ARETHA LOH discovers that there’s more to this laid-back beach destination than meets the eye.
You’ll be surprised at how similar Mauritius is to Singapore; like us, the volcanic island in the Indian Ocean was a former colony (albeit of France, not Britain) and a trading port, had a booming sugar industry (which explains the vast sugar cane plantations) and has a multi-ethnic social fabric. That said, the idyllic island does have a lot more to offer than eating, sunbathing and shopping. And thanks to a new air corridor, we are now just a seven-hour direct flight away from it (Air Mauritius flies there thrice weekly). Some of the exhilarating experiences you can look forward to? Exploring the Mauritian waters in a submarine, cruising around in a Seakart and petting a 120kg white lioness.
MUST-TRY: Taking in the underwater beauty of the Indian Ocean in a submarine
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I’m on the sandy shores of Trou-aux-Biches on the northern coast of the island, waiting to go on my virgin submarine ride with Blue Safari Submarine (www.blue-safari.com), the sole submarine operator in the entire Indian Ocean region.
I first board a boat for a five-minute ride out to a ship in the middle of the ocean, where the BS1100 submarine awaits. This 10-seater submersible craft has an interior that resembles that of a plane, with two rows of seats flanked by circular windows, and can reach a maximum depth of 35m.
As we inch deeper into the ocean, accompanied by the incessant hissing of the engines, the water goes from aqua to a darker sapphire blue. At 22m, the coral reefs come into clear view, illuminated by rays of sunlight. The water here is crystal clear and bursting with aquatic life. Everyone whips out their smartphones as a school of lionfish and clownfish appear, and we stare in amazement as scores of groupers, raccoon butterflyfishes and yellowfin goatfishes – each species helpfully pointed out by our captain – swim by.
The submarine takes a left and the wreck of the famous Star Hope, a ship that sank in 1998 and fell apart fully in 2002, comes into view; it’s now home to fishes, eels and giant morays. We also cruise pass a barnacle-covered storm anchor from the 17th century lying on the seabed – at 2,500kg, it was too heavy to be hauled up.
There is a collective groan when we finally ascend with a stream of bubbles enveloping our vessel, reminding me of a scene from The Little Mermaid. The last 45 minutes was truly magical and the best part is, I didn’t even have to get my hair or feet wet.
MUST-TRY: Riding in a Seakart along the picturesque coast of Flic en Flac
The relatively calm, crystal blue waters of the La Balise Marina at Black River on the south-west coast of the island glisten in the afternoon sun. My heart, however, is racing as the Seakart I’m driving – a 2.8m long, 2m wide turbinepropelled speedboat fitted with a 82 kilowatt engine – zooms past the safety boat I need to keep behind.
Immediately, the instructor on the safety boat signals for me to switch off my engine and yells at me to control my vehicle, or he’ll send me back to shore. Embarrassed, I nod meekly before reigniting the engine; there are only six Seakarts in the world and all of them are owned by Fun Adventures Mauritius (www.fun-adventure.mu), making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience I do not want to cut short.
We pick up speed once our fleet is in a V-shape formation. I relax and accelerate a little as we cruise along the coast of Flic en Flac, famed for its powder-white beach – spanning 8km, it is one of the longest in Mauritius – and turquoise lagoons created by coral reefs. The beach is fringed with casuarina trees and holiday resorts – a postcard-worthy sight my Seakart partner is capturing on her GoPro.
No thanks to strong winds and choppy waves, the return leg to shore is a lot more turbulent and we get a face full of seawater with each wave we clumsily crash into. Thankfully, we find ourselves in calmer waters as we approach the shoreline. I stop for a moment to take in the sight of the setting sun in the horizon and the warm glow spreading slowly across the azure blue sky; suddenly, getting yelled at seems like a small price to pay for this view.
MUST-TRY: Getting cosy with lions at Casela World of Adventures
I instantly regret my OOTD (a zebra-print romper) when I learn that I’ll be spending a good 15 minutes in the enclosure of four free-roaming lions at Casela (www.caselapark.com). The park, which spreads across an impressive 250 hectares of savannah landscape, is home to 1,500 species of birds, African antelopes, white rhinos and more, but the main attraction is the king of the jungle.
I try to recall all the rules we have to abide by (no reflective surfaces on the body; no squatting before the lions; no tickling them the way you would a house cat...) as I’m ushered into the enclosure with six other visitors, armed with nothing but a metre-long wooden stick. We’re told not to let go of it as the lions recognise it as a need for respect for their handlers. The four cats we’re about to meet have been raised in captivity since they were cubs, so they’ve been socialised to accept human beings.
We enter the enclosure as a human pack and leave the group one by one to squat behind a four-year-old white lioness called Zaza, who’s being guarded by her handler. My heart races as I bend down beside Zaza and start to stroke her. Fears of being eaten alive dissipate as Zaza closes her eyes and starts to fall asleep, much to my amazement – my unidirectional strokes seem to have the effect of a soothing lullaby.
Seeing my amused face, the park ranger explains that these lions sleep for an average of 20 hours a day and are unfazed by human touch as they’re exposed to tourists six days a week (Sunday is their “day off”). He encourages me to give her a good firm slap on her bottom (he says the lions like it), but I decline. I’m not about to startle a lioness on siesta mode.
Minutes later, I’m hustled off so the others can get their time with her. Even though it’s a 15-minute interaction session, each visitor gets only about five minutes of one-to-one time. If you want more face time, book the hour-long session, which not only allows you to observe the cats in close proximity in their natural habitat, but also stroll with them on the banks of Riviere du Rempart in a separate area of the park.
Watch Zaza fall asleep as I stroke her! Download the digital edition of Her World August from the Apple App Store or Google Play.
BEACHFRONT RESORTS THAT COMBINE TROPICAL CHARM, POSH SURROUNDINGS AND FIVE-STAR AMENITIES
THE WESTIN TURTLE BAY RESORT & SPA, MAURITIUS (http://www.westinturtlebaymauritius.com)
Ditch the treadmill for breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean and the island’s lush sugar cane fields with the resort’s RunWestin programme, which offers two running routes – 2.8km and 3.95km – outside of the property. Alternatively, get a running concierge to take you on a jog around the resort, which faces Turtle Bay, a protected marine park on the north-west coast. Room rates start from 215 euros (roughly S$322) for a Deluxe Room.
SHANGRI-LA’S LE TOUESSROK RESORT AND SPA (http://www.shangrila.com/mauritius/shangrila)
This property is a gateway to two private islands exclusive to Shangri-La guests: Ilot Mangenie, which is perfect for chilling out at with its pristine sand, and Ile aux Cerfs, which has a spectacular championship golf course designed by former golfing champion Bernhard Langer. Room rates start from 275 euros (price varies according to seasons) for a Deluxe Ocean View Room.
THE RESIDENCE MAURITIUS (http://cenizaro.com/theresidence/mauritius)
Every room at The Residence Mauritius is assigned a butler, which means you’ll be treated like a queen, no matter the request. Mine helped me to run a warm bubble bath – complete with rose petals and scented candles. Room rates start from 398 euros for a Colonial Garden View Room.