Mauritius: Life is sweet

26 Feb 2015 by Jenny Southan
Jenny Southan retreats to the rum-soaked shores of Mauritius, where the fields are green with sugar cane and the sea is azure In the UK, we have taken to berating the evils of sugar, but out here in paradise it’s the stuff of life. A 330km ring of sand encircles the volcanic island of Mauritius, positioned to the east of southern Africa in the shimmering Indian Ocean. But venture a little way inland and you will see that much of its gently undulating landscape is planted with sugar cane – lush green leaves swaying until harvest, when the dry underbrush is set alight, and men and women march in with machetes to hack it all down. “Look at all those fledgling stems – one day they’ll be in a packet of Tate and Lyle,” says one of my companions as we drive through a field. The reaping starts in June and takes six months – clothes become blackened with soot as farmers do battle with the thick, woody crop that stands like a forest of pink bamboo. The work looks back-breaking, but as I suck the sweet sap from the end of a stalk, it’s easy to appreciate why it is such a valuable commodity. The plant isn’t native to the island – it was introduced by Dutch colonists in the 1600s. When production reached its peak, coinciding with the end of British rule in 1968, it represented 30 per cent of GDP. Nowadays, as the economy has diversified, it has gone down to only 2 per cent, with 400,000 tonnes of raw sugar exported annually. The leftover cane is either burnt to create energy, or used to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide for fizzy drinks, while the juice that isn’t refined into granules and cubes is used to make “agricultural” rum, a fiery tipple you can’t leave without trying. In the south-west of the island, the Rhumerie de Chamarel estate (rhumeriedechamarel.com) grows not only sugar cane but palms, pineapples and bananas. Here, you can learn how the spirit is produced, enjoy a tasting and buy a bottle to take home. “When the cane is ready for harvest, it blooms like candy floss,” our guide says. After chopping and crushing it to extract the juice, yeast is added, which turns it into wine, and it is boiled. “A second distillation can take about two weeks to produce 2,000 litres of rum,” he explains. “Sometimes it is aged in barrels that have been charred and spiced to turn it gold or dark like a young whisky.” Flavours such as lime, vanilla and coffee are sometimes added to create liqueurs, but I prefer the unadulterated 44 per cent VSOP that has been aged for four years. That evening, I sip shots of the stuff around a campfire at the Heritage Awali resort, less than 20 minutes’ drive from the rhumerie on a former sugar cane plantation. Heritage Resorts has three properties clustered within the 2,500-hectare Domaine de Bel Ombre. There are two low-rise hotels – the Awali (160 rooms) and Le Telfair (158 rooms) – and a collection of 45 villas, which are separated from the sea by an 18-hole championship golf course. The luxury residences come with two, three or four bedrooms, plus en suite bathrooms, outdoor showers, kitchens and huge terraces with loungers, barbecues and private pools. But the best thing is having your own personal golf buggy to whizz around in. Between the hotels are 11 restaurants and six bars – from sit-up teppanyaki venue Gin’Ja to poolside Le Palmier, where you can tuck into fresh seafood served under the dappled shade of flowering trees. You can also have a Mauritian fine-dining experience at the grand 19th-century colonial mansion Château de Bel Ombre, which has verandas that overlook the lawns. During the day, I discover the perfect place for midori cocktails at beach shack Koko Cabana – ideal refreshment after snorkelling in the glassy sea. Thanks to protection from a barrier reef, watersports are a popular activity for those who can steal themselves away from sunbathing or being pampered in the spa. Feeling ambitious, I try my hand at kitesurfing at the C Beach Club. I have done waterskiing and parasailing before but nothing prepares me for the skill required to kitesurf successfully. The idea is you attach your feet to a surf board and clip yourself into a harness connected to a huge inflatable kite, using the power of the wind to streak across the waves. However, I struggle to keep control of the kite, let alone go anywhere near the surf board – it keeps catching gusts of air and pulling me off my feet, face-first into the ocean, dragging me along as I gulp seawater. It’s definitely a sport that requires serious practice to get to grips with, but book six hours of one-on-one lessons (€265, kiteglobing.com) and you might get to experience the feeling of flying on water. There is also adventure to be had in the Domaine’s steep-hilled Frédérica nature reserve, which can be explored by quad bike or 4x4, and provides the opportunity for hunting, a long-standing tradition in Mauritius (domainedebelombre.mu/en/frederica). When the Dutch, the first human settlers here, arrived in 1598, they discovered a wealth of fauna with no fear of predators, making them easy to catch. Giant tortoises were used for oil or food, but the dodo was the most famous creature to succumb to the greed of colonists and sailors on the spice route. Weighing about 20kg, they were a good source of meat, but, as they only laid one egg a year, their numbers dwindled rapidly – in less than 100 years, the flightless bird was extinct. Today, there are no indigenous four-legged mammals in the country, but the reserve is home to all sorts of creatures including monkeys, geckos, bats, wild boars from Portugal and plenty of deer, originally introduced from Java. Before the hunting season from June to September, there are about 3,500, but about a third of these are culled annually. (As a guide, it will cost you about Rs100,000/£2,000 to shoot a stag.) Other notable wildlife includes the mongoose, which the French East India Company brought over (it had a colony here from 1710 to 1810), the yellow weaver bird – look out for their nests hanging from trees – and the native white-tailed tropicbird, which appears in the logo of Air Mauritius. Back at the beach club, pina colada in hand, I get talking to some of the kitesurfing instructors who have finished for the day. The sun is going down, the mood is jovial and a game of pétanque on the sand is in full swing. I am invited to play, and I think I am doing pretty well until my score is mercilessly overtaken by a 12-year-old boy. They rib me in French Creole and we laugh and high-five. I can’t help thinking life doesn’t get much better than this. A two-bedroom villa at Heritage Resorts costs from £450 per night (four sharing) on a self-catering basis in April. heritageresorts.mu DID YOU KNOW?
  • The British ruled Mauritius from 1810 to 1968, when it gained independence.
  • Slavery was abolished in 1835 but this was replaced with bonded labour whereby hundreds of thousands of Indians were brought over to work “voluntarily” on the sugar plantations in return for passage, rations and a meagre wage.
  • The world’s rarest and most valuable stamps are the Mauritius “Post Office” one-penny Orange and two-pence Blue. The first British Empire stamps to appear abroad, they were issued in 1847 and are now worth more than £1 million each.
  • There are 1.3 million people living on the island. They are mainly Hindus and Christians, but are of multi-ethnic descent (Indian, French, African and Chinese). English and French are the official languages but a form of Creole is also spoken.
  • The most visited tourist sites include the Seven Coloured Earths – a strange, rippling sand dune formation in various shades of red and brown as a result of the presence of iron – and a 100-metre-high waterfall, both in Chamarel in the south-west. whitesandtours.com
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