Where to stay
Constance Belle Mare Plage
One of the standout resorts, Constance delivers the kind of beach views that come to mind when you think of Mauritius, with sophisticated fine dining and chic villas. The nearby golf course is worth a visit, too. Doubles from £170. Poste de Flacq, Belle Mare, 00 230 402 2600, constancehotels.com
Four Seasons Resort Mauritius at Anahita
Four Seasons balances luxury with class in its customary way here, and it’s up there with the island’s best. Situated next to a placid lagoon, the beach offers myriad activities, while Beau Champ, one of the on-site restaurants, is a highlight. Doubles from £575. Coastal Road, Beau Champ, 00 230 402 3100, fourseasons.com
Labourdonnais Waterfront Hotel
Situated near the harbour in Port Louis, this hotel will put you right in the heart of the action. You’re getting good value for money, too – the hotel is on the luxury side without the price tag to match. Doubles from £200. Caudan Waterfront, Port Louis, 00 230 202 4000, labourdonnais.com
LUX* Belle Mare
There’s a lot going on at this Food and Travel award winner. A rum shack serves up Mauritian blends, a roastery delivers coffee, there are a couple of bars, one of which always has live music, plus one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. Suites from £400. Coastal Road, Belle Mare, 00 230 402 2000, luxresorts.com
The Residence Mauritius
If colonial opulence is more your thing, grand The Residence will transport you back in time while still delivering all the trappings of a modern luxury hotel. Expect lively night-time entertainment and excellent food at The Plantation restaurant. Doubles from £330. Coastal Road, Belle Mare, 00 230 401 8888, theresidence.com
Mauritius is off the south-east coast of the African continent. Flights from the UK take around 12 hours and the time is four hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the Mauritian rupee. In January, the average high temperature is 29C and the average low is 25C.
Air Mauritius is the only airline to fly direct non-stop from London Heathrow to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Airport. It also has regional UK departure airports and these fly to Mauritius via Paris or Amsterdam. Economy from £790 return. Business class from £2,700 return. airmauritius.com
Tourism Mauritius is the official tourist board website with up-to-date information and inspiration for planning your trip and advice for navigating and getting to the island. tourism-mauritius.mu
Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi (Deep Vellum Publishing, £12) tells the heartbreaking story of four young Mauritians trapped in an endless cycle of violence and fear.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with wine, unless stated
Amari by Vineet
Chef Vineet Bhatia’s menu is seriously inventive. Expect ingredients that you won’t find on the menus of your local curry house, with techniques and finesse born of his London culinary heritage and the Michelin star he gained in London this year. The sommelier completes the tough task of pairing curry with wine with aplomb. From £63. LUX* Belle Mare, 00 230 402 2000
Chinese hole in the wall
No name, no nonsense, plenty of flavour. Take the time to ask around and find this gem in Port Louis’s Chinatown, or book the MyMoris culinary tour to sample this and more cultural cuisine. The dumplings cost next to nothing – around 20p each though I think this varies from day to day – so a lunch will only set you back around £1.50. Chinatown, Port Louis
Dewa & Sons
A simple joint that offers up what’s widely regarded as the best dhal puri on the island. This street food staple is a flatbread stuffed with cooked yellow peas, spiced with turmeric and cumin. It’s delicious, no-frills stodge. Around 30p. Rue L’Homme, Rose Hill, Port Louis, 00 230 464 5646
Open to those who want to experience Mauritian cooking in a familial environment. The team are happy to elucidate on ingredients and techniques so you leave educated as well as full. Reservations essential. From £22. Chapelle Road, Plaines Wilhems, 00 230 5791 3271
La Case du Pecheur
Seafood doesn’t come much fresher than this. Enjoy generous portions of shrimps, crab and fish caught locally in a dinky nearby fishing village. It isn’t the cheapest lunch spot, but the food is excellent. From £45. Anse Bambous, Vieux Grand Port, 00 230 634 5675, mauritiuslacasedupecheur.yolasite.com
Food and Travel Review
Heaven was copied after the style of Mauritius. So suggested Mark Twain after his time here, probably referring to the tropical waterfalls and ludicrous beaches. The world certainly agrees. Travellers like me hit the tiny island nation in our hundreds of thousands every year, with Brits alone accounting for 140,000.
