The secret of happiness is an island called Rodrigues

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Compact Facts

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.

Further information

Discovery Rodrigues (tourism-rodrigues.mu).

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Life & Style
The exterior of a central London Angus Steakhouse
food + drink
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environment
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit