Unblinking eyes stared, while razor-sharp teeth were visible at each side of the snout. “Isn’t she gorgeous, Mamma?” my five-year-old daughter smiled, her small hands clamping harder around the crocodile. “Can I hold the big one now?”
I shook my head, not knowing whether to laugh or run away. While my little girl was enjoying getting up close and very personal with reptiles, I was secretly afraid. I’d refused to hold the baby crocodile even though I could see a tight elastic band wrapped several times around the end of its snout to stop it from biting.
My daughter had no such fear and was now begging to touch one of the 2,000 Nile crocodiles languishing in the pools all around us, basking in the Mauritian sun. “Let’s get out of here,” I said, watching one – five-metres long – emerge from the stagnant water surprisingly fast. “And make it snappy.”
But Anaïs was having none of it. She refused to budge until she’d held a six-month-old baby tortoise and had fed what could have been its great-great-great-great grandfather Domino, a 97-year-old giant tortoise that weighed 275kg. “Look, he’s trying to pull me over,” she giggled, holding out a branch of green leaves. The tortoise gripped on with its gums and began a game of tug of war that my daughter – weighing in at only 22kg – was always destined to lose. “Don’t eat me,” she begged, as she fell over and the huge tortoise lumbered towards her, looking for more food.
It was our first day on a girls-only trip to Mauritius and already we couldn’t stop laughing. A six-and-a-half hour flight from Dubai, we hadn’t wasted any time starting our Emirates Holidays trip, deciding to explore the small island immediately. Leaving our butler at the luxurious One&Only Le Saint Géran, on the east coast, to unpack, we headed straight to La Vanille Reserve Des Mascareignes, in the south.
On a reserve of 3.5 hectares of lush, tropical vegetation, it’s home to the crocodiles, which were imported from neighbouring Madagascar, 1,000 giant tortoises, monkeys, bats, deer and wild boar. But unlike a lot of parks or reserves elsewhere in the world, La Vanille is interactive; you can feed peanuts to the monkeys – “Look that mummy monkey is giving hers to her babies!” exclaimed Anaïs – walk through the bat enclosure, cuddle an iguana, tortoise and baby croc or, for the very brave, watch crocodile feeding time. My little girl didn’t fancy standing by as the crocs devoured chickens, neither did she want to tuck into a crocodile curry, steak or croc burger at the tree-top restaurant, so we went to the gift shop. I shuddered as we spotted stuffed crocodiles of various sizes and crocodile skin purses, wallets and handbags for sale, all created, no doubt, from the former pond-dwellers at the reserve.
We’d worked up an appetite though so off we went to St Aubin, a colonial house dating back to 1819, and former home to the manager of the sugar estate there. It was renovated back to its former glory in the 1990s to preserve an important and beautiful part of Mauritian heritage, and is now a restaurant with a plantation.
Sitting on the veranda, overlooking an impeccable English-style lawn, we were served a traditional Mauritian lunch. I feasted on a vegetable curry – which was delicious but not spicy – while Anaïs tucked into tender chicken and rice.
First discovered by the Arabs in Medieval times, Mauritius was colonised by the Dutch, then fought over by the French and the English, until 1814 when the Île de France was once again known as Mauritius by the victorious English. The French may have been defeated, but they left behind a legacy of Creoles, the plantation owners and slaves who they’d brought over to work the sugar fields originally planted by the Dutch. French and English are still the official languages on the island, along with Patois, spoken with a French accent. The Mauritians are a fusion of French, English, Indian and Chinese descendants, and celebrate their diverse history and cultures.
Driving around the winding roads of the small island – it’s only 45km by 65km, three hours’ flight south of the Seychelles and just 20 degrees south of the equator – we watched families tending their spice gardens, some with clove and nutmeg introduced to the island in the 1760s by French horticulturist Pierre Poivre, while others weeded their vegetable patches where they grew peppers and chillies. But it’s sugar cane that, apart from tourism, is big business here, and 80 per cent of the island is covered with it. We even went for a ride among the cane, laughing as we bumped over the dry, uneven trenches between the plants. Locals pull up and eat the raw cane, transform it into sugar including specialities such as demerara and muscavada, or make it into rum, but the majority is exported to the rest of the world from the Mauritian capital Port Louis, which has the third-biggest bulk sugar terminal in the world.
One of the old sugar mills has been converted into a modern, child-friendly museum, which tells how the industry dates back five centuries in Mauritius. The Sugar Adventure offers lunch, and two ‘mascots’ – a mynah bird and a mongoose – to bring the stories alive for children. After so much history, it was fun to watch the little ones dive into the sugar-tasting and everyone left smiling.
Away from the museum and vast fields of cane, the tropical island is dotted with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them villages and gated five-star luxury resorts nestled alongside powdery white beaches. They’re picture-postcard perfect, with the obligatory swaying palm trees and fragrant frangipani fringing the dazzling clear turquoise waters. Add to that the year-round warm weather and you have an island that’s known as the perfect honeymoon destination. But today there are plenty of families playing on the sand, snorkelling in the Indian Ocean, and soaking up the tropical sun.
Our hotel, One & Only, is a haven of sophisticated tranquillity. Named after an 800-tonne ship, Le Saint Géran, that broke up on a coral reef 100 yards off shore in August 1744, it was opened in October 1975 in the presence of Mauritian prime minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who’d achieved independence for the island in 1968.
The first five-star hotel on the island, it is built on a three-kilometre-plus stretch of talcum powder sand, with canaries singing from the nearby headland, and has a temple, helipad, a nine-hole golf course, a cool breeze from the East, and a lagoon, behind which the sun sets every night in a gorgeous haze of pink and purple.
Surrounded by 60 hectares of tropical garden, it is the epitome of natural chic, with groomed lawns, swings in the trees, and ducks, a flamingo, and a family of black swans waddling through the hotel as well as paddling in the pool.
“Are they going to order a milkshake, Mamma?” Anaïs giggled, as we sank into the pool after our day sightseeing. They were soon joined by the ducks who nonchalantly swam by us, their beaks in the air.
An hour later, we headed back to our room – one of only 166 – and I took a dip in the huge tub, while my daughter opted for a cascading shower.
Our room was big, with a view of the groomed lawns rolling down to the sea, and colonial decor. The little finishing touches belied its luxury vintage – along with a de rigueur pillow menu was a fragrance menu, and I opted for the calming ylang-ylang. That meant every night we’d return to a scented candle or an oil burner as well as iconic quotes – including “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever,” by Jacques Cousteau, and from author Mark Twain, “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven was copied after Mauritius,” – along with the usual chocolates and turn-down service.
The food was something else. La Terrace, overlooking the pool, boasted sumptuous buffets, so every morning we’d feast on freshly cooked pancakes, waffles, cooked breakfast – with creamy scrambled eggs and delicious original-wood-fire pizza with fried eggs on top – and at night we’d dine on pasta, and marvel at the seafood and dishes from around the world.
There’s also a great steakhouse, Prime, and a speciality Indian restaurant on the jetty next to the kids’ club and water sports, which is Rasoi by Vineet. It is one of only three restaurants by Michelin-star chef Vineet Bhatia, the others being in London and Geneva, and one night Anaïs and I ate deliciously crispy vegetable samosas, followed by vegetable biryani, baked under a flaky crust, with side dishes of creamy black lentils and braised spinach and paneer. “Can I have some ice cream?” my little girl asked, cleaning her plate, while I sat back, stuffed, and watched the crabs scuttle across the sand, disappearing under the jetty, while the gentle lapping waves provided the background noise.
The next day we were up early to head to the Île aux Aigrettes, a nature reserve 800 metres off the south shore of Mauritius. We met our guide from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and jumped into a speedboat for the high-octane journey across, laughing as the wind tugged at our hair, and salty spray flew in our faces. Then we followed one of the trails through the Black Ebony trees to discover the Aldabran Giant tortoises – including Big Daddy, a 90-year-old who grumpily allowed Anaïs to stroke his shell – and the famous pink pigeons who get their colour from the berries they feast on.
Mauritius has myriad animals – at the Casela Leisure Park on the main island they have more giant tortoises, 1,500 birds, bats, monkeys, lions and a tiger. There’s a 30-minute safari drive-through to see the big cats, tiger, deer, zebra, ostriches and African antelope. Everywhere we saw posters to ‘walk with lions’, and even though we didn’t have time to go, I discovered you can get perilously close to the big cats on specially organised strolls. There are rules, of course – no backpacks or food can be taken, but cameras are allowed and everyone is given a stick, which apparently indicates power to the lions, who were bred in captivity.
Once the handlers open the gate, the first two lions to appear are the ones who get to walk. “Hope they’re not the hungry ones,” I laughed upon hearing that, but safety is taken very seriously, and the lions are cubs and young adults who are used to their handlers. Everyone who’s been says it’s worth the very small risk to hear a lion purr when stroked, or feel your heart quicken when it decides to roar.
Instead of going lion walking, we had a mother-and-daughter pampering session booked at the hotel so we headed back for a massage in an outdoor cabana in the tropical gardens.
Lying on an al fresco bed, listening to the birds singing, while my little girl had her first-ever massage, was amazing. I would have drifted off but Anaïs kept giggling as her back was smothered in frangipani oil – “it tickles,” she kept saying – and then it was time for our pedicure. We headed to the salon for a Reverence de Bastien treatment. Bastien Gonzalez only has his Pedi:Mani:Cure studios in the world’s most luxurious hotels and it isn’t your usual massage-and-polish affair. My therapist whipped out instruments to gently remove the thick skin on my soles, and make my toenails look presentable.
She then buffed my nails – warning me that constantly wearing coloured polish like I do is weakening and damaging them – until they shone. Finally, I was given a leg and foot massage, which was bliss. Anaïs opted for rainbow nail polish and a hand massage, and we left feeling beautifully groomed.
The next day was our last, so we decided to show off our buffed talons on the beach. After playing in the sea and on the sand, Anaïs wanted to go to the kids’ club with her newly made friends and I chose to top up my tan.
It was hard to drag ourselves away, knowing it was time to go home.
Luckily, our butler had packed for us, and at least we knew we were heading home in style on the inaugural return flight of the Emirates A380 airbus.
This is the new state-of-the-art double decker aeroplane that now flies from Dubai to Mauritius and we settled back in comfort. Bigger, quieter and more luxurious than other planes, it was the fitting end to a dream five-day break without a honeymoon couple in sight. Sweet!