Discovering Mauritius’ more individual side

Not all luxury escapes are created equal. Gillian de Bono revisits Mauritius in search of intimate hotels with individual charm – and checks out an iconic old favourite now under new ownership

Maradiva’s Exclusive Suite Pool Villa
Maradiva’s Exclusive Suite Pool Villa | Image: Michael Grimm

What to do when the hotel you plan to revisit – the setting of some truly magical memories – is shut for seven months? This was the conundrum facing me last year when Le Touessrok, a former One&Only resort on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, had been taken over by Shangri-La and was closed for refurbishment. Apart from a general sense of apprehension that the hotel might morph into something less to my liking, I had already blocked a week in my diary to stay on the island, which has always suited me perfectly when I’m in need of some instant R&R. In May, daytime temperatures are balmy rather than blistering, and the three-hour time difference from London means I can slip effortlessly from work to relaxation mode without contending with jet lag. So Mauritius it would be; but, it seemed, I would need to find somewhere else to lay my head.

As Le Touessrok ticked all the luxury-resort boxes for me, I decided to eschew the island’s other 40-plus five-star accommodations and focus my search on a Mauritian rarity: small, privately owned boutique hotels with individual charm. The choice, although limited, threw up a gem that, while relatively under the radar, turns out to have been garnering a loyal clientele for over 10 years.

Carved out of a coconut grove on the northwest coast of the island, 20 Degrés Sud is a 36-room hotel with imposing oak carriage doors that open onto a small but perfectly formed complex of elegant pools, an excellent bar, two lounges with book-lined walls, deep leather sofas and a billiards table, and a spa with a hammam and surprisingly wide choice of expertly administered treatments. The quietly stylish two-storey accommodation – which is thatched, with white, cream and taupe interiors, four-poster beds and colonial-style furniture – leads onto compact lawns and gardens, and there is a tiny landscaped beach that is as private as can be found on an island where all the beaches are public.

 Lunch in one of Maradiva's Raj tents
Lunch in one of Maradiva's Raj tents | Image: Michael Grimm

Built and, until very recently, run by French-speaking Belgian Michel Bourgeois, an Air Mauritius pilot, and his wife Anne, and with a high occupancy of French guests, it’s perhaps not surprising that the food at 20 Degrés Sud turned out to be some of the best on the island. I arrived with the intention of exploring the restaurants of nearby Grand Baie, but the accomplished French/Mauritian à la carte menu made it incredibly tempting to nab a table overlooking the sea or beside the candlelit pool, and dine on seared red tuna with artichoke salsa and teriyaki foam one night, red snapper with smoked green-lemon butter sauce another. There were also lobster and sushi tasting menus, and – one I look forward to sampling on my next visit – a gastronomic cruise for just four couples in the hotel’s faithfully restored, teak-lined, 1929 motorboat, Lady Lisbeth.

Just as the restaurant and spa punch well above their weight, so too does the boathouse, which offers snorkelling, windsurfing, paddleboarding, kayaking, Hobie-Cat sailing and boat transfers to Grand Baie on a complimentary basis, with many other watersports and excursions by arrangement.

While the footprint of 20 Degrés Sud is small, the space has been used imaginatively, with hidden corners where double, deeply upholstered sunloungers catch the late-afternoon sun. The somewhat idiosyncratic layout also means that rooms can vary in size, arrangement and facilities, even within the same category. A beachfront room, or stunning ocean-view suite replete with plunge pool or Jacuzzi, needs booking well in advance.

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Had I stayed longer than a week, I think I would have yearned for the early-morning beach walks, evening sun and lovely sunsets that can be found at many of the island’s larger resorts. And so I returned to Mauritius six months later to revisit Le Touessrok under its new managers – and to explore another resort that caught my interest: privately owned Maradiva, the only all-villa resort on the island.

