Whenever my mother is struggling for an answer (usually prompted by a particularly tricky question on a television game show), she turns to one of her enormous collection of ancient books and invariably comes up with the goods. I had always dismissed this practice as pure eccentricity. However, after fumbling for some time for inspiration for this introduction, I gave in and reluctantly asked if she had any old books that may help. It didn’t surprise me in the least that she happened to have handy a copy of the 1879 edition of The Illustrated Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information.
I searched for a little-known gem of information on the Mascarene Isles, as Mauritius, Rodrigues and Réunion are known, and came up with this authoritative pronouncement on Réunion: ‘The climate of late has greatly deteriorated, and is now very deadly to Europeans.’
I have been travelling to the Mascarenes since 1998 and can assure you that the encyclopaedia got it wrong. And just in case you think mine was a fluke escape, official statistics show that hundreds of thousands of Europeans visit the Mascarenes each year and survive to bore friends and relatives with their holiday photos.
Mauritius, in particular, has become a ‘dream holiday’ destination, especially popular with honeymooners and couples wishing to tie the knot on a classic white-sand beach. It is easy to see why: luxurious hotels, a tropical climate, a glorious coastline, excellent diving and fascinating flora and fauna combine to make this island idyllic. In fact, sooner or later someone in Mauritius will tell you that when God made the island he liked it so much that he fashioned paradise in its image. Mark Twain is responsible for perpetuating that idea: ‘You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.’
Like heaven, Mauritius exudes an air of exclusivity, partly because the government does not allow charter flights and pursues a tourism policy of quality not quantity. However, holidays to Mauritius needn’t be expensive, as I hope to show in this guide.
By contrast, the island of Rodrigues, although part of Mauritius, is a place of simple charm. Whenever I visit, I am struck by the tremendous sense of community, and the laid-back way of life is certainly a lesson to us all. I am told that it resembles the Mauritius of 30 years ago and a visit to the island is a welcome escape from our fast-paced world, where high-tech time-saving devices, multi-tasking and real-time connectivity seem key to survival. Tourism in Rodrigues isn’t only in its infancy – it has barely left the maternity ward. Although development of the island’s tourism potential has begun, with the expansion of the airport and creation of the island’s first mid-range hotels, tourists are still a novelty here and receive an incredibly warm welcome. My advice is to get to Rodrigues as soon as possible, before it all changes.
Réunion is an island of contrasts. Officially part of France, and therefore part of the European Union, it is inhabited by a cocktail of people of African, Indian, European and Chinese origin. The Creole culture is strong here and séga (a traditional dance with African roots), sorcery and occasional cockfights contrast with the ubiquitous croissants, Citroëns and boules tournaments.
Réunion was my home for almost a year. It is a kind of user-friendly, flat-packed paradise, where life is exotic yet easy and familiar. The atmosphere is tropical, yet the roads, doctors’ surgeries and hospitals are of a reassuringly European quality.
Whilst Réunion’s beaches may not rival those of Mauritius, its natural beauty is world class. The rugged, mountainous interior attracts hikers, naturalists and adventure sports enthusiasts from around the globe.
Each of the Mascarenes has its own trump card, as I am sure you will discover. However, in combination they are unrivalled. If you visit just one you’ll love it, but if you can take in all three you’ll be smitten.
I leave you with the thought that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in an encyclopaedia and wish you a very enjoyable trip to the Mascarenes.