Image credit: Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority
There's more to Mauritius than sun and sand, as Katie McGonagle finds out on the annual Beachcomber Academy
There are plenty of movie characters I might like to emulate, but I never thought Captain Jack Sparrow would be one of them.
Yet as we commandeered a small speedboat and its captain – minus the menace of your average pirate, but with more undignified pleading – I realised the action-packed Beachcomber Academy had redefined my idea of what was reasonable to ask of a complete stranger.
The same was true of my fellow fam-trippers who – not to be outdone – made my team’s speedboat journey look positively pedestrian as they hitchhiked, pounded the pavement, sped along on the back of pick-up trucks and motorbikes, and even managed to get a lift on the back of an ice cream van.
This very un-British behaviour was all in aid of the ‘Don’t be a dodo’ challenge, which saw the agents on Beachcomber Tours’ annual educational trying to make their way from one resort, Le Mauricia in Grand Baie, to a second, Trou aux Biches, by any mode of transport possible – provided we didn’t pay for it.
Armed with a list of objects to collect along the way and barely enough rupees to make up a bus fare, we had no other option than to ask the locals for help. That, of course, was the object of the exercise – to show us how welcoming Mauritian people are and how safe it is to travel around.
There are few destinations that haven’t staked a claim to having the friendliest locals, but in Mauritius it turned out to be more than just a marketing slogan. Ask a British stranger for a favour and you’re likely to get a frosty reception, but here, the default response was far friendlier, and served to underline why agents should mention more than just the luxurious beach hotels when selling this idyllic Indian Ocean isle.
That wasn’t the only time the Beachcomber team let us loose on the streets of Mauritius. Our first full day was spent racing around the island in a car rally. Not only did that show us how easy it is to get around – Mauritians drive on the left, and roads are well-signposted – but it also served as a good introduction to local culture.
After trying our hand at traditional basket-weaving – not nearly as easy as the Mauritian craftswomen make it look – we moved on to a local food market to pick up the ingredients for a fish vindaye.
This curried fish dish is said to derive from the island’s Indian population, just one example of how waves of settlers from India, Madagascar, Africa, France and China have brought with them a slice of their own heritage – culinary or otherwise – to create a multi-cultural melting pot.
Despite some questionable wafts from the dried fish stalls, the market was a heaving jumble of brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables, and locals jostling to get their pick of the produce.
Some foods I recognised – deep purple aubergines, onions of all shapes and sizes, plump mangoes and spiky pineapples – but the bumpy green squash known as margose, prickly corossol fruit, and Chinese guava were rather more exotic.
Having borrowed a bit of culinary expertise from a local family, who showed us how to crush spices without a grinder in sight, we returned to Beachcomber’s Shandrani Resort & Spa where the chefs showed us how to whip up this traditional dish.
Munching on our tasty fish curry in the open air, with waves lapping gently by the side, it was easy to see why visitors would be tempted to spend their entire time in-resort – but we knew how much they would be missing out on.
THRILLS AND SPILLS
Bombing along on the back of a quad bike, I thought we were going at a fair old lick until, seemingly out of nowhere, an ostrich streaked past and put our paltry pace to shame.
With no regard for road etiquette, the ostrich cut in front of us and thundered along on his jaunty run as we struggled to keep on course while staring, open-mouthed, in his wake.
This was just one of the memorable moments at Casela Nature & Leisure Park, a 14-hectare reserve home to an array of birdlife, lions, zebras, a tiger, monkeys and giant tortoises, plus adventurous activities for those who want a complete contrast from the beach.
Choose from hiking routes, four-wheel drive safaris, Segway tours around the park, or for younger visitors, a petting zoo and the chance to swim through a canyon.
As exciting as it was to zoom through lakes of mud on a quad bike (costing from £52 for an hour on a single quad), the adrenaline-pumping zip wires were top of my thrill list. Few activities will get your heart thumping as much as zipping through the air across forested ravines suspended from nothing but a simple wire.
It’s the longest course in the Indian Ocean. A 400-metre wire gives an utterly terrifying 22 seconds of flight – but if that’s not enough of a thrill, ultimate daredevils can flip upside down to see the lush green forest from a different angle.
FROM SEA TO TEE
If the thought of all that adrenaline-fuelled adventure sends clients into a spin, there are plenty of chilled out alternatives. Chief among these is a sunset catamaran cruise around rugged landmark Le Morne on the southwest tip of the island, which costs from £30 for a shared boat or £250 for exclusive use.
Once a shelter for runaway slaves, the jagged peak serves as a symbol of the fight for freedom, yet also hides a tragic tale. On February 1, 1835, when slavery was abolished, an expedition travelled to the top of the mountain to tell slaves hiding there they were finally free, but on seeing the mission approach, many of the escapees feared a return to servitude and threw themselves from the peak.
