After just a few days on this particular island in the southern Indian Ocean, I’m beginning to realise that the beaches here are pretty special, even by the ridiculously high local standards. Some are backdropped by dramatic volcanic peaks, others tantalisingly obscured behind swathes of banyan and sugar cane. Others still turn gold at sunset in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s no wonder that during the tropical summer they become a magnet for all comers.
But this beach paradise isn’t the Maldives or the Seychelles. Heck, it isn’t even Sri Lanka or the Comoros. In the Instagram rush that has come to set the travel agenda in modern times, the latest hotspots revealed by a cast of globetrotting celebrities and so-called influencers, one island nation has been forgotten.
Yet this former British colony with its toothpaste-clean sands, indigo waters and era-defining hotels is actually the original Indian Ocean paradise, a glorious mixture of French, English, Creole and Hindi, with an otherworldly beauty of undulating mountain ridges that needs no translation. And while I am loath to let the cat out of the bag on what feels like my own private paradise, I also have a duty to anyone reading this article. Whisper it, then: Mauritius is back.
“Mauritius has always been on the travel map,” says author and cultural historian Thierry Chateau over lunch at Le Fangourin, a swanky restaurant in the midst of the Beau Plan Sugar Estate. “Brigitte Bardot came here. Johnny Hallyday, too. Princess Margaret. Prince Albert of Monaco. And before that, Charles Baudelaire, Charles Darwin and Mark Twain. This is not a new thing. It’s an old tradition and it’ll never stop. Mauritius just needs to learn how to adapt.”
It’s 50 years since Mauritius regained sovereignty from the United Kingdom, and with this sense of achievement has come a renewed sense of pride. The island was once in vogue. And it can be again, says Chateau. “The glamour of Mauritius has faded a little because trends are different today. But the real story is that beyond the five-star hotels, unlike the Maldives or the Seychelles, there is real life. And it’s wonderful.”
Unlike its more developed Indian Ocean rivals, Mauritius is still undergoing a transformation, from rural paradise to a more sophisticated kind of place. Where once there was a surplus of sugar cane factories, today only four remain. Instead, the barons of industry who made the country rich are diversifying into financial services, textiles and tourism, with many of the country’s 107 hotels locally owned, but internationally managed. Count the likes of One&Only, The Oberoi, The Westin, St Regis, Angsana and Four Seasons amid the palms. The LUX* Belle Mare has recently been given a makeover by design guru Kelly Hoppen, while luxury golf and spa resort Anahita continues to broaden its influence along the east coast with new turnkey villas made possible by the controversial IRS scheme (a project for the development of luxurious residences to foreigners, it guarantees citizenship with a $500,000 villa purchase). There is more sophistication. More expats. More golf courses. The government is targeting 1.4 million visitors by 2020, up from the one million who touched down last year.
At the centre of the island’s glamorous history is Le Touessrok Resort & Spa, a 40-year-old dream on a spit of land in Trou d’Eau Douce. Today, there are sprawling $8,000-per-night villas, a Bernhard Langer golf course and Ilot Mangénie, a private island beyond the beach previously visited by Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey. It’s now managed by Hong Kong-based Shangri-La group, a high roller that has preserved the resort’s legacy while injecting destination modernity.
Executive assistant manager Sunil Beerbul has been part of its story since the hotel first opened as a restaurant in 1976. “All the sugar cane managers would dine here,” he says, overlooking the same spot where lobsters were served on silver platters four decades ago. Soon after, the restaurant was revamped, 100 rooms were added and visits from a succession of African presidents – “South Africa, Zimbabwe, Congo, you name them” – turned what was once a backwater bolthole into the most talked-about sliver of coast in the Indian Ocean. “Every leader wanted to be seen here,” recalls Beerbul. “Then Sol Kerzner bought the property and things really took off.”
If that name isn’t familiar, the South African’s résumé will be. The mammoth Sun City Resort outside Johannesburg, with its palatial Lost City design and safari-chic casino, is his, as is the entire One&Only portfolio. Then there’s Atlantis: The Palm in Dubai, as well as China’s new $2 billion palace hotel, Atlantis Sanya, in Haitang Bay.
With a wave of his hand, Beerbul points to neighbouring Ile aux Cerfs, an atoll where sun umbrellas and a pontoon punctuate a curl of sand. The rich and famous stayed at Le Touessrok, he says, but those who wanted extra privacy took the five-minute speedboat ride to the nearby mangrove-fringed islet. It came in a one-two punch: first with the Treasure Island vibe, and then a few moments later as the boat moored with barefoot kids hauling up lobster for lunch. “It got so popular we once catered to 900 people a day,” adds Beerbul. “People queued along the beach to have lunch with us. It was a cash machine!”
Equally fascinating are insights into life of those who’ve stayed. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson wined and dined for a week, with Scotland Yard manning the perimeter and the paparazzi scooting up and down the coast in boats. Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan joins the eclectic hall of fame, as does Gerard Depardieu, Penelope Cruz, Rafael Nadal, Whitney Houston, David Guetta, Priyanka Gandhi and many more. The Instagram feed from Kim Kardashian-style influencer Huda Kattan is another recent source of pride. In May, she lit up social media when she stayed, her 27 million followers swooning with delight.
But Le Touessrok is just the start of the nostalgia show. Much of what attracted the jet set still remains. On the west coast, the curious arrive at the doors of Maison Eureka, a sugar baron’s colonial château built in 1836. Opened to the public as a museum 250 years later, it’s still renowned for the same dried beef curry served to the Duke and Duchess of York when they visited for lunch 21 years ago. Rich with dramatic artifacts, it’s overseen by convivial proprietor Jacques de Maroussem.
“This is an old ship and it must be looked after,” says de Maroussem, sipping coffee while overlooking the 40-hectare gardens. “We rebuild all year round and will continue to do so. Many mansions have been pulled down, but this house is full of history. People like the flashy and the expensive here, but they miss the real fabric of the country.”
Floréal, the Beverly Hills of Mauritius, offers another example from yesteryear outside the capital, Port Louis. Here, all Jacqueline Dalais’ life is displayed on the walls of her time-honoured restaurant La Clef des Champs. A framed photo with Jacques Brel in the 1970s begins the story, while the next chapter unfolds in another with former French president François Mitterrand and grainy Polaroids of Prince Edward and Graça Mandela. But it is the one of her with Brigitte Bardot that piques most curiosity. “When she came to the island it was a sensation,” says the 73-year-old grande dame of Mauritian gastronomy. “But that’s what Mauritius was like back then. Always a headline.”
The chef’s memoir, six years in the making, will debut in December and it matters because she has seen it all. The celebrities. The glamour. The ebb and flow of island wealth. It’s a story that links the old Mauritius with the new. Her restaurant gets through more than 1,000 pricey sea urchins a week.
Where this story ends, it also begins. At the Le Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis, where a bespectacled bronze of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the nation’s founding father, stands triumphant, holding aloft a copy of the new constitution. His dream, like the rise of tourism on this island nation, was born from an impulse to create a better place, one that visitors would never forget, and his echo reverberates louder than ever. Not for nothing do people here say they’re on top of the world, at the bottom of the world.