Ayurvedic treatment -Shirodhara massage -at the spa, where guests turn out in fluffy white towelling bath robes. Apparently a session is likely to unleash creativity by relaxing my racing mind to allow me to feel emotion again.
As warm herbalised sesame oil is dripped in a stream on to my forehead, I lie on a wooden bed for 45 minutes in order to relax my nervous system. I certainly feel relaxed and grounded, a state of mind that is quite alien for someone used to functioning in an office, with a mind buzzing with to-do lists. I finish with a neck, face and head massage with more warm sesame oil to ease any remaining tension. Unfortunately, the effect of this subsequent massage is similar to coming round from a general anaesthetic. Determined to write something of note in my altered state, I head back to my room to get my pen, only to fall into a deep slumber on the heavy wooden bed. On waking I observe that I have written one word -"Mauritius" -at the top of the page. Never mind, I decide as I walk out to watch the fishermen in action back on the beach, I'll make that shortlist some other day.
The writer flew from Heathrow to Mauritius with Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com). Mauritius is also served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba. com) and Air Mauritius (020-7434 4375; www.airmauritius.com) from Heathrow.
It's a one-hour drive from Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International to Le Prince Maurice, or 15 minutes by helicopter: £360 for a couple.
The writer travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3861; www.virginholidays.com), which offers a week in Mauritius from £1,829 per person, with seven nights' half board at Constance Le Prince Maurice, return flights and transfers.
Buy Abta carbon "offsets" on 020-7637 2444 or www.reducemyfootprint.travel.
Constance Le Prince Maurice, Poste de Flacq, Mauritius (001 230 402 3636; www.leprincemaurice.com). Suites are available from €€512 (£396), half board.
Mauritius Tourism: 020-7584 3666; www.tourism-mauritius.mu
Exotic Literary Festivals
Parati International Literary Festival, Brazil
The pristine colonial seaside town of Parati provides the backdrop for events that have in the past included talks from Salman Rushdie (above), Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood. A strong Brazilian line-up adds local flavour. This year's festival is expected to take place in August (www.flip.org.br).
Calabash Literary Festival, Jamaica
This Caribbean literary offering takes place in Treasure Beach on the laid-back south coast of Jamaica. Centred at the suitably boho hotel Jake's, events typically include readings on the beach, talks and discussions. The international cast of writers last year included Michael Ondaatje, and a host of Afro-American and Caribbean poets, songwriters and critics. This year's festival takes place from 23-25 May (www.calabashfestival.org).
Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka
Authors from around the globe descend on the Unesco site of Galle, and its beautiful Dutch and Portuguese colonial fort, for this celebration of the written word. Workshops, children's events and talks with William Dalrymple, Alexander McCall Smith, Gore Vidal and Vikram Seth featured on this year's bill. Next year's festival will take place in January (www.galleliteraryfestival.com).
Hay Cartagena, Colombia
This stalwart of the literary festival scene swaps the pastoral surrounds of Powys for the pastel colours of seductive Cartagena de Indias for its annual winter outing. Global talent converges on this seductive Caribbean-coast city for a week of talks, readings and music. Next year's festival will take place in January (www.hayfestival.com).
The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, China
This year's stellar line up included Ian McEwan, Fatima Bhutto, Colin Thubron and 2007's Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright. The Man Asian Literary Prize will be awarded in November. Next year's festival will take place from February-March (www.festival.org.hk).
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