2018 marks 50 years of independence for the island as Georgia Humphreys discovers
Exploring Mauritius’ history-steeped sugar industry, Shakti, our bubbly tour guide, sprinkles sticky, molasses-rich sugar into my hand.
“Here, try this,” she says, between stories of how this relatively tiny 790-square mile island became one of the world’s most important producers of the sweet stuff, with the industry peaking in the mid-1800s.
But while it was once dotted with sugar factories, warehouses and mills, today, only a few remain. “Sugar cane farmers have had to diversify,” Shakti continues, explaining how shifts in demand and markets, along with the island being granted independence in 1968, following 150 years of British rule, triggered some major changes.
Many farmers now operate high-end luxury resorts and golf courses, or have switched to niche markets, like rum and coffee.
This year marks 50 years of independence for Mauritius, and there’s a whole host of events in the pipeline, with tourism at the heart of the celebrations.
“When we got independence, nobody was really betting anything on Mauritius, saying, ‘Oh, they’re going to just collapse because there’s no industry here except for sugar’,” says Shakti proudly. “So we showed that, no, we could find ways.”
One&Only Le Saint Geran, opened in 1975 and an hour’s drive from the airport, was the first luxury hotel to be built on the island.
When I arrive at the resort, set on a secluded peninsula at the northern tip of the renowned Belle Mare coastline, with views across the water in every direction, it feels as if I’ve been set adrift on a private island.
Many of the staff have been here almost since the start, including Preetham, who’s held various roles at the hotel for 42 years.
Over coffee, he tells me about the famous names who’ve passed through the hotel’s doorways over the years - John Travolta, Prince William, Chris de Burgh. “The best was when we had the Gipsy Kings playing here for five days,” he says. “All the guests were watching and dancing.”
Preethma has seen it - the casino that used to attract throngs, guests turning from kids to adults as families return year after year, and visitors sobbing at the end of stays because they don’t want to leave.
The hotel, which still reigns as the most iconic place to stay on the island, is ready to embark on a new chapter, following a nine-month and £41-million renovation.
Guests started returning earlier this month, but the grand reopening is set for March 12, Independence Day. “We will feel emotional, because the hotel is helping the country to celebrate,” says Preetham.
I take a tour of the resort to discover what’s new. On the tip of the resort’s peninsula is all-day restaurant La Pointe, where guests can dine with the sand of Palm Grove beach beneath their feet. I settle on the lagoon-view deck to enjoy a sundowner, watching a pink glow set over the sugar cane-covered Coin de Mire mountain. The Island Daiquiri, made with local Green Island Light Rum, and flavours of guava and banana (£14), fits the mood perfectly.
Then there’s new Asian tapas restaurant Tapasake, which has a chilled-out beach bar feel, with its waterside DJ booth and a jetty perfect for pre-dinner cocktails.
Water is a central feature at the resort, so it’s only fitting the boathouse was given an update too. Overlooking the calm lagoon, it’s stacked with watersports gadgets, such as the Hobie Mirage Eclipse pedal board, which I can’t wait to try. A bit like a cross trainer on water, I find it a lot less wobbly than stand-up paddle boarding, but it’s still an invigorating workout.
Elsewhere, the hotel now has padel courts (a racquet sport that’s a bit simpler than tennis), and new interconnecting rooms, signalling the resort’s move towards a more family-orientated direction.
One of the hotel’s new experiences is their Feel Like Royalty cruise on board the Lady Elizabeth, a beautiful vintage vessel built in honour of Queen Elizabeth II (who was sovereign of Mauritius from 1968-1992).
For a cool £3,535, five guests get champagne, a picnic lunch, a private masseuse and butler, plus the skipper will stop off at the best spots for snorkelling.
Aside from these treats, chugging down the coast gives me a taste of life beyond Le Saint Geran. We see dozens of local kids having swimming lessons in the shallows of one beach, while further along fishermen, waist-high in the warm water, wave to us from behind their rods.
Being out on the ocean also makes you realise how much Mauritius has embraced tourism; while Le Saint Geran remains without any neighbours in view, other stretches of sand are clogged with hotels.
Independence Day has been declared a national holiday, and there are plans for parades, traditional dance and music, light shows and performances. “There’ll be celebrations from day to night,” Shakti says with a grin.
Whatever happens, there’ll be plenty of food - and if Shakti’s three-hour foodie tour of capital Port Louis (£393 for two people; mymoris.mu) is anything to go by, visitors will be in for a treat.
The tour takes us from the sugar factories of Port Louis to some of the island’s best street food spots. At an unnamed restaurant on Royal Road, our introduction to Chinatown, an area of the city undergoing massive change, we sit on red plastic chairs in a tiny corridor leading off from the street, as owner, Mrs Wong, serves up the most incredible boulette - a special kind of dumpling that’s denser and chewier than dim sum (about 20p per boulette).
Although once a buzzing district, many shops here are now shut and boarded up. A lot of the younger members of families who settled here when Mauritius and China were under English rule have emigrated en masse to migrant-friendly countries such as Canada, explains Shakti.
It’s feared the trend will continue, but Mauritius’ cosmopolitan mix of cultures (Chinese, Indian, African and European), remains strong.
Staff at Le Saint Geran are not only proud of the different people who make up their country, but of how tourism has become such a central part of their culture and lives. The hotel has become their second home; concierge Burty tells me 15 members of his family are working here.
But when it comes to the future, they have one important wish. “We don’t want mass tourism,” says restaurant manager, Joy. “When you come here on holiday, you are relaxed and you feel at home.”
As I take a final sunset dip at the tip of the peninsula, with no one else in sight, I’ve no doubt this sense of peace and calm will always remain at Le Saint Geran.
How to get there
Carrier (0161 492 1358; carrier.co.uk) offers 7 nights at One&Only Le Saint Geran, Mauritius from £2,155pp (two sharing) - saving up to £730 per couple - including breakfast, flights from London Gatwick with Emirates and private transfers. Offer valid for travel April 29 - September 30, 2018 (Price based on departures June 11, 2018).
For further information, visit oneandonlyresorts.com