Multicultural Mauritius is celebrating over 50 years of independence, and there is much to celebrate about its sense of pride and luxury, writes Thierry Marquet
When Sir John Shaw Renni brought down the Union Jack on 12 March 1968 at the Champ de Mars in Port Louis, Mauritius was still considered an underdeveloped colony with a very uncertain future. After 158 years of British rule, the small Indian Ocean Island barely the size of Surrey was still relying on the sugar industry and commonwealth preferential agreements to survive. No one imagined that 50 years on, it would be a world-class tourist destination, and one of the most important financial and trading hubs of the sub-Saharan African region. Nowadays, the country is commonly referred to as the Switzerland of the Indian Ocean, with a sustained, growing economy and a place where foreign companies and expatriates are making their home due to its stable polity, advantageous tax system, and a lifestyle which is pretty close to la dolce vita.
I consider myself fortunate to have been born and brought up there, as it provided me with a laid-back upbringing surrounded by different cultures, religions and traditions. The island is a true melting pot, which gives to any of its citizens the invaluable ability to adapt to any environment and respect cultural differences. My family is of Franco-British descent, but I recall feasting on mince pies after a morning fishing trip in scorching summer heat on Christmas Day, heading to Chinatown during Chinese New Year, or visiting our friends of Indian origin during Diwali time, when the whole island looks like a Harrods festive season window with its multi-colored lights. This is the Mauritius I always share with anyone who shows an interest in our island, and I do believe that this cultural pluralism gave to our young nation the tools it needed to position itself as a force to be reckoned with.
Nowadays, the sugar industry is still present, but financial services, exports, education and tourism have taken over as being the pillars of the economy. This has created a boom in the real estate market, with luxury condos and villas selling like hot cakes as ownership gives foreign nationals residency on the island. The tourism sector is one of the main sources of employment, which is hardly surprising. With direct flights from most international airports, the island is easily reachable and has over the years evolved from being a purely honeymoon destination to one where couples, families and retired people indulge in a picturesque environment.
I have my favourite places on the island in terms of where to stay, what to do, and who to meet, and this may differ from the clichéd image of the big resorts with pristine beaches that magazines or tour operator brochures tend to promote. My motherland has so much more to offer with its mixed cultural heritage, which makes it an extremely enriching experience for savvy travellers. Discovering old villages, one may try local delicacies in a private home, meet Mauritian authors and artists, or spend the day at the Champ de Mars, as racing is one of the most popular hobbies on the island. We are warm, welcoming people, proud of our country. Don’t be surprised to see how passionate locals can be about the British football leagues, and how they still consider the Royal Family to be part and parcel of their life even after 50 years of independence.
In September, I stayed at the newly refurbished Maradiva Villas and Resort, owned by family friends. Sanjiv Ramdanee, the CEO, who has a clear vision of the way his luxury boutique resort has to adapt to the ever-changing demands of high-end tourism. His team reflects the multi-cultural population of the island, is trained to international standards, and their leitmotif is to provide every guest with an authentic Mauritian stay while letting them enjoy the very best that a top-notch boutique hotel has to offer in terms of service and privacy. With an inventory of 65 Villas and part of the Leading Hotels of the World, the resort is the smallest of the seven officially rated five-star de luxe properties on the island in terms of keys, but is spread over 27 acres of lush tropical gardens. It is located on one of the very best western beaches, only two kilometres away from one of the island’s most established 18-hole golf courses. Each villa has its own pool, and went through a total makeover at the beginning of the year with a touch of Hermés both in the new design and in the choice of amenities. This elegant new look gives each of them a chic and homely feel, and comes on a request basis with experienced butlers.
The food was very refined, and one could again taste the pluralism of cultures in the choice of ingredients. Sanjiv is currently picking the brains of London wine guru Tom Harrow, of Honest Grapes, so as to build a selection of wines and spirits to match that of any leading hotel bar or private club in New York, London or Paris.
A new Ayurvedic doctor from Kerala joined the team a few months ago and the Spa at Maradiva is the only one on the island offering a mixture of Western and Ayurvedic treatments.
I enjoyed the relaxation treatment there, but my absolute treat was spending a full day with one of the most knowledgeable chauffeur guides being driven in one of the resort’s Rolls-Royce Phantoms. Even as a local, I was stunned by the fact that I was setting foot for the first time in parts of the island which I had never explored before. Sanjay was the most interesting storyteller, and took us to hidden beaches, artists’ homes, and private hunting estates, with a stop at a local rum factory for a tasting session. In the afternoon, we headed north for a pleasant surprise: the hotel had organised for us to discover Mauritius from the air with Island Wings Mauritius. In a small two-seater seaplane, we flew all over the northern coast and reached the harbour in the capital.
March 2018 will see a month of festivities to commemorate the 50th anniversary of independence, and I shall definitely be back on the island for this grand occasion.