With its rich colonial past, Mauritius is an island nation where distinct traditions have formed a culture and cuisine all its own, writes Michael Sheather.

One & Only Le Saint Géran, Mauritius

Prue Ruscoe

Getting there

Air Mauritius operates three weekly flights from Perth to Mauritius, from $1565 per person, with domestic connections on Virgin Australia. One & Only Le Saint Géran is 55km from the airport, about an hour-and-a-quarter ride. The resort can arrange transfers by private chauffeur, hotel taxi or helicopter.

Staying there

One & Only Le Saint Géran, Mauritius, sits on a private peninsula with 162 suites and one villa, all with private terraces or balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean. Junior suites start at $875 per night, including breakfast, and Ocean Suites start at $1570 (including a 15 per cent government tax).

Mauritius is a place imbued with both passion and romance. It’s evident in the wild geography of the island – its picturesque beaches, the deep gorges and the precipitous volcanic mountains that rise unexpectedly from the plains to dominate the skyline.

It’s evident in the banyan trees that overhang the pathways, and in the coconut palms that dot the coast and stretch out over the sea. And, most importantly perhaps, it’s evident in the people, who are as warm, welcoming and culturally diverse as the island nation’s spice-infused cuisine.

It’s the country’s people who are key to understanding this place – a place so isolated and yet so diverse in its cultural textures. The population is a mélange of races: Africans who came as slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Indians who arrived as indentured field workers with the hope of establishing new lives far from the crushing poverty of their mother country. Then there are the French and the English, both of whom held colonial control here and, in fact, fought battles on land and sea for it during the Napoleonic Wars.

Although the French lost the war, they won the peace. English became the official language but French is more widely spoken even today.

There are Muslims and Chinese, Malays and Tamils, and, after centuries of interracial relationships, the Mauritian Creoles (or Kreols Morisien), the mixed-race descendants of the island’s former slaves who won their freedom in 1835 under British rule.

It’s this sense of history that pervades everything on the island, including our resort, One & Only’s Le Saint Géran, which owes it name and, perhaps, character to a shipwreck from 1744. The Saint Géran was lost after striking a reef not far from the spot where the resort stands today. The tragedy, in which hundreds of lives were lost, became the inspiration for Paul et Virginie, a famous novel by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, first published in 1788.

The story of star-crossed lovers – the young woman drowns in the shipwreck and the despairing young man dies of a broken heart – is now part of the island’s folklore.

The resort sits on a peninsula jutting out into a broad stretch of coastal shoals and estuaries in a part of Mauritius known as Flacq, which is about two-thirds of the way up the island’s eastern coast. Set among spectacular grounds that include 5000 palm trees and a nine-hole golf course designed by former golf champion Gary Player, Le Saint Géran has carved out a history of its own as one of the first and longest-running luxury resorts in Mauritius.

Despite being built in the 1970s to meet a spike in demand for luxury accommodation by Europeans, the low-slung, hacienda-style resort – with galleried walkways and white-washed walls – offers facilities that are still among the best on the island.

When it first opened, Le Saint Géran was a playground for high-end French, English and South African tourists. Now, while the resort retains those nationalities among its clientele, you’re just as likely to find Germans, Russians, Dutch and Americans on its beach, known as Belle Mare and regarded as one of the best stretches of white sand Mauritius has to offer.

There’s no lack of gastronomic attractions, either. The resort has two Michelin-starred chefs, one in its signature Prime fine-dining restaurant (which serves imported Australian beef) and another in its striking Indian restaurant, which sits on a jetty – with its ceiling festooned with bright red, green and yellow silks laced with gold – thrust out into the bay.

But perhaps the most enduring aspect of Le Saint Géran is its atmosphere. It has a warm, welcoming and relaxed feel, much like the island itself. Mauritius is a melting pot, and racial tensions, at least on the surface, seem non-existent in this island community.

