Mauritius has a tawdry reputation for bingo nights and all-you-can-eat buffets. But there’s another side to this island nation — and you need to get in a car to see it.
A few years ago, my wife and I rented a tiny Suzuki Celerio and hit the road armed with an A4 map and no set destination. On roads virtually devoid of tourists, we passed spectacular deserted beaches, fecund forests, crumbling stone churches and mile upon mile of photochromic sugar fields.
To eliminate the guesswork, here’s a set route, developed with Romina Tello Soberanes, owner of sustainable tour operator Mauritius Conscious. In 58 short miles, you’ll pass authentic fishing ports, centuries-old ruins, pristine forests and brochureloads of azure waters and powder-white beaches.
Departing from the town of Grand Rivière Sud Est on Mauritius’ east coast, you’ll drive south on the B28. This “serpentine road is best driven at sunrise when the early morning light dapples the ocean,” says Soberanes. But don’t feel bad if you’d prefer a lie-in: It’s a treat at any time of day. Next up is the town of Vieux Grand Port, the oldest European settlement on the island and home to the Frederik Hendrik Museum. Long before the French came along, Mauritius was an official settlement of the Dutch East India Company. By the time the company abandoned Mauritius in 1710, they’d christened the island (it’s named after Prince Maurits of Nassau), introduced sugarcane from Java and managed to wipe out the dodo. Not bad for a couple of hundred years’ work.
The implausibly charming town of Mahébourg … offers a cobbled slice of the Mauritius of old.
Five miles farther south, you’ll come to the implausibly charming town of Mahébourg, which offers a cobbled slice of the Mauritius of old. Mahébourg is on the tourist map, but its location on the southern extremity of the island means it’s not nearly as busy as it should be. Monday is market day (highly recommended) but, says Soberanes, you can visit the excellent National History Museum any day except Tuesday and the extremely traditional Rault Biscuit Factory (the only place in the world that still makes manioc biscuits) on weekdays.
From Mahébourg, you’ll cut inland to the old-school sugar-farming region surrounding Grande Bel Air and Riche-en-Eau. The postcards might all feature varicolored coral reefs and bobbing pirogues, but the island’s lumo-green interior will take your breath away too. Before long you’ll hit the coast again (it’s never far away on the 785-square-mile-island) at Souillac, where you can visit the home of a poet no one’s heard of and take a walk on the rugged, treacherous Gris Gris (“black magic”) beach. Another winding road will take you due west, along the rugged southern coast — great beaches and the only section of the island that’s not protected by a coral reef.
At Baie du Cap, you’ll turn inland once again, following the aptly named Fantasie Road through one of the best-preserved sections of indigenous forest on the island. Take it slow, and enjoy the splendid jungle meanders because you’ll soon hit the village of Chamarel, where you’ll finally have to contend with busloads of tourists. Folks flock to Chamarel to see the so-called Seven Colored Earths and to hike in the wonderful Black River Gorges National Park — and you shouldn’t feel bad about doing the same.
But when you look back on the experience, it’s the journey there that’ll really stick in your mind.
Go There: SOUTHERN MAURITIUS
As suggested by Romina Tello Soberanes from Mauritius Conscious:
- The Drive: Here’s a nifty, downloadable map (or see above). Don’t blame us if you get lost!
- Wheels? Renting a car is easy (all the major brands are represented) and affordable. Alternatively, do it in style and rent a Moke!
- Lunch break: A few miles before you reach Souillac, you’ll come to the Saint Aubin Rum Distillery – an excellent spot for a tipple (unless you’re driving) and home to a fantastic restaurant (try the chicken with vanilla sauce).
- Beach day? The public beaches at Riambel, St Felix and Pomponette (all between Souillac and Baie du Cap) are some of the last truly pristine beaches in Mauritius. Pack a swimsuit and a snorkel.
- Pro tip: The sunsets at Macondé point near Baie du Cap are so good, you may actually want to try spending a night nearby.
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