Mauritius: An exotic slice of paradise
From Jack Poorman
MAURITIUS (CNN) -- As I descended upon Mauritius at the end of a 12-hour flight from France, my headphones blared the commanding theme from "Thunderball," a song I had serendipitously loaded into my music player before setting off on my transcontinental adventure.
Seeing the vast waves of green sugar cane fields and jagged volcanic mountains from above, it struck me that Mauritius is a classic James Bond locale -- much like the exotic Jamaica of the early sixties, where the first 007 movie "Dr. No" was filmed.
The island is so exotic, in fact, that a third of all plant life on Mauritius is found nowhere else in the world. The Dodo bird, an unlucky evolutionary icon, was a native here (it became extinct in the 1600s).
Mark Twain visited the island and noted "Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius."
Mauritius recalls the feeling of a newly discovered territory, a lush island destination unspoiled by hoards of vacation seekers, yet welcoming to the new visitor. The island mixes its business and pleasure; sugar and textile production share the spotlight with tourism for top industries.
The island is a fresh experience for those looking for a place to unwind and reflect, and it delivers.
Distant spot on the map
The locals are very friendly, speak English and are genuinely surprised to see Americans. Perhaps that has something to do with its spot on the map. Mauritius is 1,100 miles east of Africa, 2,500 miles south of India, and 3,600 miles west of Australia.
Mauritius has only two seasons -- good and better. Summer temperatures hit 95 degrees Fahrenheit; winter days plummet to 75 (it's winter there now).
Passing by a sugar cane worker with a day's wares hoisted on her head in a classic island pose, I made my way by taxi to the northwest part of the island to Pointe aux Piments, and the Oberoi Mauritius, a fitting location for a Bond closing scene: Secret agent saves world, gets girl.
The island is more than 10 million years old, but the five-star Oberoi Mauritius is so new you won't find it in many guidebooks just yet. The resort has only been open since December and has already been named one of the most romantic travel destinations in the world by Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
Luxury under a thatched roof
Relaxation runs a close second to romance -- the Oberoi is starkly serene. Even the ocean is quiet, muted by reefs surrounding the island (one of the largest unbroken coral reefs in the world).
I found myself nestled in the middle of a thatched-roof tropical paradise with 24-hour amenities and plenty of creature comforts.
Two excellent ways to begin the de-stressing process are the Eastern head massage and Chinese reflexology foot treatment at the spa. The Oberoi's signature therapy is a coconut husk body brush with a massage of freshly ground fruit. Now that's getting tropical -- and topical.
Spend an hour at the cobalt-blue pool that has a view of the Moka Mountain range and you could convert your life to living this way. This is as good a place as any to gather your thoughts, clear your head and reexamine life.
Walking through the resort in late afternoon, soothing notes of a pan flute waft over the waterfall in the greeting pavilion at the resort's aqueduct entrance. Evenings can be spent sipping champagne on the beachfront near the bar and listening to echoes of a local jazz combo (this is not your run-of-the-sugar-mill band).
The main restaurant adds to the romance of this idyllic setting with its open-air dining area bordered by a huge wading pool and fountain. The menu changes daily, offering entrees with European, Asian and Creole flair, in a setting at once simple and elegant. The service is very attentive, yet so understated that your food and drink seem to appear of their own accord.
The architecture is as harmonious as the service. Indonesian and African influences abound in deference to the Oberoi's neighbors to the East and West, respectively. Villas feature bathrooms with sunken tubs and glass showers that open to the outside for a bathing experience au natural.
Each room boasts a DVD player, too. Such comforts make it hard to work up the inspiration to make tourist treks to the rest of the island.
Grand time at Grand Baie
If you need a break from the tranquility, outstanding nightlife awaits 15 minutes away in Grand Baie (pronounced Grand Bay).
You can find an island cafe that could make Margaritaville look like hard work, a thriving disco (featuring world dance music and local tunes) and a full-fledged casino to take your secret agent fantasy "full Bond."
On the harbor of Grand Baie you can charter a big-game fishing boat, spend the day shopping or have a quaint lunch on the waterfront.
If you want to see how the French play, Mauritius is one of Club Med's most popular locations and is frequented by many Parisians. A 20-minute drive away, the complex delivers all the usual attractions. The real late-night fun, though, is found in the under-pool disco (beware of drink-inspired swimmers passing by the underwater portal!) An admission fee is required to enter the complex.
Between the Oberoi and Club Med is Mon Choisy, a public beach fronted by a multitude of indigenous Flamboyants, or "flame" trees. The knotted trunks hover over the road with outstretched arms, forming a natural tunnel that lights up bright red in December.
Cultural trips also are available. The capital city's Port Louis Market gives tourists a chance to haggle for local crafts, or they can learn how this remote paradise was created with a visit to the Natural History Museum and Mauritius Institute (with a reconstruction of the famous Dodo). Ornate mosques and shrines shed light on the island's religious past and present.
After a week in this haven from harried life, I lost my work ethic, sitting rested and blissful, not wanting to leave. Waiting for my airport taxi, I drank a farewell toast at the beachside bar, and wondered if I'd forget what I'd discovered at Mauritius. I had a newfound feeling I wanted to keep.
Unlike James Bond, I found myself stirred, not shaken.
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