Cindy, one of our guides and a Creole who traces her roots back to a liaison centuries ago between a former slave and an Indian field labourer, explains that Mauritius is not like much of the world. “Mauritians are very happy, welcoming people,” she says.

“Hospitality and respect are things we value very much. We all get along here no matter what we believe or follow. It’s a matter of necessity because we have all been thrown together here and over time we have realised that harmony is the better path.”

It’s an attitude that we see displayed in Port Louis, the island’s capital. The fresh-food market sits inside a dilapidated arched-and-vaulted edifice, originally built in the late 1800s. It’s a busy, bustling market with hundreds of stalls run by shopkeepers of different ethnic backgrounds. They offer a rich tapestry of produce. Our escort, Karim Hassene, Le Saint Géran’s executive chef, explains that the stallholders begin their day at 3am, spending hours creating the most elaborate displays with their produce. Pyramids of tomatoes and chilli vie for attention with piles of rich, ripe pomegranates; while baskets of mangoes give off a heavy sweet scent, which blends harmoniously with the perfume of coriander and basil. Between the bright colours, the invitations of the stallholders and the scents, it’s a continuous but comfortable assault on the senses.

Outside the market, street vendors ply their trade in freshly cooked food. This is perhaps the best-kept secret about Mauritian cuisine. The food on the street is delicious and a true example of how the mix of cultures has blended into a single cohesive entity.

Street vendor Josephane sells dholl puri, a soft crêpe-like flatbread made with split pea flour, usually accompanied by gros pois, a yellow bean curry, and as much or as little chilli paste as you wish. But if you’re not a fan of chilli, make sure you emphasise “un peu”, a little – the Mauritians like their food hot and the paste is potent.

“The various immigrant populations had to make do in the early times of the colony with limited imports and new ingredients,” says Josephane, in charmingly French-accented English. “That’s how this split pea flour came to be used, no? Because other flours were not always available. It’s how you say? A compromise. But Mauritians love this food and many eat it for breakfast on the way to work because it is cheap and everywhere.”

The street vendors work with remarkable speed during busy times and make the dholl puri at a rate of one every 30 seconds, which they sell for just a few Mauritian rupees. Dholl puri is ubiquitous here on the streets of Port Louis and a great starting point for Mauritian cuisine, but you can also find fried snacks, such as gâteaux piment – split pea fritters with chilli, farata (roti), paratha (the Bengali flatbread), boulettes (Chinese steamed dumplings) and alouda, a sweet rose-flavoured milk drink.

Almost all of the street food has distinctly Indian bent, which probably reflects the fact that about two-thirds of Mauritians are of Indian descent.

On the hour-long drive back to the resort, Karim talks about Mauritian cuisine and how it’s cooked in most households today. It is, he says, a deceptively simple food style using basic ingredients commonly available in most village homes a century ago.

The rougaille is the perfect example, he says. To prepare it, onions, ginger and garlic are ground using a mortar and pestle, then fried until golden before fresh tomatoes, sans seeds and skin, are added along with pepper, chillies, thyme, parsley and a dollop of tomato paste. The mixture is simmered for 10 minutes and you have the rougaille.

“It is very similar to tomato-based European sauces like those found in Italian and French cooking,” says Karim. “And it probably stems from the French sailors, pirates and privateers who used to put ashore here in the 1700s. That base is used to create a wide variety of dishes simply by adding sausage, salted fish, beef, duck, bacon and prawns. It’s extremely versatile.”

That night we have a beachside dinner at Le Saint Géran. In some ways, it is a tropical cliché with fire lanterns, a large bonfire and a steel band, but, cliché or not, it creates a stirring atmosphere. We dine on barbecued mackerel, marron, shellfish and other white-fleshed fish. Most are prepared on a large, simple gas-fired hotplate suspended over bricks on the sand, but other dishes are more complex, including a selection of fish and seafood curries and stews. The octopus rougaille, which is perfectly tender, is a good example. Some cooks suggest pounding the octopus to break down the tough connective tissues, but the chefs at Le Saint Géran prefer a traditional Mauritian method that involves heating the steel pan and gently cooking the octopus without oil. The chefs repeatedly lift and drop the octopus into the pan, continuously turning the flesh. It’s this action, they say, that stops the octopus from contracting and becoming chewy. And what we are left with is giving flesh served in the rougaille sauce.

