Thought for the day: experience the allure of the Indian Ocean in Mauritius
For broadcaster Mishal Husain, a long-haul Club Med holiday was a chance for her family to explore its sense of 'zen' and 'animation' – and to experience the diversity of a spectacular island nation
Saturday 07 December 2013
Some time in the 1980s, when I was not much older than my own children are now, I wrote a letter to Gerald Durrell, sparked by reading My Family and Other Animals, his celebrated memoir about growing up on Corfu. At the time, I could only loosely have been described as an animal lover, but the wit of Durrell's writing and his brilliant descriptions of spiders, beetles and strawberry-pink villas captivated me.
At the end of the book was a mention of his work at Jersey Zoo and the "Dodo Club" run for children interested in conservation. For me, it was the perfect next step on my Durrell journey, and I persuaded my father to part with the required cheque for £10.
I can't imagine the zoo received many letters from the United Arab Emirates, but the reply was prompt and was signed by the man himself. I was officially part of the club, with membership credentials proudly displaying the distinctive logo of the unfortunate dodo.
By now I had realised the significance of the extinct bird as a symbol of what can go wrong for the animal kingdom, but I was probably only dimly aware of where the dodo had once roamed. The flightless, slightly foolish-looking member of the pigeon family existed only on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. It went into serious decline within a hundred years of the arrival of European settlers at the beginning of the 17th century, and was then wiped out by new animals that humans introduced to the island.
Today, the symbolism and the legacy of the dodo is strongly felt on Mauritius. The island state has adopted it as a mascot – albeit a slightly sobering one, given the island's image as a tropical haven for fauna and flora. On arrival at the airport, you will see the dodo plastered on the walls and signs, alongside the slogan "Welcome to Paradise"; the Mauritian rupee, too, bears the extinct bird. And in the capital, Port Louis, you can view the oversized, flightless pigeon at the Natural History Museum – a beautiful colonial building on Chaussee Street. Upstairs, a sophisticated exhibition tells the story of the diverse peoples who live in 21st-century Mauritius.
Island idyll: Club Med’s La Plantation d’Albion
The animals in my family would certainly experience something new on our trip to the island. Never before had the five of us travelled so far (it is more than 6,000 miles from London). And never before had we stayed at the sort of family-friendly resort offered by Club Med. Our destination, La Plantation d'Albion, built along the rocky west coast, is one of two Club Meds on Mauritius (the other being La Pointe aux Canonniers on the north coast) and must once have been dominated by French visitors. However, the number of Chinese tourists staying when we were there is testament to the way the travel market is changing.
Entirely family-friendly, this is nevertheless a place that you can enjoy at any stage of life. The space is divided neatly into what was described to us on arrival as a "zen area" and an "animation area", with the latter including a bar, buffet, theatre and child-friendly pool. The "zen" side houses a smaller à la carte restaurant, a spa and a gorgeous pool that is off limits to children.
It took us a few days to get in tune with the rhythm of the resort and fully appreciate what was on offer. The number of activities was almost overwhelming at first, from yoga on the beach, tennis lessons, sailing and snorkeling (a huge hit), to trying your hand at archery (yes please) and flying trapeze (no thank you). There is golf for all ages, with pros who are not only accommodating of rusty skills but are so encouraging that you can suddenly discover yourself signed up for a pro-am tournament. Although somewhat daunting, these events are a fantastic chance to experience Mauritius's championship courses and see some great views of the island.
Apart from the family activities, most parents will also be relying on the kids' club, or "Mini Club" in Club Med language, for some child-free time. Our three boys were dubious at first – feeling out of place in the largely French-speaking environment. However, the bilingual staff went out of their way to make friends and put them at their ease, with a water balloon fight proving to be a successful ice-breaker. A particular bonus was the way the children could dip in and out of the club – there was a daily timetable but the staff were ever-ready with clipboard and wrist straps so the children could join in for an hour or two, with over-eights allowed to sign themselves in and out.
Our family's real Mini Club turning point came a couple of days in, when we were told the children would be in a show that evening. Two short rehearsals were scheduled and, after dinner, parents gathered in the theatre – in our case without any especially high expectations about the forthcoming performance. What we had not appreciated was the professionalism of the staff. When the lights went up, properly painted scenery and stage makeup were revealed and we realised the Mini Club team had managed to teach the children ambitious dance routines in a very short space of time – not to mention produce costumes in every size and shape.
