Archive for the ‘Mauritius’ Category

The end is nigh …

Posted: February 6, 2011 in Mauritius

I can’t believe this is our last full day of this incredible holiday! It has been such a blast … but there will be time for reflections later, first it’s time to enjoy these last moments. Despite Mauritius being a small island, there is an awful lot to see & do. Most people come to sit at resorts but that is not our style, and we set off to explore the southwest corner.  It is a very beautiful island, and just driving around is entertainment itself. But Owen had suggested an itinerary so we headed out with purpose.

The first stop was at Bois Cheri tea factory. After sugar, tea is the biggest agricultural product of Mauritius, but to be honest visiting a factory was not really on my must-do list. However we were told to go there, so we did. We skipped the hour-long tour of the factory (apart from minimal interest in factories in general, the thought of entering a tin shed full of engines & boilers in that heat was not appealing in the slightest) but we did check out the museum, which was small but fascinating. Despite the ‘Frenchness’ of the island, it was under British rule until 1968, so tea-drinking is a national pastime. Learning about the history of important products like tea and sugar is more interesting than it sounds because of the insight it gives you into the history of the island itself. But the main attractions of Bois Cheri are the lovely setting, panoramic views, and tea tastings. We combined all 3 in the cafe, sitting, enjoying the views & trying several different types of flavoured teas. The most popular tea here is Vanilla tea, but we also tried Bergamot, fruit, coconut, mint – and also black & green tea. Very civilised.

Despite threats of rain all week, we have been very fortunate with the weather here in Mauritius. We have had pockets of rain, but never anything to get in our way. This morning dawned blue & clear but clouded over and while we were at Bois Cheri the first rains came. The clouds & mist do spoil the view photos somewhat, but it is lovely to look at! And it never lasts long.

Just along the road from Bois Cheri is Grand Bassin. Grand Bassin is a natural crater lake, quite pretty. It is sacred to the Hindus, who believe that the waters communicate with the water of the Ganges in India. There is a big Hindu temple and lots of statues. People come to Grand Bassin to make offerings to the gods. We saw several people standing in the water presenting fruit, flowers and incense on special little platforms. Hindus are the majority here in Mauritius, descendants of indentured Indian workers who came here in large numbers after the abolition of slavery, and massive crowds gather here on festival days. There are also wild monkeys (macaques) that hang around and help themselves to the fruit being offered (and people were feeding them too) which were fun to watch.

Nearby is the entrance to Black River Gorges National Park, Mauritius’ only National Park. It is a very scenic park with steep wooded hills, high waterfalls, volcanic rocky crags and tropical rainforest. There are lots of longish walks that sound really lovely, but we only had time for a drive through the park and a couple of lookouts. Alexandra Falls was the first stop. Unfortunately, as we walked half way to the lookout the heavens opened and we were thoroughly soaked. Our camera bag has its own raincoat, so it was fine, but our umbrellas, and handy little disposable ponchos were all safely in our suitcase back at the house. Clever, not! Oh well, at least it was cool rain (and we were pretty damp with perspiration before that anyway). Alexandra Falls lookout was a tad disappointing, because we didn’t know that you can’t actually see Alexandra Falls from there! Still a lovely view across the mountains to the sea. And the rain does enhance the atmosphere in a rainforest.

After a pretty, windy drive through the forest we came to Black River Gorge lookout. The rain had stopped, and we had no trouble identifying the right stopping point – the crowds of people, tour buses & hawkers stalls gave it away. Apparently a popular spot! Fortunately all that is set back from the lookout itself, and the view was very impressive. Love to go back for some of the longer walks some day.