It’s an island for romance, honeymoons and Instagram. Modernity is yet to arrive but you can holiday in absolute luxury for relatively good value. It’s almost a simpleton’s picture of tropical paradise; Treasure Island meets colonial India cooked in African sun.
But there’s a lot more to Mauritius than picturesque coastlines and Imperial vestiges. For starters, Twain didn’t say anything about the food. The island is a melting balti pot of cultures, making for a cuisine so varied it’s less fusion; more explosion.
Throw into that mix an up-and-coming restaurant scene replete with creative culinary talent – from French-trained virtuosos to the protégés of Michelin-starred Londonites – and Mauritius is begging for a more insightful rep than just ‘top three finisher’ in any given world’s best beaches listicle. It has a food culture occluded by all the tropical hype. Uncovering it is long overdue.
It’s for that very reason I go straight about the business of eating. The beach can wait and I’m already armed with recommendations from chatty locals I met on the plane. We’re heading direct to the lifeblood of Mauritian food culture: a bustling marketplace.
Mahébourg market is a pulsating celebration of Mauritian diversity. Famous for its produce and fishing, the district is teeming even as we head straight from the redeye. ‘It’ll be busy soon,’ a stall owner tells me with a smile that I swear shows a hint of schadenfreude.
It’s vivid, almost psychedelic on the eye; overpowering on the nose. Incense battles with the scent of dried fish; gaudy shawls act as tarpaulins over stalls as owners shout the prices of vibrant produce. Every bazaar should be this overwhelming for the senses.
The motley array of ingredients on show bespeaks the island’s
history. First populated by the Dutch, then colonised by the French,
who brought African slaves, Mauritius was then taken by the British
Empire (au revoir, Napoleon!) who shipped over more Indian
workers than there were people on the island at the time. Later
came the Chinese, to this British-owned, French-identifying Creole
mishmash. That’s why you’ll find yourself surrounded by Indian
and Asian ingredients and spices at markets such as this one and
French cooking techniques in most restaurants.
Fondling the wares here is positively encouraged. We’re introduced to chou chou (also known as chayote) – a kind of pumpkin; plus a whole host of gourds and aubergines in colours you won’t find at your local Waitrose. It’s thrilling, and enough to make you glad that supermarkets ain’t all that in Mauritius.
If you make your way to Mahébourg, grabbing your camera and meeting the fishermen is a must. They’re welcoming – the ones we meet are, at least – and playing voyeur during their low-fi, almost atavistic approach to bringing in their haul – sun bouncing off the water, warm salt in the air – is meditatively pleasing.
Grouper, red snapper, parrotfish, bluespine unicornfish and capitaine all get weighed and flung into a basket while a lobster tries to make a beeline escape between my legs. ‘Fish markets are all over the coastline in Mauritius,’ one of the fishermen tells me. A young lad is handed the basket, kicks on his moped and nips off to do the local rounds. This fish will be on plates later today.
It’s used in all the ways you’d imagine. But later that evening, I learn from Nicolas Vienne, executive chef at Four Seasons Resort Mauritius at Anahita, that the local waters can make for some unusual flavours. ‘The lagoon fish in particular has a pungent smell and taste that can be too strong for some,’ he explains. But if you want to eat like a Mauritian, opt for the punchiness of the capitaine in a curry. That’s the true taste of the island: sea salt and mud.
There’s no better way to learn about how Mauritians traditionally approach ingredients than by visiting a traditional Mauritian kitchen. I’ve arranged to meet Marie Michèlle, matriarch of a family-run subsistence farm named after her good self. It’s situated in Midlands – a fertile area of the island that’ll require a fair old drive to reach, but is worth the trek if you’re after a proper homely feed to balance hotel dining. She’s going to show me how it’s done.
Much of the marketplace’s ingredients are immediately demystified at Kot Marie-Michèlle. Chou chou is served with pickle upon arrival. It’s a fibrous, fruit-like amuse- bouche to whet the appetite before the customary deep-fried snacks – this is how they cook most of the vegetables brought in from the market – and are served by the bucketload as a starter. To my palate, it’s an intimidating and frankly a rather greasy way to eat produce as fresh as this, but this is Mauritian cuisine at its heartiest and most honest – bountiful, shared finger food fresh from the fryer. It isn’t a huge surprise that diabetes is on the rise.
Our hosts welcome our swan-necking in the kitchen. Cooking in this country is familial and everyone chips in to help. The cuisine is, for the most part, Indian. At the farm, Marie Michèlle and her kin are chopping and smiling their way through the curry courses. A mind-blowing panoply of spices are added in stages. I spot fish and learn it’s fresh from my friends at Mahébourg. There’s chicken, obviously (‘We eat a lot of chicken and fish in curries,’ Marie Michèlle tells me) and some wild boar native to the surrounding area simmering away in a mouthwateringly viscous, dark curry.
In Mauritius, you can’t serve curry without its essential accoutrements: a thin lentil soup earthy in both colour and flavour, chutneys – the sweet heat is offset by the almost Thai-like piquancy from a big hit of coriander – pickles and all manner of breads. They’re all accounted for at this dining table. The Michèlle family call this a regular weekday lunch. To me it’s a mountainous banquet. I’m looking forward to a light dinner.
It’s a tired cliché to say there’s never been a better time to visit a destination. But when it comes to Mauritius there really won’t be a better time than right now. The country is disappearing. Granted it’s at an imperceptible rate – a millimetre or so every year – but ask any geologist: Mauritius is an island hard hit by the inexorable tide of global warming; one of the worst, in fact.
Rising sea levels are making its pure sand a precious commodity indeed. But for now, what beaches to behold. The kind of creamy sand that would make a postcard-painter just give up out of futility. Black volcanic rock contrasts the water’s frankly ludicrous palette of lapis, teal and, when observed closely enough, utter transparency. And the coastal topography makes every morsel of food taste better, every cocktail more refreshing and each chilled beer glass feel even colder in your hand as you sit and gawp.
The exoticism mostly ends here, mind you. While the island does boast surreal beauty in a selection of waterfalls and luscious mountains, most of the mainland has been ravaged by sugar cane plantations – the island’s erstwhile boon brought recently to heel by EU agronomics – which cover almost every inch of traversable ground. The thriving plantation owners are exceptions to the norm. After the EU sugar crash, jobs were cut scythe-like and most of the industry suffered irreparably.
Such hard times force the hand of creativity, and as a result crop owners have put their sweet bounties to different use. The vestiges of this once great export remain as four surviving businesses that have diversified their offerings with booze, general food products, honeys, sweets and syrups.
The island’s nascent rum industry has produced bottles of varying taste and quality but with a couple of standout offerings that are starting to compete with the Caribbean. It’s worth visiting one of the main distilleries if you’re a rum fan. Oxenham in Phoenix and La Rhumerie de Chamarel both do insightful (and rather boozy) tours that I’d do at least twice, if my liver would allow it.
Mauritius is also known as Vanilla Island. ‘I actually have no idea why we have that name,’ a worker at one of the few plantations turning its hand to growing vanilla tells me. Marketing then, perhaps. ‘We’re the only group that properly grows it.’ That hasn’t stopped local tourist trappers from making a sweet rupee off the stuff. Questionable pods are sold at the tourist entry and exit chokepoints at markets. They’re best avoided unless you know you’re getting the proper stuff.
One thing the Mauritians do grow well is tea. Visit the Bois Chéri plantation for a tour and to taste their excellent teas, successful not only on the island, but internationally as well. The factory is colourful, the fields luscious and fertile and the staff eager to educate. If you find yourself here, you can either eat at the tea-themed restaurant that overlooks a lake – novel, and the chicken with a tea-cream sauce is actually rather nice – or head to the excellent Le Saint Aubin Restaurant, an old colonial mansion a short drive away.
Mauritian architecture is defined not only by colonialism but also by a rapid need to modernise. Port Louis, the island’s bustling capital city, is a raucous place with a fantastic bazaar in the central market, comprising some of Mauritius’ most interesting colonial architecture, which harks back to its time as an important trading port in the Indian Ocean. Again, visit soon: many of the area’s oldest buildings are being knocked down apace for flats or offices.
