Four beaches and a wedding

When Gillian de Bono and her long-term partner chose to marry on a tropical beach, the improbable decision ultimately delivered in more ways than she could have hoped.

December 21 2011
Gillian de Bono

My first experience of a beach wedding was sheer serendipity. I was dozing on a sun lounger, having just flown in to Antigua, when there appeared in my bleary eye-line a cluster of locals clutching giant palm fronds, armfuls of exotic blooms and what turned out to be sections of an arch, which they pieced together on the glistening sands. An hour later, the arch was erected in all its exuberant glory.

And then I heard the sound of West Indian music in the distance. As it got closer, I again prised my eyes open and saw a band of colourfully clad musicians leading a bride and groom in full wedding regalia – she in a floor-length white satin gown and tiara, he in a freshly pressed cream linen suit. Like most of my fellow sun worshippers, I sat up and, as the music subsided and the ceremony unfolded, positioned myself so that I could view the spectacle from a discreet distance.

How lovely, I thought at the time, to get married in the open air under cloudless skies, with the sea as a backdrop, and to segue seamlessly into your honeymoon without having a moment’s worry about guest lists, bridesmaids’ dresses or seating plans.

Over the intervening years, I have been the uninvited guest at roughly half a dozen beach weddings. There were young couples with just their parents or closest friends in attendance, some with a first-born as a tiny pageboy or flower girl. Others, often second-time-arounders, came on their own, sidestepping the social politics of a second wedding, and happy to tie the knot with locals obliging as official witnesses.

And so when Klaus, my long-term partner, and I decided to get married, a beach wedding seemed incredibly appealing. We had both been married before and wanted something different this time around. A beach wedding also solved a conundrum: Klaus moved to London 30 years ago and still has many friends and family in Germany. Separating the ceremony from the reception meant we could have two wedding parties – one in our home city and one in Germany.

And so we decided on a May wedding date, with a party in June in London and then another, in July, in a tiny castle on the Rhine. Spreading the formalities and festivities over 10 weeks meant we got to really savour each element, and we never felt overwhelmed by the planning. (And how many brides get to wear their wedding dress three times?)

But in my wish list for the actual wedding venue, I was as demanding as any first-time bride – perhaps more so, as editing How To Spend It down the years has inevitably sharpened my critical faculties. I absolutely was going to have a tropical beach; blue skies without melting temperatures; low humidity; and, crucially, direct flights, a short transfer and minimum jet lag.

Mauritius, it seemed, ticked all these boxes. We had friends who had been holidaying there for the past 15 years, and they had nothing but good things to say about the island. But we’d never been there ourselves and so, last November, we decided to combine a much-needed winter break with a wedding recce. We spent three days of our holiday exploring the island and visiting a dozen of its top-rated hotels. Some we considered too sprawling, lacking any real sense of intimacy; others too small and reverential in mood. I have always had an aversion to inappropriate architecture, so that ruled out hotels with Balinese statuary or villas in a Thai vernacular; and I did not want one set along a vast stretch of sand, where a change in sun-lounger design indicated you had strayed on to another hotel’s beach front. How would we escape from other guests on the big day? I had witnessed enough beach weddings to know that I didn’t want my own ceremony to devolve into an unofficial highlight of the hotel’s entertainment programme.

We found ourselves drawn to the island’s east coast, which despite the presence of the airport is less developed, with more secluded hotels. As with most mountainous islands, Mauritius has many microclimates; the World Weather Traveller’s Guide website gave the monthly weather conditions for all four coastlines in great detail. Although the west coast is dryer and hotter, it reassured us that temperatures in the east averaged 26ºC in May, and that most rain falls on the central plateau.

One hotel stood out for us because of its unique location and layout. Le Touessrok sits alone in a magical lagoon setting at the end of a long private road. While large enough to support five restaurants, four flood-lit tennis courts, a Givenchy Spa and a championship golf course, the hotel’s sensitive landscaping creates a sense of intimacy rare for a property this size. The creamy stucco-timber-and-thatch accommodation (132 suites and 68 rooms, each with sea views, 24-hour private butler service and chic décor spiced with splashes of tropical colour) is laid out along four different beaches; one is perfect for early morning walks, another sports no more than two dozen sun loungers. A graceful wooden bridge links the main hotel to Frangipani island, with its infinity pool, gym and spa.