By now we were getting quite hungry, it was almost 3 o’clock, so we thought we’d look for a little cafe or take-away spot. Instead as we rounded a hairpin bend coming down the mountain, we came across a restaurant called Varangue sur Morne. It looked lovely, but more importantly was perched right on the edge of the hill with fabulous views (Varangue means verandah). We were asked if we had a reservation, which was quite amusing, since the place was half empty, and in fact was completely empty by the time we left. I thought we’d get stuck down the back but they put us in the best seat, right in the corner surrounded by forest & view. At that point they could have served us cabbage & we’d have been happy, but the lunch was excellent. Keith had a Creole Platter with rice, lentils, sautéed greens & a chicken & prawn curry. I had Fish & Prawn Marinara with Rodrigues pickled lemon & smoked marlin sauce. Delish. It was lovely sitting there, watching native birds flitting between the trees (and collecting scraps from the other tables!) and photographing the clouds rolling over the distant mountains. Tropical bliss.

But the day was not over & we dragged ourselves away from the varangue and back to the car. It was quite a steep descent down the mountain, which made for lots of hairpin bends, but also a lovely green drive with regular spectacular vistas. I may have enjoyed that more than Keith, who was driving! Almost at the bottom of the hill, we spotted our next destination called “Rhumerie de Chamarel”. This is a modern boutique rum distillery, and though we are not big rum drinkers it was well worth a visit. A sweet girl took us on a guided tour of the distillery itself, and then we had a rum tasting. Even our uneducated palettes could tell the difference between the different grades of rum, and we enjoyed tasting some flavoured rums as well (coconut, pineapple, coffee, lime, and of course vanilla). Rum, as I’m sure you know, is made from sugar cane, so it is the most popular beverage here. We loved the design of the rhumerie, there were lovely artworks and interesting timber pieces (e.g. the bar was a single piece of tree, including the branch and roots, polished & smoothed, quite a talking point.)

We escaped the rhumerie without actually purchasing any rum, and continued towards the coast. There is an iconic rocky outcrop called La Morne (which according to Google means the dreary!). It is actually anything but, a very large monolith that towers over the trees & the beach, and can be seen for miles around. We didn’t climb it – not sure that you can, but it looks spectacular. Especially as by now the rain had cleared, and the evening sunlight shining on the rocks was golden. We strolled along the beach for a while, enjoying our last Mauritian evening. We found ourselves in a resort section of the beach, which meant deck chairs & waiters (but sadly only for guests). Actually we were completely content with the sand, the warm, clear water and the light of the setting sun. What a perfect ending to our day of exploration.

But it wasn’t quite the end. The drive back to Souillac along the coast, past tiny fishing villages & coastal bays was delightful. And to finish the day & the week in style, we took Owen & Maryanne out to dinner to thank them (in a small way) for their hospitality. We went to a local Indian restaurant and enjoyed a fine meal. They have been excellent hosts and we very much appreciated their hospitality, and the good fortune of having such a beautiful place to stay.

 

 

Remember yesterday I was saying that when you travel, some days are just better than others. Today was one of those days. A day when you are not only seeing or experiencing the wonders of the world, but having a great time too.

It was a public holiday in Mauritius today, for Chinese New Year. Mauritius is a very multicultural society and they celebrate everyone’s different festivals with a public holiday – they have something like 15 holidays a year (and they call Australia the land of the long weekend!). It was a holiday on Tuesday too, so we were lucky to have Owen & Maryanne to entertain us.

We piled into Owen’s car and headed east along the coast. The sun was shining and we just drank in the scenery – the colour of the water defies description. I’m sure if you painted it that colour in art class, the teacher would tell you to tone it down.  After a few photo stops we arrived at Blue Bay Marine Park and headed straight for the water. Maryanne lent us snorkels, masks & flippers and within seconds we were snorkelling in an underwater wonderland. The corals & fish were fantastic, so much variety & colour & movement. The fish would swim right past us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, except one particular fish which would stop & stare at us. We snorkelled for around an hour, and could have stayed longer.

I managed to get a few pictures, thanks to my little underwater camera (Olympus Mju), but that was more due to luck than good management. Underwater photography is hard enough, since the water, you & the fish are moving, and there is no way to steady yourself. But just as we got into the water the view screen decided to stop working. So there was no way to change the settings, or to see what I was shooting. I kept shooting, hoping they were taking & it was just the screen that had died, which in fact was the case – all up I’m pretty happy I got any good shots.

