Back to nature
in Mauritius

Over the centuries Mauritius has lost many of its native species. But travellers who return post-pandemic will find not only an incredibly warm welcome but an Indian Ocean paradise trying to do better

It was an assault on the senses, albeit a gentle one. I had landed in a world of vivid greens and blues, of chattering birds and new, intoxicating scents. The previous 18 months now seemed a monochrome blur from which I had emerged into an enchanted land of dazzling light.

Walking to my hotel room, colourful birds played in the lush vegetation, almost close enough to touch. Looking towards the sea, the beach was a dreamy sweep of white sand, dotted with shade-giving palm trees. The turquoise-blue water was invitingly calm, with a white line of breaking surf offshore marking where the reef formed a defensive barrier. A glass-bottom boat had just returned from an excursion and discharged a clutch of grinning snorkellers who excitedly swapped tales as they clambered out.

I was visiting Mauritius just ten days after it reopened to tourism, and visitors were being welcomed back with huge – and relieved – smiles. “Welcome, welcome,” one beaming hotel worker said to me. “If you’re happy then I’m happy.”

That night I fell asleep to the sounds of crashing surf and trade winds brushing the palms. And I woke to sombre skies and pouring rain… But, taking an open boat to the nature reserve island of Ile aux Aigrettes, Rose Marie Pierre of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation made it clear the rain was welcome: “We’re happy to have it.”

Within minutes of landing and walking through dripping forest, I had to pinch myself again to check I wasn’t in some alternate fantasy world as we bumped into a lumbering giant tortoise”

Within minutes of landing and walking through dripping forest, I had to pinch myself again to check I wasn’t in some alternate fantasy world as we bumped into a lumbering giant tortoise. And then another. A small bird in crimson breeding plumage landed in a tree right next to us: an endangered Mauritius fody, Rose exclaimed with glee. Then, just as she started talking about pink pigeons and how numbers had crashed to just nine in the 1990s, one landed on a high branch just ahead. All we were missing was a dodo.

When Mauritius was visited by Portuguese and then Dutch sailors in the 16th and 17th centuries, they found no human population. Rather, they discovered a large, flightless, curious and naive bird that had no fear of them at all. Dodos made an easy food source; they were also affected by introduced species such as rats and monkeys, which ate their eggs and young. The last confirmed dodo sighting was in 1662.

Many other endemic species became extinct after the arrival of humans. Mauritius once had two species of giant tortoise, Rose explained, but they suffered the same fate as the dodos. The tortoises played an important role in dispersing the seeds of endemic trees, such as ebony, so it was decided to reintroduce tortoises from Aldabra in the Seychelles. Ile aux Aigrettes now has a breeding centre, and they are found in reserves and other spots throughout Mauritius.

Rose crouched by one particular female tortoise known to be over 80 years old; she scratched her head and stroked her shell. The tortoise seemed to be enjoying the attention, just as a dog would. “See how sensitive their shells are? Come and stroke her.” If the tortoise had been a cat she would have been purring.

Maroons’ mountain

Back on the mainland, it was time to explore the interior, where dramatic basalt outcrops, formed by volcanic eruptions, soar above vast fields of sugarcane. While the scenery was beautiful in its own way, my visit to Ile aux Aigrettes had taught me that Mauritius had not only lost much of its native wildlife but had also been cleared of most of its native forest: trees were felled for boat-building, to be exported for furniture-making and to make way for the planting of sugarcane.

The French took over from the Dutch in the early 18th century and slaves were brought in from parts of Africa to work the land. The British took the island in 1810 and also used slaves until slavery was abolished; they then switched to using indentured labour from India and other parts of Asia. This chequered history has led to the rich mix of cultures that are found on the island today.

Rugged Le Morne Brabant mountain commands the skyline on the south-west of the island, standing sentinel over sweeping white beaches and sheltered coves, as well as a legendary wave, One Eye, which attracts surfers from around the world. But it is also where large numbers of escaped slaves, known as maroons, once hid, sheltering in the small caves that pockmark its sides.

