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Bats. You either love them or you hate them.
I adore bats in every shape, size and form, but I have a particular soft spot for fruit bats. Often known as flying foxes on account of their doglike snouts, they are highly sociable animals and I can happily sit and watch a roosting colony for ages, engrossed by their jostling power plays and petty squabbling.
However, I have never had the opportunity to get this close to a fruit bat, let alone one of the rarest bat species on earth, the Rodrigues fruit bat. In the 1970s, the entire world population had plummeted to below 100 - a depressingly recurrent story for so many species on the Indian Ocean islands - but due to sterling conservation efforts, the number has since recovered to over 5,000. Small groups are also kept in captivity in nearly 30 locations across the world to act as a security policy if disaster were to befall the small population on Rodrigues (such as a major cyclone which hit Rodrigues in 2003, and wiped out a significant proportion of the population).
These bats are fruitivorous, and so play an important role in cross pollination of indigenous and commercial fruit trees. This little darling plays a role in the centre's education programme, and I was totally enchanted by his intelligent eyes and beautiful russet fur. Hands down, the wildlife highlight of our time on Mauritius.
Other attractions in the reserve include the terrific giant tortoises, a large number of crocodiles (whose relationship to the range of leather products in the shop is not accidental) and some other rather lacklustre exhibits, including a rather sad aquarium, a reasonable fossil exhibit and a comprehensive (but deathly dull) insect collection.
An exceedingly picturesque bayou
This picture perfect bayou is located in the small town of Poudre d'Or, just behind the Saint-Geran (colloquially known as the 'Paul and Virginie') monument and is an incentive to encourage you to venture off Mauritius' well beaten tourist track.
Primrose yellow buildings with bright blue accents and a verandah leaning out over the water. Boats lolling casually at anchor, and waves lapping against an encouragingly healthy stand of mangroves at its head.
What are you waiting for?
Making a stand for mangroves
Much of the ecological destruction that has taken place on Mauritius can be blamed on long dead generations of settlers, who cleared vast tracts of indigenous vegetation for sugar plantation. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, little was known about ecosystem function, so there's probably a case to be made that they didn't realise the catastrophic damage they were doing.
Sadly, the same case cannot be made for the wholesale destruction of the mangroves that once used to fringe the island, much of which has been undertaken since the 1970s in order to facilitate hotel and resort development. The inconvenient truth is that humble mangroves are incompatible with landscape architects' visions of how a Tropical Paradise should look, and vast swathes of mangroves have been cleared to create space for the identikit 'beach and swaying palm tree' model of resort design that would originally only have existed along limited portions of the coastline.
Mangroves are arguably the most significant ecosystem on tropical islands, and are particularly important for the role that they play in regulating and balancing the functioning of other adjacent ecosystems. Mangroves act as a biological silt trap, filtering out the sediment that is washed out to sea by rivers and streams, protecting the adjacent coral reef from being engulfed with sediment washed down after rain. Allied to this, they also play an important part in buffering wave action under extreme weather conditions, thus controlling coastal erosion.
Mangroves also act as a hatchery for fish, crustaceans and shellfish, and it is estimated that 70% of Mauritius' commercial fishery resource is dependent on mangroves as juveniles, so the equation is quite simple: no mangroves = no prawns on the resort buffet.
And just in case you needed yet more convincing, mangroves are one of the most effective ecosystems for carbon sequestration, thus playing a vital role in mitigating climate change - ironically, it is this last factor that may well be the saving of Mauritius' mangroves if this allows the unlocking of enough international funding through carbon credit trading schemes to justify the replanting of mangroves.
The photo above is taken at lovely Poudre d'Or, on Mauritius' less visited north eastern coast, where a picturesque little bayou still boasts a healthy stand of mangroves, complete with excellent birdlife.
Rum distilleries at every turn!
As I suspect is the case with every major sugar growing region, one of the first steps that Mauritius took in beneficiating its agricultural produce was to establish distilleries to produce spirits - primarily rum - from the sugar crop. Not only did this generate a higher value and diversified range of commodities for export, but also provided the colonial settlers with a cheap local source of alcohol that was an economic alternative to the import of expensive liquor from overseas.
We aren't in the slightest interested in spirits, so we were happy to give the distilleries a miss. However, if this is something that interests you, then there are a numberof distilleries across the island that welcome tourists.
Thi particular distillery commands a lovely location on the extremely scenic road between the Black River Gorges viewpoint and Chamarel. It has quite an elaborate set up, with an upmarket restaurant and other tourist amenities, and if you like the produce, then it's an obvious souvenir to consider bringing home with you.
