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Ocean’s swell

With a raft of new resorts, ranging from traditionally opulent to chic-with-a-wink, Mauritius is emerging from under the shadow of the Seychelles and the Maldives to reclaim its place in the Indian Ocean spotlight. Maria Shollenbarger reports

June 03 2013
Maria Shollenbarger

What’s so exotic about Mauritius?” So queried the friend – a seasoned luxury‑hotel professional – who accompanied me on a recent trip there, as we waited to board our flight. Presumably, she had the usual travel remit of this magazine in mind. And admittedly, in 2013, it’s not the easiest question to parry: can a place where the risk of malaria is remote, where there’s no significant crime or political instability, no major language barrier, unmanageable time difference or Odyssean itinerary required to reach it, yet which offers an embarrassment of riches in the way of creature comforts, reasonably qualify as chic and exotic among today’s privileged travelling classes?

To which one might pose another question: does it have to? Much has been made of Mauritius losing its incumbency as the premier Indian Ocean destination to the likes of the Seychelles and the Maldives (where there is indeed robust competition – and soon to be more, in the form of new properties from Como Hotels and Resorts and Cheval Blanc, the LVMH resort subsidiary), and to the east coast of Africa, where Lamu, Zanzibar and the Quirimbas Archipelago all now prevail on the tastemakers’ lists. But what, on second view, is so bad about great service, ease of access and world-class cuisine? Very little, if recent activity on the part of various top hotel marques across Mauritius is any indication. A number of key debuts attest to their willingness to back the island as a winning destination.

Among the more noteworthy of these is Lux Belle Mare, set on the island’s populous, windy mid-east Belle Mare beach, which is lined with hotels and resorts ranging from boisterous three-star all-inclusives to The Residence, one of its reigning luxury champions. Lux Island Resorts – formerly known as Naiade Resorts – is an ambitious venture spearheaded by an all‑star team of old Indian Ocean hands led by Paul Jones, one-time managing director of Sun Resorts and former president of One&Only (whose Le Saint Géran is just 6km down the coast). There are five Lux resorts in total, with three on Mauritius, and Belle Mare seems to be the jewel in the portfolio crown. The concept was launched to much fanfare – and some very expensively produced press materials – in December 2011 and, given its pedigree, managed to generate considerable buzz. It promised an unorthodox remix of the received precepts of traditional luxury, eschewing the unnecessary (hovering staff, excess in design, overly formal service) and moving the more desirable aspects (privacy, indulgence as and when desired, simple style) to the forefront of the experience.

It’s an ambitious remit of the sort that’s always easier to articulate with the aid of talented copywriters in generously budgeted brochures than to execute on the ground. Does Lux Belle Mare succeed? Having been repurposed from a previously existent resort, called Beau Rivage, it has a way to go before achieving its goals (or, for that matter, full luxury-hotel status). But there are some very promising signs, starting with a new complex of one‑ and two-bedroom villas at the quiet northern end of the resort, which enjoy their own serviced beach. Designed by Kelly Hoppen, they are clean-lined, contemporary structures, with ceiling-height glass doors onto private gardens and glossy teak and white-tile floors, all shot through with accents of rich colour – spare, cool and deeply happy spaces. The spa, small but ideally formed, has an unexpectedly serious standing, with treatments that use products by British spa therapist Shirley Page (a stalwart of Champneys, when that institution was in its heyday, and, more recently, a protégé of the dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Dr Jean-Louis Sebagh). Its own product line, too, is best-in-class, formulated entirely with local botanicals and ingredients, and containing no chemical preservatives or parabens (also true, incidentally, of the gorgeously packaged amenities line in the hotel suites, which should be stocked at Liberty).

The Asian restaurant, East, with its 10-course, pan‑regional tasting menu, is fantastic, as are the chef’s kitchen gardens, where lemongrass and Thai basil proliferate among tomatoes and aromatherapy herbs (and children crush, nibble and learn about local medicine in the company of the dynamic, multilingual kids’ club staff).

Nonetheless, Lux Belle Mare in its current state is a mix of hits and misses. Until Hoppen has been able to work her magic on the entire resort, it’s a work in progress – but one to keep an eye on.

Constance Le Prince Maurice, just a 15-minute ride up the coast towards Roches Noires, is an entirely different proposition: one of the island’s best‑established luxury retreats, long the repeat destination of discerning French and English visitors (and latterly popular with Russians; but thus have the Indian Ocean migration currents gone for some years, as anyone who’s travelled there will have registered). There are the obvious attractions, to those who seek them, of its two championship golf courses and its sprawling spa complex – which meanders delightfully from courtyard to shaded courtyard, with trickling pools and fountains everywhere, chiming softly to create a soporific background soundtrack (and which recently augmented its offering with a comprehensive programme of Sisley treatments). Le Prince Maurice also holds an ace in its pocket in the form of exceptional tranquillity: its private bay and narrow, smooth and eminently swimmable beach are protected by a natural land protrusion at its southern end.