View to the ocean

After a short snack break we were on our way up an incredibly windy, and at times very steep road through lush green forest to a house on the top of a hill. Owen & Maryanne’s company keep lodge in the mountains for the use of themselves, their clients & some of their employees. It is literally on the top of a mountain, with incredible views on all sides. As a passionate conservationist, Owen is busy replanting native Mauritian forest on most of the land & getting rid of introduced species & weeds, just as he is on the property we saw on Sunday, the planned ecotourism park. We saw lots of seedlings he has germinated from seed, waiting to be planted. There is a swimming pool, of sorts. Owen enthusiastically told us how the water is so clean, it is fed by a natural spring & is full of fish & eels. And he wondered why we weren’t tempted to go for a dip! He did, and brought back something to show me – a “cute’ little snake! 

View of the mountains

Maryanne had brought a wonderful packed lunch of quiche, salad & a bottle of Australian wine, and we sat on the patio to enjoy the vista. The only sounds were bird calls, the sky was blue, there was a gentle breeze – what more could you want? We took the comfy cane chairs from the lounge room into the garden, and spent the whole afternoon just sitting there, chilling out.

Having trouble believing we only have one more day of this holiday left!

 

It’s not all beer and skittles.

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Mauritius

Some days, when you are travelling, are just perfect from start to finish, and you would not be anywhere else. Other days are interesting, worthwhile, and memorable, but at the time they are not exactly fun.  Days that improve with the retelling, and often result in great photos or interesting dinner party anecdotes, but at the time are hot or cold or exhausting or scary or crowded or dusty or … Today was one of those days.

It started with a trip to the local Health Department office to have the promised malaria test. It was very unlike any medical visit back home. For a start – no waiting! We just walked into the room, which was small and full of desks & people & files. We wrote our names & details on a scrap of paper, and then he pricked our fingers (no gloves, and right on his desk in the office). Thanks, you can go now. That was it. No idea if we will get the results, but I imagine no news is good news. And we both feel quite well. 

We finally got the grey day we had been promised, so it was time for some indoor activities. Mauritius’ economy is built on sugar, and we read that the Sugar Museum ("L’aventure du Sucre”) was really worth seeing. Dubious about how exciting that could possibly be, we ventured forth. And they were right, it was definitely worth a visit, and we learned a lot about Mauritius’ history. It was set in an old sugar mill and is very well set out with lots of really interesting displays. I must admit I glazed over a bit in the section with the big sugar processing machines, but there was plenty to keep me entertained. And the best bit was a sugar tasting at the end (9 different types of sugar) followed by rum tasting. It was a little stuffy & hot inside, but can’t imagine how awful it would be with all the boilers & steam engines running!

Having resisted the temptation to buy lovely gift packs with various types of sugar, we drove to Port Louis. Having timed our visit to avoid getting stuck in peak hour traffic again, we still spent quite a bit of time not moving on the road. Eventually we made it to the parking station, which was in an old granary, and was certainly the narrowest, tightest parking station I’ve ever used. There is a new development on the waterfront of shops, restaurants etc., called Le Caudan. We found a nice café there for lunch. We had a typical Mauritian meal – pizza! Well, we can’t have duck every day.

After lunch we headed for the old markets. The first challenge was crossing the road – the main highway – there was so much traffic there was no way you could cross. Eventually we found an underpass and entered the markets. The main section was fruits & vegetables, and upstairs were the usual souvenirs, T-shirts, fabrics, carvings, etc. Similar to any market – except for the profusion of dodo-themed items from key rings to tablecloths to handbags. It was very crowded, very hot & there were the usual pushy salespeople everywhere. I wasn’t really interested in the souvenirs but I enjoyed the hustle of the fruit & veg market. More than Keith, I think, who was on the lookout for pickpockets, which we had been warned against.  But eventually we just had to leave because it was so hot.