Guests can also avail themselves of the dizzying array of watersports on offer. All eight Beachcomber Hotels offer unlimited waterskiing, windsurfing, sailing, glass-bottomed boat trips, snorkelling, kayaking and pedal boats, plus there are group or private lessons in sailing or waterskiing, offshore speedboats, kitesurfing and deep sea fishing available at selected resorts at extra cost.
Guests who prefer their sporting activities on dry land can also make the most of the golfing facilities. The 18-hole par-72 championship golf course at Paradis Hotel & Golf Club was somewhat wasted on us – the instructor sensed we weren’t the most experienced golfers when most of us had to be shown how to hold a club never mind how to tee off. However, aficionados will enjoy golfing packages starting at £370 per couple for four days, or the nine-hole pitch-and-putt course at Shandrani.
Don’t forget the tennis courts and table tennis at all eight resorts, plus football, archery and volleyball. Horseriding and mountain bike hire are available at a supplement from selected resorts. TW
TRIED & TESTED: SHANDRANI RESORT & SPA
Set on the southeast tip of the island, this all-inclusive resort is conveniently close to the airport (albeit with the odd aircraft flying overhead) and boasts an enviable list of activities.
Its impressive stretch of coastline hides several secluded spots, so clients who like to pick a sunlounger in the morning and see no one else all day will be content.
Its 327 spacious rooms are split into low-rise blocks with a comfortingly comprehensive all-inclusive offering, covering everything from champagne before dinner to a dizzying array of dining options; special praise must go to the adventurous flavour combinations at Le Boucanier restaurant.
There were plenty of families staying during our visit – enjoying the free kids’ club and choice of 36 family apartments or two family suites – but the size of the resort means there’s enough room for everyone.
Agent verdict: Stephen Dent, Dawson & Sanderson
“Shandrani caters for all tastes, from families to those looking for a more energetic holiday. It is also the first fully-inclusive five-star resort in Mauritius – a godsend for those travelling with children, and I’m talking from experience!
“Accommodation is of a high standard and family apartments have direct access to the beach and a private garden. Senior suites are more suitable for couples on their honeymoon as they are split-level, and also have direct access to the beach.”
Book it: Seven nights’ all-inclusive in a classic room starts at £1,635 including shared transfers and Air Mauritius flights.
TRIED & TESTED: TROU AUX BICHES RESORT & SPA
Mauritius is home to some seriously beautiful beaches, but with its powdery white sand and warm waters shallow enough for a pleasant paddle, this long stretch of shoreline surely takes top spot.
It can get busy, so for quieter sunbathing, swap the beach or main pool for the smaller pools at the heart of each crescent of rooms, where the only noise source I noticed was wind rustling through the palm leaves.
The resort was refurbished two years ago and the upgrade shows in its 333 suites and villas that combine earthy tones and a back-to-nature feel with mod-cons such as free Wi-Fi and a media hub. Most rooms also boast outdoor showers for a rather exotic bath-time, while family suites come with essential extras such as sterilisers, bottle warmers, adorable mini-bathrobes and slippers, and even a kids’ mini bar packed with snacks and soft drinks – although this can be emptied at mum and dad’s request.
There’s also a free Bob Marlin mini club and a teens’ club to keep boredom at bay.
Agent verdict: Susan Gillespie, Travel Counsellors
“Trou aux Biches was my favourite resort because of the beach. I liked the crescent arrangements of the rooms and it had the best dining choices. I was impressed with the bathrooms – even in the lead-in rooms – but I would choose the tropical junior suite for the outdoor shower.”
Book it: A week in a junior suite with dinner, bed and breakfast, private transfers and Air Mauritius flights, costs from £1,725.
TRIED & TESTED: DINAROBIN HOTEL GOLF & SPA
In a high-end destination such as Mauritius, you won’t often hear the phrase ‘two for the price of one’, but the Dinarobin is the exception – it shares facilities with neighbouring Paradis, so guests get twice the value for money.
When those facilities include a huge watersports centre and 18-hole golf course, that’s an attractive proposition, and club cars are available to ferry guests back and forth.
The all-suite resort boasts 172 bright, spacious rooms with large windows ensuring a lighter feel, plus outdoor terraces perfect for pre-dinner drinks or a shady afternoon away from the beach. Total relaxation can also be found in the Asian-inspired spa, or for those in club suites, the Martello tower-turned-private escape The Club at Dinarobin.
Even the most reluctant gym-goers could make an exception for this fitness centre, with treadmills overlooking the magnificent Le Morne, plus its spot on the west coast means guests get the best sunsets.
Agent verdict: Nicky Oldfield, Carrick Travel
“The rooms were amazing and enormous, and the location fabulous – I loved the backdrop of Le Morne – and with its connection to Paradis, you have two hotels in one with fantastic facilities and activities. I also loved the wedding venue, La Ravanne restaurant, which sits between the two hotels.”
Book it: Prices start at £1,910 for a week in a junior suite, including dinner, bed and breakfast, private hotel transfers, and flights with Air Mauritius.
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