Mauritius and Reunion, twin pearls of the Indian Ocean
Two-centre holidays can let the visitor indulge both the active and the sybaritic. Syd House visits Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean. With much to commend the neighbouring islands, he comments: “The French do things differently. If you travel to Reunion, you will have numerous reasons to be grateful.”
The most far-flung outpost of the EU (yes, the French have made their remnant far-flung colonial outposts into Departement which means they are technically part of France and thus, also, of the EU), Reunion is an island just south of the equator in the Indian Ocean (and close to its neighbouring island, Mauritius, of which more later). The weather is ‘island tropical’, being warm but moderated by the ocean to an enjoyably bearable level, and thus an excellent choice to escape a northern winter whilst enjoying, subject to progress on Brexit, the comfort of being in ‘France’ in the EU with baguettes, café au lait, the euro et al, letting me practice my ‘best’ French to the evident amusement of the locals who happen to live on the wealthiest island in the Indian Ocean. Incidentally, tennis fans will enjoy landing at the Roland Garros International Airport in St Denis, the capital of Reunion. Garros, an early aviator and WWI fighter pilot, was born there in 1888 and gave his name to the French Open Tennis Championships held at Roland Garros Tennis Centre in Paris every year. (http://en.reunion.fr/)
With a population of some 850,000, a melange of European (French), African, Indian with a dash of Chinese marinaded into mixed Creole and served with an exuberant, cultural mishmash, you can enjoy the usual pleasures of a tropical island with beaches, sailing, snorkelling and swimming, albeit with typical Gallic flair. Because of its location some 21 degrees south of the equator, the island has an attractive climate all-year round. Summer (November to April) is warmer but wetter (travellers from the UK should be prepared) than the rest of the year, whilst rainfall, contrary to Europe, tends to increase quite markedly from west to east because of the prevailing trade winds.
There is plenty to do, however, with adventures underwater amongst the coral reefs or on land hiking in rainforests and around volcanoes in the mountainous interior. You can discover the lost Shangri-La town of Cilaos, which sits in a caldera surrounded by the Cirque du Cilaos volcanic peaks and reached by a tunnel through the mountains.
The vibrant wildlife on offer, whether watching the tropical birdlife or following, at sea, the expanding humpback whale and shark population which regularly pass by the island along with resident other cetaceans, is a real attraction. My guide, Libu, a Czeck marine biologist who had moved to the island following her French partner, not only expertly described the wildlife and landscape, but seemed herself to encapsulate the multicultural spirit of the island.
There is even an active volcano – the second most active in the world – the Piton de la Fournaise, some 8600ft high, along with three other caldera or natural volcanic amphitheatres, which regularly puts on quite spectacular displays, including when we were there, all within a UNESCO World Heritage Site which occupies some 40 per cent of the island. You can drive or hike on designated routes within the National Park and get quite close to all the action, but by far the best, though not cheap, and most spectacular way to see the mountain and volcanoes is by helicopter, where your pilot will reach right into the heart of volcano country. (http://www.helilagon.com)
For beach lovers, Reunion is less well supplied than Mauritius, but still has some 30km of beautiful tropical beaches, including the unique L’Etang Sale Beach, a black sand beach derived from volcanic basalt. Our resort at Grand Hotel du Lagon, LUX, St Gilles, which is a 45-minute drive from the airport, was on the northwest coast, located close to the beach, but well integrated into the surroundings and pleasant on the eye, providing all that you would expect from a resort catering for demanding French tastes: exceptionally helpful staff; and quality rooms with your own balcony hammock to swing in. It is a spacious, relaxed resort with quality restaurants, a beautiful large pool, and it is the only hotel on Reunion with its own beach on the coral reef. Days of exploration, including a hugely entertaining trip to the local market at St Paul, and expeditions were idyllically interspersed with enjoying resort life, the spa and fine French-inspired local food.
Mauritius, its sister island, is just 45 minutes away by plane and is much better known to the British market, not least as a former part of the Empire and an ongoing member of the Commonwealth. There are some similarities, in weather, the land and seascapes, and not least in the enduring ‘Frenchness’ of Mauritius which survived 150 years of British colonial rule. English may be the language of Government, but you would hardly know it, with French and Creole more commonly heard on the street, although everyone has at least a smattering of English! The ethnic mix of the 1.25 million inhabitants is a little different also, with a significantly higher proportion of residents whose ancestors came from the Indian sub-continent to work in the sugar plantations on the island.
