On the sandy sea floor, the swimming monitor passed us crumbs of bread. “I’m not really hungry,” I motioned. “It’s for the fish,” the guide signalled back. “Aaaaah!” Despite the oxygen supply, being underwater does make you a little slow. A flurry of striped fish converged on us for a nibble. In what would be a relief to many visitors, most watersports in Mauritius do not require a prior knowledge of swimming.
The next stop was Trou aux Biches where Blue Safari director Luc Billard had developed a patented Submarine Scooter. “I’ve never ridden a scooter underwater”, was the common refrain. “Very easy, see those two shiny foot pedals? You press it, the scooter moves forward, you leave it, it stops. And that’s the steering.” I imagined the worst–ramming into corals or each other or worse still, mowing down the instructor, but luckily discovered that its speed was a leisurely 3km per hour.
A shared bubble was placed over me and my pillion, the platform was lowered and five scooters set off in Bond fashion. Not Daniel Craig-like, but a la Roger Moore, with strange gizmos, underwater lairs and 70s production values. The movement was imperceptible but the feeling of being on your own three metres under the Indian Ocean was exciting. With oxygen pumped into the vestibule, we breathed naturally, enjoying a 360-degree view of the marine life–grotesque brain corals and iridescent parrotfish. The best part was the freedom to speak with your co-passenger. “So Miss Renu, traffic signal se left ya right?”
Blue Safari also runs an excellent submarine tour that lets you observe the beauty of the seabed and the workings of a ballast system. Incidentally, they are the only submarine operator in Mauritius and the entire Indian Ocean! As the submarine dives 35m to the sandy bed, it’s the closest you’ll feel to landing on the moon. There’s limited place aboard the 10-seater and 5-seater subs, so it’s best to book early to watch stingrays and turtles glide past the ghost-like wreck of Star Hope.
Don’t let the alarming number of shipwrecks around the Mauritian coast worry you, as most of these wrecks were deliberately submerged to create artificial reefs. To the north and northwest of the island, dive for angelfish and barracudas around Silver Star (39m) or the Japanese trawler Stella Maru (24-28m), inhabited by blue triggerfish, reef fish, octopuses and moray eels.
The wreck of TUG II (17-19m) on the west coast is an easy dive that throws up stone fish, leaf fish and scorpionfish. To the southwest, watch trevallies and tunas hunt down smaller fish at Hoi Siong (16-28m). The 40-odd dive sites can be reached within 20 minutes from the coast.
Away from all the action of the north, Shanti Maurice in the quiet south was truly a great place to pause and catch our breath. Walkways lined with tropical foliage led to private villas with thatched roofs spread over 36 acres. A coral reef circled the curved beach with a jetty to the right and the surf crashing against black volcanic rock on the left. Since the resort offered only non-motorised watersports such as windsurfing, sailing, pedal boats, snorkelling and kayaking,the beach was always tranquil. After endless rounds of spiced rum cocktails at the Rum Shed, rustic beach-side barbecues at the Fish Shack and full-body massages at the in-house Nira Spa, we were ready for more action.
Though much of the French-Indian-Creole-Caribbean-Chinese mix that comprises Mauritian cuisine is accessible to Indians, there’s plenty of adventure on the plate too. At La Vanille crocodile park, after feeding giant Aldabra turtles, petting iguanas and holding baby crocs, we tried crocodile meat. It tasted like chicken (bit chewier) and, in an ironical twist, the restaurant was called Le Crocodile AffamÃ© (The Hungry Crocodile). Guiltily, we explored the 3.5-hectare reserve with enclosures full of crocs and caimans, endemic bats with 1m wingspans and an insectarium with 23,000 species–including dazzling bugs and butterflies.
One of the top wildlife attractions in Mauritius is Casela, a nature reserve where visitors can pet lions, feed giraffes, pose with caracals, go on a wildlife safari to watch rhinos or have ostriches clapping their beaks at you.
“I think he wants you to feed him,” said the guide, though to me it seemed like he wanted to feed on me. For the shy squeamish sorts, there’s plenty of Dutch courage available. No Mauritian holiday is complete without rum tasting, best experienced at rhumeries (rum factories) like Chamarel, St Aubin and Chateau Labourdonnais. Besides stunning viewpoints, Chamarel boasts sights like Seven-Coloured Earth, the odd exhibits at Curious Corner and the island’s highest waterfal
If you don’t happen to be a water person, there’s enough adventure on terra firma–golfing at spectacular courses like Heritage and Tamarina to hiking trails in the central highlands and peaks like Le Pouce (The Thumb), Pieter Both and Mount Piton–at 828m, the highest peak in Mauritius.
