BREATH OF FRENCH FLAIR

A new re­sort on the colour­ful is­land of Mau­ri­tius com­bines his­toric char­ac­ter with crea­ture com­fort, re­ports Leonie Coombes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Club Med Test -

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

Pic­ture: Leonie Coombes

Out of the blue:

Club Med’s lux­u­ri­ous La Plan­ta­tion d’Al­bion re­sort on the In­dian Ocean isle of Mau­ri­tius

Colo­nial past: His­tory at ev­ery turn

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