This very beautiful region forms part of the Le Morne Cultural Landscape, which has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Area (one of two in Maritius, in tandem with the Aapravasi Ghat site in Port Louis). This area was recognised by UNESCO on the basis of its outstanding physical and cultural attributes, which combiend to provide a refuge for runaway slaves during the colonial period.
Stunning Le Morne
The Le Morne cape is located on the extreme south west corner of Mauritius and its Brabant peak is a staple image of tourist brochures for blindingly obvious reasons.
Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop here, as it was already late in the afternoon, so we just had to content ourselves with enjoying the spectacular view as we passed by.
If you fancy waking up to this sort of view, there are a number of luxury hotels in this area, including the LUX and the St Regis.
I was surprised to discover that this areas has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage area on account of its physical and cultural alndscape. That being said, other than a few brown tourist signs, I saw precious little evidence of anything being done to celebrate and promote its conservation on the basis of its World Heritage status.
The Saint-Géran monument in Poudre d'Or
The Saint-Géran monument in Poudre d'Or commemorates one of Mauritius' most famous shipwrecks. The Saint-Géran formed part of the French East India Company's naval fleet, which ran aground of the coral reef just off Ile Ambre in 1744, resulting in the loss of 149 sailors, 13 passengers and 30 slaves .
This real event was woven into the plot of the much celebrated novel 'Paul and Virginie' by the French writer Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Set in Mauritius under French colonial rule, this tells the tale of two childhood friends who grow up and fall in love against the backdrop of a utopian Mauritian society of social equality (overlooking the minor detail that they own slaves) and the challenges that they face when confronted by cynical French society who mistreat their own slaves. Having said that, it was written in 1788, and was considered very enlightened for the time.
'Paul et Virginie' is a mainstay of many bookstores and tourist-focused shops, so if you're lacking holiday literature, it might be worth investigating: if you're interested, I did see copies in English as well as the original French.
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Hindu shrines at Grand Bassin
Grand Bassin is one of the largest Hindu shrines in the world outside India, and between February and March, can receive up to 400,000 pilgrims. This is a staggering number, particularly for such a small island and goes a good way towards explaining the acres of parking space.
Grand Bassin is also known as Ganga Talao, meaning 'Ganges pool'. The legend is that this pool is somehow related to the Ganges River in India, based on a vision that came to two Hindu priests at the end of the 19th century, and both the lake and its water are considered to be sacred. There are an abundance of temples, shrines and statues scattered around the lake, including a gigantic statue of the Lord Shiva.
Visiting here was a somewhat bewildering experience, as I know very little about Hinduism, and I felt a sneaking empathy for the confusion that people from Eastern religions must feel when visiting major Catholic shrines (my religious frame of reference). The craftsmanship of the statues - particularly the one pictured above - was undeniable, but although I didn't feel in any way unwelcome. it felt unfamiliar to me.
It should go without saying that this is a holy place and you should conduct yourself respectfully, which includes modest dress.
Ginormous statue of Lord Shiva at Grand Bassin
I speak under correction, but this vast state of Lord Shiva at Grand Bassin may be the most enormous statue I've ever seen in my life. Which is saying something, given some of the hulking bits of Stalinist era statuary scattered across the former Eastern Bloc, but a 33m bronze statue is a hard act to beat!
The statue was completed in 2007 - hence its decided air of 'newness' - and is modelled on a statue of Shiva at Lake Sursagar in Vadodara, Gujarat, India. Various refernces that I've read suggest that this might be the second largest statue of Shiva in the world, although I have no way of verifying this.
In the pantheon of Hindu deities, Shiva is known as the transformer and destroyer. The legend goes that Grand Bassin was created when Shiva was guiding his wife Parvati around the world to explore its most beautiful spots. Whilst in Mauritius, he stumbled, and some water from the River Ganges, which he was carrying on his head to prevent flooding on earth, fell to the ground, creating the lake.
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The submarine is expensive but worth the money
The Blue Safari submarine that operates out of Trou aux Biches is ... deep breath ... worth the money. Phew, I've said it!
This is one activity that I agonised over because it's so bloody expensive. At a listed price of €110 per adult and €69 per child (aged 3-11), the mere thought of it is enough to make your eyes water, but my kids are so fascinated by the underwater world that - encouraged by my mid year bonus - I decided to throw caution to the wind and indulge us all. Three months on, my wallet still winces at the memory, but I do think that it was value for money.
The submarine is able to accommodate about a dozen people in rows of two people either side, and descends to a depth of about 35m. There is commentary from the pilot/captain (in our case, a seriously cool dude with dreadlocks, a Caribbean accent and a wicked sense of humour sporting an immaculately white uniform of shirt and bermuda shorts), and each seat is equipped with a flip file photo guide to the more common fish species that you might encounter, which is an excellent touch.
