Snorkelling is a passport to another world!
I only learned to snorkel when I was in my mid 30s when a friend talked me into going snorkelling with dolphins in Mozambique, and I vividly remember my utter sense of wonder the first time that I put my face into the water. Yes, it's a cliche, but there really was a whole new world under there, waiting to be discovered, and I vowed that I'd introduce my kids to snorkelling as soon as they were old enough.
Which wasn't all that long, as it turned out, because as soon as a child is confident in the water, they are able to sit in the shallows on a quiet beach under strict supervision and look down into the water. I've seen kids as young as four doing this, and our son and daughter were able to get the hang of snorkelling from the age of six. As it appeals to people of all ages and doesn't require any physical strength, it's also an ideal activity for families to do together and I've witnessed on several occasions the magic it's worked for families with truculent teenagers in tow who wouldn't otherwise be seen dead with their oh-so-embarrassing parents.
Because the whole of Mauritius (with the exception of Gris Gris at the southern tip) has a fringing reef, the water is calm and ideal for a beginner to learn to snorkel. Most resorts will be happy to lend/rent snorkels and masks to you and you really don't need flippers if you're in calm, shallow water. However, we prefer to bring our own snorkels and masks with us, because it's more hygienic and we know that they're in good state of repair: these are very affordable in large supermarkets or sports stores (I paid R150 - or about USD15 - per set in Mr Price Sport in South Africa) - if a little bulky to transport. But then, you're going to the beach to live in a swimming costume, so how much luggage do you really need? [OK, rhetorical question, but then I've never been a girly girl!]
What the tourist broachures won't tell you is that the coral in Mauritius - even in the Blue Bay Marine Park - is degraded due to the combined impacts of human activity and climate change. Insufficient control on fishing, inadequately controls on motor boats and clearing of mangrove swamps, allowing silt to wash down unchecked into the marine environment have all badly affected the health of the coral - especially that close to the shore - so if you're expecting pristine coral gardens, then you'll be disappointed. That being said, we did see a surprising variety and number of fish, even in the very shallow water adjacent to the beach, and once you get out into deeper water, things do improve markedly (in which case, you'll probably want to take a boat trip out to the fringing reef and will need to be a competent swimmer).
If you're planning to snorkel, you'd be well advised to come with beach/reef shoes or even humble Crocs, as the coral sand can be sharp, and there are many very spiky sea urchins.
Water sports: check what's in and what's excluded!
Let's be frank: Mauritius is all about the beach, which is why it's such a drawcard for families and people seeking a relaxing, 'get away from it' all break in an island paradise setting.
To be honest, I find beaches dull, and the mere prospect of baking on one for days on end bores me to tears. Fortunately, there are heaps of other things you can do to keep yourself occupied, and most beach resorts are superbly geared up to catering for the preferred activity levels of all their guests, be they couch potatoes or hyperactive bunnies.
Most resorts will offer free non-motorised water sports as part of the package - just check what's 'in' and what's 'out' before you book to avoid disappointment. This is well worth investigating before you select your package, as the details will differ between resorts, and also may inform your decision on whether or not to pay a little extra upfront for the 'all inclusive' option (something that I'd highly recommend).
We stayed at the fabulous Le Victoria resort, where use of sea kayaks and pedalos was free. However, our kids spent about half their time at the kiddies' club, where certain motorised activities - such as water skiing on a mono ski - were included free of charge.
Sea kayaking: the most relaxing of water sports
My experience of kayaking extends to a (highly enjoyable) week long canoeing trip along the Orange River years ago and a few more recent attempts at sea kayaking, so I prefix this by admitting that I'm anything but a hard core kayaker. However, the older I get, the more I enjoy it, and if I look forward to potential travel opportunities in the future, I find myself starting to manufacture excuses that would allow me to include it.
Unlike the noisy hyperactivity of motorised water sports, sea kayaing is a Zen like experience to be experienced and enjoyed at your own pace. You can paddle out away from the activities along the beach and watch the world drift by as a dispassionate observer, which must be absolutely blissful in a crowded resort over peak period. It's also extremely easy to get the hang of, and after ten minutes of fairly inept coaching on my part, my nine year old daughter was proficient enough to venture forth under her own steam (and parental supervision).
I think that the design of the sea kayaks - those blue things on the beach for the uninitiated - has improved immeasurably over the years, which has really enhanced the experience. For one thing, it's an active sport that you can do whilst you're sitting down, and these newfangled models - which are really only suitable for calm water conditions - allow you to sit above the water in relative dryness and comfort. Despite their appearance, these craft are remarkably stable, and - contrary to their predecessors - there's no more clambering into clammy spaces in which you know that your bum is slowly going to be submerged in freezy water! And hell, in an inspired concession to the middle aged, they even come with a back rest!!!
Sheltered conditions inside the fringing reef
Mauritius is a volcanic mound that has emerged above surface over the millenia as a result of successive eruptions. The island is ringed by a halo of fringing reef that is only breached in the extreme south - around Gris Gris - and is visible as a line of breaking waves offshore,as shown in the photo above. This barrier to wave activity is central to Mauritius' popularity as a tourist destination, as it provides calm water conditions that are ideal for water sports and family-oriented beach holidays.
As a result of the calm water, Mauritius is ideal for water-based activities such as snorkelling, sea kayaking and swimming, and even small children can have fun - under supervision - in these placid waters.
However, bear in mind that even an island paradise has a winter, and between June and September, Mauritius is relatively cool and windy. The prevailing wind at this time of year comes from the East, so it's best to avoid the eastern side of the island over this time.
Having said that, we visited for a (southern hemisphere) mid winter break mid June and it was still very pleasant, with water still warm enough to swim and snorkel without a wet suit. We had a few days of intermittent light rain, but the temperature was still in the late teens/early twenties centigrade and the odd shower wasn't enough to stop us having a very good time.
Pottering around in rockpools
My earliest memory is of a trip to the seaside at Lyme Regis, and I have never recovered from my passion for rockpools, which I consider to be infinitely more interesting than mere sandy beaches.
Although Mauritius is famed for its white beaches, there are many spots along its coastline where the fringing coral reef creates rock pools just begging to be explored.
If you're tempted to try your hand at snorkelling - a hugely rewarding experience that is much easier and less arduous than it might seem - then a good way to start is by sitting quietly in a rock pool and putting your face underwater. That way, you don't have to focus on swimming and breathing at the same time until you've got the hang of it.
If you venture into these pools, you'd be well advised to don suitable footwear to protect yourself from the sea urchins, as well as more unusual creatures such as moray eels (which we did see) and stonefish (which thankfully we didn't).
My nomination for Mauritius' coolest building!
The Mauritus Commercial Bank building on the southern edge of Port Louis, and to the left hand side of the highway if you're heading north. It is unmistakable in daylight, but after dark - lit up like a bizarre upscaled fish tank - it is an architectural fantasy of an ecofriendly building that can't fail to grab your attention.
Unfortunately for you, the reason why you're likely to experience this at nighttime is if you're committed to one of the stupid o'clock connections from your hotel to the airport, in which case even a building of this extraordinary calibre will probably be scant consolation!
The oficial blurb from Ove Arup (the project engineers) says it best:
"The 10-storey 10,000m² building comprises open plan offices, auditoria, a canteen and ancillary spaces.
"The building was the first in the Southern Hemisphere to achieve a BREEAM rating, through attention to orientation, shading, renewable energy and rainwater re-use. The carefully chosen building orientation ensures that the façades face due north and south with generous overhangs which virtually eliminate all direct solar gains.
"Energy consumption is minimised by making use of free cooling where possible and a 980m² photovoltaic farm will further provide renewable energy. Rainwater is harvested and stored in below-ground concrete tanks and fresh air is provided using a floor displacement ventilation system."
A piratical fantasy playground in Port Louis
Unfortunately this amazing playground on the Port Louis waterfront just next to the Le Caudan complex was closed when we visited in June 2013 (which is mid winter, and therefore the low season).
If you have an interest in philately - and given that the Mauritian Blue is the world's most expensive stamp with a colourful history to match, then why not? - this would be the ideal place to park les enfants to let off some steam whilst you mosey around the small but excellent Blue Pennymuseum that's literally next door.
Our son gazed longingly though the railings at this pirate-themed extravaganza in the vain home that someone would arrive bearing a key. And as we were on the subject of fantasies, I briefly entertained the possibility of Johnny Depp putting in an appearance, but I am sad to report that neither eventuated ...
Stark Gris Gris - a very different type of beauty
(work in progress)ook at this photo and ask yourself whether this is what you expected of Mauritius? And - if not - I rest my case!
My major issue with Mauritius - a destination with which I have a somewhat conflicted relationship - is that the standard tourist perception is mono-dimensional. Swaying palm trees - check! Idyllic beach side resorts - check! Sunny climate and happy, smiling locals willing and able to deliver world class service excellence - check, check, check!!!
Don't get me wrong: Mauritius does all of those things - and impressively well - but it's not an accurate reflection of an island that has other (arguably more interesting) dimensions. Such as stark, windswept Gris Gris, at the southern tip of the island.
