By Susan McKee
Visions of sugarplums danced through my head, but the soft yet insistent voice cut through my reverie. “Madame,” she said. “Madame!”
It must have been the coconut. After the most delicious massage I’ve ever enjoyed, I awoke covered with curly white aromatic shavings like a giant macaroon.
I had fallen asleep as my petite masseuse administered the “paillasson” at the spa in the Oberoi Resort on Mauritius. The therapy involved the entire coconut — first, a full body scrub with the husk, then a peeling with the soft, white interior and finally, a rub with scented oil.
But, now, my time was up and she wanted me awake and gone to my frangipani-scented shower.
Reluctantly, I rolled off the table and wrapped myself in the plush terrycloth bathrobe, slipping my feet — even they had been coconut oiled — into the scuffs. With one last wistful glance at the waterfall out the window, I headed back to the dressing room.
Leisure and Tranquility
One reason to visit a resort is to step out of the ordinary. Instead of deadlines and traffic, there’s leisure and tranquility. If there’s a spa on site, all the better. An appointment with someone whose only job is to pamper body and soul is a gift beyond measure.
Mauritius is all about retreating from reality. First of all, it’s an island nation — one of those places that will cause your friends to stare at you blankly as they try to place it on the globe. (Hint: look for a small island that’s south of the equator and east of Africa.)
Nobody from back home is likely to run across you accidentally when you’re surrounded by the Indian Ocean!
In fact, very few Americans visit Mauritius. Of some 350,000 tourists annually, only 3,900 carry US passports. Celebrities who really want to get away from the hassles of fame come here (the ones who pretend they’re annoyed by notoriety go to New York City or Paris).
Once upon a time I asked a friend why he chose Haiti for his vacation destination. He replied, “Because I don’t know anyone there.” You’re not likely to know anyone on Mauritius either.
Once Home to the Dodo
The island does have one big claim to fame. Remember the dodo bird? This is where it was driven into extinction – not so much by the colonizing Dutch, but by the housecats they brought with them (what opportunistic carnivore could resist pouncing on a bird that didn’t fly away?).
Although centuries of Arab and Portuguese sailors had made note of the island, it seems there was no indigenous human population at the time of the Dutch arrival in 1598. They named it in tribute to royalty, specifically, Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange.
The Dutch harvested ebony wood, but eventually lost interest in the island about 1710. Five years later, the French established a toehold, but Mauritius became a favorite base for pirates who raided merchant ships laded with treasures on their way between Europe and the Far East. In exasperation, the English took the island away from their cross channel neighbors in 1814.
The French had imported slaves from East Africa and Madagascar to work the sugar plantations they established on Mauritius, but the British outlawed slavery in the 1830s.
They imported their labor in the form of indentured servants from India. When Mauritius gained independence in 1968, it remained in the British Commonwealth. Although English is the official language, most everyday conversation is in French.
The population, about 1.2 million, is an exotic mix found nowhere else in the world – 64% Indian plus lots of Chinese, Africans and Creoles plus a handful of Europeans. I was continually startled when dark-eyed women in brightly colored saris would address me in French. And I can’t think of a country in the world where you can enjoy a freshly baked croissant with a really good cup of tea.
Flowers Are Everywhere
Flowers are everywhere on the island: frangipani, bougainvillea, jacaranda, orchids, hibiscus, anthurium. Every time I returned to my room at the Oberoi Resort, the maid had rearranged the towels and folded the clothing I’d discarded on the rattan couch — then carefully placed fresh flower blossoms in the folds.
The large marble bathroom, freshly flower-strewn each day, has a sunken tub and separate shower, both of which have only a glass wall separating them from a walled garden.
Expeditions around the island are many and varied. I enjoyed an afternoon at Pamplemousses gardens, had lunch barbecued by my captain on a boat trip to a picturesque cove, drove a bit along the Tea Route, visited a sugar plantation and took an underwater trip on a mini submarine.
The island is volcanic, so the topography is varied. There are steep jagged peaks inland and deep gorges with plummeting waterfalls. At Black River Gorge National Park, the resident monkeys begged treats from visitors.
I marveled at the seven-colored earth of Chamarel — if I could only remember my geology classes I’d know exactly what caused the colors of the rainbow-hued volcanic dunes.
Acres of Gardens
The 62 acres of the gardens in the town of Pamplemousses, first laid out in the 1700s by a French colonist, are filled with exotic plants and trees — including a Talipot Palm that flowers just once every 60 years (I missed it).
At a tea plantation, I watched the processing and learned that the locals prefer theirs scented with vanilla.
At a former sugar factory, there are displays not only showing how the cane is grown, processed and turned into sugar and rum, but the entire history of Mauritius is outlined. The visit ends (of course) in the gift shop with tastings of sugar with varying degrees of molasses and, finally, rum. Yum!
The Blue Safari submarine ride took me not 2000 leagues under the sea, but at 35 meters, we were eyeball-to-eyeball with tropical fish I’d only seen in tanks. In a leisurely journey of almost an hour, we circled a wreck and surveyed the diversity of corals before surfacing again.
The biggest town on the island is Port Louis, and I spent a wonderful afternoon wandering the local market (when you have a population that’s Indian, Chinese, African, Creole and European, the spices, fruits and vegetables are many and varied).
The dried fish looked positively prehistoric, and the herbal medicine stands were a wonder to behold.
The sunsets over the Indian Ocean each evening were symphonies of pastels. My only disappointment was the night sky. There was a full moon while I was on Mauritius, and its light was bright enough to keep me from spotting the Southern Cross or any other unfamiliar constellation of stars.
But my strongest memory is of that coconut massage in the spa at the Oberoi — and I learned its name, paillasson, means coconut in Creole. I’d go back just for that.
Want to go?
To get to the island paradise, I flew first to Paris and then continued on Air Mauritius for another eleven hours. Although long, with an evening departure it was easy to finish dinner and then sleep the rest of the way.
Several of the people I met on the island had come to Mauritius to rest up after African safaris (it’s just a four-hour flight from Capetown, South Africa).
The Oberoi (1-800-562-3764) is located on the Baie auz Tortues, but I saw (and heard) many more frogs than turtles. The pond in the center of the resort is filled with them, and they, in turn, filled the evening air with their croaking. The Oberoi Group, founded in 1934, owns or manages 33 hotels and luxury cruisers in five countries.
I picked up an inexpensive self-guided tour booklet (in English) when I entered the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden at Pamplemousses, and wandered from spectacular plant to exotic tree. Don’t miss the banyan trees, water lilies or myriad lotus.
The Central Market in Port Louis is open daily from dawn to dusk between Farquhar and Queen streets. When you’re tired of the real thing, you can go across the street to Caudan Waterfront, a shopping center.
A hint: all that “brand name” merchandise isn’t what it seems (I could go into a long discussion about trademark laws on the island – but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say, the labels aren’t always, umm, authentic).
At the Bois Cheri Tea Factory, I bought some of the Mauritian favorite, the vanilla-scented tea, to bring home. Delicious!
A Blue Safari submarine voyage is a trip to another world.