Sundays and Sunny Days

Sally Hammond

"A Sunday landscape" was Mark Twain's appraisal of Mauritius in his 1897 book, More Tramps Abroad.

He wasn't being rude, merely expanding on his clutch of impressions of this island which included "a dainty little vest-pocket Matterhorn" (Pieter Both the 820-metre peak overlooking the capital, Port-Louis, perhaps), along with 'toy peaks' and 'tiny mountains' as he called them, and a countryside he found generally 'charming but not imposing'.

So on a Sunday, over a hundred years later, I am in Mauritius, no longer under British rule as it was at the time of Twain's visit, to see if he got it right.

We've been given the use of a car and a driver so we can visit other parts of the island, and it will be a long day. I have a list.

Up until now we have been generously pampered at several five-star Beachcomber properties. As the first hotel group in Mauritius, begun in the 1950s, I was told Beachcomber had the pick of premier locations, choosing mostly lagoon-side areas where beaches were protected by reef. 

An inspired choice I agree on my first day there, at Paradis Hotel on Le Morne Peninsula, drink in hand, complete with its fresh fruit garnish on the rim. We have just flown in on Air Mauritius, suitably impressed with its comfort and service, but thirsty after the long flight.

Just a hundred or so metres out the reef is visible, modestly concealed under lacy waves. The choice is mine: swim in the lagoon, or shatter the mirror perfect reflection of palm trees in the pool.

I watch some guests taking up other options, windsurfing, water skiing and kayaking. Someone else suggests golf - worth considering, as this resort with neighbouring Dinarobin shares perhaps the finest course on the island.

This sort of delicious dilemma continued for days. Do I enjoy a massage at the Clarins spa at Royal Palm (I did, of course) or stretch out on a sun lounge under the palms? Should I have that second glass of vanilla-infused rum (I didn't) or use the gym? Not that either, although I surely should have after all the food we consumed.

Did I mention the food? That's the other consideration in Mauritius. The lush and fertile land is perfect for raising every sort of tropical goodie, and seafood seemingly just minutes from its ocean home, features on every menu.

At Dinarobin's premier restaurant Saveurs des Iles (tastes of the islands) we dined on an amazing multi-course degustation menu that ran the gamut from roasted sea scallops and prawns, through flambé lobster to local venison, a sorbet, and three desserts, no less!

"This is our jewel," Italian-born executive chef Stefano Fontanesi told us at the conclusion, after we had gasped over the final dessert, its name - 'melting and crispy' - translating as Jivara chocolate ganache with toasted almonds.

"We have the best ingredients and presentation," he continued, "It's a form of respect to Mauritius - we show what Mauritius can do."

The next day we were driven to Beachcomber's own jewel, located on the northern tip of the island. Nearby Grand Baie really is a grand bay, reminding us of a cross between Noosa and Noumea.

Royal Palm is the pointy-end of Beachcomber properties. It's where world leaders and celebrities stay. And yes, I did ask. Royalty do stay in the royal suite at Royal Palm. Discretion forbad my guide from saying which royalty, but I believe large entourages often take not just this massive suite, but several adjoining ones as well.

But this is also the place where people like me have their breakfast buffet selections brought to the table by a waiter. It's where I saw someone provide an ice bucket stand to hold an older lady's walking stick. Somehow, you get the feeling everyone is royalty here.

But back to our Sunday drive. My list was too long. Beaches, tick. Turquoise water, white sands, boats at anchor, and seriously large yachts. This is the playground of Europe, most popular with Brits, French, and Germans who come here for the sun.

In fact Europe has come here for centuries. We found perhaps the best potted history at L'Aventure du Sucre, a former sugar mill set up to display Mauritius's major industry, with a concise museum upstairs. It's also the place to come to buy rum and sugar-abilia.

Briefly, it goes like this. Mauritius is thought to have been discovered by the Arabs, but then was colonised from the 1500s by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally British, the latter leaving after independence was granted in 1968. The country;s heritage is a melange of cultures that also includes Chinese, Creoles, and descendents of Indian and African slaves, but remains heavily French accented.

And the dodos? Everyone equates these rather chunky duck-like birds with Mauritius. And although they were last seen here in 1681, they are still its mascot. You'll find their image on everything from pot holders to fridge magnets, on tablecloths and towels.

We get our 'dumb as a dodo' phrase because they were apparently rather thick - some say they were simply unafraid of humans as Mauritius was uninhabited when the Portuguese came - but they were certainly tasty, enough for them to be hunted to extinction.

Next on my list was Port-Louis, population 144,000, a rather colourless town until you hit the newly created Caudan Waterfront, bustling with bars, restaurants, craft shops and boutiques, the ideal place for a local Phoenix beer and a meal.

As we drove on southwards we passed dozens of factory outlets, closed on Sunday, so I was relieved that I had managed a stop at some during the week when I'd browsed through racks of Armani, Versace, DKNY and Dolce & Gabbana. Textiles are the country's number two industry, and garments for many of the world's most famous designers are put together here.

Our driver then offered a suggestion. He would take us to Chamarel Falls in the south - not far, an hour (and I remembered someone had told me that almost everything on Mauritius is no more than an hour from anywhere else) and so we drove through the oppressive heat of the day, passing groups of Hindu devotees on an annual pilgrimage, carrying elaborately decorated shrines offering 'glory to Lord Shiva'.

Then, after a steep climb from the coast road we found the waterfall, a supremely lovely eighty-metre cascade over a cliff with a rainbow pinned to its lapel.

Not much further, he urged us, so we continue to the rainbow sands of Chamarel, a place where volcanic rocks have weathered to create mounds of earth that shade from red to purple to gold, to the amazement of its many visitors.

With its 1.2 million people (making Mauritius the 18th most densely populated country) and untold thousands of annual tourists, you would expect this 1864 square-kilometre island to feel crowded.

But on this Sunday afternoon as I watch the gentle green and golden landscape slipping past, I find myself beginning to agree with Mr Twain,

What's more, I know there will be a tall cold drink waiting for me at our resort. Better still, there'll be one every day, if I want it. Not just on Sundays.



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