After roughing it (well, by our sissy standards) in the third world on our last few trips, we wanted something a bit less adventurous for our last vacation as a couple (at least for quite some time). Besides, my big 40 b’day was coming up and we felt like doing something more special than just going out for a nice dinner. Open world map, eliminate countries that ask for visas from at least one of us, ones we have already visited, ones that are longer than a 6-7 hour flight, ones that require a connection, ones accessible only through unknown/untested airlines and rough/dirty ones, and we were left with one, and only one, choice: Mauritius. This would also allow us to complete our long-targeted “holy trinity” of Indian Ocean tropical island paradise nations (the other two of course being Maldives and Seychelles), allowing us to compare and contrast them into eternity. In a century or two we could probably throw in the Comoros into this roster as well, but for the time being we will have to pass, as it is not much of a paradise from what I hear.
So, to summarize Mauritius, it is a bit like India or Sri Lanka, except smaller, wealthier, lacking dangerous animals, French and Creole speaking, and with a noticeable percentage of white and black people to make the racial makeup more interesting. It is perhaps a bit less pristine than what you might expect. The image of Mauritius we had in our minds was untouched beaches, crystal clear waters, colorful fishes dancing around our feet… you know, all that tropical island stuff. The reality was more like pretty nice water, somewhat dirty beaches, absolutely filthy public bathrooms, polluting buses, ok curries, crowded towns with poor road signage, but very nice and friendly people, amazing scenery, lush green beautiful mountains, and an overall feeling of pleasantness and relaxation – in short, a bit of good, a bit of bad, but mostly pretty good. It is not cheap though – if you have dreams of retiring in a tropical paradise, better dig up those Thailand or Panama plans again.
The main island of Mauritius (as opposed to the country of Mauritius, which is actually an archipelago) may just be a speck on the map, but when you are in it you realize how big it actually is. I would imagine it would easily take you a week or more to circumvent it on foot, as opposed to the forty minutes it took us to walk around our honeymoon island in the Maldives. As far as comparisons with the Maldives go, a favorable feature of Mauritius is that they have plenty of hills in the interior, so in case of a tsunami you have somewhere to run to. This is thanks to Mauritius being a volcanic island, as opposed to coral in the case of the Maldives. Mauritius is apparently a great island to grow crops, too. The fertile volcanic soil allows everything from sugarcane to all kinds of vegetables and fruits to grow.
Here is what we did during our nine days on the island:
- Visited the Casela National Park, where we nervously petted lions. We were glad they were well fed and did not try to eat us or our unborn baby.
- Had lunch at the Chamarel rum distillery’s excellent restaurant and did a walking tour of the production facility afterwards. The roasted pork was excellent, but the highlight was the “rum baba” dessert, which is a bit like a Turkish “ekmek kadayifi,” but not “halal” due to its swimming in a rum sherbet. The vanilla whipped cream topping just made it more awesome.
- Went swimming at various beaches, our favorite being Le Morne. The more famous Flic En Flac is a bit overrated, due to crowds, some trash lying around, and the annoyingly close buoys that limit your swimming. Le Morne is quieter and cleaner.
- Went on a “swimming with dolphins” sea adventure. This was my wife’s special birthday treat for me. While the cruise was a lot of fun, we did not actually get to swim with the dolphins because they were not in their most playful mood that day and also because I had a cold, which made me decide not to jump in the water unless the dolphins were a sure thing. They did fortunately get close to our boat and posed for some nice pictures. I also did finally get in the water at one of the stops and snorkeled because the water looked so damn good and I just didn’t care about my fever anymore. We were the only people on the boat who were not French-speaking, but as if in an effort to destroy the stereotypes, all the French people on board were very friendly to us and did their best to communicate in their broken English. I wonder if most French people really are as nice as that, say, in Paris on a gloomy winter day as they commute to work.
- Drove on the left for the first time, in a right-hand drive rental car (a wonderful little Nissan March). Well, only I did. My wife showed some initial interest too, but she didn’t really insist and I got the hang of it quickly, so we just carried on with me as the driver. The trickiest part wasn’t forgetting to look the right way at intersections, as I had anticipated, but rather calculating the distance of the left side of the car from the curb. I had not even considered that as a problem, but probably due to sitting on the left side of the car for so many years, I found myself constantly getting too close to the curb. This made me have to consciously move the car towards the center of the road every few seconds until I eventually got the hang of it. On the first day I even ended up scratching the passenger side door on the landscaping in our hotel’s driveway. Oh well, I am sure they will buff right out.
- Enjoyed great poolside dinners at our hotel, the Marlin Creek. Here’s my review of the hotel on Trip Advisor. Highly recommended for those who want comfort without breaking the bank.
- Got a tour of Port Louis and the North, where we got to see the famous red-roofed church on the northernmost point of the main island. Port Louis has a population of around 150,000 and looks quite big, complete with a skyscraper-studded skyline. It’s easy to forget you are on a small island when you are driving through the busy streets of the capital. For its size, it has a massive Chinatown. In fact, the whole downtown market area felt like Little China. It was so busy that our driver could not find any parking and we therefore did not get to visit the central market. Sigh.
- Went hiking in Black River national park. Very green and forested as you might imagine. We had never seen so many wasp nests in one place anywhere before. It seems that one out of every twenty or thirty trees hosts a giant nest, but I am happy to say the wasps were very well-behaved (good boys and girls) and minded their own business the whole time. Some of the hiking paths intersect with the river, which meant we had to walk right through the cold water on those crossings. This made for a refreshing respite from the tropical heat. There is even a natural pool formed at one of the wider sections of the river, where you can take a dip.
- Went to “Vanille Réserve des Mascareignes” crocodile farm and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden. Both are highly recommended. However, in a bit of a sick twist, the Vanille Reserve actually serves crocodile meat on the menu at their restaurant. I don’t know about you but I find it wrong to go to what is essentially a zoo and then eat a burger made of the meat of the animals on display.
- Well, this one is not really about Mauritius, but we got to ride in an Airbus A380 for the first time. The direct Emirates flight from Dubai takes only six hours, bringing Mauritius within easy reach of many new places in the Northern Hemisphere.
Mauritius should probably not be a high priority for you if there are still many places in the world you have not yet seen, but in case you want to do something a bit different than follow the tourist herds into Europe and are into nature and a relaxed way of life, then I would urge you to consider it. We spent nine very active days there, and there were still several attractions we had not had time to visit. For the full experience, including an internal flight to (and perhaps a couple of nights on) the even smaller and more isolated Rodrigues island, spending two weeks may be the way to go.