Mauritius - Land of the Dodo

Travel facts | Getting there | Season | Further information

This year people around the world had the chance to witness the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun. That was something that no-one had a chance to do in the 20 th Century. Of course, here in Australia we're particularly attached to the event because Captain Cook first explored the east coast of Australia after witnessing the event in Tahiti.

The Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius has a somewhat more patchy history on the transit front. Guillaume Joseph Hyacynthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisiere (now there's a name that'd fill a business card) left France in 1760 to watch the transit of 1761 and arrived in Mauritius three months later. He pushed on to Pondicherry to watch from there but it had been captured by the British so he started back for Mauritius. He was still on the ship in the middle of the ocean when the transit occurred and he missed it. So he decided to wait in Mauritius for the next transit eight years later. As you would if you weren't due back home for a while.

I'd say that if you were to hang around a tropical paradise for eight years waiting for a cosmic event then Mauritius would be a good place to choose. It's a spectacular volcanic island with perfect white sand beaches and fringing coral reefs. Because of its history, the signposts are in English and people drive on the left hand side of the road but the food is French. The population is a mix of largely Indian and European (with many Africans and Chinese) who speak Creole but everyone understands English. And that statement about driving on the left is merely the official line: locals say they are half and half English/French so they all drive in the middle of the road.

Mauritius is largely a resort island and it has been very popular with sophisticated Europeans for many years. So the resort hotels are excellent. There are waterfalls and some remnant forests but most visitors are drawn to the coast. In fact the whole island of Mauritius (which is roughly oval and 65 kilometres from north to south and 45 kilometres east to west) is now ringed by beach resorts. All beaches are open to everyone.

The capital of Mauritius is Port Louis, a pleasantly laidback port town with palm tree-fringed streets. It reveals the island's polyglot past from the ramshackled wooden Creole houses to the imposing French colonial Government House (with a foreboding statue of Queen Victoria out the front). The main attractions of the town for visitors are equally diverse - the very modern shopping precinct of Caudan Waterfront and the chaotic, crowded stalls of the Port Louis Market.

Even for visitors who never enter a museum, the lure of the Natural History Museum and Mauritius Institute may prove too strong. For it is here that you will have the rare opportunity to come face to face with a dodo. While extinction is forever, the indignity suffered by the dodo goes well beyond that. Ornitholigists have deducted that these turkey-sized flightless birds were in fact pigeons on steroids that had happily settled into a comfortable life without predators. When the first Dutch visitors came in 1598 the complacent birds wandered down to the shore to observe their arrival. A mere 50 years later the dodo was extinct. Some of the strange looking birds were sent back to Europe but none survived there for long, either. Some museums kept a head or a foot but effectively the dodo completely disappeared from the face of the earth. Just about everything we know about the dodo comes from a few eyewitness descriptions and drawings - and some dodo skeletons that were discovered in a bog near Mauritius airport in the 19 th century. Dead as a dodo indeed.

While it was Lewis Carroll who metaphorically brought the dodo back from the dead in the "Alice in Wondlerland" books, it is Air Mauritius that has put Mauritius back on the map for Australian travellers. Decades ago, Qantas used to fly to Mauritius once a week then onwards to nearby Africa. When those flights stopped, getting from Australia to Mauritius became a chore. However, a few years ago Air Mauritius began flying into Australia. First it was just to Perth and Melbourne but recently the airline started a Sydney service. The direct flying time from Mauritius to Sydney is less than 11 hours.

Merely selecting what resort to stay at in Mauritius may be the most challenging task for visitors. There are more than 50 resorts to chose from and while researching this article I stay in only five. They provided a good cross section of the island's upmarket accommodation. I was reluctant to leave every one.

The majority of resorts are on the west coast of Mauritius. However, my first night on the island was in a villa at the Belle Mare Plage resort on the east coast. Sitting in my spacious lounge room, looking out over the moon reflected in my private pool while the wind rustled the palms overhead, it was a great introduction to the island.