In French, Gris Gris means 'grey grey', and it's not hard to see why. Steep, dark grey lava cliffs terminate abruptly into an ocean where the next landfall is Antarctica, and a gap in the fringing reef that otherwise envelops Mauritius means that the waves thunder in with impressive fury. Indeed, the headland in the photo is locally known as 'la roche qui pluere' ('the rock that cries') on account of the water than drains off the rock after a wave breaks.
Gris Gris has the air of a godforsaken place at the end of the world - and in an island paradise, is well worth seeing, just for sake of the contrast. In the height of the summer, its breezy setting would also be a welcome respite from the humidity, and the almost aggressively verdant vegetation soothes the eye in a landscape of startling sunshine and beachscapes.
If you are visiting Gris Gris, please be aware that the winds can be strong, and the grass can be slippery after rain.
Stunning views from the lovely Alexandra Falls
Given that Alexandra was the name that we chose for our daughter, I was always going to have a biased view of this place!
The Alexandra Falls lie within the Black Rivers Gorges National Park and commands a stunning viewpoint out over the escarpment over the lowland to the Southern Ocean beyond.
It's difficult to photograph, but utterly lovely in reality, and also has a stunning picnic spot set in a grove of very atmospheric and shady trees
Pink pigeons teetering on the brink of extinction
This is the Mauritian pink pigeon (Columba mayeri) - one of only 500 left in existence.
Depressingly, this number represents a 'success story' because in 1991, when the Gerald Durrell Conservation Trust stepped in, there were only 10 pink pigeons left in the wild, suggesting that the remaining stock must all be chronically interbred. Like numerous other Mauritian species such as the dodo, they are victims of habitat destruction and introduced predators - except that few lessons seem to have been learned from the shameful mass extinction of species that has taken place on this island 'paradise' in barely 500 years since it was first settled by humans.
We were fortunate enough to see four during our time in the Black River Gorges National Park: almost unbelievably nearly 10% of the remaining population. That simply shouldn't be possible with an entire species, and I am utterly disgusted by the wholesale carnage that we humans have wreaked on this ecosystem in the geological blink of an eye.
The Rastafarian proliferation of rings on its legs speak volumes as to how carefully monitored and tracked the remaining population are. Whether it's too little, too late remains to be seen, but I'm not overly hopeful.
If you'd like to see a pink pigeon, probably the best place to do so is the area directly behind the Visitor's Centre at Pétrin, where there is an enclosed release area: we saw one there, and the rest in the surrounding forest.
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Underwhelming Seven Coloured Earths of Chamarel
Touted as one of Mauritius' premier tourist attractions, I was expecting rather more of the celebrated Seven Coloured Earths of Chamarel than the reality. Actually, I feel a trifle dishonest posting this photograph, as it makes it look rather more impressive than it is (so maybe I'm a better photographer than I thought).
The different colours of soil and the product of weathering of the lava, which creates a range of iron and manganese oxides which have a whole range of earth-toned hues. It's not a unique phenomenon, but what is special about Chamarel is the rolling nature of the exposure, which allows the light to catch the colours at different angles, thus intensifying the effect. For this reason, it is best to visit either early or late in the day when the light is oblique and amplifies the colours, rather than in the middle of the day, when the sun is overhead and the light 'flattens' the landscape.
The exposure is smaller than the photos would suggest, and visitors are confined to a perimeter walkway for obvious reasons.
On the positive side, the toilet facilities are excellent, and there is a small cafe, as well as a couple of giant tortoises in an enclosure, which might interest you if you've not visited the Reptile Park.
Frankly, by far the best reason to visit Chamarel is the stunning waterfall that you'll pass on the way to the Seven Coloured Earths, but as you have to pay a single entrance fee at the main gate, you might as well visit both.
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The aweinspiring Chamarel Falls
The Chamarel Falls are as impressive a waterfall as you'll find anywhere, and all the more stunning if - like us - you weren't expecting them.
Most tourists visit Chamarel to see the overhyped Seven Coloured Earths, which seem to feature on just about every tourist brochure. This multicoloured outcrop is located a few kilometres from the road turn off, and about halfway, you'll see the parking area for these falls on the left hand side.
The falls are created because of the presence of a particularly resistant lava flow that has protected the strata below from erosion. The river plummets over the edge as twin plumes, the extent of which you don't fully realise from the main viewpoint, which is partly obscured by vegetation. I would therefore strongly recommend that you climb the steps to your right up to the high viewpoint (only about 5 minutes steep walk), from where you get a more panoramic view that allows you to appreciate the full height of the falls. It seems as though many people don't bother to venture beyond the main viewpoint, so this may also prove to be a wise crowd dodging strategy in high season.