But the highlight proves to be a show by a group of local “ségatiers”, so called because they dance the séga, a traditional Mauritian folkloric dance that is said to unlock the passions and set free inhibitions.

Cindy, who joins us again as host, explains the séga has been part of the island nation’s culture for as long as there have been slaves. “It’s an old dance that the African slaves brought with them,” she says.

“We believe it’s based on ancient African fertility rites. Apparently, escaped slaves would drink arak and perform the dance on the beach at night.”

It’s certainly wild and rhythmic enough to have once been a fertility rite. The dancers these days are dressed in brightly coloured skirts, pants and shirts, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how what is now a folk dance started as an erotic ritual.

If you intend to see the major sights in Mauritius you need a car, or even better a car and a driver.

The unfamiliar landscapes and the narrow winding roads are best left to people who know them well. Our driver is a family man named Vicky and, as we leave our resort in the north-east to see parts of the south, he explains that the trees that overhang the roadway have, in fact, been there for hundreds of years.

They were planted, he says, by the French during the plantation days to provide shade for the rich merchants during their visits in horse-drawn carriages. Oddly, the trees make the roadways look like parts of rural France. Further on, Vicky points out Le Morne Brabant, a precipitous mountain that rises from a flat plain to dominate the horizon. “This is a famous place for Mauritians,” he says. “Many escaped slaves came to the mountain seeking refuge, but when they were found, they threw themselves off the cliff rather than go back to the fields. It’s a symbol of freedom.”

The Château de Labourdonnais in Mapou, perhaps the most magnificent, fully restored 19th-century plantation house here, is as much a part of Mauritius’s cultural evolution as the slaves who originally toiled in its fields in the late 1700s.

Named after Bertrand-François Mahé, comte de La Bourdonnais, one of the 18th-century governors of Mauritius, the château was built in the 1850s on an old concession created in 1777. Originally just 75 hectares, the property was gradually expanded by its different owners. Today, it’s set amid about 500 hectares of sugarcane fields and a vast array of orchard trees – mangoes, breadfruit, Kythira plum, many of which are now 100 years old.

As you walk along an elegant avenue, with banyan trees forming a canopy overhead, to the château, it is impossible not to imagine the island’s élite arriving in horse-drawn carriages for evening soirées that spilled across the mansion’s wide, colonnaded verandahs and onto the gardens.

The château’s meticulous renovation took three years, millions of Mauritian rupees and a great deal of imagination. Fragments of the original hand-painted wallpaper depicting European hunting scenes provided a blueprint for Parisian artists, who recreated the scenes that now adorn the walls in the dining hall.

Yet the château is not all about the past. Nestled on the grounds is a modern restaurant run by chef Fabio de Poli, a Mauritian who learned his trade in international hotels in Paris. He returned home two years ago to establish La Table du Château, which features a combination of French and traditional Mauritian cuisine with a modern twist. His white fish glazed with vanilla grown on the grounds and filled with breadfruit purée is a delight, with a surprisingly complex flavour and texture. “I take traditional ingredients and combine them with modern techniques to showcase the island’s abundant seafood,” says Fabio.

There are so many other beautiful experiences that Mauritius offers – from a visit to the L’Adventure de Sucre museum to the spectacular sight of the Il Tempio di Grand Basin, a lakeside Hindu temple with its deities lining the foreshore. But perhaps the last word on Mauritius should be left to driver Vicky. “To be Mauritian is to love life,” he says. “Beyond that, really, there is nothing, right? There is only love and life. Be free, have fun, love those close to you. This is what we are.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

La Terrasse, Mauritius

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