“Rugged Le Morne Brabant mountain commands the skyline, standing sentinel over white beaches and sheltered coves”

Legend has it that on 1 February 1835, the day that slavery was abolished, a number of police and soldiers went to the mountain to tell the maroons they were now free; however, seeing the authorities approach, the former slaves feared they were to be attacked and chose to end their own lives by jumping from the mountain.

While no one is sure whether the tale is true, this was certainly the maroons’ stronghold. Some visitors hike up Le Morne Brabant’s sides, the more intrepid climbing to the top. But I found I just wanted to stand at the bottom of the mountain, at the Slave Route Monument, and contemplate the hardships the maroons endured.

Going greener

While sugarcane may still dominate the Mauritian landscape, there are a growing number of dedicated individuals and organisations working to conserve the remaining native species, protect the environment and rewild and reforest the country. I was travelling with Darren Taylor, the half-Mauritian director of tour company Pure Breaks. He has bought a plot of land here, which he is currently rewilding.

We paid a visit to Ebony Forest, a reserve dedicated to protecting the island’s flora and fauna. Jean-Francois, a young local man working as a guide, spoke with passion about the importance of restoring the natural ecosystem of Mauritius before we planted a native tree. After admiring a pen of giant tortoises, soon to be introduced here, we took a 4WD up through the endemic forest and strolled along a raised walkway to Sublime Point, where we had a panoramic view of the plateau below, the dazzling coastline and poignant Le Morne Brabant.

Some of the hotels are doing their bit for the environment too. A stay at the luxurious Heritage Le Telfair in Bel Ombre, south-west Mauritius, revealed that not only does the hotel group to which it belongs take sustainability seriously, but it also has its own 1,300-acre nature reserve, forming part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

We took a tour by 4WD and buggy, stopping for far-reaching views of rolling hills and different types of forest, with a ranger helping us spot rare echo parakeets. On a short walk through ancient woodland to a sparkling waterfall the ranger pointed out nestboxes, which are to encourage endemic birds and deter the mongooses and monkeys that steal their eggs.

Back at Le Telfair, pre-dinner drinks overlooking the pool were enlivened by watching Mauritian flying foxes – huge fruit bats with 80cm wingspans – taking off at dusk from their roost in a nearby stand of trees. The endangered bats were heading out in search of fruit and seeds, something that makes them unpopular with many farmers.

Positive progress

Up on the north coast of Mauritius, on the Anse La Raie lagoon, I stayed in another hotel that is focused on sustainability. A superficial look at the Lagoon Attitude would make you think it was a standard four-star resort. But a deeper dive reveals a hotel that has taken its eco-commitment to another level. This isn’t green-washing but a whole new approach that permeates everything the hotel does.

The rooms have no Nespresso machines (there’s no way of recycling the capsules on the island), no sachets of coffee, tea or sugar. Instead, you saunter over to the Bulk Shop to fill jars with freshly ground coffee and anything else you need. Your welcome drink is served in a glass recycled from old bottles. The hotel even produces its own reef-safe sun lotion.

I spoke to Raymond Duvergé, chief sales officer of the Attitude Group, about the hotel’s goal to make a positive impact on the surrounding community. “This has always been an obsession: how can we run the hotels while protecting the environment?” he told me. “Lagoon is the first eco-committed hotel on the island.”

The hotel started by removing all single-use plastics. “It’s a challenge, but we’ve done it in the seven months we had to prepare for it,” he explained. “But sustainability is also about the local community and economy. So in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, we launched our Positive Impact movement. There are three aims: to protect the environment, not just the sea but our land and country; to support the local economy, so we committed to doing 50% of all of our purchasing locally; and to support the local community with arts and music programmes and education.”

Raymond stressed that the transformation is ongoing. “It’s a movement and it never stops.”

It’s not just the people who benefit. A small sandy-coloured dog with the face of an old soul wandered over tentatively, not looking us in the eye. “That’s Sausage,” explained one of the team. “We take in strays. They end up making friends with guests who fall in love with them, and we can make the arrangements for them to take them home.”

