Nomad Africa Magazine
AT A GLANCE: MAURITIUS
Besides the awesome beaches and sea; Mauritius is well-known for the people who want to spend quality time just relaxing and having the freedom of a lifetime. The country has a beautiful setting, fresh green land and it is undeniably a gorgeous destinatio
with a population of almost 1.3 million, you would expect Mauritius to feel crowded, but it doesn’t. Although the main towns are frequently teeming with pedestrians and the roads jammed with cars, deserted areas of beach and forest are easy to find.
Each of Mauritius’s ethnic groups and religions brings its own unique qualities to the island’s rich and varied culture. An exciting variety of cuisine, musical styles and languages are a part of everyday life.
Mauritians grow up with music and dancing playing an important role in their lives: at family gatherings, festivals and celebrations. Ubiquitous is the séga (pronounced ‘say-ga’), which evolved from the spontaneous dances of African and Malagasy slaves. At night, after a day’s toiling in the cane fields, slaves used improvised instruments to create a primitive music to which they could dance and forget their woes. At times, this meant defying their masters’ prohibition of music and dancing, which aimed to sever the slaves from their African and Malagasy roots. Songs were often about the slaves’ plight and were highly critical of their masters. Girls danced to songs composed and sung by their admirers while the spectators encouraged them with hand clapping, foot stomping and chanting. The more impassioned the lyrics, the more heated the music and the more tempestuous the dancing.
Basically, there are two seasons: summer is hot and wet (November to April), whilst winter is warm and dry (May to October). Its proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn assures Mauritius of a subtropical climate that is typically warm and humid. Temperatures during summer range from 24°C at dawn to 30°C at noon on the coast, and during winter from about 18°C at dawn to 24°C at noon. On the central plateau it is normally about three to five degrees cooler. The western and northern regions are slightly drier and warmer than the east and the south.
Winter brings the trade winds, which are predominantly southeasterly and are at their strongest in July and August. The south and east coasts can be unpleasantly windy at this time of year, while in summer the sea breezes offer welcome relief from the humidity. The rainy season is roughly January to May, although rain is spasmodic, not a constant downpour for the entire five months. On the west coast the rainfall is about 1m or less a year, whilst the central plateau and windward slopes can have up to 5m in a year.
When to visit
Mauritius is a place to visit at any time of the year for someone from northern climes who craves tropical beauty and warmth. The one time when it is not ideal to visit is January– March, when cyclones are most likely to occur. They don’t happen every year but the cyclonic rains, which can last for several days, are an annual event. Humidity is high then and it can be a depressing, unsettling time.
The high season for tourism, when holiday packages cost more, is November to early January. Hefty peak-season supplements are charged over Christmas and Easter. Flights should be less crowded outside European school holiday periods and hotels are noticeably so.
December is the time when local fruits are in abundance: it’s summer and the temperature on the coast is about 30°C. The weather is cooler from June to September with the temperature at sea level being about 24°C, and it can be windy at this time. Package holiday prices are lower and hotels tend to host conference and incentive groups. September to October is perhaps one of the best times to travel as the weather is good but peak-season prices and crowds have not yet set in. If climate is not the governing factor, choose when to visit according to your interests. For instance, the horse-racing season is from May to late November and the best deep-sea fishing is from November to May. You may like to time your visit to coincide with one or more of the island’s many colourful festivals.
Mauritius is small enough for you to base yourself in one place and explore the island’s highlights.
Natural history enthusiasts and hikers should head to the Black River Gorges National Park. There are hiking trails of varying difficulty, where glimpses of the rare pink pigeon and Mauritius kestrel are possible. Also worth a visit is Ile aux Aigrettes, a coral island off the south coast, which the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation is working hard to restore to its natural state.
A visit to one of the island’s lively markets is fascinating – Port Louis’s daily market is by far the largest but Mahébourg’s Monday market also has plenty of variety. The hustle and bustle amidst the colourful displays of fruit, vegetables, spices and souvenirs represents an unforgettable snapshot of everyday life in the island’s towns. For a shopping experience of a different kind, visit one of the upmarket shopping centres where tourists are tempted at every turn by diamonds, clothing and model ships. These include Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis and Ruisseau Creole in the island’s west. You may as well make the most of Mauritius
being a duty-free island. In recent years a series of new, large, modern shopping malls has sprung up across the island, such as Les Halles in Phoenix, Bagatelle in Moka and Cascavelle in Flic en Flac. Thanks to the unstable economic climate, they are struggling to fill the shops in some of these malls and it remains to be seen how they will fare in the future.
