Mauritius: Dive right in

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Undersea Walks, Sub Scooter, Sea Karting, Quad Biking and snorkelling with dolphins; the tropical paradise of Mauritius has a lot on offer for the adventure seeker, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Driving on Mauritian roads IMG_1951

“The French ruled us for nearly a century and the British for about 150 years, which is why Mauritians don’t drive on the right like the French or on the left like the British, but right in the middle of the road!” joked Ivan, the resort manager at Radisson Blu Azuri. Fortunately, if it’s adrenaline you seek, Mauritius is packed with enough adventure…

Though the island measures roughly 60X40 miles (about as large as Coorg), what sets Mauritius apart from other tropical destinations is the wide range of experiences for visitors. Fringed by coral reefs and clear blue waters, one may snorkel and kayak without leaving the comforts of your resort.

Chamarel viewpoint IMG_2124

We got our chance the next morning at Azuri’s private beach. Like many of the sights here, the resort was built around a sugarcane factory – its old dilapidated chimney left untouched as it overlooked the pool and Le Comptoir restaurant. After an ‘Eye Opener Juice’ of strawberry lemonade and a hearty breakfast, we set off for Gran Baie north of the island for a Solar Undersea Walk.

Locals played dominoes in the shade of the tree-lined beach. Boats bobbed in the clear blue waters while some set off from Sunset Boulevard on sportfishing expeditions to snare Marlins, Tuna and GT (Giant Trevallies). A transfer boat quickly transported us to the diving platform moored just inside the lagoon reef. John, the captain, briefed us.

Solar Undersea Walk platform IMG_1656

As we got ready to descend the ladder into the sea, our guide asked “Hey Bob Marley, are you gonna wear that rastaman cap and your glares on your sea walk”, motioning to my headgear I had forgotten to take off. “Can I?” “If you want to… The head doesn’t get wet!” And with that, the Undersea Walk patented helmet was strapped on. The distortion-free flat glass window panels allowed great visibility in 2-3 m depth of water while solar panels converted oxygen from the air to provide us a constant flow of fresh air from the surface.

On the sandy sea floor, the swimming monitor passed us crumbs of bread. “I’m not really hungry”, I motioned. “It’s for the fish,” the guide signaled back. “Aaaaah!” Despite the oxygen supply, being underwater does make you a little slow. A flurry of striped fish converged on us for a nibble. In what would be a relief to many, most water sports in Mauritius do not require a knowledge of swimming.

Blue Safari Subscooter inventor Luc Billard IMG_1703

The next stop was Trou aux Biches where Blue Safari director Luc Billard had developed a patented Submarine Scooter. “I’ve never ridden a scooter underwater”, was the common refrain. “Very easy, see those two shiny foot pedals? You press it, the scooter moves forward, you leave it, it stops. And that’s the steering.” I imagined the worst – ramming into corals or each other or worse still, mowing down the instructor, but luckily discovered that its speed was a leisurely 3km per hour.

A shared bubble was placed over me and my pillion, the platform was lowered and five scooters set off in Bond fashion. Not Daniel Craig kind, but ala Roger Moore, with strange gizmos, underwater lairs and 70s production values. The movement was quite imperceptible but the feeling of being on your own 3m under the Indian Ocean was exciting. With oxygen pumped into the vestibule, we breathed naturally enjoying a 360-degree view of the marine life – grotesque brain corals and iridescent parrotfish. The best part was the freedom to speak with your co-passenger. “So Miss Renu, traffic signal se left ya right?”

Sea scooter IMG_1700

Blue Safari also ran an excellent submarine tour that lets you observe the beauty of the seabed and the workings of a ballast system. Incidentally, they are the only submarine operator in Mauritius and the entire Indian Ocean! As the submarine dives 35m to the sandy bed, it’s the closest you’ll feel to landing on the moon. There’s limited place aboard the 10-seater and 5-seater subs, so it’s best to book early to watch stingrays and turtles glide past the ghost-like wreck of Star Hope.

Don’t let the alarming number of shipwrecks around the Mauritian coast worry you, as most of these wrecks were deliberately submerged to create artificial reefs. To the north and northwest of the island, dive for angelfish and barracudas around Silver Star (39m) or the Japanese trawler Stella Maru (24-28m), inhabited by blue triggerfish, reef fish, octopuses and moray eels. The wreck of TUG II (17-19m) on the west coast is an easy dive that throws up stone fish, leaf fish and scorpionfish. To the south west, watch trevallies and tunas hunt down smaller fish at Hoi Siong (16-28m). The forty odd dive sites can be reached within 20 minutes from the coast.

Hotel Shanti Maurice IMG_1340

Away from all the action of the north, Shanti Maurice in the quiet south was truly a great place to pause and catch our breath. Walkways lined with tropical foliage led to private villas with thatched roofs spread over 36 acres. A coral reef circled the curved beach with a jetty to the right and the surf crashing against black volcanic rock on the left.

Since the resort offered only non-motorized watersports such as windsurfing, sailing, pedal boats, snorkeling and kayaking, the beach was always tranquil. After endless rounds of spiced rum cocktails at the Rum Shed, rustic beach-side barbecues at the Fish Shack and full body massages at the in-house Nira Spa, we were ready for more action.

La Vanille Crocodile Park-Croc meat IMG_1262

Though much of the French-Indian-Creole-Caribbean-Chinese mix that comprises Mauritian cuisine is accessible to Indians, there’s plenty of adventure on the plate too. At La Vanille crocodile park, after feeding giant Aldabra turtles, petting iguanas and holding baby crocs, we tried crocodile meat.

It tasted like chicken (bit chewier) and in an ironical twist, the restaurant was called Le Crocodile Affamé (The Hungry Crocodile). Guiltily, we explored the 3.5-hectare reserve with enclosures full or crocs and caimans, endemic bats with 1m wingspans and an insectarium with 23,000 species – including dazzling bugs and butterflies.

