Mauritius: So far, so good

On an idyllic island marooned in the Indian Ocean, Matthew Bell is reduced to incoherent ecstacies. Modern Mauritius is that kind of place, he says

Someone once told me you can't use the word "so" unless it's followed closely by "that". Technically, it's wrong to stand on a creamy white beach, gaze out at the Indian Ocean, and declare, "it's so beautiful!"; the correct procedure is to finish up with a consequence, like "it's so beautiful that I'm going to burst", or dance a little jig, or whatever you do when you're overwrought. These, I'm told, are the rules.

It's just as well, then, that I wasn't with a grammarian when I checked into a new resort called the So Mauritius, on the unspoiled south coast of Mauritius. "So Mauritius that what?", a pedant would have niggled. "Mauritius isn't even an adjective." "Chillax!" I would have snapped as we padded down to the beach and surveyed the huddle of thatched roofs by the lapping water. "It's so awesome!" I might have added, to cause extra annoyance.

Things would already have got off to a bad start, because even before reaching the hotel I had begun making "hanging declarations", or whatever the correct term is. Mauritius is that kind of place. Located 700 miles east of Madagascar, shaped like a tear-drop the size of Oxfordshire, it's one of those dreamy paradise islands that would reduce even Christopher Hitchens to incoherent ecstasies. The blues are so blue! The food so delicious! The people so friendly! I was beginning to annoy myself. Even the name, Mauritius, is seductive, a hybrid of more-ish and luxurious.

This resort, spread between the woods and the water near the fishing village of Bel Ombre, is the latest venture by the French hotel group Sofitel. In So Mauritius, they wanted to create a new kind of intimate five-star property (which has been partly drawn up by Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada) on an island that already boasts plenty of traditional resorts, many of which are seriously high-end.

But before I could gauge whether the So Mauritius was telling the truth, I needed to find out what being "Mauritius" meant. I knew, as I boarded the plane, that it was popular with honeymooners. And didn't the dodo once live here, before being hunted to extinction? But what else happens on a small independent republic, marooned between Africa and India? A few days before winding up at the So Mauritius, I set off to find out.

I started with the capital, Port Louis, a part-colonial former port in the north-west, which the guidebooks like to call bustling. Actually, I started at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Airport in the south-east, the main entry point to Mauritius, linked to the capital by the island's only motorway. They call it a motorway, but in Oxfordshire terms, it's the A34, a busy dual carriageway. It's an important asset, linking the main towns which are spread in a row along the island's central volcanic ridge, and have old-fashioned names like Phoenix and Curepipe.

According to Jean, the 80-year-old Mauritian I sat next to on the plane, who was coming back for the first time in 54 years, Curepipe got its name from the old men who sat there cleaning out their pipes. Another version is that it derives from the malaria epidemic of 1867, when people fled low-lying Port Louis for higher ground, and stopped here to smoke their pipes, to clean themselves of the disease.

Today, there's no reason to stop, and I hurried on to the capital. I say hurried: Mauritius has a population of 1.3 million, and over 200,000 cars. The traffic in Port Louis is notoriously bad. Architecturally, it's not much – a few high-rise banks loom over a grid of tired colonial houses. But wander the back streets and you discover a hotch-potch of cultures: Chinese, Indians, French and Africans have all brought their faiths, clothes and foods. This island has been a stopping off point for sea-travellers for centuries.

The Dutch got here first, in 1598. There was no indigenous population, so colonising was blood-free. Except when it came to the dodo, a flightless pigeon-like bird, which had never met a predator before. The thought of the dodos rushing down to the water to meet their visitors, only to be shot and trussed up for dinner, is one of the sad stories of imperial history. All were killed, and only two skeletons survive, part of one having ended up in Oxford, which inspired Lewis Carroll to write the dodo into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. A dodo rampant graces the Mauritian flag.

The Dutch didn't stay long. They had abandoned Mauritius by 1710, though they did introduce sugar cane, which remains the dominant, and rather attractive, crop. Driving the narrow roads that wind through swathes of 10ft-high palms is exhilarating, especially when a beaten-up bus swings round the corner at you in the middle of the road. The French followed the Dutch in 1715, then the British elbowed them out in 1810, and stayed until 1968, when the island gained independence.

Port Louis is not a happening place after five o'clock, when traders pack up and everyone flees town. In fact, it's as dead as a dodo, so I headed for the east coast, where some of the best sandy beaches are found. Actually, the beaches are good everywhere – sandy and sheltered, the sea a calm crystal blue. I drove nearly the whole island and never saw a bad one. That's partly thanks to the reef that surrounds the island, like an amniotic sac, and forms a natural wave break half a mile offshore. It means that wherever you swim, the water is dead still, while only yards away, the Indian Ocean crashes and rages. It's like being in a bain marie, those little saucepans in cauldrons of boiling water that French chefs use to make delicate sauces.

You can explore the reef floor, by diving or snorkelling or – as I did at Long Beach, a new resort on the east coast – by seawalking, which lets you walk the seabed without getting your hair wet. This involves putting a glass goldfish bowl over your head, which is pumped full of oxygen. The pipes are attached to a solar-powered pump on a boat in the reef, from which you never stray far. You wear a belt of lead weights, to keep yourself from bobbing up to the surface. It's not everyone's idea of fun.

The excitement starts when you're passed a piece of bread to feed the fish, who then swarm round your head in the most alarming way. If you're not mad on swarms, it can feel like a task out of I'm A Celebrity, or the climax to You Only Live Twice, when Blofeld's assistant Hans is eaten by piranhas, though these fish are considerably more friendly.

