travel exploring mauritius
You don't just fly to paradise you explore it. Jonathan Crouch flies to Mauritius, takes to the road and finds that heaven isn't as far away or as expensive as he expected...
For the same money, I could have taken a package tour to somewhere ordinary. Yet here I am in paradise. In a hammock seat in Mauritius gazing out over the hills of the island's Chamarel area towards the perfect blue sea of the reef.
To get here I've flown, I've driven and, yes, I've dreamed. Of the picture postcard images of Mauritian beaches seen on a thousand calendars and book jackets - and now I'm in it. Or more accurately, at the Lakaz Chamarel, a small family-run hotel tucked carefully away in the hills, just an hour's drive from the Mauritian capital, Port Louis.
The brief for this story was simple. Mauritius is one of the British holidaymaker's favourite destinations. And many more are now poised to visit with the introduction of cheaper Virgin Atlantic flights to the island. Yet all but a handful of visitors do nothing other than basing themselves at beach hotels for the duration of their stays. It's like visiting England and seeing nothing but central London. All that's needed to change that is to hire a car, then get out into the island and explore. Once you've done so, it's hard to imagine why anyone would be satisfied with anything less.
Rather than try and give you an exhaustive travel guide to Mauritius, what I've decided to do here is to offer a sample of the kind of thing that the tourist there prepared to explore a little can expect. Before I started, I'd begun to wonder whether anyone but the super-rich could still experience real luxury on a desert island like this one. Previous visits had left me with my doubts but the lure of living, even if just fleetingly, that picture postcard life, refused to go away. I resolved to get there, get a car and travel in search of it.
And for the motorist, there could hardly be an easier territory to explore. One main road leads out of the island's capital, Port Louis, down towards the South West part of Mauritius we had decided to check out. Known as the Chamarel region, this area, 400m in altitude, is surrounded by the natural park of the Black River gorges, a protected natural heritage site. In this region, the World Wildlife Society has managed to save a number of species from extinction - the kestrel, the pink pigeon and the green parrot being just three examples.
The choice of where to stay wasn't too difficult - but only because we had inside information which actually I'm almost loth to pass on in case the place becomes so stacked out with English visitors that I can't get a future booking. It was only a few years ago that Virginie Largesse and her husband decided that this region needed to welcome visitors with more than just a few guesthouses and over-priced hotels. As a result, they found, bought and lovingly restored what is now the Lakaz Chamarel. It's what they call a 'boutique' hotel, run in friendly guesthouse style, nested in a small valley in the heart of a beautiful ten hectare tropical garden surrounded by mountains that spread out into the distance.
It's a bit off the beaten track - up a twisty mountain road that winds its way towards the clouds - but then the best places always are. Don't expect uniformed waiters and a chrome and glass reception. If you want that, you should have gone for one of the chain beach hotels, half an hour away. Or stayed in London. Instead, you feel like a guest in the true, old fashioned sense of the word, fitting in as part of a family, yet separate and extremely comfortable. Strolling round the grounds and through the individually and uniquely fashioned rooms, it seems impossible to believe that the whole site was either built or completely renovated so recently. Virginie Largesse did most of the exquisite designwork herself, working with Hotel Manager Frederick Desjardins to select suggestive colours, styles and decor to fill the rural buildings with a refined, yet comfortable atmosphere.
There aren't many rooms (so book well ahead), eleven in total, plus three suites complete with private pools. Each room has its own distinct character accented by features like four poster beds, hand painted curtains and beautiful bathrooms. This attention to detail is mirrored at meal times. Chamarel is a region renowned for its gastronomic excellence but I've a simple tip for the visitor and Lakaz Chamarel resident wanting to stray outside the hotel and experience it: don't bother. Even the simpler meals at this place were better than anything we tried at various expensive restaurants around Mauritius, with the special set four course meals which happen every night an event not to be missed.
Using Lakaz as a base, we found plenty to explore in the Chamarel region, with a visit to the coloured earth area just up the road a must. Other activities included everything from deep sea fishing and scuba diving to hot air balloon flights. The hotel is no more than fifteen minutes drive from some of the island's most beautiful beaches, places like Morne and Daie du Cap, and about the same distance from the small coastal villages of Black River and La Gaulette.
In getting around, we had been briefed that driving standards in the island's roads had 'something of a fairground quality' but to be fair, it was nothing like as bad as we had expected. This is despite the fact that the national speed limit is universally ignored and rarely enforced. As for the roads themselves, it's something of a mixed bag. The main highways are alright but the problem is that once you get off them, it's almost impossible not to get lost, so bad is the signage. The tourist road maps aren't much help and what signs there are serve only to confuse, sometimes pointing to the same destination in opposite directions. For all this, it's hard to get upset. For a start, exploring and getting lost is all part of the fun - and it's not like you're fighting the clock.
If that's all a bit too much of an effort, then I'd understand. The alternative after all, is a place in that hammock seat at Lakaz Chamarel, glass of chilled wine in hand, gazing across a valley richened by a deep red sunset. And a place in the picture post card of your dreams.
MOTORING HOLIDAYS IN MAURITIUS' CHAMAREL REGION
FACTS AT A GLANCE
WHERE TO STAY: Lakaz Chamarel
CONTACT DETAILS: firstname.lastname@example.org / 00230-727-8054
PRICES: £ per room per night Inc. Breakfast
GENERAL MAURITIUS DETAILS: see www.mauritius.net