Mauritius has a sophisticated tourism sector (https://www.tourism-mauritius.mu) and hotels compare with the best resort destinations anywhere, so if you want to simply relax in your resort then you won’t be disappointed, whilst in Port Louis there is a hotchpotch of cultures, evident in a short stroll along the busy streets. Our two resort hotels, both part of the Beachcomber group, were located at opposite ends of the island (most tourism hotels are located in the north and west of the island), which invited the opportunity to explore, and had a good relaxed atmosphere around them with plenty to do, especially sports on both land and sea. Children are welcome at both resorts but, equally, there is every opportunity to escape for the adults. Both resorts offered luxurious spa treatments for those seeking pampering.
From our resorts we explored the capital, Port Louis, the superb botanical gardens at Pamplemousses, and the Bois Cheri tea plantation to see how tea is grown and cultivated to produce the ubiquitous cuppa. There is plenty of other things to do on the island in terms of fishing, cycling, golf and walking in some beautiful landscapes with spectacular beach/sea/mountain views and a distinctive endemic flora (if much amended by humans) though, sadly, not the long-gone and extinct flightless bird, the famous dodo. For the adventurous, try walking up Lion Mountain near Mahebourg and the airport for wonderful views, or else hiking in indigenous forests in the Black River Gorges in the southwest.
Port Louis has a mix of everything. It is not always high on the tourist’s itinerary, but I would recommend a wander through the bustling streets, ideally taking a guided tour to gain a better insight into all that you can see, whether it be hidden Buddhist temples; locals haggling over spices in the Victorian covered market, replete with wrought iron balustrades and coat of arms; delicious rotis sold as street food; or just appreciating the gentle throng of everyday street life. We were guided round by Shakti, who helps run myMoris tours, and treated us to a real insight into the cultural variety of this intriguing island. The tour lasts three hours, includes various tastings and introductions to local shops, markets, businesses and hidden places, and costs 2400 rupees per head (around £50) (https://mymoris.mu/en). You should also visit the quirky, yet fascinating Photography Museum, with over a thousand cameras and masses of historic pictures telling the story of Mauritius’s part in the early history of photography. (http://www.discovermauritiusisland.com/discover/museums/photography-museum)
The difference between the two islands? Well, Mauritius is more attuned to the beach experience, with some 200km of superb beaches ringing the island, but also with a lively cultural scene, it is a little cheaper than Reunion and, for the British market, has wonderful Indian food perfectly suited to UK tastes. If you want rugged adventure, the outdoors and a little touch of that French ‘je ne sais quois’, then Reunion is for you. If you can, though, make your visit to this part of the Indian ocean a two-island stay It is well worthwhile.
- Main image |Dramatic volcanic gorges in Reunion
- Syd House flew the 12-hour journey to Mauritius from London, with a stop-over in Reunion, courtesy of Air Mauritius using their upgraded business-class facilities (http://www.airmauritius.com/business.htm)
- Return economy from Heathrow to Mauritius with Air Mauritius starts from £785 per person including tax. Return economy fares to Reunion via Mauritius start from £837 per person. These fares do not allow a stopover in Mauritius. Fares that allow a stopover in Mauritius should add around £75 per person. See airmauritius.com or call 0207 434 4375
- Syd was hosted on Mauritius at the Victoria Beachcomber Resort & Spa (https://www.beachcombertours.uk/destinations/mauritius/hotels-and-resorts/victoria-beachcomber-resort-and-spa) in the northwest of the island, and at the Shandrani Beachcomber Resort & Spa on the southeast coast
- Shandrani Beachcomber Resort and Spa offer seven nights in a superior room on an all-inclusive basis, hotel transfers and economy flights with Air Mauritius from £1620 per person sharing. For their equally impressive Victoria Beachcomber Resort and Spa, a week costs from £1500. Visit https://www.beachcombertours.uk or call 01483 445610
- On Reunion he stayed as a guest at the Grand Hotel du Lagon, LUX, St Gilles (https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Grand+Hotel+du+Lagon/@-21.0785937,55.1059842,11z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x6e015c5707919b52!8m2!3d-21.0880838!4d55.2298379). A double room with B&B for two starts at £293 per day.
Syd House recently retired after 38 years working as a professional forester with the Forestry Commission mainly in Scotland, but also in North America, Australia and across Europe. He now lives in Perth, Scotland. Syd has always travelled and written about it, and is fortunate enough to be married to travel writer, Katie Wood, which has offered him quite an insight into the travel industry. He has taken a particular interest in the environmental impact, including the benefits of tourism. In 1991, he and Katie co-authored ‘The Good Tourist’, one of the earliest books to look at and assess the impact of tourism on our cultural and natural heritage. Syd has also co-authored a biography of, and followed in the footsteps of, David Douglas, the Scottish plant hunter who was an early explorer of the Pacific Northwest of North America, and who died in Hawaii in 1834.