It is an extraordinarily beautiful spot that gives you a rare insight into the way that the island must have looked before people arrived a short but depressingly destructive 500 years ago. The combination of the beautiful, verdant forest and the starkness of the falls is utterly gorgeous and - along with the stunning Black River Gorges viewpoint - will be one of my most treasured memories of Mauritius.
As you might imagine, this gets very busy (especially in high season), so to avoid the worst of the crowds, try and visit either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, which is also when the light is better for photography.
Textile factories dotted across the island
The Mauritius economy has four main pillars: tourism, sugar, financial services and (the one which may come as more of a surprise) textiles.
If you drive through the interior of the island, you'll come across many clothing factories, which are the antithesis of the opulent and airy resort hotels that will be most tourists' experience of Mauritius. I suppose that beautiful, ergonomic factories are few and far between - especially in the developing world - but even by the low standards of the sector, these forbidding buildings with their small windows and surprisingly high security do not bode well for the working conditions within.
Despite its small size and the minor detail that it doesn't grow cotton, Mauritius is a significant player in textile and garment manufacture. Surprisingly given its current significance, Mauritius had no significant textles industry until the 1960s, when the Government actively sought means of diversifying the economy away from its dominance on sugar. Much of the factory development was funded by garment manufacturers from Hong Kong and Taiwan, aided by a generous slew of tax incentives offered by government to promote investment in the sector. This support was subsequently bolstered by the establishment of an Export Processing Zone (which provided tax breaks and duty free import of goods for processing and subsequent re-export) and the negotiation of preferential trade agreements with key markets.
In 2010, textiles accounted for 5.2% of Mauritian GDP, and employed over 40,000 people, which is pretty significant for such a small country.
Mauritius has a reputation among tourists for cheap clothing, from T shirts to upper end items. I can't comment from my own experience whether this is the case, as we didn't go clothes shopping - and I have to say that they didn't appear to be giving away any particular bargains in the Port Louis market - but I do recall seeing quite a lot of factory outlet shops which could be of interest if you're interested in some retail therapy.
Hindu shrines ready for customisation
I must start by declaring my ignorance.
I know next to nothing about the Hindu religion because I've never had the opportunity to spend much time in countries where it has significant representation. So it was quite an eye opener to find Hindu shrines and temples seemingly around every corner in Mauritius.
The one thing that has always struck me is the significant role that colour seems to play in Hindu religious imagery. If you've been raised in Catholicism (as I was), then the colours are generally subdued, whereas Hindu imagery seems to burst with vibrant technicolour shades of lime and tangerine which are very much in keeping with the sunny Mauritian climate.
In all of the towns we passed through in Mauritius, we came across these shrines for sale. I presume that they are then customised to meet your own personal devotional preferences.
Take a hike in Black River Gorges Park
This is the brand spanking new Visitors' Centre at Pétrin, which is the main point of entry to the lovely Black River Gorges National Park and a vast improvement on the dilapidated office building on the same site. The surrounding area - which straddles a babbling stream - has been carefully landscaped and is a nice shady place for a picnic.
We were somewhat confused to find it complete but closed at the time of our visit (June 2013), but it turns out that it was awaiting its official opening by the respective Minister. Once open, it will hopefully provide tourist information to visitors, and it appears that there will also be some form of permanent exhibit to provide context on this threatened ecosystem.
The Black River Gorges National Park was proclaimed in 1994 to protect one of the last remaining continuous stands of indigenous forest on the island. It covers 3.5% of Mauritius' land area and includes a range of ecosystems. From a visitor's point of view, it is notable as the home of nine endemic bird species, including the pink pigeon and the even rarer Mauritian kestrel.
This is also the departure point for several hikes through the forest. We bought one of the excellent park maps (I can't remember exactly how much it cost, but probably only a couple of rupees) and attempted to do one of these, and I have to report that the signage left something to be desired and we got rather lost. There are also hiking trails marked from the road that leads between Pétrin and the viewpoint out over the Black River Gorges, which seem to pass through more heath-like vegetation - watch out for the signs at small parking areas around these trail heads.
If you're interested in seeing the pink pigeon (and who could pass up the opportunity of seeing one of the world's rarest birds for relatively little effort?), then this is definitely your best bet. There is a release area for pink pigeons - presumably from some sort of controlled breeding programme - at the back of this complex, so if you're lucky, you'll be able to see one in the enclosure. Pigeons that have already been released into the wild also tend to hang around in the grove of trees adjacent to the release enclosure, so keep your eyes open.
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