The secret of happiness is an island called Rodrigues
Colonial remnants and beautiful beaches aren't the only attractions here. It's also got the most infectious feel-good factor, says Adrian Mourby
On my first night in Rodrigues I stayed with Lelio Rosseti and his wife. Lelio had to excuse himself from time to time to watch the Queen's state visit to Dublin on satellite television. Twenty-five years ago, Mr Rosseti had worked for the Post Office in Britain, and at dinner, under the stars, he told me of his admiration for Margaret Thatcher.
He also explained to me how, in 2009, he organised the celebrations for the bicentennial of the British landing on Rodrigues. "Lieutenant Colonel Keating called the French governor down and told him that from now on he'd be working for Britain and, because the French had no weapons with which to fight, he said yes and that was the end of that!"
Lelio laughed with me at his island's good fortune at being spared armed conflict. The very civilised terms of surrender allowed Rodrigues to remain French-speaking and predominantly Roman Catholic. This is a French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that for 159 years was run by the British. In 1968, there were protests on Rodrigues when Mauritius, the big sister isle 370 miles away, forced through independence.
Rodrigues is different, very different. I realised this as soon as I arrived by plane from Mauritius. Over there, a security officer had confiscated my duty-free gin even though it was still in its tamper-proof bag.
"You could have opened it and resealed it," he insisted.
"No, I couldn't. That's why they're called tamper-proof."
But after skimming in over Rodrigues' red corrugated rooftops, all that changed. Suddenly, there were no officials. In fact, there was no one. As I stood outside the baking hot airport looking for my lift, an amiable man with a shaven head sauntered over. We spoke briefly in French. He asked if I were Adrian Mourby. I told him "No, my name is Adrian Mourby." Neither of us could understand the other.
Jean Paul proved to be great company, and once we switched to English he never stopped laughing the whole time I was on Rodrigues. Jean Paul could find anything amusing. He would drive straight at pedestrians he recognised, pretending to run them down. This made him laugh, too. As we headed up the northern coast road, I got my first real glimpse of Prince William's gap-year hideaway. This island is very green, even in winter. Its bays are newly planted with mangroves to prevent erosion and, out to sea, there were men apparently walking on water with spears.
This wasn't such an optical illusion as it appeared. Rodrigues is surrounded by a reef that creates a very, very shallow lagoon. These guys were wading out on the horizon illegally fishing for octopus before the next tide. We passed a few dead octopi along the road, each drying on an improvised cross. No one steals them, Jean Paul told me. Rodriguans may fish illegally, but they don't steal from each other. We also passed the prison, which is on a beautiful headland and decorated with childish murals urging you to lower carbon emissions.
I'd been booked to stay with the Rossetis at Villa Mon Trésor but first there was a lunch of octopus salad and South African wine waiting for me at Pointe Vénus. This open-sided hotel is built on the spot where, in 1761, a French abbé made the first record of Venus tracking across the Sun. There is a little bust of him as you enter the hotel. The general manager, Marc Bogé, joined me as I sat and enjoyed the hotel's ocean view in splendid isolation. Marc is a small, friendly Frenchman who came on holiday from Champagne many years ago and stayed.
"Don't you miss Champagne?" I asked. "Only the kind you can drink."
Unusually for a general manager, Marc was proud of the fact that his hotel was empty at lunchtime. "Here, everybody goes out during the day. On Mauritius, people stay in their hotel, on the beach. Visitors who come here want to explore." He praised the island's quality of life and its people. "They are the quality of life," he said.
They're certainly amiable. After Jean Paul had dropped me at Villa Mon Trésor and shared a few jokes in Creole with Lelio, I wandered down to look at the sunset, which was as good as they claimed it to be: you normally get reds and yellows like that only with Photoshop. A number of people – black and white – had turned out to chat on the broken concrete picnic benches by the shore. They seemed far more interested in gossiping than in watching the stunning pyrotechnics on the horizon.
The next morning Jean Paul came to collect me for a trip to the Ile aux Cocos, which is a bird sanctuary (coco being Creole for egg). On a beach below Pointe du Diable I met my host for the day – Joe Meunier, known on the island as Joe Cool. Joe has a big smile and bad teeth, a look I was beginning to recognise on Rodrigues.
"When God made me, he said: 'Joe Cool, you are not an Englishman but I will give you a little English'. He gave me a little Italian, too."