While the Belle Mare is large, with over 250 rooms, suites and villas, another resort I stayed at on the east coast was much smaller with only 90 suites. The Prince Maurice, named after one Prince Maurice van Nassau, the man who started the whole Indian Ocean spice trade. It's a Relais & Chateaux property on its own spit of land with several small sandy beached to chose from. One of the resort restaurants consists of a series of dining areas floating on pontoons and picturesquely surrounded by mangroves. The Prince Maurice is one of only 17 Relais properties worldwide to be awarded "purple" status and it shows from the sublime spa to the excellent cuisine.

The Beau Rivage resort is situated about as east as you can go in Mauritius without being on the way back to Perth. In terms of size, it stands about halfway between the pervious properties with 174 rooms and suites. That includes an opulent presidential suite that has expansive views over the whole resort and one of the largest swimming pools in Mauritius. Beyond the pool lies a long white beach that is a centre for many of the island's water activities.

Over on the other side of the island, at the quaintly-named area of Flic en Flac, stands the expansive Hilton Mauritius Resort and Spa. While for many of us, Hilton conjures up images of city business hotels, this resort represents anti-business, from the hammocks by the beach to the pampering of the spa. There are a range of restaurants from Thai to French and a whole variety of free sailing vessels at hand to work off the meals afterwards. In the evening, you may have a chance to see the Sega performed on an outdoor stage. The Sega is a Mauritian dance created by African slaves and it's a whirling, sensuous, flowing artform.

North of Port Louis but also on the west coast is the Oberoi Mauritius. Like other Oberoi resorts, the 76 luxurious suites are spread across manicured gardens and lawns and very tasteful architecture predominates. This is simply a beautiful resort.

Mauritius is a beautiful island. Of course, it isn't universally upbeat. For a start it'd be nice if we still had dodos along the shore and it's rather sad that most of the island's forest have been cleared to grow sugar cane. Now we have to visit the glorious botanical gardens at Pamplemousse to fully appreciate the island's rich botanical heritage. And typical of many tropical destinations, there's a great divergence between the sybaritic luxury of the resorts and the very modest houses where the locals live.

The only true highway on the island runs from the far north to the international airport in the south east. While waiting for your flight, allow some time between buying duty free local rum and planning your return to spare a thought for the dodo. It was very near the site of the airport that a boggy dodo graveyard was discovered with several complete skeletons. The dodo may still be gone but Mauritius is rising like a phoenix in the minds of Australian travellers. It is worth the trip.

Travel facts

Getting there

Air Mauritius flies from Perth, Melbourne and Sydney to Mauritius. Mauritius can be used as a staging post for Air Mauritius flights to and from several destinations in Africa and Europe. Information about flights and Mauritius can be found at its website: www.airmauritius.com .

Wildlife Safari is an Australian company that specialises in travel to Indian Ocean and African destinations. It produces a comprehensive, dedicated brochure on Mauritius. Contact Wildlife Safari on (1-800) 998 558 or at its website: www.wildlife-safari.com.au .

Season

Mauritius lies at about 20° South - firmly in the tropics. There are no distinct monsoon seasons here: the weather largely depends on the direction of the trade winds. The hottest months are January to April and the coolest are July to September. It is always much cooler up in the central mountains. The western and northern regions are warmer and drier than elsewhere. Sea temperature ranges from 22°C to 27°C while coastal temperatures range from 34°C in summer to 22°C in winter.

Further information

Inevitably, there is a Lonely Planet guide to Mauritius and nearby islands. There's also quite a lot of information at the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority Official Site: www.mauritius.net .

For the last word on the dodo it is worthwhile tracking down "Dodo - from Extinction to Icon" by Errol Fuller. It's a beautifully illustrated book of 180 pages published by Collins in the UK in 2002 (ISBN 0 00 714572 1). It literally has every illustration and everything written about the dodo by anyone who saw one and thought to put pen, or brush, to paper.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd