Five years ago, the Indian Ocean idyll seemed in danger of being eclipsed by the Seychelles and the Maldives. Now, says Nicki Grihault, a swathe of new hotels and gourmet offerings is bringing visitors back to an island on the up.
When I first visited Mauritius, as a teenager, the island had just one five-star hotel, Le Saint Géran: a grand colonial classic on a private peninsula on the east coast. The eastern island playground of Île aux Cerfs was a sandbar where tortoises roamed, and the fishing village of Grand Baie – now the island’s tourism hub – was surrounded by deserted white beaches, on which we would spread our picnic blanket and search for cowrie shells. To us, it was perfectly obvious why Mark Twain had declared: “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven was copied.” It was heaven.
Nearly 40 years after Le Saint Géran opened, much has changed. Mauritius now boasts the biggest choice of luxury accommodation of any island worldwide – quite a feat for a place the size of Surrey. Against a backdrop of sugar cane, ebony forests and velvety volcanic peaks, dozens of stylish hotels, resorts and, increasingly, villas line the miles of white-sand beaches. Top-notch spas, championship golf courses and gourmet restaurants compete for guests with lures of helicopter transfers, private plunge pools and 24-hour butler service.
In the past five years, many former fans of Mauritius have been tempted away by other destinations – the Maldives with their overwater suites and underwater restaurants; the Seychelles with their private villas; the newly peaceful Sri Lanka – but they have started to return. Why? Not only is the island extremely good value, but it offers warm weather year-round, beautiful beaches, clear seas and genuinely friendly people providing impeccable service. Today, Mauritius has more than 120 hotels, many of them new and some recently refurbished.
The hottest of the island’s new beach hotels is Starwood’s St Regis Mauritius Resort, on the exclusive Le Morne peninsula on the south-west coast. At its official launch in March, champagne flowed freely and fireworks exploded in the bay to the strains of a live orchestra. It was a party as grand as any thrown by a sugar baron.
But Starwood is not the only hotel group to have raised its game. During the St Regis’s three-year construction – costing $185 million (£120 million) – many other hotels bustled with builders, constructing new suites and villas and sprucing up old rooms. Others introduced facilities ranging from a cookery school and a junior golf academy to a prestigious kite-surfing centre.
Beachcomber, the island’s leading hotel group, was the first to resurrect an established property – the Trou aux Biches Resort & Spa, rebuilt, at a cost of £60 million, to create a contemporary five-star, all-suite hotel on one of the best sheltered beaches in the north-west. Sun Resorts then replaced its garish Coco Beach, on the east coast, with Long Beach – an ultra-modern hotel with cool, Californian-style interiors and activities including tennis, Laser sailing and wall-climbing. Relative newcomers among the adult-only hotels include Angsana Balaclava Mauritius, a thatched five-star, suite-only property in Turtle Bay, and the smaller Baystone Boutique Hotel & Spa in Grand Baie, with its sexy rooftop pool. A third, the Paradise Cove Hotel & Spa, will reopen this October on the north coast, after a light refurbishment.
The island’s activities and food have been upgraded, too. At the newly rebranded LUX* Resorts hotels, including Le Morne and Belle Mare, innovations range from pop-up bars and all-day ice-cream carts to cinema on the beach. The Oberoi, Mauritius, in Turtle Bay, has introduced a “Touching Senses” programme intended to connect guests with nature and culture through activities such as stargazing and lessons in Hindu mythology. At the Four Seasons Resort Mauritius at Anahita, women have long enjoyed such indulgent treatments as a 24-carat gold facial, while men at the St Regis Mauritius Resort can now check in at the island’s only male grooming salon. Hotel spas have become family-friendly, with Haute Beauté facials for teenagers among the offerings at The Residence Mauritius.
On the food front, no other cuisine in the Indian Ocean can match that of Mauritius – a fusion of Indian, French, Creole and Chinese influences. Top chefs who have connections with restaurants on the island include Vineet Bhatia at the One & Only Le Saint Géran, Atul Kochhar at the St Regis Mauritius Resort, and Jean-Jacques Uge at Anahita The Resort. Meanwhile, the Constance Belle Mare Plage hotel runs a culinary festival each year and, this spring, Tom Aikens, holder of two-Michelin stars, gave culinary masterclasses at Beachcomber’s Royal Palm.
Other hotels give guests the opportunity to learn about local culinary traditions. At Shanti Maurice, they can dine with an elderly grande dame in her village home, while at Maradiva Villas Resort & Spa, the 2012 Masterchef winner Shelina Permalloo runs a cookery school twice a year, with an emphasis on local dishes, and guests can visit an estate supplying free-range boar and venison.
Mauritius has long been the top spot in the Indian Ocean for weddings, and is one of the top five in the world. In 2012, it was voted the world’s best honeymoon destination in the World Travel Awards, its appeal boosted by the growing number of hotels and resorts with a romantic ambience. For thrill-seekers, attractions include the longest zip-line ride in the Indian Ocean, hiking to the top of Le Morne Brabant mountain and tandem skydiving, while the more sedate can visit colonial mansions, botanic gardens and local markets.
Last year, visitors to Mauritius reached the million mark for the first time – 10 times the number four decades ago, when the pioneering Le Saint Géran opened. Expect plenty more growth to come.
Two airlines fly non-stop to Mauritius from Britain: Air Mauritius and British Airways, both from London Heathrow. The best non-direct service is with Emirates, via Dubai, from London Heathrow and Gatwick. Return economy fares to Mauritius on direct flights cost from approximately £715 per person. Operators specialising in the island include Luxury Holidays Direct, Kuoni (01306 747008, kuoni.co.uk), Elegant Resorts, Beachcomber Tours and Elite Vacations.