Above: The famous crystal rock in Le Morne.
Bonjour! As I turned and looked around, I heard more murmurs of bonjour and merci but none looked French here. Had I landed in the wrong place? I was supposed to be headed for Mauritius. Yes, I was at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport.
French, or more accurately, Mauritian Creole, is the lingua franca of this little paradise in the Indian Ocean, spoken by some 90% of its population. Road signs, billboards, signboards, you name it, are in English and French although some are entirely in French.
Just as I thought it would be challenging for the next couple of days, I was relieved that most of the locals here are bilingual, with a pleasant French accent in their English, so finding your way around the island will not be much of a hassle.
An island that is roughly seven times larger than Penang island, Mauritius is truly a destination where your heart will feel a sense of belonging. Chilling on the soft white sandy beach with cooling onshore breezes swept me off my feet while I sipped on Mauritius’ version of Phoenix beer.
The Trou-aux-Biches has to be one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. It is located on the northern coast, with soft shimmering sand that you will never get tired of sinking your feet into. A visit to the beach is not complete without taking a dip in the turquoise waters. The serenity draws the locals to the area to enjoy some quality time with their loved ones and friends.
Mauritians are a friendly lot. For the best of hidden gems and local delights, who would know better than the locals? Avkash, a Mauritian I met on the beach, proudly declared the white sand and crystal clear waters as the island’s treasure trove. He also recommended that I “go touch” some lions at Casela Nature Park and marvel at the Seven Coloured Earths in Chamarel.
Luckily for me, both destinations were in my itinerary planned by the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority for the media familiarisation trip.
But what I didn’t know was, Avkash meant literally touching the lions.
All you’re given is a long stick! So you enter their enclosure, pet them and pull off your best poker face to make the King of the Jungle look like a docile house cat for photographs while, deep down, you’re trembling with fear with every movement it makes.
When I was at Casela Nature Park, there were just too many people queuing up to pet the lions so the park guide took us to the tigers’ enclosure nearby for the same activity minus the crowd.
“Don’t bend or squat down too low, stay close and keep your stick upright. The tigers are trained to respect those holding the sticks,” we were reminded by a caretaker and trainer as we followed him into the enclosure with five tigers, two of which were white.
Before I could even question why the tigers looked so sleepy, the caretaker assured us that the tigers were well trained and none were drugged for the interactive activities, comparing it with another country that has allegedly done so. After all, the tigers there were under two years old.
Be prepared to spend at least half a day at the 250ha park, with the neverending list of things to do. You can take the enclosed vehicle for a drive-through of the big cats’ natural environment or tour the safari kingdom in an open mini bus where you will be surrounded by zebras, ostriches, impalas and rhinoceroses. Those who are more adventurous can rent a buggy or a Segway to get up-close with the animals.
Later, a 40-minute journey down south led us to Chamarel, a small village located on the west coast of Mauritius and is a must-visit. Even the scenic view en route to Chamarel is worth stopping for.
Arriving firstly at Chamarel Waterfall, I just stood in awe of Mother Nature. At a height of 100m, it is slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty. The sound of the white stream cascading down would instantly make it anyone’s place of zen.
Around 1.5km away is where Mauritius’ most iconic attraction is located. The Seven Coloured Earths are sand dunes comprising seven colours – red, purple, violet, blue, brown, green and yellow – said to be due to lava cooling down at different external temperatures.
One of the staff there explained that the basalt from the intermediate period lava flow had been leached by the hot and humid climate, leading to gullied clay and this decomposition left on-site iron and aluminium oxides.
“Ferric oxide gives the land shades ranging from red to brown while the blue to violet shades come from the aluminium. The leaching of the basalt has depleted nutrients from the soil, and no plants will ever grow on the dunes,” she said.
I also visited the Rhumerie de Chamarel, a rum distillery which cultivates its own sugarcanes to produce its Chamarel Rum. Visitors are given a walkthrough of the various processes such as distillation, alcoholic fermentation and the ageing process.
If you fancy some fun from a different perspective, head to the Curious Corner of Chamarel where you can have your picture taken in upside-down rooms and with interactive 3D paintings. And have your eyes play games with you as in your attempt to find your way out of the Mirror Maze.
Waking up early is not something anyone fancies during a vacation but I highly recommend that one arranges a day to do so for dolphin watching.
I was up at 5.30am and, by 7am, already on a speedboat in the middle of Black River Bay – and the experience was worth it all. Spinner and bottlenose dolphins swimming in pods are a sight to behold! What’s even better is the chance to swim with the dolphins. Truly an experience of a lifetime!
Melvin, the speedboat driver, told us that we were lucky to have sighted the dolphins. He said there were days where tourists waited for three to four hours, without a single sighting.
Another attraction not to be missed is the Château de Labourdonnais, at one time home to three generations of the Wiehe family. Over 150 years old, the mansion was dilapidated and took more than three years to restore. Even the wallpaper in the dining room, from 1906, was restored by experts from France.
Take a stroll through the garden and orchard on the 506ha land and be amazed by the lush greenery it has in offer.
Mark Twain once said that “Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and heaven was copied after Mauritius”. It seems to me that he was right.
If you wish to explore the island at your own pace, you may rent a car, and use Waze for directions. I noticed that there are a lot of roundabouts on its motorways, say every 3km to 5km. Try not to drive too fast as the roundabouts are not that noticeable from afar and you might find yourself slamming the brakes to negotiate a turn. There are also a lot of speed traps around.
Also, be sure to change your money to US dollars in order to change it to Mauritian rupees once you’re there.
This trip was sponsored by AirAsia X. AirAsia X flies to Mauritius three times a week. Flight D7 006 from Kuala Lumpur flies on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday while flight D7 007 from Mauritius operates on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.