On this occasion my arrival on the island was an altogether elevated experience, courtesy of a new service called Yu Lounge. As I left the plane, I was flagged to one side, ushered into a Porsche Cayenne and driven to a private terminal at the edge of the airfield. Here I was offered drinks and gourmet snacks while immigration formalities where taken care of and my luggage delivered. I may have flown to Mauritius on a commercial flight but I arrived enjoying the privileges of private jet travel.

I had singled out Le Touessrok four years previously because of its beguiling landscaping across a tiny archipelago of east-coast islands. While large enough to support multiple restaurants, tennis courts and a championship golf course, the creamy stucco-timber-and-thatch accommodation is laid out along four different beaches, creating a sense of intimacy rare for a property of this size.

20 Degrés Sud has one of the most secluded beaches on the island
20 Degrés Sud has one of the most secluded beaches on the island

The hotel had reopened just three weeks before I arrived and there were still final adjustments being made: the carp were slowly being reintroduced to the pond beneath the entrance walkway; a second shop was about to open in the light-filled lobby; and the three ultra-luxe villas secluded at the far end of the resort were yet to be renovated. But to all intents and purposes, Le Touessrok was open for business – and filled to capacity, due in part to the arrival of a group of long-term repeat guests who had been invited to celebrate its reopening. Le Touessrok is that kind of hotel, garnering over its 38-year history not only a string of awards, but a large cohort of fans who return again and again (I am told the record stands at 38 visits).

The sympathetic landscaping I had loved on my first stay appeared untouched: a graceful wooden bridge still linked the lobby and restaurants to the tiny Frangipani peninsula, with its serene, adults‑only infinity pool, gym and spa – rechristened Chi, Shangri-La’s in-house brand that, while focusing on the island’s therapeutic botanicals, also offers a wide choice of Asian treatments, including Ayurveda.

The linking beaches, too, have retained their individual character; Frangipani, with its reimagined beach bar and all-day restaurant, Republik Beach Club & Grill; secluded Coral beach, with its small scattering of sunloungers; Hibiscus, with its non-motorised watersports, long sweep of sand and gently lapping waters that change in hue from soft greens through turquoise to azure as one gazes further out to sea. In the near distance, a tiny island can be reached via sandbanks at low tide; beyond, waves can be seen breaking on the coral reef.

A book-lined lounge at 20 Degrés Sud
A book-lined lounge at 20 Degrés Sud

A 10-minute private boat ride took me to Ilot Mangénie, the resort’s private-island retreat with well-spaced sunloungers and a feet-in-the-sand restaurant to the left of the jetty, and to the right, a pristine powder‑soft beach stretching as far as the eye can see. Complimentary watersports and a stunning – and challenging – golf course are stationed with three further restaurants on a second island, Ile aux Cerfs, well away from guests seeking peace and quiet.

The accommodation – 132 suites and 68 rooms, each with butler service and ocean views – has been refurbished in a style fusing Mauritius’s cultural roots with tropical island chic and a soothing Asian colour palette: subtle animal prints are used on textiles, while turtle, sugarcane stem and abstract sea, sand and coral motifs are carved into indigenous and recycled woods.

The dining options have also been refined. While the resort’s well-regarded Safran restaurant continues to offer Indian cuisine with Mauritian influences, its international buffet venue has been scaled down to allow for the arrival of Kushi, where a panoramic window frames the sushi master expertly wielding his razor-sharp knives.

The main pool at Le Touessrok
The main pool at Le Touessrok | Image: Markus Gortz

But the restaurant I returned to most was the relaxed beachfront Republik. One lunchtime, while enjoying a heart-of-palm salad with house-smoked tuna, I spent an entertaining half hour watching a black-helmeted, white‑uniformed steward perfecting his skills on one of the electric scooters that zip up and down the beaches offering guests fruit skewers, sorbets and sunglasses polishing. The next evening, as I dined on melt-in-the-mouth charcoal-grilled rack of lamb, I found myself in a front-row seat for the resort’s weekly firework display.