Sausage accompanied me to the Marine Discovery Centre where displays, maps and videos informed me about the lagoon, its restoration, the mangroves and the wide array of marine life, including great whales. The next morning we experienced the lagoon firsthand aboard a glass-bottom boat with one of the hotel’s marine biologists. Frustratingly, a pre-trip injury prevented me from participating in the hotel’s snorkelling trail but looking into the crystalline water from above was like looking into an aquarium.

River in Mauritius

The hotel is set around a river mouth (Lyn Hughes)

The hotel is set around a river mouth (Lyn Hughes)

Sunscreen bottle

Lagoon Attitude Hotel makes its own reef-safe sunscreen (Lyn Hughes)

Lagoon Attitude Hotel makes its own reef-safe sunscreen (Lyn Hughes)

Sausage is is looking for a home (Lyn Hughes)

Sausage is is looking for a home (Lyn Hughes)

Beyond the coast

Dunes in Mauritius

The Seven Coloured Earth Geopark (with red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow hues) found on the Chamarel dunes (Alamy)

The Seven Coloured Earth Geopark (with red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow hues) found on the Chamarel dunes (Alamy)

Umbrellas create shade in this street in Le Caudian Waterfront (Lyn Hughes)

Umbrellas create shade in this street in Le Caudian Waterfront (Lyn Hughes)

Port Louis buildings

View of Port Louis (Shutterstock)

View of Port Louis (Shutterstock)

Away from the seductive charms of the coast, I explored more of the equally engrossing interior, and in particular the wild south-west. In Chamarel I gazed in awe from a viewpoint overlooking the Black River Gorges as scudding clouds cast light and shade over the thick rainforest below. I saw Seven Coloured Earth Geopark, an area of sand dunes of seven distinct hues, created by the decomposition of basaltic lava to clay minerals (apparently if you mix the colours together, they’ll eventually settle back into separate layers again). And I visited the vast tea plantation of Bois Chéri, which was reminiscent of Sri Lanka. Dating back to the late 19th century, the estate is also home to numerous deer, and its restaurant offers imaginative dishes incorporating tea chutney and venison.

But it was the small but fascinating museum that had me transfixed. Inside was a model of the Cutty Sark, now docked in Greenwich; she was the first tea clipper to successfully reach Mauritius and was a regular visitor to Port Louis harbour between 1870 and 1877.

Visiting Port Louis on a Saturday morning, the harbour of the island’s capital was not exactly bustling. The impact of the previous 18 months was obvious, as the city’s museums and historic sites had not yet reopened. The shops and cafes along the waterfront were mostly empty and I was the only person buying at a street-food stall. I entered a shop selling scale models of historic boats, drawn by a beautiful replica of the Cutty Sark, and was sorely tempted to make purchase.

“The main market was a noisy melee, thronging around stalls piled high with ripe tomatoes, squash, aubergines and chilis”

Heading deeper into the capital, China Town was equally quiet, and I had time to wonder at the mish-mash of buildings along the streets. But the main market was a complete contrast, with a noisy melee thronging around stalls piled high with ripe tomatoes, squash, chayotes, aubergines and chilis. In a food court I queued for freshly made dholl puri, probably the national dish of Mauritius, a tortilla-like wrap made of ground yellow split peas with a curry and pickle filling.

Leaving the fruit and vegetables behind, I was the only person wandering the clothing stalls. I showed interest in a sapphire-blue scarf and the vendor beamed, immediately lowering the price without me even thinking of haggling. As he wrapped it, he produced a fuchsia-coloured woven bag and asked me if I liked the colour. When I gave an affirmative he thrust it on me as a gift. “Thank you, thank you. Please tell everyone to visit – we will make them welcome.”

That I will do.

The author travelled with Pure Breaks.

A 12-night itinerary, staying in four hotels (Preskil Island, Lagoon Attitude, Lakaz Chamarel, Heritage Le Telfair), including direct flights with Air Mauritius, private transfers, meals and endemic tree planting in Ebony Forest, costs from £3,650pp based on two share.

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