We strolled through some of the back streets, looking for the “charm of old Port Louis” as the guidebook described it. Mostly what we found was grime & crowds, but then we started spotting some really interesting old doorways & tiny shops which looked like they hadn’t changed in a hundred years, and realised there is still some charm amongst the hawkers & motorbikes. We came across a lovely mosque which was a nice surprise. It was in the middle of the shops, and even had a shop in one corner, but was a little haven amidst the hectic streets.

Another museum which both our hosts & Lonely Planet rated highly, much to our scepticism, was the Blue Penny Museum. The Blue Penny is one of the rarest stamps in the world, it seems, due to a printing  error when it was first issued, and they attract prices in the millions of $. Fascinating though that is, it would not have attracted me to the museum, but apparently it is even more interesting than L’Aventure du Sucre. However we did not get to find out because although we arrived at 4.15 and it closes at 5, we were told it was too late to enter! (Hmm, a whole paragraph in my blog devoted to something we didn’t do, that can’t be good).

As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. By this time we were back at Le Caudan, where the shops are less atmospheric & certainly cleaner than the markets, but also a lot more expensive. Fun to window shop though. We found ourselves in “Le Craft Market” where the souvenirs were a little more upmarket and the hawkers slightly less persistent. I think when I get home I’m going to be trying to haggle next time I go to the supermarket!

Dinner was a leisurely affair in a different outdoor cafe on the waterfront. Port Louis is not a particularly attractive harbour but it is a working port, so it was interesting watching the boats coming in & out. We enjoyed some extremely decadent desserts before heading home. We found a free Wi-Fi zone during dinner & were following the reports of Cyclone Yasi. Very scary stuff.

Creatures Great and Small

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Mauritius

So much for the forecast week of rain here; today was another sunny, warm humid day. (But as I’ve been reading about the conditions in Sydney & Cyclone Yasi I am really not complaining). The day started, as all days should, with a leisurely breakfast on the patio. Those 5.30am starts in Kenya are just a distant memory now.

We met up with some of Owen & Maryanne’s friends today. Rirette, who is a Mauritian & her husband Adrian, and Mel, who is English but lives in France, in a vineyard in the Loire Valley, with her husband Francois. They spend a month in Mauritius every year. It was a test of our French (which was sadly not up to the challenge). They slipped in & out of French & English all day. Mel’s French was fluent but her accent was terrible – so she was the easiest to understand. I found it surprising that living in France for so long she would not have learned to roll her Rs at least a bit! When they addressed us directly they spoke English, but the general conversation was mostly in French. The official language of Mauritius is English, as it was under British rule from 1810 to 1968. But most people speak French, or Creole, or Hindi, or Tamil …

Rirette & Mel joined Maryanne, Keith & me for a walk to Rochester Falls. We walked through the small village of Souillac and past sugar cane fields & gardens full of tropical fruit trees. Finally we came to a deep gorge which we descended into via a steep dirt track (all the while worrying slightly about the return walk up that track). It was worth the effort – Rochester Falls are not enormous but very pretty. The rock formation consists of numerous octagonal columns of basalt (a bit like the Giant’s Causeway on Ireland) which make for great jumping off spots for the local kids. There was a fair amount of water after the recent rains, but apparently it can grow to 3 times that amount.

To my relief we didn’t walk back up the hill, but crossed the river (nervously negotiating a wet rocky crossing) and Owen picked us up on the other side & drove us home. We all jumped straight in the pool for a very refreshing swim. It is a particularly nice pool, with a fabulous ocean view. The water is pleasantly cool but not cold. Feeling revitalised we all headed for La Vanille, Owen & Maryanne’s Nature Reserve. We met Francois & Adrian, and Rirette’s teenage daughter and headed for the restaurant, "Le Crocodile Affamé” (the Hungry Crocodile). What a gorgeous spot – an elevated platform surrounded on three sides by lush tropical rainforest. Marianne recommended the duck, so Keith had Duck Confit, and I had Aiguillettes (strips of duck) in Vanilla sauce. (Vanilla is a local product & they put it in everything!) – both delicious.

