If anywhere conforms to postcard Mauritius, it’s the glamorous but little-developed east coast, where you’ll find miles of powdery beaches, azure seas, and hotels and resorts frequented by royals and celebrities. In fact, an aerial view of the island playground, Île aux Cerfs, with its white sandbars stretching their tendrils into turquoise waters, is one of the most famous postcard shots. The east is also the windiest coast, which means a welcome cooling onshore breeze in summer, and billowing sails for windsurfers and sailors in winter.
Stretching from Roches Noires to Bois des Amourettes in the south, the plains of the Flacq district, its name derived from the Dutch “vlak” (flat land), are planted with acres of shimmering sugar cane and punctuated with the odd Hindu temple or abandoned lime kiln. A smattering of traditional fishing villages run down the coast as the wildness of the northern coastline gives way to a string of beautiful white-sand beaches at Belle Mare. The most charming village is Trou d’Eau Douce, the east coast’s largest resort by virtue of its location across the water from Île aux Cerfs.
To travel off the beaten track, take the rustic coastal road south towards the Bambous Mountains in the sleepy Grand Port district, passing two of the island’s best eco-parks and kayaking at the first and only eco-glamping outfit on the banks of Grande Rivière Sud Est (GRSE), whose pretty gorge waterfall is a common pause on cruises along the coast. The road winds on to the island’s first settlement at Vieux Grand Port, where the Dutch changed the course of island history. Lion Mountain stands sentinel over Grand Port Bay, where the British fought the French for sovereignty over this strategic island.
Top image © Eric Rioux/Shutterstock
The Bambous Mountains loom close to the shore along the little-developed stretch of wind-battered coastline between Trou d’Eau Douce and Mahébourg, dipping towards the sea near the fortifications at Devil’s Point. Nestled against the southern slopes of the mountains, the forested Vallée de Ferney, once where some of the first hundred slaves brought by Dutch settlers escaped, is now a well-run nature park and the easiest place to get glimpses of the Mauritius kestrel. If you fancy something more active, the established eco-adventure park Domaine de l’Étoile to the north has the longest zipline in the Indian Ocean, or you can kayak along Grande Rivière Sud Est (GRSE), which wends its way east from the mountains towards the sea.
The diverse and extraordinary endemic birds of Mauritius were considered nothing more than a food source by the early settlers and only 9 of an original 26 species remain. These birds, some of the world’s rarest, were also fast going the way of the dodo until the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) and Mauritius Wildlife Foundation (MWF) stepped in in the 1970s. What followed was a conservation success story, with critically endangered endemics such as the pink pigeon rescued from the brink of extinction through a captive breeding programme.
The island’s only bird of prey, the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus), is another triumph of the programme: once down to two pairs, twenty breeding pairs can now be seen in La Vallée de Ferney, and there are around five hundred birds island-wide. More recently, numbers of the world’s rarest parrot, the echo parakeet (Psittacula echo), have been increased from 25 individuals in the 1980s to over 550 birds in the wild today. Other rare endemics to look out for include the Mauritius cuckoo-shrike (Coracina typica), the Mauritius bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus), the pretty Mauritius fody (Foudia rubra) and the Mauritius olive white-eye (Zosterops chloronothos).
The greatest concentration of endemic species in the wild can be found in Black River Gorges National Park, while endemic birds can be seen in captivity at Casela Nature and Leisure Park, in the semi-wild at Île aux Aigrettes and – in the case of the adaptable Mauritius grey white-eye – hopping around hotel gardens.
It is said that geomagnetic forces once sent ships’ compasses awry as they passed this headland, leading to its name, Devil’s Point, or Pointe du Diable. Today it’s a viewpoint with views over the large bay of Grand Port, whose famous battle changed the course of colonial history – two eighteenth-century cannons remain from the French fortifications.
The pretty thatched chalets of the 15,200-hectare Domaine de l’Étoile sugar estate, nestled in a valley below the Bambous Mountains, were originally built as a film-set for Paul & Virginie (1972). Today they’re home to one of the island’s best eco-outfits, who offer horseriding, buggy trips, including a nocturnal one with the chance to spot java deer, and quad biking to Le Fenêtre, a mountain-top viewpoint overlooking the southeast. The most recent addition at the time of writing was “the longest zipline circuit in the world”, a 3.5km-long course taking up to two hours to complete (daily 10am, 2pm and 3.30pm). A children’s village, archery facilities and five self-guided treks, including a botanical route through ebony and cinnamon trees, complete the activity line-up.
Mauritius’s longest river, Grande Rivière Sud Est (GRSE) snakes 34km across the island before emptying into a funnel-shaped estuary. Named Groote River (Great River) by the Dutch, it was used to ship ebony to the colonies in the seventeenth century but today is plied by speedboats that zip up and down somewhat faster than they should.
The falls, while not particularly tall or ferocious, are in a pretty natural setting, surrounded by native trees. Hidden around a bend in the river, there’s a sense of anticipation on the approach, and smaller boats and kayaks travel close enough to them to feel the spray. At the time of writing a walkway was being constructed from the village of Camp des Pêcheurs along the southern bank of the estuary, which will make it possible to reach the waterfall in around 30 minutes on foot. The best way to see the falls, however, is on a kayak trip with Otentic just before sunset, when bats fly overhead and macaque monkeys can be spotted playing on the tree-lined banks.