At the resort’s entrance, a gigantic banyan tree is hung with decorative birdcages, which are lit up at night. Guests cross a feng-shui-designed walkway that winds across a pond full of flickering carp. From its light-filled lobby, with views across a free-form pool, to its immaculately kept tropical gardens, the architecture and landscaping seemed faultless. As we explored the grounds, I challenged myself to find a single aspect that was anything other than beguiling, bringing the critical eye I deploy in the editing of How To Spend It to bear on my search. I still failed. Even the main restaurant (large buffet eateries are a particular bête noir of mine) was designed in such a way as to preserve a sense of intimacy, with eight well-spaced show kitchens and tables arranged on three levels and along several discrete galleries with views across the main pool.

A 10-minute private boat ride across the bay takes guests to Ilôt Mangénie, the resort’s private-island retreat, with its own sun loungers and feet-in-the-sand restaurant. Complimentary water sports are stationed on a second island, Île aux Cerfs, well away from guests who want to relax in peace and quiet, together with further restaurants and a Bernhard Langer-designed golf course. (My now-husband tells me it is as beautiful to walk around as it is challenging to navigate, with sea or mountain views from every hole.)

And so the decision was made, and the holiday/honeymoon booked. It involved a 12-hour flight and a three-hour time difference. On the advice of our Mauritius-loving friends, we flew business class with Air Mauritius, as it was the only airline that offered overnight flights, which meant boarding Saturday evening, having a leisurely dinner, snuggling down, then arriving refreshed at the hotel early afternoon on Sunday. With the return flight not departing until 10pm, we could enjoy a full day at the resort at the end of the stay.

Legalities on the island took less than a day. We were driven to Port Louis, the capital, and escorted from one department to another until all the paperwork was complete. Finalising the details of the day itself took less than two hours with Karen Joorun, the hotel’s wedding co-ordinator, who exuded enthusiasm, efficiency and charm in equal proportions. We decided to hold the ceremony on Ilôt Mangénie. This seemed to offer the most privacy; we’d arrive by private boat and as we planned to get married towards the end of the afternoon, most hotel guests would be winding their way back to the hotel. We chose a simple ceremony, declined even the strolling musicians and doves. (Though it seems with Karen on the case almost anything would have been possible, from a Sega troupe performing fertility dances to fire-eaters and a beach disco.)

A last-minute change of plan the day before the wedding moved the holiday on to an entirely different level – and gave us absolute privacy. We were upgraded to one of the resort’s three private villas at the end of its longest beach (Le Touessrok’s owner has a fabulous house just beyond). What was to become our honeymoon home had its own entrance, beach front, infinity pool and secluded gardens. All three bedrooms had giant egg-shaped baths (a signature feature of the resort). Two had their own walled garden with outdoor waterfall shower and daybed; the third a private terrace.

The airy living area was simply majestic, with high-vaulted wooden ceilings, easy seating and a formal dining area. Wooden doors folded back to reveal a thatched pavilion with timbered decking – ideal for informal dining and lounging.

I was a little apprehensive about having on-site staff: Grisel (head butler), Rishi and Medge (butlers), Candia (chef) and Christian (a very maternal housekeeper who we were asked to call “Mammy”). I needn’t have been. They were there when we needed them, and kept the villa immaculate, but had an amazing knack for being invisible when we wanted to be alone. It was lovely to have them in attendance at our wedding – our tropical, away-from-home family.

After the ceremony, we dined on the beach by candlelight. Candia prepared a dinner of smoked marlin and palm hearts, followed by grilled prawns and fish. When we retired, we discovered that Mammy had prepared a flower-scattered bath for us – perfumed with jasmine, ylang ylang and patchouli, with champagne on ice and tropical fruits dipped in dark chocolate, while our entire bedroom was strewn with petals.

An unexpected bonus of our beach wedding was the beautiful, almost surreal quality of our photographs. The pristine sand, the tranquil sea, the piercing blue skies and the quality of the sunlight, of course, played their part. But something else was at work – years seemed to have fallen away from my face. A few of my cheekier girlfriends asked if I had been digitally enhanced; I hadn’t, but I had spent 10 stress-free days being spoilt by staff who seemed to positively thrive on cleaning my sunglasses, fetching me refreshing sorbet and finding me a BlackBerry charger because I’d left mine at home. I’d caught up on much-needed sleep, eaten well, snorkelled on the distant reef, kayaked around the islands, cycled to nearby villages and played tennis – how many brides have that kind of run-up to their wedding?

I once read about a fading beauty who refused to have her photograph taken before 4pm in order to allow her face to “settle”. Mine may have taken 10 days, but I couldn’t have whiled away the time in a more blissful setting. It was heaven – so much so that I’m not ashamed to admit to becoming a little misty-eyed as I think and write about it now.

See also