We went quad biking across the undulating terrain of La Vallee des Couleurs, a nature park with four waterfalls and the third-longest zipline in the world. Offroading to a viewpoint, we zoomed down half a kilometre over the ‘23-coloured earth’, unique to this volcanic island. I went belly down, miraculously keeping my flip-flops on!
However, the number one activity in Mauritius is sea karting–the thrill of a jet boat with the safety and stability of an inflatable raft. We zoomed out on Black River in V-formation to the southwest coast of Mauritius with stops at the spectacular Crystal Rock and the dramatic Le Morne Brabant mountain. We had no luck with dolphins as we were busy trying not to collide into each other as we bounced on the waves. With top speeds of 70km/hr, sea karts are fast. Our slow evolution from Octopussy to Spectre was complete. The one-hour excursion was easily my most enjoyable 60 minutes in Mauritius (half-day or full-day guided tours also offered). Thankfully, the drive to Hotel Sofitel-Imperial at Flic-en-Flac was short.
The reception and restaurant opened out to a large swimming pool that spilled onto a white sandy beach with the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean receding into the distance. Being on the west coast, it was one of the best spots to catch the famed Mauritian sunset, though we got Sega dancers, fire-eaters and acrobats along with the view! The prawns and fish flew with surprising agility from the grill to our plates to our mouths, as we rounded off a splendid dinner by the sea.
The final act was a dolphin cruise and snorkelling trip after breakfast. We grabbed our flippers from Christine Sofitel Boat House and set off into the big blue. It was a bouncy gangsta ride. Maybe we should have gone easy on the dholl-puris (the Indo-Mauritian version of the well known Bihari staple dalpuri or dal-stuffed paratha).
For all the activities in Mauritius, nothing could prepare us for the sight of wild dolphins skimming the waters. An entire school, maybe a hundred or so. Whenever a group approached a boat, excited divers jumped off like kamikaze warriors in a bid to swim with the dolphins. We were happy to watch the spectacle from the boat, before rapidly heading off towards Le Morne to snorkel among the reefs.
“Quick, make a wish. That’s a paille-en-queue!” said the boat captain. By the time I could decipher his French pronunciation, a white long-tailed bird swooped down from the lush mountains towards the sea and disappeared. The Tropicbird, named after its distinctive ‘straw-tail’, was the symbol of the national airline Air Mauritius. It was considered lucky to spot one.
“So what did you ask for?” “That I come back to Mauritius for a much better look at it!”
Located 4,700km west of India in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is a tiny speck in the ocean off the east coast of Madagascar with a contrast of colours, cultures and tastes that make the island so charming. There are direct flights by Air Mauritius and Air India from Delhi and Mumbai (about 7hrs) to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport towards the south of the island (from approx. Rs 20,000 one way; airmauritius.com).
WHERE TO STAY
For a luxury stay at the southern tip of Mauritius, try Hotel Shanti Maurice, Chemin Grenier (from Rs 24,700 per night per person; shantimaurice.com). Rates at Hotel Radisson Blu Azuri, to the northeast of the island near Poudre d’Or fishing reserve, is more affordable (from Rs 10,200; radissonblu.com/en/hotel-mauritius-azuri); On the west coast, a luxury option is Hotel Sofitel Imperial, Flic-en-Flac (from Rs 15,500; sofitel.com/Mauritius). To be near the coloured sands of Chamarel, try Hotel Paradis & Golf Club (from Rs 24,700; beachcomber-hotels.com/hotel/paradis-hotel-golf-club).
Whatever gets your adrenaline pumping, Mauritius offers a plethora of adventures and adventure tour operators for you to choose from. Blue Safari, Trou aux Biches, Sub Scooter for two costs MUR 5,800, Submarine tour MUR 4,400/person; +230 265 7272, blue-safari.com; Solar Undersea Walk, Gran Baie 10:30am & 1:30pm, Monday-Saturday, +230 263 7819, solarunderseawalk.com; Fun Adventure Sea Kart, La Balise, Black River, MUR 5,500 per sea kart (up to two adults plus a child); +230 5499 4929, fun-adventure.mu; La Vanille reserve des Mascareignes (Crocodile Park), RiviÃ¨re Des Anguilles, 8.30am-5pm, MUR 490 adults, MUR 250 children, +230 626 2503; lavanille-reserve.com; Quad Biking & Ziplining, La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park, Mare Anguilles; +230 5471 8666, lavalleedescouleurs.com; Segway & Walking with lions, Casela World of Adventures, Cascavelle, 9am-5pm, MUR 740 entry fee, activities are extra, +230 401 6500, caselapark.com; Christine Sofitel Boat House, Flic-en-Flac, +230 453 8975, [email protected].
FOR MORE INFO, VISIT
Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, Victoria House, Port Louis; +230 15 45, tourisme-ilemaurice.mu; Mauritian Scuba Diving Association, Route Royale, Beau Bassin; +230 454 0011, msda.mu.