Mauritius: Holiday among the Dodos.

The island of Mauritus, lying about 800 kilometers east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is possibly best known as the land of the extinct Dodo bird. The exact cause of the demise of the Dodo is debated, although many scholars now agree that feral pigs, escapees from 18th century Dutch settlements, probably are the culprits, having ravaged the eggs of the flightless birds until their rate of generation dropped below the threshold necessary for their survival.

The Dodo has undergone an iconoclastic transformation, now adorning refrigerator magnets, tee shirts, bottle openers and paperweights by the thousands in tourist shops all over the tiny island. However, unlike its organic predecessor and much to the dismay of shopkeepers, these modern birds are in no threat of extinction; they remain on the shelves and in the shops. The current state of post 9/11 travel paranoia combined with other factors, such as localized first-world economic pressures and the lure of other travel destinations, are leaving Mauritius in the backwater of vacation itineraries. And while tourists are hiding out in their backyards, the wise traveler can make the most of this opportunity and have a wonderful beachfront vacation at a bargain price, and feel the open gratitude and generosity of the local merchants at the same time. So when my girlfriend was offered a free week’s accommodation in return for an old favor, it took no amount of arm-twisting to get me to come along.

My girlfriend and I arrived on Mauritius on a South African Airways flight from Johannesburg. In an effort to maintain a high standard of tourism, the Mauritian authorities have disallowed charter flights, so if you want to find a bargain rate, you will need to research regular commercial flights originating in Europe or Africa. Although this keeps out a lot of the riff raff, the downside is that your flight will not be cheap: Mauritius is not close to anywhere. However, several airlines offer very manageable fares from European locations, and once you have arrived, you will find that daily expenses can be extremely reasonable, if not downright cheap.

Our accommodation was provided by the kind owners of Seapoint Bungalows, a comfortable self-catering hotel right on the shore in the northern town of Grand Baie. The hotel has an excellent location, next door to Club Med and several other upmarket resorts, and offers a mixture of single and double occupancy rooms and family suites with two bedrooms. All of the rental spaces face the sea, with a white sand beach and coral reef only a few meters out the front door. Our two-story, two bedroom, two bath suite had a basic kitchen, with fridge and gas stove, and came equipped with dishes and cooking utensils for a family of four. The proprietors arranged a pickup at the airport for us, which is located in the extreme southeast corner of the island, about 90 minutes from the hotel. They also offer this service for regular guests.

Grand Baie is located as far from the airport as is possible, at the extreme northwest on a relatively flat section of the mountainous island. The drive there is on a new, 4-lane highway that makes quick travel around the island manageable, but for those who like to meander, there are a myriad of twisted, confusing narrow roads that connect small villages and wind their way through high arches and tunnels of sugar cane. Getting lost on these roads is guaranteed, especially in the surrealistic, Middle Earth-like mountains of the central region, as there are no road signs and villages all look fairly identical. Fortunately, in addition to Creole and French, much of the population speaks English, so you can get directions. On the other hand, you can’t get TOO lost, since it’s a tiny island, and once you emerge in the northern section where the roads tend to be straighter, you can always make your way along the beachfront road until you reach Grand Baie.

In Grand Baie, there is a large, calm lagoon with many typical beach and reef activities. Visitors can rent sailboats or HobieCats, go diving among the coral and fish, go on ‘reef walks’ with astronaut-like diving helmets on their heads (this was a real blast), parasail, take diving lessons, putter around on rented scooters, surf cast or deep-sea fish for dozens of tropical fish, or just lie on the fine white sand and bake. Scooter rentals are cheap, around $20 a day, and the entire island is accessible, although your butt will be quite sore after a long day on one. However, the narrow roads and stunning beach drives are best seen from the back of a two-wheeler on a clear day. Being at the same latitude as the world’s great southern hemisphere deserts, Mauritius enjoys many clear, hot and humid days. However, there is an off-season from January to April where the temperatures drop to the mid 80s (30s C) and daily rainstorms are common. These rains can be torrential at times, so if you are there in the cooler season, bring a book. However, when the clouds part and the sun breaks through, you will instantly remember that this place is a slice of paradise.

One week on the island seems like enough time to really cover it. There is a mountainous wildlife park in the southern-central region that is really worth the drive through, for the jaw-dropping scenery as well as the cool air and diverse bird and wildlife. The Black River Gorge has stupendous waterfalls, although the well-advertised dirt pile called the ‘Seven Colored Earths’ is worth missing. The botanical garden in Pamplemousses is apparently very interesting, although I got lost on my way to it and didn’t see it, and there are a few other tourist attractions that any guidebook will tell you about. However, the best part of the island is the beaches…secluded sand beaches, rocky wave-tossed beaches, beaches with tourmaline lagoons, private beaches and crowded public beaches….whichever you desire, you can find dozens of them. And a population of well-wishers who are amazed and gracious that you came all the way to their little piece of heaven from wherever you came from.

So for an island holiday away from the maddening crowds and small enough to fit in a week’s vacation that won’t leave you feeling like you missed something (like your savings account), I recommend a towel on the white sands of Mauritius. You can find information about the Seapoint Self-Catering bungalows at www.seapointbungalows.com. If you desire more upscale accommodations, the island is full of 5-star resorts, but if you want to get out and see the island, visit waterfalls and street markets, eat seafood from sidewalk stalls, and explore all the nooks and crannies, I recommend getting away from the Club Meds and resorts, and suggest self-catering accommodations. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

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