One of the island’s most impressive attractions is L’Aventure du Sucre (Sugar World), a former sugar factory which has been transformed into a well-organised, modern museum telling the story of the industry on which the island was built. Its display on the island’s history is one of the best in Mauritius. Equally fascinating are guided tours of the Bois Chéri Tea Factory, which are followed by a tasting. The tour can also be done as part of La Route du Thé (The Tea Route), which takes in three sites linked to the Bois Chéri Tea Estate.
Mauritius is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Aapravasi Ghat, the immigration depot built in 1849 to receive indentured labourers in Port Louis, and Le Morne, the distinctive mountain in the southwest of the island that is regarded as a symbol of resistance to slavery.
I couldn’t write about the highlights of Mauritius without mentioning the beaches – and, yes they really are as good as they look in the holiday brochures. Belle Mare, Trou aux Biches and Flic en Flac are considered by locals to be among the island’s finest.
Beyond the beaches all manner of watersports are on offer, from kayaking to kitesurfing. Nonmotorised watersports may well be included in your accommodation package. Under the waves there are colourful coral reefs and a wealth of diving and snorkelling sites. For those who wish to explore the underwater world without getting wet, there are submersible vessels (classic submarines and ingenious underwater scooters) – a great option for children and non-divers.
Sailing, deep-sea fishing and dolphin-watching cruises are all popular with visitors.
Most people who visit Mauritius are seeking relaxation rather than adventure. However, there is plenty to see and around two weeks will allow you enough time to wind down and relax, as well as to explore some of the elements that make Mauritius distinctive. Mauritius is small enough that you can base yourself in one place and explore by taking day trips. For a memorable contrast, consider adding a few days in Rodrigues. If you want to view and compare speficic itineraries, please see the Mauritius beach holidays on SafariBookings. This comparison website lists tours offered by both local and international tour operators.
Eating and Drinking
Just thinking about the food I’ve eaten in Mauritius makes my mouth water, from the delicious French-style crêpes served with local coffee for breakfast to the delight of salade de palmiste (heart of palm salad) and the beguiling taste of fish vindaye (fish curry) for lunch, then a dinner of samoussas and Chinese soup from a street stall.
If you have your meals only in your hotel, you may wonder what I mean. However exceptional its standards, by definition a hotel catering for tourists has to serve international dishes that are familiar to guests and with a taste that is tolerable to nervous palates. Most hotels make an effort to showcase local cuisine and will have Creole and Indian nights at least once a week. The true adventure of eating in Mauritius is for the streetwise since so many delicious – and cheap – dishes are available from pavement hawkers or in noisy dives. Of course, there are also many restaurants that specialise in Creole food or European dishes with a local zest.
The influences of Creole cuisine are African and Indian, with a dash of French. The recipes of slaves and indentured labourers have been blended with French ingenuity to produce an array of irresistible dishes, most of which are mildly spiced. The Chinese influence has been confined to particular areas, such as mine (noodles) and the ever-popular fried rice. A favourite local dish, available from street vendors, is dholl purées: thin pancakes, made from wheat flour dough and ground split peas and cooked on a griddle. They are served plain, or rolled around a spoonful of rougaille or brèdes, and wrapped in paper. The Indian-originating purée, with its African/French filling, is an example of the successful blend of culinary traditions. Rougaille is a spicy condiment often made with pommes d’amour, the tiny cherry tomatoes that are grown and eaten all over the island. Brèdes are part of the daily diet of Mauritian country dwellers, cooked either plain or with meat or fish. They are green leaves – such as watercress, spinach, the leaves of tuber plants and Chinese cabbage – tossed with onions, garlic and red chillies in hot oil until the water has evaporated.
More substantial meals are also available from street sellers, such as poisson vindaye, seasoned fried fish coated with a masala of mustard seeds, green chillies, garlic and turmeric, often eaten cold with bread. Achards légumes, pickled vegetables mixed with spicy paste and vinegar, are also sometimes eaten with bread. The sweet tooth is catered for with many Tamil specialities, such as gâteau patate, a wafer-like pastry of sweet potato and coconut. There is an abundance of tropical fruit too, especially the small pineapples dextrously peeled into spirals, with the stem remaining as a handle.