General manager Gabriele Lombardo told me of his hopes of attracting well-heeled locals to the hotel’s expanded restaurant and bar scene, including the chilled, open-air Sega Bar, with its nightly live jazz and reggae, and a bohemian beach lounge at Republik (which, since my visit, has started to showcase the work of local artists). Whether genuine cultural interaction can truly exist in a resort designed first and foremost for overseas visitors is questionable, but under its new managers Le Touessrok certainly has a buzzier atmosphere in the evenings.

Wooing a local clientele is the last thing on the mind of Paul van Frank, the genial general manager of Maradiva Villas Resort and Spa, where the guest experience centres on personalised service, peace and privacy. Indeed, the single-storey resort, consisting of 65 colonial-style pool villas spread across 27 acres of lush gardens, is barely visible from the beach. Formerly a Taj resort, Maradiva is privately owned and run by the local Ramdanee family, who also own the adjoining Sands Resort & Spa, at the end of a white sand and coral beach with views of Tamarin Mountain and Le Morne World Heritage Site, which marks the island’s most westerly point. One of the longest and loveliest beaches on the island, it comes to an end after an hour’s walk at the lively beachside town of Flic-en-Flac.

 Le Touessrok’s Shangri-La Suite
Le Touessrok’s Shangri-La Suite | Image: Markus Gortz

My garden villa was the first to benefit from a soft refurbishment of the entire resort that will be completed this year. An elegant mix of rosewood, African teak, iroko and sapele furniture, Hermès wallpaper, statement lamps and Mauritian art is offset by a soothing ochre colour scheme, while the external glass walls of the light-filled marble bathroom and double walk-in rain shower look onto a small courtyard with a second rainforest shower.

Those seeking maximum seclusion can happily confine much of their time to their villa, lazing on the terrace’s giant daybed, cooling off in the plunge pool and dining in the elegant covered outdoor living space. Many guests at Maradiva do just this, so that the widely spaced sunloungers positioned discreetly under trees that line the beach, and those beside the glistening infinity pool, are never fully utilised, even when the resort is close to capacity. The award-winning temple-like spa, with its lofty treatment rooms and private gardens, is another oasis of calm where hours can be whiled away on sunloungers around the large open‑air pool, with the only discernible sound the water cascading to a second, ornamental pool.

The resort has two excellent à la carte restaurants: the beachside Coast2Coast, featuring international and Mauritian dishes; and Cilantro, offering Indian, Thai and, in a separate room, interactive Japanese teppanyaki cuisine for just 12 guests. But in-villa dining was always tempting of an evening, when the numerous lanterns and lamps on my expansive terrace and external dining area created a magical glow. Two other options proved irresistible: a candlelit wine-paired beach barbecue of juicy prawn and scallop skewers, local lobster and saffron-infused sea bream; and – even more indulgent – a scenic drive in Maradiva’s gleaming white Rolls-Royce Phantom for a picnic lunch on the less-developed south coast. I arrived at a deserted beach to find a flower-strewn picnic blanket heaped with cushions, a perfectly chilled glass of champagne, and an advance party of chefs fanning a barbecue as they put the finishing touches to a three-course lobster lunch. Truly heaven on earth.

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And then there are the butlers assigned to each villa. I struck gold with Swaraj, whose jovial personality belied a formidable attention to detail. Never intrusive, he nonetheless intuited my exact whereabouts when I was running late for an appointment. Had madam forgotten her sunset yoga on the beach, came the gentle reminder after I had lost all sense of time at the spa. And I was so pleased that he encouraged me to rise early on my last morning for a boat trip to take me snorkelling, followed by swimming with wild dolphins.

Paradise indeed, and a very different experience from both 20 Degrés Sud and Le Touessrok. Which will I book for my next visit? I’m not sure, but I hope to return to them all at some stage, for different – but equally valid – reasons.

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