Long Beach used to be Coco Beach, a family hotel known for its garish colour scheme and all-night parties. By 2009, standards were slipping, and it was closed and demolished. Now, occupying the same 60-acre site is a sleek resort centred round a piazza of two bars and four restaurants, flanked by two vast swimming pools. No building is taller than a mature palm tree, of which there are many. There's still a dance floor and families are welcome, with a large complex dedicated to children's activities located next to the tennis courts, gym and spa. But the focus now is on contemporary luxury, though at a fraction of the price of Mauritius's traditional luxury hotels.

One evening, I ventured out to see the Le Saint Géran, the famously swanky hotel next door. It's straight out of the Seventies, all big cigars and cut-glass tumblers; the kind of place you find Roger Moore and Joan Collins swapping one-liners at the thatched pool bar. Long Beach is different. Here, the cool thing to do is to sit in the Jacuzzi sculpted into the infinity pool which overlooks the sea. Everything is about bright whites and clean lines; it feels like a posh Ibiza nightclub.

Back on the road, I was reminded of Mauritius's jumble of cultures. By now I had a driver, Rodney, who told me there are four official religions, pointing out each of their churches as we crossed the central plains. Easiest to spot are the elaborate Tamil temples, great piles of pink and yellow candy floss, decked out with dancing figurines. Then there are the Catholic churches, all sombre in black volcanic rock, and the Hindu temples and onion-domed mosques. All sit side-by-side, apparently tension-free. It was the same story at the Wednesday market, in Centre de Flacq, where traders from India, China, France and Africa jostle to sell their wares. I settled for a tea towel bearing a dodo.

The first thing Rodney asked was if I knew Only Fools and Horses, so there's a bit of British culture here, too. We were heading south, and you can probably cross the island in 90 minutes, but we were laughing a lot and stopping off everywhere to see the sights and, as in Oxfordshire, the traffic was bad.

Rodney took me on a detour to the Black River Gorges National Park, the only national park in the island. It's a lush forest populated by wild boar and monkeys – best seen on horseback, though it's good for hiking, too. But just before you reach it is the Grand Bassin, a sacred Hindu lake where the annual Maha Shivaratri festival takes place in February or March. This is the biggest Hindu celebration outside India. The story goes that Shiva was flying over, carrying the Ganges River on his head, when a few drops fell out and landed here. Towering over the lake is a 108-foot statue of Shiva, the tallest on the island, and many other shrines and temples. Rodney and I were the only visitors, but the vast swathes of empty car park are testament to the fact that up to half a million people congregate here during the festival. The most dedicated pilgrims walk from wherever they live on the island.

Soon we reached the old-fashioned village of Bel Ombre, a tourist-free haven of shady palm trees and fishermen on the south coast, where life is slow. Drive on round this south-west coast, and you find the best views on the island, the luminous green waters of the lagoon by Le Morne peninsula.

Le Morne is a vast lump of basalt with a sad tale attached. It's where runaway slaves used to come and hide. When slavery was abolished, an expedition came to tell them, but they mistook the approaching party as an attempt to recapture them, and all plunged to their deaths. Today, it's a happier place, where locals hang out and fish. If Mauritius is, in the end, a place to come and relax, this is the laziest corner in which to do it. The only drama is the backdrop of the spiky wooded mountains behind you, where clouds occasionally gather menacingly and disperse.

This is where the So Mauritius stands, one of few resorts on this coast. Every room is a stand-alone single-storey pod, each with its own private garden facing the sea. The centrepiece is a vast thatched barn that houses the restaurant and bar. It's an extraordinary, cathedral-like building, open-sided and surrounded by infinity pools, with billowing white sheets and electric blue lighting. And, best of all, I had the place to myself.

It was only now, mojito in hand, as I gazed at the horizon over the top of my toes, that I could judge the Mauritiusness of Mauritius. I had criss-crossed the island, snorkelled the reef, climbed the highest volcano and nodded at all four altars. I had even picked six losing horses on all six races at the Champ de Mars in Port Louis, the oldest – and most exciting – racetrack south of the equator. Beyond the sunlounger, there was a country thrumming with the half-remembered histories of four cultures. But here on the beach was the Mauritius that most visitors know – a leisurely menu of sea, sand and sundowners.

Does the So Mauritius live up to its name? Well, it takes the best bits of Mauritius and mixes them together: the gastronomy of France – the chef is from Paris – with the efficient service you get in China. The waiters dress like Indian princes, and the scenery is African – raw and wild. It's a resort of superlatives – the beds are the biggest, the colours the brightest (fine, if you don't mind waking up to a vibrant orange headboard). There are two restaurants and the choice of bathing places includes your own outdoor hot-tub and a pool shaped like a Samurai sword. Perhaps it's no bad thing the So Mauritius is a grammatical travesty – at least there's something to complain about.

Travel essentials Mauritius

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Air Mauritius (020-7434 4375; airmauritius. com) from Heathrow. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) also flies from Gatwick. Regional departures are offered by Air France (0870 142 4343; airfrance.co.uk) via Paris.

Staying there

* Long Beach, Belle Mare(00 230 401 1919; longbeachmauritius.com). Double rooms start at €360, half board.

* So Mauritius, Beau Champs, Bel Ombre (00 230 605 5800; sofitel.com). Prestige double suites start at €376, room only.

Visiting there

* Black River Gorges National Park (00 230 258 0057).

* Champ de Mars racecourse, Port Louis (00 230 211 2147; mauritiusturfclub.com).

More information

* Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, 32 Elvaston Place, London SW7 5NW (020-7584 3666; mauritius.net).

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