BREATH OF FRENCH FLAIR
A new resort on the colourful island of Mauritius combines historic character with creature comfort, reports Leonie Coombes
CLUB Med has listened to the most heartfelt wishes of its guests and created something special. La Plantation d’Albion, the group’s new $80 million resort on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, is a construction of selfish desires. People want space and terraces with views. They require day-long dining and cost-included drinks by lagoon-sized pools. They lust after huge, sexy bathrooms and crave sophisticated decor. Turquoise oceans and white sand are essential for the photos.
For some of us, however, luxury is not enough. Our bodies may be in the spa but our heads wallow in the past. Historic connections absorb us and fortunately Mauritius, though small, is rich in these. Located 1800km off the coast of southeast Africa, this sugarcanecoated island with 177km of coastline was ruled by the Dutch, French and English before independence in 1968.
Remnants of previous centuries abound. Even La Plantation d’Albion obliges, with the crumbling remains of a French fort from 1759 occupying the middle of the resort. It seems pensive: what tales could these stony walls tell? Now the ruin is surrounded by contemporary architecture designed not to repel foreigners but to embrace them. It does so in warm Mauritian style, with a peck on each cheek for good measure. Club Med is French, after all.
On this site battles are still being fought, but only for market share. Set in a 21ha estate bordered by a white-sand beach on the island’s northwest coast, La Plantation d’Albion is Club Med’s first five-star resort and others are planned. It sets a benchmark for the group in accommodation, facilities, food, wine and decor.
Antiques, funky furniture, huge pots and hot sari colours imbue the resort with its atmosphere. Indian, African, Chinese, English and French cultures converge joyfully in Mauritius, and the resort’s designer did not need to venture far for inspiration.
A vast, international buffet is also an odyssey into spicy Mauritian cuisine, with its lavish use of saffron and chilli. Standards are high; observing an Asian chef artfully assemble Korean dishes is impressive. Le Phare, an ocean-front restaurant, offers a la carte dining at no extra cost. And that is the beauty of Club Med: stylish cuisine, a vast range of alcoholic beverages, a raft of activities to fill the day, and it is all included in the room rate.
What is missing at La Plantation d’Albion are facilities for children. Though they are not made unwelcome, the resort caters to honeymooners and couples rather than families with youngsters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the minimalist Zen area, situated at the farthest end of the waterfront resort. The breathless hush would stifle Bart Simpson. Surrounded by guests in recovery from life, an edgeless pool dares not ripple. Waves breaking on the coral reef set a soothing tempo. At the bar there are no giggly drinkers. Even the normally exuberant Club Med staff waft around discreetly.
Preferring an environment more zany than Zen, I follow winding paths through hibiscus, frangipani and bougainvillea to the resort’s beach. Vendors roam the sand, touting shell necklaces and other souvenirs. They suck me into a bartering war over a sarong, even though, in usual Club Med style, I am carrying no money. Pas de probleme. Buy now, pay later, they insist.
Mauritians love to seal a deal. At the bustling Central Market in the capital, Port Louis, noisy haggling with tourists is a sport conducted mainly in French, though English is the official language. Forget about quiet browsing as stallholders ply you with tablecloths you cannot carry and baskets you do not need. Except, of course, that one can go inside the other. Spirited bartering ensues. Local rupees are swapped for stripy raffia bags, placemats, embroidered items and batik cloth.
Dodos on jewellery, T-shirts, nightgowns, tea-towels and plates all assert that the dodo is not dead, merely extinct. I buy a carved timber dodo with a baby dodo revealed inside, thus doubly assisting the dodo-driven market economy.
The unfortunate dodo was wiped out by Dutch settlers in the 17th century but thanks to the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation other endemic species are being saved. Many of these can be seen at Ile aux Aigrettes, a small island open to tourists and just 800m off the southeast coast, where pink pigeons, skinks and kestrels are nurtured.
Fortunately, Mauritian crafts flourish. Model boat building draws tourists to workshops where artisans create intricate, fully rigged ships such as Victory, Bounty and Cutty Sark from strips of glued teak. A vessel called Saint-Geran is a popular purchase because of a muchloved Mauritian legend. The sad tale of young lovers Paul et Virginie is commemorated exhaustively at the Blue Penny Museum in Port Louis. The main exhibits here, two rare 1847 Mauritian stamps, are overshadowed by the artworks and maps that chronicle the couple’s tragic relationship. What began as a childhood friendship ends on the rocks when Saint-Geran, returning from France, founders on the island’s coast in 1744. Virginie dies in Paul’s waiting arms.
