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Sun, sea and Hinduism all come together in Mauritius

THE first thing that you notice about Mauritius is that it is a real place. By that I mean that it is a contrast to its holiday competitors in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles and Maldives. They are made up of dozens of tiny islands which are often owned by resorts and have been turned into pristine paradises. Mauritius, on the other hand, is a cohesive piece of land, an island nation, with hills and valleys and nice bits and less nice bits. This is a big part of its charm.

Technically, the Republic includes the heavenly islands of Rodrigues (600 miles northeast) and Reunion (120 miles to the southwest) and a couple more, but those are far away, and the vast bulk of the action, politically and culturally, takes place on the main island, just 61km long and 47km wide.

Mauritius is poor, as you notice the moment you leave the airport, but there is a sense of industry, particularly in the capital of Port Louis, a fumey city with – among its high rises – a branch of Ernst and Young, and a big port. The other thing you notice immediately is Hinduism – colourful temples and shrines pop up by the road at unexpected moments, lying cheek by jowl with Catholic churches and mosques – 52 per cent of the population is Hindu, 28 per cent are Roman Catholic and 17 per cent are Muslim. The country is instantly appealing thanks to its cultural fabric being so visible.

We were driven to our hotel through sugar cane fields (the country’s main export) and shady villages composed of shacks, schools and fruit vendors, to a different world entirely.

AFFORDABLE AND FUNKY
Our first stop was Tamassa, a new four-star resort on the less developed south coast of the island, near the town of Bel Ombre. Despite major teething problems, the place is smooth-running now, and looks stunning on arrival, even through tired eyes. It’s all light and air, everywhere you look there are infinity pools, and through the open window of reception you can see palm trees waving and the sea beckoning.

Tamassa’s USP is affordable, funky luxury, an image it strives for through globular lights, brightly coloured trimmings, sleek contemporary furniture and – drumroll please – a discotheque, to which locals come for a slice of the party. It was the real deal, too, with a burly DJ turning out chart toppers and a barman lining up Mauritian vanilla rum for us in never-ending shots. But after a gracious but over-rich meal at the beachside fine dining restaurant, La Playa, we weren’t in the best state to down drinks.

Rooms, which are generously apportioned (two sink islands, separate bath and shower, terraces), are within buildings encircling the main pool, an enormous infinity affair with sea views. You toddle a minute or two to the beach, which – although beautiful – is nigh on impossible to swim from without water shoes, as there are rough stones everywhere (the charismatic manager, Alain, tells us these are going to be removed ASAP). But there is a full array of water sports on offer to distract, and the view is of perfect turquoise sea and blue sky, becoming more intense at sunset, as the cloudscapes become vast and complex.

Anyway, we didn’t have much time to ponder the stones – our second day we were whisked off to the Ile des Deux Cocos, an island with a villa that was once used for orgies by a British general, and is now rented out. With champagne in our hands, we strolled among the coconut trees, admiring the view of mountains in front of us, the shock of jungle green contrasting with the shallow sea’s pale aquamarine. Then it was snorkelling in the protected marine park nearby. There was plenty to ogle in the way of bright, expressive fish – nothing scary – for hours. But alas we just had half an hour before returning to the island for sunbathing with tropical home-made rum punch followed by the best barbeque lunch of my life, complete with giant shrimps, tandoori tuna, local marlin and lentil salad. By the time we got back to Tamassa, it was just time for sunset beer before dinner.

Food in Mauritius is a mix of European, Asian and Creole – think coconut, local fish and brilliant croissants – but we didn’t experience it at its best until the next day, when we arrived at quite possibly the most idyllic hotel I’ve ever clapped eyes on, Les Pavillons, in the shadow of the jagged peak of Le Morne. Here, on its elegant, dark wood terraces, chefs serve everything from Thai food to French to Chinese, all exploding with fresh flavours and herbs.

