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Saturday, July 24, 2010


(Pic by Matthew Hirsch: Part of the swimming pool at Le Victoria hotel, with the hotel’s main restaurant in the background.)

Mauritius is still one of the most enjoyable holiday destinations in the world. (Review by Michael Green)

Mauritius is still the enchanted isle. I have been there nine or ten times in the past 30 years but a recent visit was my first after a five-year break, and I wondered whether I would find that the charm was wearing a little thin

Not a bit of it. In scenery, climate, and the general atmosphere involving the people, Mauritius is still one of the most enjoyable holiday destinations in the world.

My wife and I know our way around the island fairly well, but I was hosting a family group of nine people, and none of the seven others had been to Mauritius before. Their response was, well, enchantment. A venture of these dimensions involves expense and trouble, but I was richly rewarded for the outlay. My guests --- my children, their spouses and my grandchildren --- enjoyed every moment of the 10 days they spent on the island, and they ranged in age from mid-50’s to early 20’s.

We stayed at Le Victoria hotel on the north-west coast of the island. It is owned by the Beachcomber hotel organisation. I had had previous and pleasant experience of other Beachcomber hotels in Mauritius, but this one was new to me. We all found it excellent. It is big, 248 rooms, which means a maximum resident population of about 500, but there was no sense of crowding. The hotel buildings are laid out in a series of crescents which give every bedroom a sea view, with lush tropical gardens in the foreground. The rooms are big, 60 square metres, with lounge areas as well as terraces or balconies.

The public rooms and facilities are quite exceptional, even in an island where the hotel industry is highly developed. The main restaurant is, like some others in Mauritius, open at the sides, no walls, a style permitted by the balmy climate. Little birds fly in and perch on dining chairs. The two supplementary restaurants, one seafood, one Italian, are similarly alfresco; in one of them the chairs and tables rest on sea sand. And there is a bar, one far removed from the traditional dark, confined space with a bar counter. This bar is spacious, no side walls as usual, with tables and easy chairs and a magnificent view of the Indian Ocean and palm trees.

The recreational facilities are many and varied, and most of them are free. In the first three days our group had been out water-skiing, wind-surfing, kayak canoeing, snorkelling, scuba diving (there is a charge for this), cruising in a glass-bottom boat, playing table tennis, exercising in a gymnasium, and taking part in aquarobics, water exercises accompanied by music. And of course there is the simple pleasure of sitting on the beach or swimming in the hotel’s huge circular pool, which is floodlit at night; I would guess that its diameter is about 40 metres.

Surf bathing in the style of Durban is not part of the scene. Most of the island’s coastline is protected by an off-shore coral reef which keeps out the sharks but also the big waves. And at Le Victoria the shallow water is rocky, and bathers are advised to wear swimming shoes, plastic footwear that protects the wearer from scratches and unpleasant sea creatures. The worst of these is the stone fish, a well camouflaged creature capable of inflicting serious injury. A friend of mine who earlier had been staying elsewhere in Mauritius was wounded in the foot by the spikes of a stone fish and had to be rushed to hospital for emergency treatment. The serpent in Eden. You just have to be careful, and if you are barefoot you should keep to the sand and stay away from the rocks.

The water sports are dependent on good weather, but that seems to be more or less permanent. On July 12, which is virtually mid-winter, the hotel’s daily notice-board told us that the air temperature was 29 deg. Celsius, the sea was 25, the pool was 22, and sunset was at 5,45 p.m.

Mauritius is the quintessential multicultural society. It was visited by the Arabs and the Portuguese, colonised by the Dutch, then the French, ruled by the British for 200 years, imported large numbers of Indian people to work in sugar cane plantations, and today has substantial Chinese and black African minorities. The official language is English, but the home language of nearly everybody is French or its local equivalent, Creole.

They total 1,2 million people, and they all seem to get on well together, with very few signs of racial tension. Sugar, once the foundation of the island’s economy, now takes third place to the textile industry and tourism. Many garments with famous names in women’s and men’s fashions are made in Mauritius for big European and American clothing firms; Mauritian workers are as skilled and less costly than their counterparts elsewhere. One side-effect is that it is possible to buy quality clothing with show-off labels for far less than one would pay in South Africa. Incidentally, unemployment in Mauritius is 10 percent, compared with 26 percent in South Africa.

It is a 20-minute and inexpensive taxi ride from the Victoria hotel to Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, to the Pamplemousses Gardens, one of the world’s great botanical gardens with some fantastic tropical trees and flowers, or to Grand Baie, a picturesque and popular shopping village.

The various sectors of the population are reflected in the island’s cuisine, which is wide-ranging and first-rate. At Le Victoria’s main restaurant all meals are buffet, self-service affairs, and dinner in the evening often has a theme: French, Indian, Chinese, international. There is a sumptuous array of dishes, you could have ten courses if you wanted to, and much of the food is cooked before your eyes by a corps of chefs.

Lunch is much the same, if slightly less elaborate, and breakfast is an astonishingly diverse meal. Among the offerings are yoghurt, fresh fruit, slices of coconut, crystallised fruits (including mangoes and pawpaws, dates and prunes), the usual cereals and porridges, omelettes cooked while you wait, pancakes likewise (these adorned with maple syrup or crushed walnuts or cinnamon), cold meats and salads, Brie cheese, and much more. Fortunately, breakfast is served until 10 a.m. In the bar you can have light lunches with a French accent, such as baguettes and croissants.

Service is without equal in my experience, always courteous and efficient. “No problem” is a kind of national mantra. Tipping is the exception, not the rule. At the airport there are signs that say “No tips please”.

What does all this cost? A package tour is the best deal, about R10,000 per person for six nights, including economy class air fares from Johannesburg (there are also direct flights from Durban). The non-package daily tariff is about R1,400 per person (excluding air fares). These rates include breakfast and dinner.

For an additional charge you can have AI. My son, who is a medical man, suggested that it stood for artificial insemination, but in fact it means all inclusive. For this you can have lunch, snacks, teas, soft drinks, beer, many imported spirits such as whisky and gin, and a wide variety of wines, all in unlimited quantities. And the mini-bar in your bedroom refrigerator is replenished daily, free.

The all inclusive extra charge is about R425 per person per day. This may seem rather steep, but it includes excellent South African, Australian and Chilean wines that are on the wine list at about R300 a bottle, beer at R30, and soft drinks at R20. Other prices of items on the all-inclusive selection are sherry R55, whisky R55, wine by the glass R58, sandwiches R95. If you are in a group and you want the all-inclusive facility, all members must pay. Obviously one all inclusive person cannot sign for a number of non-payers.

Is it worth the money? If you are abstemious, or on a strict diet, it is not. But I paid up cheerfully for our group, who ate and drank like normal people and did so painlessly. – Michael Green