Let's be honest here - although the tourist literature will pointedly ignore this, Mauritius' marine environment - particularly its coral reefs - is degraded, so we're not talking about descending onto a Barrier Reef type coral garden here. However, you do dive down to a shipwreck - deliberately scuppered, I might add, lest you get alarmed for your safety - which adds welcome interest to the dive, and you do see fish and (limited) coral at a depth of 100 feet, which should be enough to impress most people. I should add that we visited in mid winter at the windiest time of the year - and in fact our trip was cancelled twice because it was too windy to allow a safe transfer from the boat to the submarine - so the visibility was only 90% of what it would be under optimal conditions.
As the adult paying for the experience, I was left with a sense of (expensive) enjoyment. My kids were utterly rapt, and ultimately, that's what matters to us.
The total experience takes two hours, which includes the pre-departure briefing, the motor boat transfer to the anchored ship which is the docking point for the submarine, and the underwater excursion itself (which lasts just under an hour).
If this appeals to you, I would strongly suggest booking ahead, and we got a fair discount for booking online - also this is highly advisable in high season (especially in December) due to the popularity of this activity. The only downside of this approach is that you're then locked into a specific time and date, but you have to weigh up this constraint against the potential saving - and the guarantee of a place in busier periods - to determine whether it's worthwhile.
Sadly the closest that you'll get to a dodo
These days, the nearest that you'll get to seeing a dodo in Mauritius is on tablecloths, fridge magnets, or in the grounds of the National Institute in Port Louis, where a small flock of technicolour fibreglass dodos are lined up on parade.
After the profoundly depressing history of dodo's brief coexistence with humans, it's difficult to know what to think of such frivolity. But then all the tears in the world isn't going to bring dodos back, and bizarrely, as not one single stuffed dodo remains, we actually don't know for sure exactly what colour they were (although sky blue doesn't seem a likely possibility). Based on contemporary drawngs, the answer is probably grey or brown.
These statues at least give some idea of how big dodos were - and they were massive. Standing up to 1m tall and weighing 10-18kg (that's over 3' tall and 22-40lbs in old money), it's astonishing to think that a pigeon species ever got this big, but then the dodo was a textbook case of island gigantism, where species on isolated islands evolve to massive proportions.
Despite the fact that humans and dodos co-existed on Mauritius for over 50 years, virtually nothing is known about their way of life - even details as basic as what they ate or how many eggs they laid were not recorded, and so everything that is 'known' about dodo ecology is based on extrapolation from other ground pigeon species.
A setting worthy of a Gothic Creole novel
I love this image for its brooding atmosphere - very much at odds with the perception of Mauritius as a carefree, sundrenched paradise.
This is taken in the small settlement of Poudre d'Or on the north east side of the island, where st Philomene's church stands cheek-by-jowl with the canefields on the edge of town. The stark, uncompromising greyness of the church seemed forbidding against the backdrop of sullen sky and squalling gusts of rain blew in from the sea, whipping the palm trees and the sugar cane backwards and forwards. This gave me a sense of how things must be here in cyclone season, and is reminiscent of a scene from a Gothic novel. To be more specific, the passage in 'Jane Eyre' where Mr Rochester confesses to Jane his history in the Caribbean, where he is tricked into marrying his inbred, Creole wife and finds out too late that she is a lunatic.
These days, people clamour to come to Mauritius, either as tourists or tax exiles, and it's easy to forget that this wasn't always the case. During the colonial period, this was considered to be the end of the world, and the people who settled here usually did so because their prospects in their homeland were distinctly limited.
Indian immigrants came in either as slaves and indentured labourers, who had eitehr no choice in the matter, or who reluctantly accepted this as the only option that would allow them to escape the grinding poverty at home.
European settlers may have found themselves at the top of the social pecking order, but were often also escaping less than promising prospects on the home front. The Colonies were largely populated by younger sons with no prospects of inheriting the family fortune, or by 'remittance' men, so called because their families would remit them a certain regular allowance to them in return for them remaining safely at a distance, usually on account of their previous misdeeds or anti-social tendencies. Postings to remote islands were not sought after, and transfers back to 'civilisation' were few and far between.
Conditions for the settlers were not easy, and highly dependent on the erratic delivery of goods by ship to meet all but their most basic food requirements. Society would have been claustrophobically limited and due to the shortage of 'new blood' into the community, marriageable young men and women would have been in short supply - hence poor, mad Bertha Rochester.
As a result, many long term residents consoled themselves with either local mistresses and/or the bottle, underlining the importance of establishing local distilleries.
Pint sized St Mark's church in Poudre d'Or
St Mark's is one of the two churches in Poudre d'Or and islocated adjacent to Saint-Géran (often known as the 'Paul and Virginie') monument.
