Travel


The magic of Mauritius


Mauritius is the full stop to the great epic that is Africa, occurring after the epilogue of Madagascar. An extinct volcano 44 miles across, Mauritius last spluttered some 10 million years ago

Here was a fresh view of Mauritius, borne on the wind. Kitted out superhero-style in a crash helmet, Lycra T-shirt, dark glasses, surfing socks and a large harness, I was granted this peculiar glimpse courtesy of Benoit from Belgium. 

He is a devotee of the art of kite-surfing, and an instructor of infinite patience. 

Thanks to trade winds, warm shallow lagoon, protective coves, year-round sunshine and reef breaks, Mauritius is the world centre for many types of irrational water-based activities, which often require wearing clingy Day-Glo clothing, weird high-tech kit and a personal embarrassment threshold above that of your average reality TV star. And kite-surfing — a hybrid of surfing and kite flying —is, I think, the strangest of the lot.

Truss yourself up in a harness, affix kite (basically a small parachute), stand on a surfboard and — woah! — off you go. You steer by tweaking two strings attached to fringes of the kite that's billowing above you; pick up a rogue thermal and before you know it you are up in the clouds and heading for Madagascar. 

Jason Falconer is a kite-surfing teacher from Harrogate. He runs the Club Mistral Prestige on the beach by the St Regis Hotel on the island's southern coast. 

He realised that he'd caught the kite-surfing bug when he found himself devouring websites dedicated to the sport while he was working as a multimedia developer for the NHS. "Kite-surfing is more dangerous than conventional surfing. It contains the vertical element," he said. "You can leap as high as a palm tree and do somersaults and twists."

According to Falconer, learning to kite-surf takes about 12 hours. After spending one-third of that time in Benoit's company, I was still a long way from doing the twist, but I'd begun to appreciate why people find the sport so fascinating. For those of you who fail to get blown away, so to speak, by kite-surfing, there is plenty to do and see on this most vibrant island.

A shock of greenery tucked away in the bottom left-hand corner of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is the full stop to the great epic that is Africa, occurring after the epilogue of Madagascar. 

An extinct volcano 44 miles across, Mauritius last spluttered some 10 million years ago. Now as dead as the dodo that once roamed its foothills, it nevertheless has shaped the island's topography. The horizon is studded with jagged peaks linked by ridges which form the walls of a once-great crater.

A tiny island, Mauritius is nevertheless a giant among old volcanoes. Its surface is still erupting, but not with lava. Even in the 18th century, the list of fruit and vegetables that exploded into life here reads like Gwyneth Paltrow's post-break-up shopping list — maize, pumpkins, marrow, cucumber, sweet potato, coffee, bananas, mangoes and pineapple. 

Successive waves of Asian immigration have added the entire spice rack, notably tamarind, nutmeg, cinnamon, chilli and cloves. The weather is blissful.

What is there not to love about Mauritius? Well, chiefly, the northern coast. Developers first moved in 20 years ago after a sugar deal between Mauritius and the Commonwealth went sour in 2006. The local economy had to diversify, and tourism went into overdrive. Today you can tick off all the usual resort brands, and Port Louis, the capital, has been glazed and concreted into submission. 

For wild beauty, the ocean and creature comforts without the expense and over development of, say, St Barts or Barbados, southern Mauritius is still seductive.

The people are as fascinating as the place is beautiful. Mauritian society offers a soupçon of France, a sprinkle of Africa, a smidgeon of Britain and a big twist of Asia (both India and China). Every village sports a mosque, a  temple and a church. 

In this spirit of mutual tolerance, Mauritians are due to celebrate 14 bank holidays in 2014. Mauritius has been a stepping stone between Africa and Asia. 

In the 12th century, Arab merchants stopped here but then moved on. During the colonial era, the Dutch alighted but never settled. It was the French who laid the foundations. Madagascans and Mozambicans came to work the sugar cane, that Mauritian staple. 

In 1810 the British took charge, a state of affairs that persisted until independence in 1968. Today, 70 per cent of the population is Indian, a legacy of the British policy of shipping indentured labourers over from Asia following the abolition of slavery in 1835.

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