Les Pavillons is a self-contained world of sophisticated luxury. From the perfect view of plants, sea and sky in the foyer, to the rich canvas and natural hues of the furniture, the lack of distinction between inside and outside, and the flocks of gracious, friendly staff, you are at once swept away by the physical beauty and excessive solicitousness of the operation.

Rooms are in villa complexes, and ours were large, Kelly Hoppen-style affairs, with photographs evoking sand and water, great mahogany beds, and a spacious outdoor shower. Each room had a terrace on a small lawn leading to the beach, with two elegant lounge chairs and a table on which a scented candle was lit each night.

Our main dilemma at Les Pavillons was choosing between the beachside loungers and the pool, more like a slate-tiled garden filled with water dotted with luscious flowerbed islands. The palms made the beach too shady in the afternoon, so that solved our problem. Other distractions from the beach-pool dilemma included a private sunset cruise, which involved sipping Moet on the gentle swell, and a snorkelling trip.

One day when a far-off cyclone caused it to pour with rain, we headed to Port Louis – an hour by taxi – where we strolled the market and bought a couple of odd delights, including cashmere scarves and tea for constipation from a herb man.

On finding out that the average stay at Les Pavillons is two weeks, we were overcome by envy. But then we looked at the sea, felt the warm wind and sipped our cocktail, and just thanked our lucky stars to be there at all.

Thomas Cook Signature (0844 879 8015 or www.tcsignature.com) specialises in worldwide holidays, including Mauritius. For January 2010, it’s offering seven nights on an all inclusive basis in a standard room at the Four Star Tamassa from £1,395 per person, saving £379 per person. Seven nights half-board in a superior room at the five star Les Pavillons starts at £1,479 per person, saving £423 per person. Both prices include international flights with Air Mauritius from London Heathrow, transfers to and from the hotel and are based on two sharing, travelling from 8 - 31 January 2010.

SPAS
Les Pavillon’s Nymphea spa (pictured above) has eight treatment villas dotted around an idyllic tropical garden, all in the dark wood, cream-coloured canvas style of the hotel. The big deal here – apart from the insanely beautiful landscaping – are the water-filled treatment beds, which allows the therapist to massage your back even as you lie on it, meaning you don’t have to turn over. I can vouch for this experience – it’s the most relaxing thing on earth, and a relief not to have the usual neck strain while lying on your front. If you fancy a real treat with your partner, go for the Under the Stars package (€220), which had us enjoying individual treatments overlooking the garden as the clouds moved over Le Morne (my Thai massage was great, €115 for 90 mins), followed by a bottle of champagne while the sun set.

Tamassa’s Senses spa embodies the spirit of Mauritius with design, treatments and rituals based around indigenous flowers, fruits and vegetables, and there’s an attractive pool outside around which you can dip, sunbathe or eat from the healthy spa menu. Treatments include a traditional Mauritian massage, performed- with the help of bamboo to stretch the limbs and a gallon of oil – to the rather unrelaxing sounds of the native Sega beat (€65). It’s a solid massage, though, especially with the music off. Other highlights are a marine body wrap using golden algae and a pearl treatment with a black pearl facial and scrub (both €110).

ACTIVITIES
Mauritius is great for those who enjoy (or want to try) water sports, diving or snorkelling and other sea activities. Deep-sea fishing is excellent, with potential catches including the black and blue marlin, yellow tuna and barracuda – there are also numerous varieties of sharks to look
out for.

There are 30 diving centres on the island, each with their own charms. On the east coast, the underwater life is more varied with greater water circulation in the lagoon, and sights include old shipwrecks. On the north and west coasts, lagoons are large and easy to navigate. Behind the barrier reef, the experienced scuba diver can find spectacular underwater caves or large coral blocks. Water skiing, snorkelling, kayaking, glass-bottom boat trips, pedalo boats and wind surfing are free at both Tamassa and Les Pavillons, both of which also offer diving and fishing at a price.