I like the church for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the charcoal grey of the lava that's been used, which is a reminder of the island's volcanic origins: even on a fine day, it's a sharp contrast to sunshine and bright blue skies, and when it's overcast and miserable, it has a distinctly sombre appearance.
Secondly, the church is pint sized, which underlines the tiny congregation that it was built to cater for in 1888, and how small these communities must have been.
Do a self guided walking tour of Poudre d'Or
Poudre d'Or is a small, comparatively sparsely touristed town on Mauritius' north east coast that seems to be making a concerted effort to boost its tourist numbers.
As you enter , there's an excellent signboard, which illustrates the location of various historic buildings in the town, including St Mark's church, St Philomene's church, the Saint-Géran (often known as the 'Paul and Virginie') memorial and the picturesque little mangrove-lined inlet beyond .
Although Poudre d'Or means 'golden powder', don't be deceived by the name, as this is particularly rocky stretch of coastline. If it's golden beaches that you're after, then rather continue north or south.
It's such a small place that exploring the town on foot would make for an ideal stroll if you have a couple of hours to spare. Towns that make this sort of effort deserve to be encouraged.
Dodotastic reading for the whole family!
OK, this one takes a little advance preparation, as I would bet large amounts of money that this book isn't available on Mauritius. But frankly it should be, and given that Mauritius is a prime family destination, it would be wonderful if you came armed with something locally themed to read the litle darlings at bedtime.
In summary, Bertie and Beatrice are two dodos whose idyllic dodotastic life on Paradise is disrupted by the arrival of the brutish 'sea monkeys' and the voracious rats that threaten to undermine their very existence. These darling but slightly doff birds hatch a plan (sorry!) to protect themself and their dodoling from the unwelcome intruders ...
Witten by the brilliant Dick King-Smith (who also wrote 'Babe'), this is a rollicking good read for kids of all ages, which is as sparklingly witty and well observed as ever, whilst remaining true to the facts. It is certainly head and shoulders above any of the other rather lame dodo-related books that he happened across (most of which have been hamfistedly translated from French and probably weren't a lot better in their original form).
Order this online before you go, and your kids will love you forever!
The National Institute and its Dodo Gallery
The National Institute is a small museum in the centre of Port Louis (directly to the north of Company Gardens) that's easy to overlook. Which would be a pity, as it's not only a lovely colonial building, but also houses the Dodo Gallery.
The Dodo Gallery is housed in the final room of the building, so you'll have to run the gauntlet of two rather ramshackle galleries populated by baleful looking ex animals in order to get there.
The Dodo Gallery exhibit is small because - quite frankly - there isn't a lot left to display. Unbelievably, despite the fact that this bird was discovered at the dawn of the 17th century, when gentleman scientists were obsessed with stuffing everything that no longer moved, not a single stuffed dodo remains. The last stuffed specimen - which was in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum - was apparently burned in 1755 because inept taxidermy had allowed it to decay to the point of being considered unsanitary. So, literally all we know about the appearance of these enormous birds that were considered remarkable enough to be given as gifts to menageries In Prague, Amsterdam and London, is based on a few skeletons and historical drawings of variable quality.
What's even more disheartening are the excerpts from contemporary accounts - primarily Dutch seamen - which record that the dodo was known as the 'walgh-vogel' ('nauseating bird') on account of its foul taste. Which didn't stop them from killing huge numbers of them for food, and of course the rats that jumped ship delivered the final blow by predating on dodo eggs and young.
The first recorded dodo sighting as in 1598, and last widely accepted sighting was by a Dutch shipwrecked sailor in 1662, although there are some less credible accounts of sightings up until the late 1600s. Thus, less than a century after it was first described, the dodo that had existed in large numbers when the first sailors arrived, was extinct. This was the first occasion on which zoologists recognised that ecosystem change - in this case due to hunting, habitat destruction and the introduction of a fiercely competitive alien species - had directly lead to the wiping out of a species, and as a result, the dodo has been posthumously adopted as the poster child for species extinction.
To make up for the absence of deceased dodo bits, the exhibit presents a well presented pastiche of dodo references from the historical literature. There's also a fairly interesting display on archeological digs that are being undertaken around the Mare aux Songes lake, which is a mass dodo grave of unexplained origin, but ultimately it's all academic because the dodo is - well - as dead as a dodo.
In common with all of Mauritius' national museums, there is no entry fee, which is a small but welcome gesture (note however that private museums such as the Blue Penny postal museum do charge an entrance fee).
Look in the garden in front of the entrance for a photo opportunity with some funky technicolour dodos which may cheer you up after what is a pretty depressing experience.
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