The turquoise waters in front of So Mauritius Bel Ombre offer great snorkelling. Photo - Robin Powell
Robin Powell indulges in tropical glamour on the island paradise of Mauritius and develops a bad case of garden envy.
To ‘go troppo’ originally meant to go mad in the tropical heat. In my personal lexicon going troppo refers to the intense desire to reproduce the gardens of a tropical resort in my own Sydney backyard.
My current case of troppo can be blamed on a week in Mauritius, a drop in the Indian Ocean, just east of Madagascar. At the luxurious So Mauritis Bel Ombre the gardens are only new but already highly desirable. All the usual suspects – heliconia, hibiscus, allamanda, bougainvillea, rhoeo - are planted in glorious swathes of exciting colour. And there’s local colour too in the brilliant orange flowers of the plant the Mauritians call the flamboyant tree. We know this as the African tulip tree, Spathodea campanulata, and the Mauritians are right, it is nothing if not flamboyant, with giant cup-shaped flowers ruffled with a narrow trim of gold.
The Mauritians call Spodothea campanulata the 'flamboyant tree' and it's not hard to see why. Its vivacious blooms can be seen all over the island. Photo - Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock.com
A pair of them hangs over the entrance to each of the single-storey duplexes that are scattered through the gardens of the resort. Also at the entrance is the more recognisable symbol of Mauritius, a stone dodo, mascot of man-made extinctions. The dodo lived happily on the island in the absence of predators until the arrival of European visitors in the 16th century. A bit over a hundred years later the dodo was dead, a victim, most probably, of the cats, rats, dogs and pigs that sailors brought with them, rather than human dinner pots.
The first Dutch settlement here was in 1628, and it was from here that Abel Tasman set off on his way to Western Australia. The French took control of Mauritius in 1715 and renamed it Ile de France. Less than a hundred years later they lost control to the British. French sugar plantation owners had used African and Madagascan slaves and when the British banned slavery in 1835 the plantation owners hunted for a new cheap workforce and found it, as so many still do, in India. Over the next century more than half a million indentured labourers were brought from India to work on the sugar plantations. What this historical mix of cultures means is that modern Mauritius is a fascinating melange of English, French, African and Indian. You can eat fine French pastries for breakfast, Indian fish curry for lunch and listen to African beats over dinner. Signs are in English, television is in French, people speak Creole, and Hindu is the dominant religion.
The imposing rock is Le Morn, which was used as a hideout by runaway slaves in the 18th and 19th century, and came to represent the right for freedom. Photo - Robin Powell
The best place to see a Hindu temple is at the lake at Grand Bassin in the mountains in the west of the island, where a great temple complex called Ganga Talao draws worshippers from all over the country. Larger than life-size statues of Shiva, Vishnu and Ganeesha are reflected in the calm waters of the lake. The road to the temple journeys through a great avenue of arching melaleuceas, a species originally brought into the country by English administrators hoping it would help to dry up marshy areas and reduce the local mosquito populations. Nearby is the Black River Gorges national park, where a good long walk is rewarded with remarkable views. The ravages of weedy species are clear here though – with ardisia hedging the walking trails and traveller’s palm rearing up out of the underbrush.
The temple complex of Ganga Talau at Grand Bassin Lake services the half of the Mauritian population who are Hindu. Photo - Robin Powell
For a collection of true palms, the best place to visit is the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden in Pamplemousses, in the north of the country. It’s a big, mature garden, well kept and lovely to get lost in for a few hours. It is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the southern hemisphere and has a collection of the early spice plants brought to Mauritius, which allowed the colony to compete with the spice islands in providing exotic flavours to Europe. Brought in a little later were cuttings of Queensland sugar cane, imported to help strengthen the existing plantation gene pool.
Sugar is no longer the number one earner for Mauritius, easily overtaken by tourism. A look at how the two can work together is deliciously tasted at Rhumerie de Chamarel in the south of the island. This rum distillery uses sugar cane grown on the estate to produce a range of different straight and flavoured rums. Nine of them can be tasted as part of a guided tour of the polished copper stills and oak barrels of the distillery. Also worth stopping for is the food served in the attached restaurant, Alchemiste, which uses produce grown on the estate, from venison, duck and wild boar, to palm hearts and pineapple, in a modern French bistro menu.
The beach! Photo - Robin Powell
Revisiting Rhumerie de Chamarel’s pineapple rum in the private garden of my room at So Mauritius I’m planning a troppo rejuvenation of my backyard. But what I really want to souvenir, I realise, even more than a flamboyant tree, is an outdoor shower. My room has a conventional bathroom, but also an outdoor bathtub in a private garden and a shower in an enclosed courtyard. As I stand under the spray of water, looking up at a full moon rising through the branches of the overhanging frangipani, I am hooked. Showering under the stars and flowers seems to capture perfectly the luxury, glamour and fun of a week in Mauritius. But is an outdoor shower at home in suburban Sydney a fine idea, or just a bad case tropical heat-induced madness?
The rooms at So Mauritius Bel Ombre open onto a private garden with a bathtub or pool. Photo - Robin Powell
See for yourself
Air Mauritius flies to Mauritius direct from Sydney and Melbourne, a flight which takes about 12 hours on the way there, 9 on the way back. Return fares start at about $1400. Accommodation on the island runs from affordable apartments in sleepy fishing villages, to the five-star luxury of So Mauritius Bel Ombre. Check details at www.sofitel.com