The hotel recently underwent a comprehensive and smart-looking renovation. The long approach to L’Archipel, the main restaurant, which overlooks the infinity pool and the beach, has been fitted out as an exceptionally chic lounge. Its recessed alcoves are lined with banquettes upholstered in leathers and rich, embroidered silks that reprise the myriad greens and blues of the sea and surrounding tropical forest. Across the pool is the equally swanky new sushi bar, which spills down steps to the beach and across the sand to the ocean’s edge, its deep rattan loungers punctuated with lanterns and palm trunks doubling as tables. Also new is Le Barachois, an open‑air restaurant on the lagoon behind the main resort. Comprising several floating, tented jetties reached by torchlit causeways, which expand in a web out from the main kitchen, it’s both visually delightful and a welcome alternative for those who prefer grills, seafood and uncomplicated island-inflected salads to L’Archipel’s à la carte gourmet offerings. Le Prince Maurice remains a redoubt of tradition, revamped looks notwithstanding. Those seeking few surprises (and little in the way of boisterous youthful diversion) will be pleased with it.

The island’s more youthful face, in any event, seems to be establishing itself on the opposite side of the island: Angsana Balaclava, which opened at the end of 2011 in Turtle Bay, on Mauritius’s mountainous northwestern coast. Angsana is the recently launched sister brand of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts but skews to a younger and more contemporary crowd. (Several Angsana resorts have debuted across China, the Maldives, India and southeast Asia since 2008, and there is a collection of riads in Morocco.) This is far from the most ostentatious luxury proposition on the island; it is in fact, on the face of it, relatively modest, but the several crucial ways in which this hotel gets things right elevate it right to the top of the line.

The property hugs its central zone of restaurants, bar and pool in a broad curve, almost protectively, so that the slightly ignominious arrival (along a road through patchy sugarcane fields) is more or less instantly forgotten once one is inside. A slick lap pool with ionised fresh water cleverly links to a sand-floored one that mimics a beach (hosting, during our visit, as many well-heeled adults, frolicking like children, as actual children). This also abuts the excellent casual restaurant, whose tables dot the shallows of a third pool, for feet-in-the-water dining, and whose pizza margherita rivals anything that either of us, both sometime Italy residents, have sampled in Campania. The rooms to book here are the one-bedroom suites, with their L-shaped pools, outdoor living rooms, steam saunas in the massive bathrooms, small gardens and direct access to the wide, tamarind-lined beach. Food is clearly top of mind here: Thai, Malaysian and southern-Indian curries feature alongside traditional creole recipes contemporised with French and Mediterranean embellishments. I drove into Port Louis early one morning with Curtis Saminadas, the hotel’s affable executive chef, to experience its famous market. Amid the symmetrical piles of burnished pipengaille, violet aubergines, tiny, delicately corrugated pineapples and the giant, pallid local cucumbers, Saminadas expounded on seasonality and relative attributes. We sipped alouda, the local milk drink, and held soft, velvet‑black vanilla pods – like an opiate on this island – inhaling their scent with eyes closed.

Angsana Balaclava left us thus charmed. But the white Jaguar waiting in its driveway on our last day, to swiftly transport us along the coast to Le Morne for our final destination, augured something else altogether. The St Regis Mauritius, which opened in November, strings out along its own kilometre-long – and now, post St Regis ministrations, almost preternaturally perfect – swath of the famous Le Morne beach, in the far southwest of the island.

Lest the bright-white luxury-limousine transportation seems excessively blingy, the resort acquits itself beautifully in every other respect – starting with the design, which mines colonial plantation-manor architecture for stylistic references and then reinterprets them in a soft and surprisingly northern palette (the spectrum of tones where grey and white meet blue and green is fully represented). Steeply pitched ceilings are coffered with extravagantly carved joinery and beams, and travertine-tile floors are covered with attractive rush matting. An arcade of massive suites on the first floor of the main building (referred to as the Manor House) overlooks the resort’s 300sq m pool. Intricate latticework verandas and seagrass blinds conspire to allow their occupants to admire the rich blue-green sea and goings-on below, while camouflaging them completely from view (it was rumoured that a week before our arrival a Qatari family had taken over the entire block of them). They are the sort of visual treat that would impress anywhere in the world, with bespoke details that must set new standards for design on the island. Several of the wallpapers and all of the toiles, which incorporate specific historical references, were commissioned expressly for a handful of suites and the private dining rooms at Le Manoir restaurant.

Of restaurants, there are no fewer than seven across the resort: Atul Kochhar, of Benares fame, oversees the workings of Simply India; the pan-Asian Floating Market, which overlooks beautiful architectural water gardens, executes solidly on its remit; while next door, Atsuko, an almost absurdly stylish wood‑clad sushi bar, is happy to send over nigiri and maki on request. Best of the lot, though, is the Boathouse Bar, a beach-restaurant template, minimised and perfected – wall-less, plank-floored, with a bleached driftwood roof and simply elegant Warisan chairs. To the west, two flawless horizons – of bright-white beach against mutable sea and sea against aquamarine sky – are the only things in one’s line of sight, bar a few perfectly manicured palms. To the east is the towering, verdant mass of Le Morne‑Brabant mountain, which has been named a Unesco heritage site (and, for the fit and willing, is climbable in the company of a private guide).

Descend a short flight of wooden steps and one is ankle-deep in white talcum sand. “I feel as if I am on a much chicer island,” says my friend, than the one she apparently expected of this visit. It’s possible, though, that Mauritius has had the potential to be that island all along; it just had to find the right point of view.

See also

Hotels, Resorts, Mauritius