Of course, experiencing this side of the resort is entirely optional – you could spend the evening on the "zen" side of the club accompanied by the sound of waves crashing on to rocks rather than Europop and children's theatre. But I found as the days went on, I was more drawn to the "animation" side, and increasingly impressed by the amount of thought and meticulous planning that went into every activity.
Clearly, Club Med has worked out its ethos and knows how to deliver it – but resorts don't run this smoothly all of their own accord. Each has a "Chef de Village" or general manager, and at Albion, Barq Guessoum was omnipresent, appearing to be on a constant, watchful walkabout.
With facilities and standards like these, many visitors probably don't leave their resorts until the time of their homeward airport transfer, but in Mauritius that would be a great shame. The island is known for its mix of cultures – Indian, African and French – resulting in a compelling mix of traditions, very much in evidence on a trip into the capital, Port Louis. The recently renovated waterfront makes for a pleasant walk, with fruit stalls ready to mix up a juice or stick a straw into a coconut for you, but no hard sell.
A little further along is the market, where you can get a sense of Mauritius's cultural diversity, as well as the richness of its produce. This is probably the closest the island gets to "frenetic", but business is good natured and friendly, and it's far from a tourist trap – most of those there with us were locals doing their grocery shopping. As you would expect on a far flung tropical island, some of the fruit and vegetables were not only exotic but entirely new to me, appearing to have no Western name.
The market has plenty more to attract the intrepid shopper, including stalls dedicated to Ayurvedic herbs and promising to cure anything from gout and constipation to cellulite; yards of textiles; and a decent selection of basketwork. And then came a delight – the discovery of some local organic vanilla, part of a crop that is small compared to the industry on Madagascar the principal home of vanilla in this part of the world.
As you would expect from an island of rich cultural heritage, the cuisine also has much to offer, and in the market you can sample fast food Mauritian style – a rolled up chapatti filled with daal. Or, a short walk away in Company Gardens, are the vendors who sell the excellently named and very tasty pain tikka poulet – or chicken tikka sandwiches.
The boys' favourite trip, though, was to Casela, a gem of a wildlife park with breathtaking views of the mountains and the coast. You could happily spend a day on this beautifully landscaped site, seeing some of the island's most endangered birds. The atmosphere is far from zoo-like – instead, every effort is made to break down barriers between the human and animal kingdoms. So you tread the paths in the company of peacocks and can even wander right into the turtle enclosure and take a close look at the animals.
Taking a stroll into Port Louis is highly recommended
There is plenty to do as well as to look at – including zipwires and a tilapia pond where you are handed a rod and some bait (and there is no need for any tall tales: the fish really do come, much to the children's delight). The final excitement was a bus "safari" to see some of Casela's bigger inhabitants, including zebra and ostriches. Admittedly, these have been imported into Mauritius, but looking after them fits well with Casela's ethos and atmosphere, and seeing them at close quarters (perhaps too close in the case of one snappy ostrich) was a treat.
As the days went by, Mauritius impressed us more and more – this is an island which can genuinely claim to have it all, where people seem at ease with their heritage and identity. Perhaps this is because of their history – all Mauritians are ultimately descended from immigrants, as the island was uninhabited until the first settlers arrived in the 17th century. One taxi driver, a Hindu, told us proudly how he always turned down the volume of his car radio when passing a mosque: "We all respect each other's faith." Mauritius has much to teach other parts of the world about tolerance and understanding.
The dodo may be long gone, but Mauritius now hums with life and vitality. Back at Albion, we were finding our once-reticent children hard to extricate from the Mini Club, announcing by the end of our stay that they'd rather join the kids' disco than dine with us. They had particularly bonded with Lulu, a young Haitian with six years of Club Med experience under his belt and an exceptional talent with children. Lulu, you will probably be running a resort like Albion one day soon, but if for any reason it doesn't work out – there are three boys in London who would love to see you again.
Mishal Husain is a presenter of the 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4
Club Med (08453 67 67 67; clubmed.co.uk) offers a week's all-inclusive stay at La Plantation d'Albion in Mauritius with flights from Heathrow on 15 May for £1,459 per adult and £949 per child. Children under-six stay free. Direct flights to the island are offered by Air Mauritius (020 7434 4375; airmauritius.com) from Heathrow and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick.
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