Joe was wearing a dazzling red and yellow Hawaiian shirt and his boat had an awning in the same colours. Though the Ile aux Cocos is only 2km from the shore, it took us more than an hour to get there because when the tide is out the lagoon is so shallow that boats have to follow a scooped-out channel that runs for kilometres along the coastline. Also in the boat were a young French-speaking husband and wife from Réunion and two Sri Lankan couples who lived on Mauritius many years ago but who now reside in Maidstone and Carmarthen respectively.
Our very international party disembarked in front of a white tin-roofed shack. On its veranda sat the island's three silent wardens in their vests keeping an eye on the lagoon. While Joe energetically unloaded lunch I was taken for a walk through the reserve by Marie Paul who works for Discovery Rodrigues. We saw white fairy terns and noddy birds. The noddies were unfazed by us, squabbling on the lush green paths right in front of me. The fairy terns, big-eyed and vulnerable and as white as balls of cotton wool, had wedged themselves into forks in the mapu trees where each was sitting on an egg. Marie Paul explained that they don't build nests. We walked the length of the island (maybe a kilometre) and then back to where Joe was handing out rum.
All the time we were walking, I had been struck by the clouds that were stacked scarily high above us. I have never seen the sky go up that far before. I was struck, too, by the contrast between the tiny waves that lapped against the scuttling yellow crabs in front of me and the distant roar of the Indian Ocean crashing against the reef. This was a truly paradisiacal island. Like the Maldives, but real.
The Anglo-Welsh Sri Lankan ladies made lunch a jolly affair, especially after they discovered La Cloche, the syrupy wine of Mauritius, which Joe had brought along. (It tastes like sweet sherry, but not in a nice way.) "When we were girls we were allowed a little of this at Sunday lunch," announced Sue. "But only a little and only if we had been good!" Once Joe had cleared the plates away Sue wanted Sega, which is a kind of local dancing common to the Mascarene islands. "We saw Sega on Mauritius last week. But it wasn't real Sega," she complained. "For real Sega, you do not need music, just a knife and a bottle and some spoons."
The next day dawned hot and bright with Jean Paul ready to take me to the François Leguat Tortoise Reserve, named after the first European to try to live on Mauritius back in 1691. He and his companions left after two years because they'd made the mistake of not bringing women with them. Lonely and not a little frustrated, Leguat wrote a detailed record of the island, describing how there were valleys on Rodrigues so full of giant tortoises that you walked across on their backs.
Unfortunately, during the 19th century, the seamen of the Royal Navy ate them all, wiping out two species. Now they're being reintroduced from Madagascar. Since 2008, more than 1,500 aldabra and radiated tortoises have been bred on Rodrigues, but the stars of the show are the oldsters. I met one called Adrian who was 80 years old and weighed 170kg (almost 27 stone) and looking damn good on it. Must be that quality of life that Marc was talking about. I hope that at 80 I've still got something of his slow swagger.
That night, I saw Sega for the first time at my new hotel, the Mourouk Ebony, which overlooks the lagoon on the island's south side. After we had all eaten our octopus salad on the red-roofed veranda, the chairs were cleared away and seven musicians played for a team of eight dancers.
The music mixed French accordion with goatskin drums and various other forms of percussion (no spoons on this occasion). The male dancers wore orange floral shirts and the women had full-length party dresses. The whole thing was rather like country dancing, energetic waltzes and polkas and a lot of extra crashes and bashes from the orchestra. I don't think Sue from Carmarthen would have approved.
As I wandered back to my little room I couldn't help feeling that real Sega would be between family members or youngsters courting, or servants wanting to let off steam. These four couples had all the motions with none of the emotions.
Then I looked up at that massive navy blue sky above and saw the clouds still hanging there, towering white in the moonlight. I have seen depictions of clouds like that in early 19th-century maritime paintings of the kind Lt Col Keating would have surely known. I always thought them fanciful. But in a landscape like this, without street lights or any other forms of pollution, the skies of our seagoing ancestors are up there still. The quality of life on Rodrigues is not just the people, it's the landscape in which those people live out their lives.
How to get there
Adrian Mourby travelled to Rodrigues with Air Mauritius (020-7434 4375; airmauritius.com), which offers return flights via Mauritius from £816. He stayed at the Marouk Ebony Hotel (00 230 83 23 351; maroukebonyhotel .com), where rooms costs from £78 per person per night half board, based on two sharing.
Discovery Rodrigues (tourism-rodrigues.mu).
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