The 200-hectare nature reserve of La Vallée de Ferney, recently saved from developers, contains a handful of rare and endangered endemic species which can be glimpsed on one of the island’s most accessible nature walks. The well-marked 3km trail can be walked independently, but the guided walk is worth the higher fee. You’ll arrive first at the old basalt buildings of the Ferney Sugar Estate, where there are useful panels on the nature, history and wildlife of the area, and from where a 4WD gives visitors a lift to the start of the trail. On the way through the manicured Ferney forest itself, guides will point out some of the hundred plants, including rare nailwood and ebony trees, and if lucky, the recently-introduced echo parakeet or endangered Mauritian kestrel: around twenty breeding pairs of the latter are found in the valley and can usually be spotted at the daily noon feeding. There’s also a popular restaurant serving Mauritian-style seafood and game here, and a small coffee plantation and tiny coffee museum.
The pristine 10km-long beach at BELLE MARE, a white-sand beach bordered by casuarina trees, is one of the island’s most beautiful – and has a selection of dazzling hotels to match. The name means “beautiful sea” so it’s no surprise that the east’s most famous dive site, The Pass, lies just offshore. Belle Mare village itself is a surprisingly sleepy farming settlement interspersed by a few designer shops.
The coastline around POSTE DE FLACQ is rockier and less visited than the rest of the east coast, and ideal for walks and bike rides. Here winter winds have bent the filao trees over like old men and waves crash through gaps in the reef. Just to the north is Mauritius’s newest national park, Bras d’Eau, a 427-hectare exotic forest where it’s possible to spot the elusive and endemic Mauritius paradise flycatcher: it’s well set up, with a visitor centre, mapped walks and natural pools to take a dip in.
Inland, the market town of CENTRE DE FLACQ is the district’s main settlement and the eastern transport hub. A predominantly Indian town, it’s known as “Flacq” to the locals. It’s home to the island’s largest open-air market, covered but still open-sided, which is one of the cheapest places to shop for fruit, vegetables and clothing, and buzzes with locals on market days.
The quiet fishing village of TROU D’EAU DOUCE, founded by the Dutch and named after a freshwater spring, is the only resort of any size on the east coast with accommodation and restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. The local population number around six thousand and still live traditionally; you’ll see men fishing and women carrying vegetables on their heads. The village’s raison d’être today, however, is as the jumping-off point, Île aux Cerfs, a short boat-hop across the bay.
Named after the stags that once roamed in its forested interior, the 280-hectare Île aux Cerfs is fringed by white sand and translucent water. Come to stroll around the island, loll in the shallows on a sandbar, partake in every kind of watersport imaginable, play a round of golf among the ebony trees on the eighteen-hole Le Touessrok course designed by Bernhard Langer (402 7400,letouessrokresort.com) or swing through the treetops at Le Parcours Aventure (5448 4444, terrocean.mu). Le Touessrok also run the two island restaurants and rustic Sands Bar, where you can while away the afternoon with a planter’s punch. Go in the week (although day-trippers tend to visit 1–3pm); it gets packed at weekends.
The island’s oldest settlement, the fishing village of VIEUX GRAND PORT, sited beneath the distinctive Lion Mountain, lies close to where the first Dutch ships landed in 1598. It looked a good place to position the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch wasted no time in attempting to establish a colony and exploiting the island’s thick ebony forests. Ultimately, the settlement failed and the Dutch sailed off to the Cape of Good Hope in 1710. The village itself is of little interest, but the seventeenth-century ruins of Dutch fortifications can be seen at Fort Frederik Hendrik Museum at the northern end of town, and a few kilometres south a monument in the coastal mangroves commemorates the site of the first landing.
Seeking to expand their influence and put an end to the French threat in the Indian Ocean, British frigates launched an attack to try and capture the French military base on Isle de France (present-day Mauritius) in August 1810, in what became known as the Battle of Grand Port. Taking possession of Île de la Passe, they flew the French flag in order to trick the French ships returning from a voyage, and then opened fire. The superior British navy expected an easy victory, but their attack was first foiled after gunpowder exploded on the island causing casualities and confusion, and the French ships got through into the Bay of Grand Port unharmed and ready to defend. Unfamiliar with the waters, two British ships then ran aground on the reef, and a bloody battle ensued, which ended in their surrender seven days later. The battle is commemorated on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris; it’s among the most famous victories of the French army, and the only naval battle the French won against the British in the Napoleonic era. French victory was short-lived, however, as the British then entered from Cap Malheureux, marched to the capital and claimed the island in December of that year, ending almost a century of French rule.
The ruins of Fort Frederik Hendrik, now the Fort Frederik Hendrik Museum, in a tranquil garden on the water’s edge are the only tangible remains of Dutch occupation. Built in 1638, the austere square fortification, with bastions, a bakery, prison and store now underneath a layer of French defences, was named in honour of the Prince Maurice of Nassau’s brother. The small museum tells the story of the Dutch on the island, with interesting panels on Mauritius’s first inhabitants and domestic artefacts excavated here. Visitors can also learn about the interesting first registered birth on the island: Simon Van der Stel, son of the second governor, and Maria Lievens, whose mother was a freed Indian slave, went on to become the first governor of Cape Colony, present-day South Africa. Close by is an old watch tower, the Tour des Hollandais (Tower of the Dutch), seen behind a fence.
One of Mauritius’s most distinctive peaks, Lion Mountain (480m) resembles a reclining, regal feline, with a little stretch of the imagination, and offers great views over the southeast. If you want to tackle the easy but rewarding two-hour return climb, book with recommended operator Vertical World (5251 1107, verticalworldltd.com), who bring the area alive with local history and legends.