In the museum shop I find a book about Matthew Flinders. Held prisoner on Mauritius from 1803 to 1810, there is a melodramatic aspect to this tale, too: the young adventurer returning home to England after his circumnavigation of Australia; a waiting wife; unjust detention by the autocratic French governor and a release order from Paris ignored. Still, it wasn’t all bad. After a bleak spell in prison, Flinders was invited to live with a French family at their home in the hills. He stayed in a guest pavilion, walked, swam, socialised with locals and foreigners, dined well, enjoyed musical evenings and learned some French. It was Club Med uncut: really great but a few years too long.
The imprint of French occupation was strong back then and lingers, despite 150 years of British rule. Gracious 18thcentury buildings still exist, such as Government House. Fort Adelaide, a French citadel, offers great views of the port. Also dating from that period are the Botanical Gardens at Pamplemousses. Begun in 1736 as a vegetable garden, they are now world-famous for giant Amazon waterlilies, specimen trees and, strangely enough, a wrought-iron fence and decorative gate. In 1862 it won the International Exhibition in London and still bears Queen Victoria’s coat of arms.
After a few hours of steamy sightseeing, La Plantation d’Albion emits a siren call. It must be cocktail time. Trade winds cool the spacious poolside pavilions that house La Distillerie, the main restaurant, and Le Banian, the tropical bar where the cocktail of the day is lined up. Sipping a minty mojito by a floodlit pool always enhances a balmy night.
Over the summer months from November to April, when coastal temperatures rise to 34C, individually airconditioned accommodation is appreciated. Ceiling fans suffice during the mild Tropic of Capricorn winter. La Plantation d’Albion is not in a high rainfall area but if it happens there are compensations. In oversized bathrooms even the stylish, free-standing tubs are positioned to take in the view. Luxuries such as quality toiletries, internet connection and minibars that are replenished without charge compete with sailing, snorkelling, tennis and the gym. Whether it’s raining or not, staying in becomes a seductive option.
The ultimate choice is a beachfront suite with ceilings that evoke overturned boats. This level of accommodation comprises a sitting room featuring a day bed facing the ocean, a separate bedroom with a second television, cupboards for everything and Mauritian atmosphere aplenty. Suites also extend to a private terrace furnished with timber recliners and chairs. It is just a step down to white coral sand and gently lapping water.
Paddling in the Indian Ocean interspersed with reading can fill endless hours and I wade through my museum purchase, In the Grips of the Eagle. Despair spills off every page as powerful petitions for Flinders’s release are all rejected.
Channelling our hero’s frustration, I retreat to the Zen area for a soothing massage. Here a welcoming spa managed by Cinque Mondes pampers troubled bodies. It features a posttreatment relaxation deck where clients can lie back and let lemongrass-infused tea and distant horizons clear their minds. Still, Flinders keeps surfacing in mine. Two plaques on this island commemorate his time here, and rightly so. He created a little-known historical link between us and Mauritius.
While a prisoner, he completed the maps of his circumnavigation of our continent and labelled them with a name that stuck: Australia.
Not until 1810, when England had prevailed in the war against France, did the governor allow Flinders to leave Mauritius. Overlooked in his homeland, he died in 1814, aged 40, one day after his journal was finally published.
Life goes on. The opening of La Plantation d’Albion is celebrated with the frantic drumbeat and vivid, swirling skirts of Sega dancers. Many are the mixed-race descendants of Indian labourers and African slaves. Creole beauty, pounding rhythm and explosions of light from fireworks bring an unlikely venue, the old French fort, to life.
It is a metaphor for the whole island. European rulers have come and gone but the vibrant people of Mauritius make good use of what is left, embrace the future and party on.
Flinders’s words of farewell seem apt and explain in part why Club Med has invested so confidently in its second resort on the island. ‘‘ Never in any place have I seen more hospitality and attention to strangers than I have myself experienced in Mauritius,’’ he wrote.
After 200 years of change, Flinders would still feel welcome. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Air Mauritius and Club Med. www.airmauritius.com www.clubmed.com.au
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