After lunch we were taken on a tour of the reserve by Owen. He is very passionate about conservation, and has some incredible projects happening. La Vanille is the world’s largest breeding program for giant Aldabra tortoises. We were able to pat some tortoises, and scratch their neck, which apparently they love, and then feed them with some leaves. That was very cool. We saw the fruit bat, Mauritius’ only native mammal, crocodiles, iguanas, deer, monkeys, other (smaller) tortoises. Very impressive was the Insectarium, an extremely comprehensive collection of all sorts of insects from all over the world, collected by one man and beautifully displayed in glass cases.

By the time we finished at La Vanille another swim was in order. There was another spectacular sunset and then a heavy but brief shower of rain. Tomorrow morning first thing we have to go to the Ministry of Health & have a malaria test, since we have come from East Africa. They have had malaria outbreaks here in the past but Mauritius is currently malaria free – and they are keen to keep it that way. Hope we pass the test!

Shame about the weather!

Posted: February 1, 2011 in Mauritius

With more rain forecast, today we planned an indoorsy kind of day in Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius. But by the time we were ready to go out, and our hire car had been delivered, the sun was determinedly forcing its way through the clouds, so we quickly changed plans and headed for the coast.

The beaches on the north coast are said to be the prettiest, and are also the most developed. It took about an hour to drive there, along the main north-south highway, which passes through Port Louis. We reached Grand Baie, once a small fishing village but now a bustling collection of hotels, resorts & tourist shops. We had a bit of a look at the shops, but weren’t really in the mood for buying anything (though the air-conditioned shops were appealing – with the sun shining, you’ll be surprised to hear, it was rather warm) but what we were really wanting to see was the famous beach. And it was just as we hoped – palm trees, white sand, bobbing boats, and water the most perfect shade of aquamarine. Just like on every postcard and travel agent’s poster. Superb. We dipped our feet in the ocean, which was surprisingly warm, and walked along the length of the beach.

As I said it was rather warm and we decided we needed an ice-cream. If you are thinking of having a sea-change to Mauritius, we have identified a business opportunity for you. We could not find one ice-cream vendor, though there were plenty of cafe’s, bars & fast-food outlets. Just sayin’…

Lovely as Grand Baie was, we were informed there was better to come, so we dragged ourselves away. The next beach along the coast is called Pereybère, and it was even more perfect than Grand Baie. Somewhat smaller and much less developed. And an added bonus – a little cafe, right on the beach. It was still a little early but we suddenly felt a great desire for lunch. We sat down and ordered, but all the best tables were taken. (This was a tiny cafe, there were only around 6-8 tables). But we noticed a man dining alone at the table we declared to be the best one (in the shade, and right on the edge of the water). We watched carefully as he slowly finished his meal, drank his beer, had a leisurely cigarette and – finally – left. We quickly grabbed the table & were completely happy. The food was rather ordinary but the spot was so perfect we didn’t care one bit. I know the photos won’t so it justice, but try to imagine.

Reluctantly we left Pereybère (after ice cream for dessert of course) & continued along the coast. We stopped briefly at a few more beaches along the way, marvelling at each one over the colour of the water & the prettiness of the scene. We popped in to a charming little Catholic church (which amusingly has a sign warning people they could not take wedding photos there unless they were actually having a wedding) and also an unnamed Hindu shrine. We drove until we ran out of beaches, and then headed inland.

The Botanic Gardens at Pamplemousses are famous. Lonely Planet says they rival London’s Kew Gardens. I’m not sure about that, but they were certainly lovely. The plants are mostly exotics, brought in from South America, India & other places. There are 80 different types of palms, lots of spice trees I had not seen before (nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon) and probably the most interesting – giant waterlilies, with leaves that grow to up to 3m across (though we didn’t see any that big, they were still huge).

Owen & Maryanne had both warned us to leave early enough coming home to beat the peak hour traffic. But that would have meant missing out on the botanic gardens, so we decided to take the risk. Surprise, surprise, turns out they were right! It took us well over 2 hours to get home, most of that time sitting in gridlock. With only one main North South road that goes right through Port Louis, traffic is apparently always a nightmare. It seems no-one can come up with an affordable solution, so they just keep discussing it & commuters keep sitting in traffic jams! We will definitely avoid that in future.

