Travel: Giant Tortoises, Tribal Dancing & Fine Dining in Mauritius
Close encounters with endangered species, rich heritage, exotic cuisines, sapphire seas, watersports, white beaches… Mauritius may be a small volcanic island nation in the Indian Ocean, but this luxury escape offers huge scope for creating unforgettable memories
Petting a giant tortoise is now up there with my most wonderful experiences of all time. They’re so peaceful and prehistoric-looking, and they love a stroke under the chin. Should you find yourself lucky enough to be holidaying on the beautiful island of Mauritius, located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, I suggest you make it a priority to seek out these astonishing creatures.
Our encounter of the tortoise kind occurred on the Ile Aux Aigrettes, a tiny coral island just off the coast of Mahébourg in the south east. Ile Aux Aigrettes is a nature conservation site where the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation is working to return the flora and fauna to that of native Mauritius, before explorers introduced rats, pigs and other domestic animals which, along with hunting, engineered the demise of the poor dodo and other endemic species.
The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation provides a safe environment for endangered native species like the Pink Pigeon, Telfair Skink and Ornate Day Gecko. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet passionate team member Benny Henry. He’s a fount of knowledge, talking us through the foundation’s work to breed fruit bats and tortoises, and the clever evolution of the plant life. Benny introduced us to MT7, his favourite tortoise, and showed us just the right spot to give her a tickle so that she slowly rises up in delight. I’ve never seen a group of adults in such awe.
We visited Ile Aux Aigrettes as part of a guided tour with Mautourco (mautourco.com), taking in some of the south’s tourist hotspots including the dramatic, wave-pounded cliffs of Gris-Gris, the peaceful lake of Grand Bassin, which is a sacred lake for the Hindus adorned with colourful religious statues (and some incredibly cheeky monkeys), the Rhumerie de Chamarel for a spot of rum tasting, the impressive Chamarel Waterfall and the truly magnificent Black River Gorges National Park – a vast, lush conservation area that looks as if roaring, battling dinosaurs could emerge from it at any time.
When it comes to a place to call home, the Heritage brand of resorts immerses you in luxury woven around Mauritius’ rich, diverse history and culture (Mauritius was colonised by the Dutch, the French and the British, and also has strong African and Indian influences). You’ll find world cuisines, fantastic hospitality from the kind of warm staff with whom you can strike up a friendship, and a wealth of experiences there for the taking.
Heritage Awali in Domaine de Bel Ombre, on the south of the island, will see you immersed in Mauritius’ African heritage with suites in shades of ochre, dark wooden furniture, cool stone tiles and thatched roofs. Try the Boma dining experience, a fantastic outdoor grill-buffet serving game from the nearby nature reserve and plenty of freshwater fish, all set around a campfire with live African music and dancers. There’s also the chance to let your hair down and learn some tribal dance moves. You can’t help but get swept up in it all and you’ll soon find yourself giggling away with guests of all nationalities.
Just next door is Heritage Le Telfair, which embraces the island’s colonial past. The resort is inspired by Charles Telfair, a 19th century naturalist known for his work in the sugar cane industry and for founding the Natural History Society of Mauritius. It’s designed with the grand character of former plantation houses – imposing white wooden structures that seem to reflect the glistening blue seas. The colonial-style rooms, housed in pavilions set among tropical gardens, feature four-poster beds with flowing linens, deluxe bathrooms, white shutters and French windows leading onto column-framed balconies.
There’s also the C Beach Club – where you can try your hand at watersports like kayaking, kitesurfing and paddleboarding, or even take a Segway tour of the resort – as well as a championship golf course and nature reserve, which offers wellness walks and four-wheel-drive safaris.
The joy of these two neighbouring resorts, completely different in character, is that you can stroll along the beach between them, sipping rum cocktails in the various bars and indulging in world cuisines at the numerous restaurants. Gin’ja is my particular favourite – a sleek, Pan-Asian operation with excellent sushi and teppanyaki – closely followed by the impressive Château de Bel Ombre, an authentic 19th-century mansion that has retained the charm of the colonial era and serves up Mauritian fine dining.
Both Heritage resorts also have their own Seven Colours Spa, which uses the seven colours of the chakras as a starting point to relax and reset mind and body and boost your energy levels. Chill out in the outdoor hydrotherapy pools, indulge in a full-body massage, doze off in the outdoor relaxation rooms and truly, truly lose yourself in this wonderful island paradise.
A deluxe room at Heritage Awali starts at £276 per night (two sharing) on an all-inclusive basis. A deluxe room at Heritage Le Telfair starts at £260 per night (two sharing) on a B&B basis (see heritageresorts.mu or call +230 266 9768). Fly from London Gatwick to Mauritius via Dubia with Emirates (see emirates.com). THE 3* VERSION…
Seeking to spend a little less? Heritage’s sister resorts, the 3+-star Veranda Resorts, located to the north of the island, also offer beautiful, beach-side surrounds with Seven Colours Spa experiences and great open air dining and drinking options. There are four Veranda properties – Veranda Grand Baie, Veranda Pointe aux Biches, Veranda Paul & Virginie and Veranda Palmar Beach – all of which have recently introduced a new cultural programme with the aim of introducing guests to even more Mauritian heritage. Immerse yourself in activities such as guided cycle or walking tours around local villages in the north, a market tour, Creole cooking classes, artisanal fishing, rum-tasting, Sega dance lessons and Mauritian instrument initiations. Prices start from £86 per room per night (based on two sharing on a B&B basis). See veranda-resorts.com/en/ or call +230 266 97 62