Fly but don’t just flop in Mauritius
are like smiling torpedoes, cruising with effortless power and grace in an endless realm.
I just wish they didn’t swim so fast. Even with fins on I keep pace for barely half a minute before their tails flip farewell, and they are gone.
We are lucky. We came early when there were only a couple of other boats of dolphin chasers. By the time we leave, the bay is crowded with dozens of boats and people thrashing about in pursuit of flashing flanks. The best plan is to come early, like the dolphins.
Colonel CG Gordon of the Royal Engineers (later General Gordon of Khartoum) would have been amazed by such activities. In 1881, clearly bored with a Mauritius posting, he wrote to Sir Charles Elphinstone: “If you want to find a place where things have been let go to sleep, I recommend you to try Mauritius.”
As the island celebrates the 50th anniversary of independence from British rule this year, its allure as an Indian Ocean haven of rest and recuperation is undiminished. According to the last count, more than 100,000 Britons head for its beach resorts every year, and spend much of their time contemplating a tranquil sea and blue skies.
For those prepared to forsake their sun loungers, however, Mauritius has more to offer than Gordon could have dreamed of. Apart from close encounters with dolphins, the island’s bid to broaden its anniversary appeal under a tourism slogan “Beyond the beach” features hiking in indigenous forests that are a refuge of rare bird life, undersea adventures à la Jules Verne, and time travel in grand colonial piles and quirky museums.
My discovery trail with a driver provided by the tourist board begins on a mountain road in the less developed south of the island, rising to a viewpoint over the Black River Gorges National Park. This is a wild expanse of thick forest, the last vestige of native flora and fauna decimated over generations by human settlers.
The little that remains, thanks to determined conservation efforts, is magnificent. It is a vision of the dawn of time, a tumult of mountains swathed in tropical woodland presided over by the island’s highest summit, and scarred by deep river gorges plunging to the sea.
White tropicbirds with long, graceful tails drift silently below and a chorus of chirruping and twittering echoes around sheer rock faces. In the far distance the serrated peaks of dark mountains brood beneath a lowering sky over coastal plains and a ghostly grey sea. A distant rumble of thunder heightens the drama of a primal landscape seemingly untouched by humankind.
As I stand wondering at the prospect, two extravagantly plumed birds alight on a nearby branch and proceed to serenade each other with sweet warbling. They fly off when a couple of macaque monkeys amble along the parapet.
A few days later I am in the forest with a guide, an ultra-distance runner who used to be a Cistercian monk in Haute-Savoie, France. Yan is the kind of man who doesn’t climb mountains, he bounds up them while discoursing eloquently on nourishing the soul through nature.
As we climb a pilgrims’ trail towards a sacred Hindu lake, he explains how the park is reverting to its natural state Kuoni (details below) has packages in Mauritius to suit most tastes and budgets, including direct flights from Gatwick and island transfers.
Paradise Cove is an adults-only boutique hotel in a romantic setting with first-class facilities and fine dining. Seven nights half-board in a Deluxe Room costs from £1,735pp including return flights from London, booked through Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk).
For families, the Ravenala Attitude hotel combines good-quality accommodation and cuisine with land and water sports for youngsters. Seven nights all-inclusive in a Couple Suite costs from £1,635pp with return flights from London, also available through Kuoni.
An ethnic cocktail of Africans, Indians and Chinese in mainly social and religious harmony.
An imbroglio of English, French, Creole and Hindi; English is widely understood.
Mauritian rupee, worth about 45 to the pound.
Summer (from November to April) is hot and humid, with the cyclone season from January to March. Winter (May to October) is cooler/drier.
There are mosquitos but no malaria, and reasonable medical services. The easiest way to see the sights is on local tours that arrange excursions and activities with multilingual guides. through the eradication of invasive species such as guava and gum trees, and their replacement with native ebony. In the process, the natural habitat of endangered bird life e is being restored.
The late lamented d dodo, flightless clown of the he bird world, was shot and d devoured to extinction by 17th-century h-century Dutch sailors. More recently the Mauritius ius kestrel was the world’s ld’s rarest bird when only ly four could be found, d, and the echo parakeet was faring little better on the critically endangered list, numbering only 15, but now hundreds of them are flying around Black River forests. They prove elusive on our hike, but the air is filled with the screeching of fruit bats. “I call it the dance of the bats,” ts Yan says. “When they circle in the a air it is beautiful.” Descendin Descending from a rock ledge viewp viewpoint, we are invited to swim in a succession of rock pools fed by the cle cleanest, freshest river on th the island. It is, as Yan prom promised, good for the soul soul. He als also leads hikes up a nearby U Unesco World Heritag Heritage site called Le Morne, a great, glowering watchd watchdog of a mountain broodin brooding over the sea that is a mon monument to despair and defiance. defia In the early 19t 19th century it
Paradise Cove Resort, below, is an adults-only boutique hotel renowned for its fine dining Explore by boat, above, or by mini-sub, right. Below: a longtailed macaque
The Alexandra Falls in the Black River Gorges National Park