It’s in Port Louis that you’ll experience the best of Mauritius’s premier passion. Gajaks – or snacks to you and I – range from appetising morsels to carby lunches, served by street food vendors, many of whom have been perfecting family recipes ‘for at least three or four generations’, Shakti, our Port Louis guide tells me.
Gâteaux piments – chilli bites – are my favourite gajak of the trip. I defy you to scoff a bag of these without immediately searching, as I do, for the nearest beer. (This thirst has only one reasonable solution on the island: Phoenix, Mauritius’ best bottle). For the best chilli bites in Port Louis, if not on the whole island, head to the harbour side of Louis Pasteur street and look for the oversized red, yellow and white open wooden doors set in a colonial building. None of these eateries have names so you’ll have to use your eyes.
You might find yourself perpetually full during a trip to Mauritius. To that particular end, we follow the chilli bites with a recommended visit to a nearby dumpling restaurant (read: alleyway with a couple of tables) tucked away in Chinatown. Again it has no name – look for the street with the giant Chinese street art murals. It’s one of the most memorable meals of our entire trip: all the delicious umami wetness you’d expect from dumplings floating in broth, but with some Mauritian twists.
There’s no pork, to cater to the Muslim and Hindu populations,
with chicken used instead. The Chinese cooks make good use of
local ingredients, too: the description for these particular dumplings
read ‘niouk yen contain chou chou’.
‘This has been adapted to local tastes,’ says Shakti. ‘So around the island you might have someone of Indian origin preparing Chinese cuisine to sell to other Mauritians of African descent. What was once Chinese is now for everybody.’
There’s a lot to be seen and eaten in Port Louis. The likes of samosas, biryani, kebab (often served in a French baguette) and farata bread (their roti, which comes with pickles and chutneys and curries) are best sought out from food trucks in Trou Fanfaron, near the main bus station. But for fancier fare, you need to look to the luxury side of Mauritius.
This is one place you can shed any preconceptions about superficial hotel cuisine. Many of the island’s best chefs work with or for luxury hotels because they have the money and opportunities the cooks need to grow. The Constance Hotels & Resorts group even hosts a much vaunted annual culinary competition – The Bernard Loiseau Culinary Festival – which draws Michelin-starred chefs from around the globe, pitting them against each other with the help of up-and-coming local talent. It’s another gelling of Mauritian cookery with International gastronomy.
That ethos also defines perhaps the island’s best restaurant, and certainly our best meal during the trip, Amari by Vineet Bhatia – a Michelin-starred chef considered one of the most influential Indian cooks in the world – who created this restaurant at LUX* Belle Mare. Amari is run by Bhatia’s longstanding right-hand man, the prodigious chef Subi Mungroo, who’s worked in Europe as well as Mauritius.
He cooks for us the restaurant’s signature dish: kapi lamb chop. Chef Subi delivers a mind-blowing, rich, sticky lamb marinated in coffee and spices, with an earthy mushroom risotto, mushroom sauce and a fresh goat’s cheese puff pastry ball. We try the John Dory with coconut and kaffir lime curry, which elevated my opinion of Indian cookery with every mouthful. ‘We have all of the traditional Indian flavours and techniques but present it in a very modern way,’ Subi explains. ‘But Indian food in Mauritius is lighter.’ This is Mauritius made contemporary. So are islanders open to this kind of cuisine? ‘Not really,’ says Subi. ‘This kind of cuisine is more in the hotels.’
Because Mauritius has such diverse cultures its culinary approach is one of open-mindedness. Fusion isn’t so much a trend as a way of life. A conservative chef intransigent in his cookery won’t survive. And your taste buds need to be as open minded as the panslingers serving up this medley of cuisines to truly appreciate this nation.
High-end cuisine may be the preserve of the hotels, give or take
a few nice restaurants dotted around the island. But that’s part
of the beauty of Mauritian cuisine. You have the highs and you have
the lows: gastronomical panache at five-star resorts and mushy
deliciousness served up by hand on street corners. If heaven really
is just a copy of Mauritius, God must enjoy chilli bites with a beer
as much as beachside Michelin-grade brilliance.
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