Casela DSC_0103

One of the top wildlife attractions in Mauritius is Casela, a nature reserve where visitors can pet lions, feed giraffes, pose with caracals, go on a wildlife safari to watch rhinos or have ostriches clapping their beaks at you. “I think he wants you to feed him,” said the guide, though to me it seemed like he wanted to feed ON me. For the shy squeamish sorts, there’s plenty of Dutch courage available.

No Mauritian holiday is complete without rum tasting, best experienced at rhumeries (rum factories) like Chamarel, St Aubin and Chateau Labourdonnais. Besides stunning viewpoints, Chamarel boasts sights like Seven-Coloured Earth, the odd exhibits at Curious Corner and the island’s highest waterfall.

Chamarel Rummery IMG_1537

If you don’t happen to be a water person, there’s enough adventure on terra firma – golfing at spectacular courses like Heritage and Tamarina to hiking trails in the central highlands and peaks like Le Pouce (The Thumb), Pieter Both and Mount Piton – at 828m, the highest peak in Mauritius.

We went quad biking across the undulating terrain of at La Vallee des Couleurs, a nature park with four waterfalls and the third longest zipline in the world. Offroading to a viewpoint, we zoomed down half a kilometer over the ‘23-coloured earth’, unique to this volcanic island. I went belly down, miraculously keeping my flip-flops on!

DSC_7426

However, the number one activity in Mauritius is Sea Karting – the thrill of a jet boat with the safety and stability of an inflatable raft. We zoomed out on Black River in V-formation to the south west coast of Mauritius with stops at the spectacular Crystal Rock and the dramatic Le Morne Brabant mountain. We had no luck with dolphins as we were busy trying not to collide into each other as we bounced on the waves.

With top speeds of 70km/hr, Sea Karts are fast. Our slow evolution from Octopussy to Spectre was complete. The 1-hour excursion was easily my most enjoyable 60 minutes in Mauritius (half-day or full day guided tours also offered). Thankfully, the drive to Hotel Sofitel-Imperial at Flic en Flac was short.

Hotel Sofitel-Imperial pool IMG_2104

The reception and restaurant opened out to a large swimming pool that spilled onto a white sandy beach with the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean receding into the distance. Being on the west coast, it was one of the best spots to catch the famed Mauritian sunset, though we got Sega dancers, fire-eaters and acrobats along with the view! The prawns and fish flew with surprising agility from the grill to our plates to our mouths, as we rounded off a splendid dinner by the sea.

The final act was a dolphin cruise and snorkeling trip after breakfast. We grabbed our flippers from Christine Sofitel Boat House and set off into the big blue. It was a bouncy gangsta ride. Maybe we should have gone easy on the dholl-puris (Indo-Mauritian version of the Bihari staple dalpuri or dal stuffed paratha).

Swimming with dolphins IMG_2415

For all the activities in Mauritius, nothing could prepare us for the sight of wild dolphins skimming the waters. An entire school, maybe a hundred or so. Whenever a group approached a boat, excited divers jumped off like kamikaze warriors in a bid to swim with the dolphins. We were happy to watch the spectacle from the boat, before heading off towards Le Morne to snorkel the reefs.

“Quick, make a wish. That’s a paille-en-queue!” said the boat captain. By the time I could decipher his French pronunciation, a white long-tailed bird swooped down from the lush mountains towards the sea and disappeared. The Tropicbird, named after its distinctive ‘straw-tail’ was the symbol of the national airline Air Mauritius. It was considered lucky to spot one. “So what did you ask for?” “That I come back to Mauritius for a better look at it!”

Grand Baie Sportfishing trips IMG_1628

FACT FILE

Getting there
Located 4700km west of India in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.

There are direct flights by Air Mauritius and Air India from Delhi and Mumbai (7hrs) to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport at the south of the island.

www.airmauritius.com

Shanti Maurice IMG_1149

Where to Stay
Hotel Shanti Maurice, Chemin Grenier
www.shantimaurice.com

Hotel Radisson Blu Azuri
www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-mauritius-azuri

Hotel Sofitel Imperial, Flic en Flac
www.sofitel.com/Mauritius  

Hotel Paradis & Dinarobin, Le Morne
www.beachcomber-hotels.com

Hotel Sofitel-Imperial beach weddings IMG_2088

Adventure List

Blue Safari, Trou aux Biches
Sub Scooter for two MUR 5800, Submarine tour MUR 4400/person
Ph +230 265 7272 www.blue-safari.com

Solar Undersea Walk, Gran Baie
10:30 & 1:30 Mon-Sat
Ph +230 263 7819 www.solarunderseawalk.com

Fun Adventure Sea Kart, La Balise, Black River
MUR 5500 per Seakart (up to 2 adults + 1 child)
Ph +230 5 499 4929 www.fun-adventure.mu

La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park Quad Biking IMG_1307

Quad Biking & Ziplining, La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park, Mare Anguilles
Ph +230 5471 8666 www.lavalleedescouleurs.com

Segway & Walking with lions, Casela World of Adventures, Cascavelle
9am-5pm, MUR 740 entry fee, activities extra
Ph +230 401 6500 www.caselapark.com

Christine Sofitel Boat House, Flic en Flac
Ph +230 453 8975 bhsofitel@gmail.com

Sea dive IMG_2502

For more info, visit

Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority
Victoria House, Port Louis Ph +230 15 45 www.tourisme-ilemaurice.mu

Mauritian Scuba Diving Association
Route Royale, Beau Bassin Ph +230 454 00 11 www.msda.mu

Mauritian sunset IMG_2006

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared as part of the Islands Special Cover Story in the July, 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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