The treats were not over yet. As we reached the house we watched the sky turn pink & orange as the sun set – particularly beautiful & colourful, and a perfect end to a great day!.

Welcome to Fantasy Island

Posted: January 31, 2011 in Mauritius

The good news is that after 6 months of severe drought the rains have come to Mauritius. The bad news is that means it is raining! And that we are not allowed to complain about it, And that even when it isn’t raining it is about 99% humidity (well, it feels like that anyway). It is the rainy season, and we came here knowing that, so we have no grounds for disappointment. Actually the humidity & rain suits the landscape perfectly. After the dry dustiness of East Africa, we are now surrounded by lush greenness and blue water – just beautiful.

We are staying with our friends Owen & Maryanne. Owen’s parents & mine have been friends for about 150 years, so we have known each other forever. Owen moved to Mauritius 25 years ago, his wife Maryanne was born here, although they met in Sydney. Owen is a naturalist/zoologist/conservationist/entrepreneur, and owns a crocodile park called La Vanille. But we’re going there tomorrow, so you’ll hear all about that then.

We arrived in Mauritius in the early evening. The flight was uneventful (always a good thing!) and the first thing we noticed getting off the plane was the humidity. In Africa it was quite hot but always a dry heat, so as long as you could find shade it was very comfortable. Owen picked us up at the airport and drove us to his house. We really enjoyed being in a car with suspension, on paved level highways. The house is brand new, they have finished building it only recently, and it is just beautiful – very elegant, spacious & open, full of pieces of art & interesting furniture collected on their travels. And there is a lovely pool & a magnificent ocean view. There is also a snail research laboratory & various pets, including reptiles, a cat called Chablis & a friendly Rottweiler called Ebony. (Is friendly Rottweiler an oxymoron?).

The next morning dawned hot, muggy & cloudy (which may be the daily report – I’ll let you know if it changes). After a leisurely breakfast we piled into the car (Keith & I, Owen & Maryanne, their grown up son Jeremy, and Ebony the Rottweiler) & headed for the hills. We drove along the foreshore for a while. Even in the grey the water is a lovely shade of blue. We passed sugar plantations (once Mauritius’ only industry, but now ranked 3rd, after tourism & textiles), groves of palm trees, little villages & bays. We are in the south of the island, which is not the beach resort area. We stopped at the Matthew Flinders monument. On one of his exploration journeys to Terra Australis, he popped into Mauritius to stock up on supplies. At that time Mauritius was a French colony, and MF had been away so long he didn’t realise England & France were at war. So they popped him in jail & kept him prisoner on the Island for 6 years. Oops! Nearby there was a little rocky headland with some steps so we popped up there to take in the view. What with the volcanic peaks, lush greenness, fringing reefs and little bays along the shoreline, it is hard to find a spot that isn’t stunning.

From there we headed inland and up into the wooded hills. Owen has 100 acres of land there which he is planning to turn into a fabulous ecotourism centre. He told us there is very little native Mauritian forest left, because of clearing for sugar plantations and logging, especially for ebony. There is a small amount of native forest on his land, but he (& his staff) have weeded & cleared and planted thousands of native species. They plan to have an information centre & boardwalks through the forest. There is also a lookout with stupendous views over the island. We had a walk through the forest (avoiding stepping on seedlings) and stopped at the lookout (where it was so windy I was sure we would get blown off!). Now we are going to have to come back in 4 years time when it is all running!

We had lunch (somewhat late) at Le Chamarel. a great restaurant with a great view & great food. (Do you think I should get a job as a restaurant reviewer?). We all enjoyed a delicious rum punch, which meant I slept all the way home. Spent the afternoon chilling on the large patio. It is so pleasant here, I don’t feel the need to go anywhere else, but I guess there’s an island to see out there!