A popular Mauritian drink is alooda, sold on the streets and in markets by energetic salesmen praising their own product. It consists of dis
solved, boiled china grass (agar agar) and sugar, which has been strained and allowed to set and then grated, to which is added water, milk, rose syrup and soaked tookmaria (falooda) seeds.
Mauritius provides a vast range of accommodation, from budget guesthouses to some of the world’s most luxurious hotels; camping, however, is not encouraged and there are no official campsites.
Service throughout Mauritius is superb, a fact which owes much to the Hotel School of Mauritius. The school offers courses for all hospitality and tourism personnel, from chefs to airline cabin staff.
Until recently there was no official rating or classification system for hotels in Mauritius, rather hotels which used a star rating would award it themselves. In April 2012, the MTPA launched an official hotel classification system based on international standards. For the purposes of this guide, we have divided accommodation into five categories, determined principally by the hotel’s public rates. The categories, which are defined below, are luxury, upmarket, mid range, budget and shoestring.
Almost all hotels in Mauritius publish their rates in euros only as most of their guests are Europeans and the euro is considered more stable than the Mauritian rupee.
The only proof of vaccination required is against yellow fever for those over one year of age arriving from areas at risk of yellow fever transmission. This includes most of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South America. The decision whether to take the vaccination will depend on which country you are coming from and whether the vaccine suits you. If you are arriving into Mauritius from an endemic zone then seek specialist advice as to whether you need the vaccine or can take an exemption certificate.
The traveller to any tropical country will benefit from the following vaccinations: tetanus, diphtheria and polio and hepatitis A. For longer trips, ie: four weeks or more, typhoid and hepatitis B vaccine should also be considered. You are advised to visit your doctor well in advance of your trip to plan the vaccine schedule. According to the Mauritian authorities, there is no malaria risk in Mauritius or Rodrigues. Visitors generally do not take anti-malaria medication.
Although Mauritius enjoys a relatively low crime rate, petty crime is on the increase. Many attribute this to an increase in drug taking. Pickpockets are reported to target tourists in busy areas such as Port Louis market and Grand Baie, whilst self-caterers should be aware of the increase in reports of housebreaking. Visitors should take sensible precautions, including avoiding walking alone at night, not leaving valuables visible in cars and taking care of bags and valuables when walking in towns and tourist areas.
To enter Mauritius, you will need a passport valid for the full duration of your stay, proof of a return or onward ticket and the address of confirmed accommodation on the island. Entry requirements change, so please check the MTPA website or the Passport and Immigration Office website.
Getting there and away - By air
A package including flights and hotel accommodation is one of the most cost-efficient ways of visiting Mauritius as tour operators are able to negotiate special fares with airlines and hotels. Many offer visits to Mauritius in combination with another destination; particularly popular is a stay in Mauritius after a safari in Africa. Going on a package holiday need not restrict your freedom to explore the island.
Cruise liners occasionally call at Mauritius, either on round-the-world voyages or on cruises from southern and eastern Africa. A Costa Croisières ship is based in Port Louis from December to March and operates cruises in the region, taking in Réunion, Madagascar, the Seychelles and east Africa.
Getting around - Driving
There are around 2,000km of good, tarred roads throughout Mauritius. A well-maintained motorway crosses the island diagonally from the airport in the southeast corner, travelling through Port Louis and north to Grand Baie. Little-used country roads are not in such good condition.
Driving is on the left. Although the standard of driving is generally fairly good (higher than in neighbouring Réunion), drivers are not courteous. Do not expect other drivers to give way or to stop at pedestrian crossings, or to wait for a safe moment to overtake. Outside the towns, there are stretches of open road without traffic, which make driving pleasant. However, roads are not well lit at night so watch out for pedestrians and stray dogs. Take care to observe the speed limit of 80km/h on the motorway and 50km/h in built-up areas; police operate onthe-spot fines. As of December 2008, it is compulsory for cars registered in Mauritius to be fitted with rear seatbelts and the driver is held responsible if they are not worn.
One thing Mauritius is not short of is taxi drivers. Wherever you go, taxi drivers will shout out to you and do their best to persuade you that you need their services. Although most taxis now sport nifty modern meters, they are rarely used. It is as well to negotiate a fare before you start your journey but be prepared to bargain.
Mauritius is blessed with a decent bus service, a boon to the independent traveller. Since so many people live outside the towns where they work, they depend on the bus service for transportation and their patronage keeps it flourishing. Bus timetables are available on the National Transport Authority website.